In light of the upcoming European and local elections, as well as the second referendum on the Lisbon Reform Treaty taking place later this year, FEPS was present at the 63rd National Conference of the Irish Labour Party. This year’s conference was optimistic in tone with the Labour Party showing continued success in opinion polls under the leadership of Eamon Gilmore T.D. However, there was no getting away from the dire straits in which Ireland finds itself and the seriousness of the present economic climate also significantly coloured proceedings. This was most fervently expressed during discussions on the policy areas of finance; enterprise, trade and employment; and, social and family affairs. There was a palpable anger at the poor regulation of the banking sector during Ireland’s economic boom and conference delegates supported measures such as such as an investigation into work practices in certain institutions, a moratorium on home repossessions and the establishment of a banking commission.
In internal affairs, delegates overwhelmingly endorsed the 21st Century Commission Report which changes the party structures in an effort to modernise its organisation. Notably the office of party president will eventually be abolished. However, the current president, Michael D. Higgins T.D., will hold this office for the rest of his life in a tribute to the work he has done in politics, academia and the arts over many years.
Turning to Europe, the priorities of the Irish Labour Party were in evidence. The sitting MEP for Dublin, Proinsias De Rossa, spoke of the need to foster “social justice instead of social apartheid” in light of the current financial crisis. This requires maintaining and bolstering levels of employment and reducing poverty. He made a pointed reference to the last time Labour was in government, when Europe’s first National Anti-Poverty Strategy was introduced in Ireland. Many of these measures have been neglected in the intermittent years. Yet Labour cannot achieve them alone. To move out of the present economic quagmire “we need to be at the heart of a strong European socialist and progressive movement”. He urged delegates to take this into account when making decisions later this year, in a subtle reference to the second Lisbon Treaty referendum.
Other European election candidates were given a chance to present themselves to conference delegates and the public at large. Nessa Childers, the candidate for Ireland East, challenged the government to call a general election this year. Current polling would indicate significant increases for the Labour party at local, national, and European level. Senator Alan Kelly, who is running for the Ireland South Euro-constituency introduced the party leader’s keynote speech. He emphasised Eamon Gilmore’s ability to lead, through his knowledge of every sector of Irish life “from the small farmers of east Galway to the workers of Cork, from the fishermen in Donegal to the citizens of the Capital”. This was the message he wanted the electorate to take going into the European elections. In addition, the Labour Party announced the late candidacy of journalist and broadcaster Susan O’Keefe for the Ireland North-West Euro-constituency. Ms O’Keefe came to prominence when she ran an exposé on widespread corruption in the meat industry and her investigations ultimately led to the “Beef tribunals” and the industry undergoing a much-needed clean-up.
Leader Eamon Gilmore thanked the European candidates for their campaigning and extended fraternal greetings to Alban Maginness M.L.A., European elections candidate for Northern Ireland representing the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Gilmore emphasised the importance of the European elections to Ireland in the context of a very international economic crisis. He also reiterated the Labour Party’s support for the Lisbon Reform Treaty: “Because the recession is not just an Irish problem, it is a European and a global problem and we cannot get out of it on our own. That is why Europe is so important to us. Why the European Union needs to be able to make decisions quickly and respond nimbly to rapidly changing new world conditions. That’s why the reforms in the Lisbon Treaty are so important. Why the Labour party was so right to back it, and why we will do so again, if the government brings forward new proposals which are to our satisfaction.”
The following day, party members also adopted this position, endorsing a motion to support the Lisbon Treaty. In particular, this motion demanded that EU member states “demonstrate in practical terms the high importance they attach collectively to workers’ rights as stated in the conclusions of the December Council meeting”. In addition, members welcomed the commitment to maintain a commissioner from each member state, the improved access to the European Court of Justice provided for by the Treaty, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Added to the above statements of intent, Labour’s European campaign was bolstered further by the presence of the leader of the Socialist Group in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz M.E.P. His speech, heavily critical of Commissioner Charlie McCreevy and Ireland’s main government party Fianna Fáil, was welcomed by the audience. He spoke also of the difficulties with neo-liberal and conservative politicians in the European Parliament, who criticise the socialists as being “of the past”. In the current economic turmoil it is becoming evident that social solidarity, and not the individualism of the post-Thatcher-Reagan consensus, would be the only way to survive. As such, Ireland can rely on the solidarity of her fellow EU member states, and they will in turn rely on Ireland. Finally, he praised the work of Proinsias De Rossa in the European Parliament but urged that he should not be left alone in the next parliament’s mandate, but rather that he should be joined by more Irish Labour MEPs.
In fringe events, Martin Schulz also held a private meeting with Dublin PES Activists where he discussed key issues pertaining to the European elections and the various strategies for economic recovery. Members were given a chance to ask him for his opinion and analysis of the situation in key member states and also engaged in some informal discussion. PES Activists also organised a workshop entitled “From Celtic Tiger to Celtic Model” which discussed the potential to apply the Nordic economic model to Ireland after the death throes of the “Celtic Tiger” boom years have passed. Aidan O’Sullivan and Desmond O’Toole ran an interesting discussion which raised pertinent issues of debate for the Irish Left. The organisers used this event to inform delegates about FEPS and the utility of such foundations in a rapidly changing political landscape.