The following oration was delivered at the Workers’ Party’s annual Wolfe Tone Commemoration by Gemma Weir, the Workers’ Party representative for North Belfast and member of the Ard Comhairle/CEC
Comrades and friends,
As we gather today, via cyberspace, to celebrate the life and philosophy of Theobald Wolfe Tone, it is worth reflecting that it is now 222 years sine the abortive United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 and almost 230 years since the foundation of the Society of United Irishmen in 1791.
Over those two centuries there have been immense changes in his country and in the world. In many ways the world, since 1798, has changed beyond all recognition. Let us take just one small example. To meet, to talk, to organise, Tone travelled up and down the country either on horseback or in a horse drawn carriage on very primitive roads and tracks. Today, for example, using any one of a half dozen different internet platforms, we can hold conferences across continents without ever going outside our own front door.
And yet, despite all the myriad changes, Tone still speaks to us and his philosophy is still not only relevant, but central, to our struggle today. Tone was unambiguously anti-sectarian in his politics; he was an internationalist in the fullest meaning of that concept; and, in trying to create a republic, he famously placed his faith in that large and respectable body “the men of no property”.
Tone’s republicanism is not static. It has been expanded by Lalor, by Davitt, by Mellows, and many others up to, and including, all those within our own ranks who, from the New Departure of the mid-1960s transformed a narrow, sectarian, nationalist and reactionary Sinn Féin into the modern Workers’ Party of 2020.
As part of that huge philosophical and organisational transformation the then Republican Movement embraced socialism, the philosophy first articulated in a coherent fashion by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 with the publication of the ground-breaking Communist Manifesto, and given clear organisational structure by Lenin at the beginning of the 20th century. In Ireland, Lenin’s contemporary James Connolly, was the first to look at Irish history and Irish society through the lens of a Marxist analysis. In the 172 years since 1848 thousands of men and women across every continent and country of the world, have contributed to the growth and expansion of Marxism across all spheres of knowledge and struggle which has developed Marxism into the greatest, most progressive, and most liberating force for mankind.
Tone was anti-sectarian. His clarion call for the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter was a beacon of light in the late 18th century and is, sadly, still relevant today. Except now we need to expand even that famous formula. Ireland is now home to members of all the world religions as well as a very sizeable, and growing proportion of atheists and people who do not subscribe to any church. We must unite workers of all faiths and none and consign the virus of sectarianism to the dustbin of history.
We must also recognise that religious sectarianism goes hand in hand with a growing racism which has increasingly manifested itself. Clearly racism in this country has a different historic and structural base than in the USA or in Great Britain. However, whatever the history of the issue we must confront the reality that as the demographics of this country have changed and that Ireland, North and South, has become home to people from all continents and all ethnic backgrounds overt and vicious racism has manifested itself not only in words, in vile graffiti, in verbal and physical assaults. This evil must be confronted and defeated. We must also be aware that unless we are both vigilant and activist in our actions, it will be too easy for the employers and the right-wing politicians and organisations to turn worker against worker, to turn communities into centres of tension and violence, to reuse the classic tactic of divide and conquer while they continue to hold the levers of power and the levers of exploitation.
The Workers’ Party is proud to continue in the anti-sectarian tradition of Tone and Connolly. We have long recognised the political cul-de-sac of wrap-the green-flag-round-me Irish nationalism. But rejecting one nationalism must not mean embracing, even by default, an equally sectarian orange nationalism. Our politics must be class politics. Every one of our actions must be predicated on the basis of class – the unity of the working class and the progress of the working class. We reject and attack everything that weakens and divides the working class, whether that is religious sectarianism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, or any other form of backward-looking divisiveness.
Let us always remember that the right, the ruling elite, the employers have always united, whether in national federations like IBEC and CBI, or internationally in the Bilderberg Group, the Davos Forum, the G7 and, ultimately, in NATO. The only power of the working class is the power of numbers, our vast overwhelming numbers, the power of industrial unity, of political unity, of organisational unity. The call for unity is as true now as it was 230 years ago when Tone penned those famous words.
