Wolfe Tone commemoration addressed by leading trade unionist
John Douglas, general secretary of Irish retail trade union Mandate, delivered the keynote speech at a commemoration for Wolfe Tone
on 20th August 2017 in Bodenstown, Co Kildare, organised by the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum
Address delivered by Mandate general secretary, John Douglas
to the Bodenstown Wolfe Tone commemoration
Comrades, Brothers and Sisters ….Our national freedoms were defined by the United Irishmen in terms of citizenship, the responsibility of the state to its citizens and the responsibility of all citizens to the welfare of each other.
Those freedoms were not a narrow they were based on the principles of the French Revolution; Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen fought for Liberty for not only Catholics, but also for “Dissenters” such as Presbyterians, Quakers and other oppressed religious minorities. The United Ireland of Wolfe Tone, Napper Tandy, McCracken and later Connolly was egalitarian – it made no tilt towards religion – they had no interest in a United Ireland subjugated by religion, monarchy, class, privilege or capital.
The Unification of the Island of Ireland was not a geographical project of narrow nationalism, rather a unification of the disenfranchised and the impoverished against the tyranny of Colonialism, British Imperialism and Capital. Clearly the vision of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen has not yet been fulfilled, as has not yet the vision of Connolly. The Island of Ireland is divided by sectarianism, inequality and exploitation – this did not happen by economic accident – but through economic design.
Ireland has been subjugated by Neo-Liberalism and Global Capitalism, our domestic sovereignty has been sacrificed on the altar of Capital. Our recent experience in the Republic of Ireland of EU imposed austerity and the plunder of our national wealth, the stripping bare of our social provisions should be a lesson to all, and a rallying call to all – to unite and mobilise.
Our Housing Crisis, our Health Crisis and the level of poverty and depravation in Ireland are a direct result of the interests of Global Financial Capital being allowed and facilitated by our government to trump the needs, wellbeing and rights of its own citizens.
Our weak and subservient National Parliament, the Dail were no match for a Neo Liberal Federal EU – which was able to dictate that all banks were too big to fail and that Irish citizens would shoulder the burden of 40% of all European bank debt. The result of which can be seen every night in the doorways of shops and the back lanes of Dublin where thousands huddle for shelter and food and in the cheap hotels and B&B’s where the growing numbers of homeless families are exiled to exist – out of sight and out of mind.
The phoney Brexit debate, whether in Belfast or Dublin, London or Brussels takes no account of these homeless families or of those living in poverty – a hard border or a soft border is of little consequence to the oppressed or the marginalised. The Brexit debate will be decided within the Capitalist/Neo Liberal framework which has no moral compass as its only driving force is to protect capital and those who benefit from it.
But during the Brexit debate in the UK, the narrative was often blatantly racist, fascist and based on the notion of one race or religion being superior to another. The post Brexit debate on this island has also often taken on a sectarian nature or indeed one of narrow nationalism. There is little or no consideration for those that the current political and economic construct has failed miserably – too many are seeking to use the opportunity to further nationalist or sectarian interests, both here and in the UK.
In the absence of a Socialist narrative and debate, the void is filled by rhetoric and division, by manoeuvring and cheap political tricks – all of which progress nothing – just deepen divisions.
Courting sectarianism, naked nationalism or supremacy of any kind is playing with the devil. As we have seen in the United States, Trump’s pandering to the far right and fascists has given them oxygen and the confidence to emerge from the bowels of humanity – what happened in Charlottesville is a direct consequence of this appeasement of racism and white supremacists – we on this island also have had our fair share of Charlottesville’s also fuelled by hatred and prejudice. We must fight fascism wherever we find it, we must fight supremacy and sectarianism wherever we find it – be that in Ireland, the UK, Palestine or the U.S.
A New Ireland is possible, an Ireland of equals, of opportunities for all, of fraternity – a United Socialist Republic – that of Tone and Connolly – in the words of Connolly;
“We are Republicans because we are Socialists”
The Left and other progressive forces in Ireland need to unite around a clear Socialist Republican vision. We need to set out clearly what we are in favour of – just as much as what we are against – we do not have the luxury to dance on the pin heads of ideological differences.
In the UK, Corbyn was able to set out clearly the policy platform for a decent future, for a better society for all UK citizens – it was by no means radical – it spoke about a Universal National Health Service, about nationalising public services, the right to a decent job, a decent home, dignity and respect. We in Ireland on the left have not been good at this – rather we tend divide, splinter and attack each other rather than uniting to convince citizens of what is “possible”.
The mass mobilization in the Republic of communities against water charges and privatisation of water resources is an example of what is possible – yes it was more about water charges – but water is a symbol of all life – the protests were about life, about hope, about a vision, about citizens collectively taking control and proclaiming… that another Ireland is possible.
The Right2Change movement which emerged from the Water movement attempted to bring left progressives to unite around agreed policy platforms – over 100 candidates in the last general election in the Republic supported the Right2Change Policy Platform, of which 33 were elected. There is an untapped hunger for change and justice in Ireland that we need to give expression to and we can only do this through the unity of progressive forces.
The gross and pervasive inequalities that have so profoundly scared our society are as much a result of our inability on the Left to unite and to set out a clear alternative as it is to do with the political hegemony of the Right which ensures that nothing really changes and that the elites and capital are always protected. Socialist dialogue and Socialist Struggle have been weak in Ireland, it was snuffed out in favour of a bourgeois nationalism.
Our task now is to build from the ground up, to educate, to agitate, not to do for those which they can do for themselves – we need to build a movement that is capable and confident and which grows with every victory – that’s why it is vital we complete the victory in the Water Campaign. I believe this is possible, I believe there is a real thirst for change and justice – as Capitalism sinks further into crisis it must be the revolutionary principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity which emerges triumphant.
