The following oration was given by comrade Claire O’Connor (Dublin Mid-West branch) at the 2023 Wolfe Tone commemoration in Bodenstown, Co. Kildare.

A chairde agus a chomrádaithe,

Is onóir mór dom labhairt libh inniu san áit speisialta seo.

Cois uaigh Theobald Wolfe Tone, measc pairceanna Chontae Chill Dára, táimíd bailithe chun omós a thabhairt don bhfear a chuir tús le Gluaiseacht na Poblachta in Éirinn, fear a spreag daoine le níos mó ná dha chéad blain as sin amach le dul amach chun troid agus obair go crua, ar son poblacht sóisialach.  

Comrades – I am very honoured to speak to you here today at the graveside of Theobald Wolfe Tone – founding pioneer of the Irish Republican movement – to pay tribute to his sacrifice and that of the United Irishmen. Over 200 years on – we in the Workers’ Party of Ireland remember them as we stand, humbly, in their legacy. 

As I speak – I am mindful of the Republicans of every generation since who have assembled here in this graveyard before us – year after year, decade after decade – at times in the face of intense State repression, internment, and censorship. That this very commemoration was banned by the Irish government on several occasions in the 1930s and 1940s is not lost on us – nor something we take for granted. 

Through the many years of sectarian and tragic conflict – there were often faces missing from the crowd, faces of comrades who could not be here, who had lost their lives in struggle since they last gathered at Bodenstown. 

I grew up not far from here in County Kildare, and an appreciation of something of the deep historical significance of Bodenstown was instilled in me from an early age. As a child I remember seeing, year after year, self-professed Republicans of eclectic variety from Left to Right – even those in Fianna Fáil! – visit this place to set out their stall, to pay obeisance to Tone and the heroes of yore. Renditions of Amhran na bhFiann and poetry and flags to ceremonialize the triumph of ordinary citizens over the elites, of Irish nationalists over the forces of British imperialism. 

Because they have so much to celebrate… A catalogue of triumphs whereby Irish nationalists, hoisted the green flag, brought us out the days of oppression by the British Empire replete with its genocides, scorched earth, slavery, theft, famines, and starvation – through the War of Independence, through the Civil War – and into a republic built on fairness, justice, and social solidarity…. Didn’t they?

Didn’t they reify this great republic wherein the noble ideals of citizenship, equality, sovereignty, and a national independence – to which democracy and Irish self-determination are integral – have been realised?

And now, all that remains is the question of ending partition. A mere question of demography and religion and identity, isn’t it? And then – if some are to be believed – then the battle will be over, then Irish freedom will be won.

Comrades – I believe we must celebrate the extraordinary progress made by Republicans since the time of Tone but it would not be right, it would lack respect, if I were to stand here today before you and utter polite meaningless words. 

Connolly said: “The greatness of Wolfe Tone lay in the fact that he imitated nobody” and we in the Workers’ party do not seek to imitate or emulate the stifling uniformity which now seems to pervade Irish public life. We stand apart from the mainstream Left and Republican parties – with their absolute and all-consuming commitment to standing for nothing, their slavish loyalty to a “win-my-seat-at-all-costs” mentality. Ours is a politics of courage, integrity and truth – and the truth is we are losing.

We are losing, as the true ideals of Tone’s republicanism: of equality of citizenship, democracy, secularism and anti-sectarianism have not been realized on this island – in either jurisdiction. As after over a century of existence the Irish state has failed to provide a universal healthcare system or comprehensive, secular state education for our people – two fundamental cornerstones of basic provision in any republic worthy of the name. As our sovereignty and independence continue to be subjugated by British, EU and US imperialism, while economic inequality and income disparity approach Edwardian-era proportions.

Our people – the men and women of no property, the dispossessed, those brutally cut off from the wealth that they create – have been betrayed, abandoned and left behind, over and over again. The very same forces of the nascent Free State, who, no more liberal or compassionate than their Dublin Castle masters, took a shilling off the Old Age Pension and smashed the postal workers’ strike of 1922, now have you working on the lowest wages in Europe, your family denied a home in the worst housing crisis in decades, and chomp at the bit to destroy our time-honoured policy of Irish Neutrality, itching to use the bodies of the poor to fight the wars of the rich!

Tomorrow in Dublin Castle there will be another of the government’s Consultative Forums on International Security Policy. These forums, stacked 5 to 1 with pro-war, pro-militarisation, anti-neutrality speakers, are a brazen indictment of the current FF-FG-Green government’s collaborationist and sycophantic approach to the sustained propaganda campaign demanding that Ireland join NATO. These elements have cynically seized the current situation in Ukraine to whip up wartime emotion, in a surreptitious bid to destroy the last remaining vestiges of our neutrality. As workers’ party activists we see these sham forums, clearly, for what they are, and we denounce in the strongest terms anyone who chooses to endorse them. As the Party which led the way in building peace, we have a unique and deep appreciation of the heroic efforts required in those crucial years to bringing sanity and humanity to a situation of conflict, despite being subjected to abuse, intimidation, vilification, and sectarian violence of the most despicable kind. We stand, unrepentantly, for peace.

