The following oration was delivered at the Workers’ Party’s annual Wolfe Tone Commemoration by Éilis Ryan, Workers’ Party Ard Comhairle member.
Comrades and Friends,
We return today to Bodenstown to remember and to honour Wolfe Tone and the republican principles of the United Irishmen.
That we maintain this tradition is testament to the continued importance of the Republican ideal to our Party and in particular of Tone’s contribution to that in the context of the struggle for an independent Irish Republic.
Tone’s articulation of our common humanity, his anti-sectarian message, and his unifying and radical enlightenment vision of ‘the common name of Irishman’ all remain central to our politics in the present day.
Such a universal message is the foundation upon which a united working class movement can be built in this country.
For our politics is a universalist politics. It is built upon a rejection of division and individualism and an embrace of that which unites us as citizens of this island, as workers, and as part of the international working class.
Decades of defeat, and the ceaseless promotion of neo-liberal and post-modern ideology have eaten away at the strength of our universal principles but, as socialists, as those who believe in the primacy of class politics, we must never abandon them.
Our strength as a class comes from our ability to organise and to organise, we must be united and we must recognise the fundamental importance of that unity to achieving our final goal of the liberation of the working class.
In 1791 the Dublin Society of the United Irishmen declared: ”The object of this Institution is to make an United Society of the Irish nation; to make all Irishmen – Citizens; all Citizens – Irishmen; nothing appearing to us more natural at all times, and at this crisis in Europe more seasonable, than that those who have common interests, and common enemies, who suffer common wrongs, and lay claim to common rights should know each other and should act together.”
Such unity was the great achievement of Tone and the United Irishmen – applying the Republican ideal to Ireland and using it to break through the sectarian barrier to organise the Irish people against their oppressors.
There are of course many lessons to be taken from Tone. His life and work demonstrates the necessity for constantly evaluating and rethinking political strategy and re-examining the path to freedom.
His journey from advocating parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation and finally to his recognition of the need for a revolutionary struggle to break the connection with England and to establish an independent Irish republic shows his ability to re-assess the political situation facing him and how to change the approach to the tasks at hand.
In a different context, the Republican Movement in the 1960s developed and rethought their political strategy, indeed the very fundamentals of how they approached politics were overturned as they modernised the Republican Movement, transforming it into a mass party of the working class.
Drawing on James Connolly, and the radical and socialist republican tradition they embraced the reality that true freedom can only come through the overthrow of the capitalist class and the coming to power of the workers’ party. They reconnected with the real ideals of Tone and the need to work practically for unity of the working class and not to merely pay lip-service to his ideas.
As that understanding evolved over the course of the late 1960s and on into the 70s, the leadership of the Republican Movement identified the importance of the working class Party as the vehicle for socialist change. They identified the need for a clear and unambiguous embrace of class politics as the central ideological position of the Party.
All of these changes impacted on how Goulding, Garland, and Mac Giolla saw the path to victory. It changed, sometimes radically, the programmatic outlook of the Party, and sometimes required very difficult decisions to be taken. As they sought to change they came up against a minority whose political outlook had ossified into that of a religious sect.
Notwithstanding the reality that we are a much smaller organisation than that of the 1960s and 70s, we too must grapple with the challenges of political strategy in the modern era. There are and there will be some who cannot grasp that political development and growth requires thought, and fresh thinking. The challenges ahead for the Workers’ Party will not be met simply by the comforting certainty of the sound of old slogans; for a leadership that refuses to think is doomed to fail.
Of course, our political strategy and our outlook will always remain guided by certain unchanging ideological principles. The working class as the agent of change; the anti-sectarian republican principles of Tone and the United Irishmen and the need for unity of the working class; the central role of the mass party; our internationalist and anti-imperialist principles; and our ultimate goal of a socialist republic.
These are our fundamental guiding principles as we engage with the challenges we face.
And there are many challenges. Not least those by posed by Brexit, the disintegration of the United Kingdom and potentially the European Union, the crisis of Unionism, the re-emergence of the national question and the push for a border poll, the profound weakness of the labour movement and the politics of class, the weakness of the Irish economy and the difficulties that presents for the establishment of a socialist state on this island.
None of this requires us to abandon any long-held position. It simply requires of us all a willingness to examine the political situation as it presents itself to us, not as we wish it to arise; to be able to draw the lessons of the past while acknowledging that which worked and correcting that which failed. And no-one can claim that our Party has not achieved much over its history, nor that it has avoided making mistakes.
Nor is it a reversion to a politics of old as some would cast it. It is an attempt to navigate the Party politically through a time of increasing political upheaval. Leadership requires the ability to think and to facilitate debate and discussion to clarify our political positions.
This is what we have attempted to do over the last year in relation to a number of different issues, from the fallout from Brexit, and the future of the European Union, to the border poll, to nuclear power and the issue of hate speech legislation.
Such a process of evaluation requires discussion and debate amongst Party members. This is in the best traditions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and indeed of our own organisation. We should have confidence in the ability of Party members to conduct these debates at our meetings, in our publications, at our Ard Fheiseanna, and to come to agreement on the way forward for our Party.
But if correct political strategy is one important element of ensuring the future growth of the Party, then just as vital as it is the approach of the Party membership to the task of building the Party.
We are at an important juncture for the Party in this regard. It has been a difficult year with pandemic restrictions and internal difficulties. The Party has come through this period and now we must set our face forward and return to the work of building the organisation.
The Workers’ Party has been through harder times before.
In the 1970s we suffered a series of splits in the organisation and our members at times came under physical attack.
But the organisation came through it. We grew stronger over the course of the decade and made ourselves into a party of the Irish working class.
We were able to achieve this for many reasons, but not least because both the Party leadership and the membership retained a clear focus on the goal they had set of building a class party and dedicated themselves in the most serious fashion to achieving it.
They built the strength of our organisation through relentless work on the ground, educating the members, organising the working class, building our strength in the trade union movement and building campaigns that mattered to working class people and improving their lives.
The same applies to the Workers’ Party in 2021. We know that we face a long road but if we are indeed committed to building a revolutionary party of the Irish working class, we must take that task seriously.
This is not a task that belongs to a select few, but to every single member of the Party.
All of us who have the privilege of calling ourselves members of the Workers’ Party, of following in Ireland’s revolutionary tradition, in the footsteps of Goulding, Garland, and Mac Giolla, should ask ourselves if we are applying our energies and abilities to achieving that task with the seriousness it deserves.
Let us be clear that while we aspire to be the party of the Irish working class we have a long way to go to lay claim to that title. There is no organisation who can claim that title and working class people in Ireland suffer from the absence of a party that is truly able to represent them.
Our task is to rebuild the revolutionary party of the Irish working class, and over the last few years the Party has been to the forefront in our analysis and our publications on many pressing issues.
And there is no shortage of issues on which the working class needs to fight – the need for public housing, for decent jobs with proper pay and conditions, a state owned and secular health system where all modern procedures are provided without the interference of clerics of any denomination; a secular and integrated education system where all children are educated side by side without reference to their religious background, the fight for neutrality, for disarmament, for a sustainable climate policy, and a good quality of life for all working people.
We need, and this is more urgent now than ever as the post-pandemic cutbacks inevitably begin, to build the organisational strength of our class so that we can fight to achieve our final goal of working class power and socialism.
Comrades – educate, agitate, organise is the age old slogan of our movement. It is on each and every one of us to put this slogan into practice in the name of class politics and the Workers’ Party.