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26 April 2001 Edition

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Connolly's vision both feasible and essential

We carry here an excerpt from Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin's speech at the Connolly conference last Sunday

James Connolly described socialism as ``the application to the social life of the nation of the fundamental principles of democracy''. Looking at Ireland today nobody can honestly say that the fundamental principles of democracy, of equal rights and equal opportunities for all, have been applied in this society.

Inequality is the hallmark of the so-called Celtic Tiger. It is grossly unequal in terms of the distribution of increased national wealth. In its analysis of the Fianna Fáil/PD government's Budget 2001 the Justice Commission of the Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI) said:

``The poorest people in Irish society have been betrayed... This government's legacy after four Budgets is to have substantially widened the rich/poor gap -already the worst in the EU.''

Where is equality in a society that has 30,000 people suffering illness and even death on public hospital waiting lists while wealth can buy instant access to the best care in the flourishing private healthcare business?

Earlier this month, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul stated that provision of healthcare in Ireland, particularly to the disadvantaged, is a shambles. They described the government's stated strategy of delivering a healthcare system based on equity, quality and accountability as a ``comprehensive failure'', and said adequate healthcare was available only to those who could afford to pay for it.

We have the worst life expectancy in the EU, the highest rate of premature death caused by coronary heart disease, the lowest number of acute hospital beds per capita and a five-year waiting list for children in need of orthodontic treatment.

Where is equality in a society that has 50,000 people languishing on local authority housing waiting lists while the privileged compete for the multi-million pound prestige properties that fill the pages of the newspapers? In 2001 we have a situation where tenants in the private rented sector are denied the rights of fair rent and fixity of tenure which Michael Davitt demanded for tenant farmers in the 1870s.

The current government's strategy - if it can be called a strategy relies on the private sector to meet the housing needs of the people. It leaves people on average earnings prey to profiteering speculators and developers and crippled with massive mortgages. Incredibly, given the housing crisis, the local authorities and the voluntary sector are building only 8% of all houses currently under construction. This is the lowest share for any period in the last century.

Housing, that most basic right, is planned and developed not on the basis of the need of the many but on the greed of the few. Successive governments have applied the values of the market rather than democratic values. Increasingly people are regarded as consumers in an economy rather than citizens in a democracy.

Without real democracy, without the exercise of people power, we cannot make the changes in society and the economy that are needed. Under the present government and its predecessors democracy has been weakened at national and at local level. Democracy at local level has been attacked by the current government with Environment and Local Government Minister Noel Demspey stripping councils of powers with regard to waste management because they have not complied with his dictat for the building of incinerators in every region. The ceding of ever greater powers from elected representatives in Ireland to the evolving EU superstate also weakens democracy and this is why the Treaty of Nice should be opposed.

Is it feasible to change all this and to mould a more equitable society? I believe it is both feasible and essential. It can be done by appealing to the basic sense of justice and fair play shared by the vast majority of our people. They are incensed at the inequalities that are so pervasive in a supposedly affluent society. This is especially so in the areas of healthcare and housing. The vast majority of working people want the government to use taxation to improve these services rather than cut tax for higher earners. Taxpayers are willing to be generous contributors in a fair tax system that maintains equitable and efficient social services to benefit them and their neighbours.

What is lacking among many people is a sense that the political system has the capacity to deliver real change. When they look at the parties that have dominated politics in this State since its foundation they see mediocrity and corruption. They are either switching off or looking for an alternative.

A recent Irish Independent editorial expressed concern at growing support for Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties. It spoke of the alienation of young people who are supporting Sinn Féin in increasing numbers. But of course the Irish Independent - which historians will remember called for the execution of Connolly - is wrong again. As the fastest growing party among Irish youth our support is based not on the alienation of young people but on their motivation. They are inspired by republican ideas and motivated by the activity of Sinn Féin.

It is this which gives me hope and confidence that real change is feasible in our country. Despite, or perhaps because of the all-pervasive culture of greed and mé féinism, many young people are seeking a better future based not on individual advancement in a consumer rat race but on an enhanced quality of life for the local, national and global community of which they are a part. This is seen also in the keen awareness among many active young people on environmental issues and international issues. It gives a striking modern relevance to the phrase of Connolly which this conference uses as its motto and with which I will conclude:

``We only want the earth.''
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