As a political party we cannot operate in a political vacuum. We must engage with the political reality in both the Republic and Northern Ireland and indeed the interaction between both those realities. Since we gathered in Bodenstown last year there have been general elections both in the UK and the Republic. The UK result was clear cut. The Tories have a massive majority and the Labour Party has been recaptured by the Blairites and is returned to the path of safe, liberal Christian Democracy. The Tory programme is clear. Continue on the path laid out 40 years ago when Margaret Thatcher first became Prime Minister and followed faithfully ever since by Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron and May. And of course we recall the Tories’ election winning slogan of “Get Brexit Done”. Well, Brexit got done, but what sort of Brexit got done, or will get done before the 31st December, is still totally unclear.
In the Republic the result was the opposite of clear cut. Three parties, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin each garnered slightly less that 25% of the vote. Sinn Féin won the most votes but Fianna Fail won more seats. The remainder of the seats were shared between the Green Party, Labour, Social Democrats and a varied collection of independents ranging from principled left-wingers to rabid right-wing populists.
After 15 weeks of the ghost of the previous administration keeping its hands on the levers of power, we now have a new government which is 80% ideologically right wing with a 20% Green Party environmental conscience. Their 130-page programme for Government offers us another four years of the same recipes that have now catastrophically failed us twice in the first two decades of this century. The Workers’ Party have published an alternative programme, a programme grounded on expanding the role of the state, of empowering communities, of creating the technologies and industries we need for the future whether in farming, pharma, or manufacturing. We want secular, state control of our education where all children are educated together and where religious instruction is removed from the curriculum. Similarly, we want a state owned, secular health systems where patients are treated on the basis of medical need and the lives of women are protected and defended.
In Northern Ireland, after a stalemate of three years, the Executive has been reformed and the Assembly is meeting. The Sinn Féin and DUP duopoly of control, which in reality makes a mockery of the very concept of power-sharing, is back in control. While the public image of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister is somewhat more sombre than the chuckle brothers double act of Paisley and McGuinness, the reality is that both Sinn Féin and the DUP will accept whatever policies Westminster dictates once they retain total control of their own sectarian fiefdom. In the meantime, communities are being driven further apart; Universal Benefit leaves families hungry and often homeless; gross underfunding means children are being victimised through poor educational opportunity; and political cowardice and opportunism mean women are suffering and dying because their access to full abortion services are still being denied. More than ever in Northern Ireland the voice of the Workers’ Party is needed.
Prior to the 2016 EU referendum in the UK, the Ard Comhairle took a position to support the Leave position. It was not a decision that won universal approval and it led to some confusion amongst many members. However, adhering to our party’s long tradition of democratic centralism, everybody accepted and defended the decision and, despite a two to one rejection in Northern Ireland, the Leave side won by a majority of well over one million votes. That referendum happened four years ago. And we must be frank and state that in that four years neither the Northern Ireland Business Committee – who very forcibly sponsored the leave policy – nor the CEC, have looked seriously at the actual implications of Brexit for the working class of the UK generally, of Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Despite our position of favouring ‘Lexit’ the political reality is that the political sponsors of Brexit were a collection of ultra-right wing Tory Party members, the collection of bigots that populated UKIP, and various other Little Englanders and Empire Nostalgics. Brexit was promoted because its sponsors wanted the UK to be even more right-wing, more anti-worker, more anti-environmentalist than the EU.
Sadly, it is now clear that, despite the progressive and socialist organisations who argued in its favour, the balance of forces in the UK meant that Lexit had little chance of success.
As of now, a mere six months before the UK’s exit from the EU single market, there is still no trade deal or even much public optimism among the negotiators that there will be a trade deal. This is a period of great uncertainty for governments, exporters and especially workers. Trade deals have implications for taxes, for VAT, for excise duty, for borders, for customs control. Will there be a North-South border as previously existed, an East-West border in the Irish Sea, both or neither? We don’t know. But we must look at the implications of all the options and scrutinise them, and develop policy, from the point of view of the Irish working class. We cannot allow Brexit to increase division, to heighted sectarianism, to deepen the rifts that already exist. No. We must look at this as Tone would have – how to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter and at the same time promote the interest of Tone’s ‘men of no property’ or, as we know them now, the Irish working class.