At the same time as the Irish establishment enthusiastically cheers on NATO expansionism and incipient world war, our working class at home deals with the reality of increasingly frequent protests against new reception and accommodation centres to shelter refugees and asylum seekers, amid record homelessness, an epidemic of evictions, and a violent privation in housing provision. Mainstream Party representatives – including those in government and most of the opposition – all toe the same, meaningless, catch-all line: Refugees must be welcomed, residents must have legitimate concerns… Not one seems to offer any independent thought, solutions or leadership on this issue, and no voice dissents from the cosy, convenient consensus. As an utter dearth of backbone pervades, no mainstream Party seems to want to address the chief factor driving the creation of refugees and the catastrophic destruction of their home countries – the machinations of EU and US imperialism. Instead, most are happy to echo NATO and acquiesce with a reassessment of our neutrality. Meanwhile, our working people, feeling like no one is fighting or speaking for them, risk being pushed into the embrace of the most nefarious elements of the fascist Right, instantly recognizable by their punch-down, victim-blaming incitement of hate.

Democracy for working people was core to Tone’s conception of republicanism: he celebrated the fall of monarchies across Europe in his day, believed in a People’s Europe of democratic republics, and, far from the more inward-looking, protectionist ideas of more recent Irish Republican politics, situated separation from England firmly as part of a worldwide international struggle against tyranny. By contrast, I believe Ireland today is profoundly undemocratic for ordinary citizens. Nowhere is this starker than in the workplace. We remain a European outlier in that workers in this country stand deprived of a legal right to Trade Union recognition – something even workers in Tory Britain enjoy! 

What this means in practice is that if a group of workers in any private sector workplace here decide tomorrow to come together to improve their lot, to join a union and to organise in building their union – there is no law making it mandatory on employers to recognise their union for bargaining purposes. The employer can – legally – refuse to engage, consult, negotiate or otherwise deal with the union. If you’re an individual who has been treated unfairly at work and you decide to take a case with your union representation under the Industrial Relations Acts to the workplace relations commission or the labour court – unless your case pertains to a very specific area of legislation in employment law – your employer can legally refuse to turn up. An exploitative boss can quite simply say sorry, not for me, and choose to ignore you. The law will respect that choice – but not the choice of the worker to be represented by their union. 

This renders Irish people powerless to impose a modicum of accountability on their employers, or to exercise influence on decision-making through a union. Ensuring a legal right to trade union recognition is not demarcated from the extension of collective bargaining provided for by the EU Directive on Adequate Minimum Wages, in its transposition into Irish law over the coming year, will be a key challenge for our class.

The coming years will also be a pivotal time in the development of the debate around constitutional change and reunification. All of us who are committed to principled mass politics must ensure that unity of working people – and reconciliation of Catholic, Protestant and dissenter as so courageously envisaged by Tone and the United Irishmen – is foremost in this process. As the party which led the way in linking Republicanism to Socialism, we must assert our role in this particular moment of history. At a time when the way ahead seems so uncertain and unclear, the task falls to us to articulate a different kind of Ireland, to contribute meaningfully to the espousal of a democratic Socialist Republic, and to ensure any change visited upon the lives of our people is peaceful, anti-sectarian and democratic.

Another Ireland is possible. We must play a decisive role in shaping it. Given the pandemic and the collapse of the hegemonic civil-war divide between the two largest establishment parties – the past couple of years have certainly seen a resurgence of interest in Socialist Republican ideas, especially among young people, and it is an incredibly exciting time to be a member of the Workers’ Party and bear witness to this growth. Our comrades – people like Billy McMillen, Jim Flynn and Joe McCann – did not die for a phrase. They did not die so that those who today lay claim to the mantle of ‘republican’ could climb to power to preside over a status quo of savage inequality. Similarly, the standard bearers of our Party – Garland, Goulding and MacGiolla – did not commit their lives to our project so we would accept, in 2023, record homelessness, record deprivation and an assault on our neutrality by a warmongering elite. We are the custodians of their legacy, and, through them, the legacy of Tone, Lalor, Connolly and Pearse. 

We must renew the fight for the Socialist Republic they envisaged, built by the working class. We must get back on the front foot and re-commit ourselves to disciplined political organisation. It is time to ignite a new energy and a new hunger for a Republicanism which truly serves the Irish people. Ar aghaidh linn le cheile, a chomradaithe. Níl uainn ach an domhan.