Finally in the words of Wolfe Tone; “We will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community – –the men of no property”
Chairperson Eugene McCartan’s remarks
We gather here to pay homage on this, the 219th anniversary of the death of Theobald Wolfe Tone—the historical founder of Irish republicanism, the person who articulated the necessity for an independent, sovereign Ireland rooted in “the men of no property.”
In October 1791 Tone converted these ideas into practical policy by founding, in conjunction with Thomas Russell, Napper Tandy and others, the Society of United Irishmen. That year he published his Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland. Aimed principally at the Ulster Dissenters, Tone’s pamphlet called for unity, fraternity, and tolerance, without which the English government would “play upon the terrors of Protestants, the hopes of Catholics and, balancing the one party by the other, plunder and laugh at the defeat of both.”
Though written in 1791, it surely holds true today—how British imperialism continues to use and to sow division to secure its own strategic interests.
Our commemoration today has new elements, which the Forum Steering Committee feel are necessary and appropriate. We hope they reflect what we believe is the breadth of the thinking, experiences
and ideas that shaped not just Wolfe Tone but also the other leading figures of the United Irish movement of 1798.
Some here may wonder why “The International” is to be sung—not a traditional song on such an occasion. But I think it is very fitting. Tone and the other United Irishmen embraced the most radical ideas from the American and French revolutions, drawing upon the most advanced radical ideas at that time, best encapsulated by Thomas Paine in his Rights of Man, to find solutions to our people’s problems.
They were not narrow-minded or insular people but internationalists, in the truest sense: they embraced and were active at that time in solidarity with people’s struggles, fighting colonialism, domination, and exploitation.
For example, Thomas Russell, one of the leading thinkers and strategists of the United Irishmen, was a dedicated and consistent anti-slavery campaigner. He abstained from confectionery products, because they were made with sugar from British slave plantations in the West Indies. He wrote impassioned letters to the Northern Star and Belfast Telegraph, declaring that “on every lump of sugar I see a drop of human blood.” He identified the fact that slavery existed for the sole purpose of “contributing to the luxury and avarice of Europeans,” and he denounced the slave traders for introducing “the vices of Europe—fraud, subtlety, war and desolation—to these once happy countries.”
Today, the militant and gallant Palestinian people call upon us to boycott apartheid Israel. We believe that to support that boycott is in the best traditions of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen.
We stand shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the heroic working people of Venezuela, resisting the attempts by reactionary forces, aided by the United States, to roll back the people’s victories. We stand in solidarity with the small but mighty anti-imperialist country of Cuba, in the best traditions and goals of the United Irishmen and of Wolfe Tone.
It is good today to have as our main speaker John Douglas, general secretary of Mandate, to give the oration. It has been a long time since the labour movement took its rightful place here. Mandate has been central in the mobilising of tens of thousands of working people throughout the country against water charges. It was and is locked in bitter disputes defending low-paid workers employed by the global corporate giant Tesco as well as our home-grown exploiter Dunne’s Stores.
Resisting imperialist domination
There is a triple lock of imperialist domination: British, European, and American. It is these economic and political forces that decide the fate of our people. The interests of giant finance house, bankers, and industrialists and transnational corporations come first, above those of the people. It is they who decide our people’s fate.
The Peadar O’Donnell Forum was established to end that domination. That task can only be realised by the politicisation and mobilisations of the people of no property: the working class.
We must find the ways and the means to bind the wounds of past hurt and divisions experienced by our people. We, as revolutionaries, cannot leave it to others. If we are to be true to the goals and principles of Tone, McCracken, Hope, and Russell, then we have to lead the struggle for unity among our people.
Our starting-point is to demonstrate that the institutions imposed by partition have failed working people. These failed institutions have fostered the division, bigotry and domination that have blighted the lives of thousands of our fellow-citizens, from Antrim to Cork, from Galway to Dublin.
We have all lived the nightmare of the “carnival of reaction” that partition has heaped upon our people. It is the people of no property, the working class, who are the only guarantors of our freedom and independence.
Neither socialism nor social justice are alien concepts, nor foreign imports into the struggle for Irish freedom, but have been central tenets of our people’s long struggle. This is clear from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen, the Emmet Rising, the Young Ireland movement, the Fenians, right up to the demands within the 1916 Proclamation and the Republican Congress. What has been central to them all has been the important and central role that the people of no property, the working people, must play in that struggle, and the need to link the struggle for national freedom with social liberation, to show that they cannot be separated. Where they have been separated it has led to failure and defeat. It has led to the reconfiguration of the chain of domination and of those who dominate us.
I would like to finish today’s commemoration with the words of James Connolly and what he had to say about Wolfe Tone in the Workers’ Republic, 13 August 1898:
“His Irish birth did not create his hatred of the British Constitution, but only intensified it. Like Mitchel, fifty years later, he held ideas on political and social order such as would have made him a rebel even had he been an Englishman. In this fact lay his strength and the secret of his enthusiasm.
“We who hold his principles cherish his memory all the more on that account, believing as we do that any movement which would successfully grapple with the problem of national freedom must draw its inspiration, not from the mouldering records of a buried past, but from the glowing hopes of the living present, the vast possibilities of the mighty future.
“When the hour of the social revolution at length strikes and the revolutionary lava now pent up in the Socialist movement finally overflows and submerges the kings and classes who now rule and ruin the world, high up in the topmost niches of the temple a liberated human race will erect to the heroes and martyrs who have watered the tree of liberty with the blood of their body and the sweat of their intellect, side by side with the Washingtons, Kosciuszkos and Tells of other lands, a grateful Irish people will carve the name of our precursor, Theobald Wolfe Tone, the man whose virtues we can only honour by imitation as the Socialist Republic will yet honour his principles by realisation.