“Tone was an internationalist. He visited, and indeed lived for some time, in post-revolutionary America. He was inspired by, and liaised with, Revolutionary France. He was abreast of all the most modern revolutionary literature. After speaking with some of the revolutionary circles in Norther Ireland Tone coined the famous phrase that “Tom Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’ had become the Koran of Belfast.” In the 1790s he wrote a pamphlet in support of Irish neutrality and in opposition to Irish involvement in the Peninsular War. We have continued Tone’s defence of Irish neutrality through active opposition to PESCO, the creation of an EU army, the continued illegal use of Shannon Airport as a US Airforce base, and the ongoing attempts to force the Republic of Ireland into NATO.
The Workers’ Party proudly continue Tone’s internationalism. Obviously, there are times when international solidarity is reduced to issuing a statement of support or a message of solidarity. But, where possible, we prefer our international solidarity to be in the form of concrete action. We have been particularly active in opposing the USA’s continued attempts to engineer a right-wing coup against the democratically elected government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. The USA has used every tactic from bribery, propaganda, political subterfuge and the use of mercenaries to end Venezuelan democracies and all have failed. Even now the US continues to attempt to use the worldwide Coronavirus crisis to promote their coup attempts. Unfortunately, the US has been successful in its coup against Evo Morales where the CIA was supported not only by the right-wing forces internationally, but also, by the ultra-left factions and liberal elite. That same collection of forces is now busy trying to rid Nicaragua of its legitimate progressive, elected government and return it safely to the agents of corporate America. The Workers’ Party has cooperated with other principled groups and individuals in actively defending the rights of the people Of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba to choose their own governments and to implement a socialist programme. Once again we take this opportunity to congratulate the Cuban people, the Communist Party of Cuba, and the government of Cuba in defending their revolution and promoting international friendship and solidarity. It is incumbent on our party and every progressive person and organisation to unite in opposing the criminal US sanctions against Cuba which causes so much human and economic misery in a doomed attempt to overthrow their revolution.
For thirty years now, since the first US invasion of Iraq, the USA and its allies in NATO have overthrown legitimate governments, destroyed countries, killed millions of people and caused the death of many more millions across the Middle East and North Africa, ranging from Afghanistan to Libya. The US / NATO alliance have abjectly failed to overthrow either the Syrian or Iranian governments despite overt and covert war ranging from the illegal annexation, the funding, arming and training of fundamentalist militias, to aerial surveillance, and a trade embargo up to and including medicines and other humanitarian supplies. The US has also fully supported its ally, the brutal fundamentalist dictatorship of Saudi Arabia in its invasion and destruction of Yemen.
As we speak Palestine is being strangled out of existence. Israel with the full support of the USA, the UK, NATO and the EU is annexing the West Bank and enslaving the Palestinian people. We have worked, and will continue to work, with the Palestinian solidarity organisations and others, to highlight and oppose this atrocity. And we want very clearly to state that we reject the accusation from the Zionist lobby and their paid apologists that to oppose Israeli expansionism is anti-Semitism. We reassert very strongly the huge difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. This difference is dramatically displayed by the many hundreds of thousands of Jewish people, across all countries and professions including many former high-ranging military and security operatives, who totally oppose this illegal annexation. We have seen in the UK how a witch-hunt against progressive elements can be hidden behind the cloak of charges of anti-Semitism and we are determined to ensure that our principled anti-Zionist position is not slandered by being described as anti-Semitic.
The Coronavirus pandemic has shown once again, in a very stark fashion, the absolute failure of the private sector across an entire array of public services and industries. In particular it has shown the abject failure of the private sector in hospital care, care of the elderly, child-care and pre-school care. It has, simultaneously, shown the failure of private health insurance as a model for funding our health system. Across the world, from Dublin to Duluth, from Belfast to Bogota we have seen that only the public health system has either the will or the capacity to deal with a world-wide health crisis. We have all seen the footage of hospitals in the richest countries in the world with privatised health systems having to hire fleets of refrigerated lorries to act as overflow morgues as the Covid-19 death toll mounted alarmingly. Equally we have seen other countries, who do not feature in the World Bank’s top-50 richest countries – Cuba or the Indian state of Kerela, manage the Covid-19 crisis with minimal deaths because of a publicly owned health system and a deep tradition of social solidarity.
Similarly, in the areas of appropriate medicines, patients testing equipment and associated chemicals for the analysis of those tests, or the production of personal protective materials for both medical professionals and members of the public, the private sector has shown itself inadequate and chaotic. Their whole production methodology, relying on complex international supply chains and just-in-time delivery models for supplies failed utterly and in full public view. For many thousands of people those failures proved fatal.
How many of us, over the last few months, worried about the suits in Wall St, the City of London, or the Irish Financial Services Centre. Probably no one – because they are irrelevant to our lives. No, we worried about the supermarket, the chemist shop, the local filling station cum shop, the bus to work. And, even though they did not have high visibility we all were brought face to face with the vital, and irreplaceable importance, of the workers in the bakeries, butcheries, meat processors and food producers. For many, this crisis has highlighted for the first time the vital role of both health-care and non-healthcare, frontline services and front-line workers – badly paid, with precarious or zero-hours contracts, predominantly women, marginalised, immigrants. In this context it is also worth remembering that even without the Covid crisis it is women who have the worst wages; fill most part-time, precarious and zero-hours contracts; suffer the most homelessness; enjoy the worst pensions; and still face active discrimination even when it is legislatively prohibited. Comrades, these are the people who were vital to our survival during the last few months.
Oh yes – government ministers stood in the limelight and clapped for the cameras; they spoke glowing words for these workers; confirmed their importance and then stabbed them in the back. The privatisation of services continued; the downward pressure on wages is unrelenting; the short-term contracts have not been replaced with permanency. But all is well in the corporate world because Wall St can still afford its annual bonuses and profits on the FTSE-100 are recovering. Amidst this obscene wealth thousands are homeless, the housing shortage continues to spiral, and untold thousands have to rely on foodbanks just to be able to enjoy one decent meal per day. Even as the Lock-down continues moves are afoot to cut the special Coronavirus-related dole payments to part-time workers in order to force them back to work for gombeen bosses masquerading as “entrepreneurs”. The only innovation most of these shysters managed was some new methods to avoid the paying decent wages, to circumvent health and safety regulations, and dodge paying tax.
Comrades and Friends. It is clear that if we are to achieve our vision to build socialism in this country then we have a long and tough road ahead. Now, more than ever, is the time for unity of purpose and action among all our members and supporters. And it is sad, that we have to report at this event, that the actions of a small but influential faction over the last few months, and specifically over the last week, has made that task more difficult.
This faction, centred on the so-called Northern Ireland Business Committee, and with a very small numbers of allies on the Ard Comhairle, have absolutely refused to accept the decision of our Ard Fheis and the authority of the Ard Comhairle elected at that Ard Fheis. While the Ard Comhairle was spending meeting after meeting trying to defuse this situation and maintain total Party unity this faction was secretly organising, spreading lies and slanders both nationally and internationally. Last week, after many months of planning, they decided to formally secede and form their own organisation.
The Ard Comhairle has always sought to work towards a resolution, mediation was offered as way to achieve this but sadly it was unsuccessful.
We would hope that the membership and our supporters are aware of these efforts and understand that the Ard Comhairle will always work to ensure that unity of the Party is protected.
Since the New Departure initiative of Goulding, Garland and Mac Giolla was launched in the mid-1960s we have suffered many different splits, schisms, defections and walkouts. This new walkout has eaten up a huge amount of time and effort that should have gone into building our organisation and fighting capitalism.
But, let us be clear and determined. We have seen the underhand tactics used by those who, when they failed to dominate the Party, have now left.
We, however, will not besmirch the memory of Tone and those countless others who dedicated their lives, and indeed many did literally give their lives, to build the Workers’ Party by descending to those same gutter tactics. We will put our case with openness, with honesty, with energy and fervour in every hall, on every street, to every community, using every possible platform available to promote our message of class politics, of anti-sectarianism, and of socialism.
We urge all those who stand by the principles of our Party to join us in doing so.
Thank you comrades for your attention.