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Speech By Tanaiste At GMB Congress

Monday, June 8, 2015

This is the text of the speech delivered on Sunday June 7th 2015 at Citywest in Dublin:

SPEECH BY THE TANAISTE AND LABOUR PARTY LEADER JOAN BURTON T.D.

AT THE ANNUAL CONGRESS OF GMB

7th JUNE 2015 

Good evening.

I know this is the first time that the Annual Congress of the GMB has been held in Dublin for well over a hundred years.

So I suppose the first thing I should say to you is: “Welcome Back.”

I also know that many of the delegates here this evening represent workers in Britain – and I am told that many of you are visiting Ireland for the first time.

You are very welcome in Ireland.

I welcome you as Tánaiste - Deputy Prime Minister - on behalf of the Irish Government.

I also offer you a fraternal (or should that be sororal) welcome as the leader of the Irish Labour Party, and as the successor of James Connolly, who founded our party and was also active in a forerunner of the GMB.

And I am also delighted to welcome you as a member of the Dail whose constituency is just down the road!

I hope you have a useful time here and that you also find time to enjoy some of the pleasures which Dublin has to offer.

I am welcoming you to a country which has gone through difficult times in recent years.

The international financial crash, combined with the collapse of our overheated construction industry, provided the spark for six difficult years of recession and retrenchment.

Happily, we are now well on the way to recovery and, slowly but surely, people are beginning to feel the benefits of that recovery.

Just this week, the number of people out of work fell yet again.

Unemployment now stands at 9.8%, the lowest since the crisis began.

Of course, that is still too high and we still have work to do.

Job creation has been the priority of my Government and it will continue to be the priority until we have restored full employment.

My Government is taking measures to restore living standards.

We reduced tax for low and middle-income workers in the last budget and will do again in a few months’ time.

In the last fortnight, we have reached agreement with the trades unions to make good some of the pay reductions in the public sector which were imposed by the previous government.

We will also deal with the issue of insecurity and low pay.

We have set up a Low Pay Commission (modelled on its British counterpart), and we we have started work to address zero hours contracts and similar arrangements which undermine the security of workers.

I am particularly pleased that we have reached agreement with our partners in Government to provide in law for collective bargaining and to provide, once again, for Registered Employment Agreements.

I know that my colleague, Minister Ged Nash, addressed you on some of these issues this morning, so I will not repeat what he said.

In brief, my message to you this evening is that Ireland has been through a bad time, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

And we are slowly but surely emerging into the light.

When Dave asked me to say a few words here this evening, he suggested that I might touch on the issue of the European Union.

For me, and for most Irish people, the European Union is part of what we are.

It is part of our constitutional set up, it is part of our system of governance - it is part of our identity.

We are citizens of Ireland – and proud of it.

But we are also European citizens.

There is no contradiction - it is not a zero-sum game.

We do not become less Irish if we also describe ourselves as European.

We do not become less European if we say that we are proud to be Irish.

I do not see the Union as alien, as an organisation run by foreigners.

We are a part - a small part - of a Union designed to make our citizens more prosperous, more secure and more fulfilled.

No more, no less.

I can conceive of no circumstances where Ireland would leave the European Union, and it is a remarkable fact that no Irish politician of any substance has ever suggested that we should.

We do not always like individual decisions of the Union but, if we don’t, we work with others of similar mind to get a better decision.

The exit door is not an option.

I know that many in Britain do not feel the same way.

Prime Minister Cameron has recently won a mandate to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership.

I fully respect that mandate and so does the Irish Government.

We will do whatever we can to see that Britain gets a good hearing and that reasonable proposals for reform are accommodated.

It is first and foremost a matter for the British people to decide on their future – whether that is within the EU or otherwise.

It would be unhelpful for voices from abroad to look to interfere and I am very conscious of that fact.

But I don’t want to give the impression that Ireland is indifferent on the question of Britain’s membership of the Union.

The truth is that we are far from indifferent.

Ultimately the British themselves will decide whether membership is in their interests or not.

But I am very clear that Britain’s membership is good for Ireland and good for Europe and British exit would be bad for Ireland and bad for the rest of Europe.

Not that many years ago, there were customs posts and security checkpoints on the border between Newry and Dundalk.

These days, motorists can pass freely from North to South.

Workers can move easily between the two parts of the island.

The all-island economy has benefited hugely from the Good Friday Agreement and the framework of our joint membership of the European Union.

Let me put it in simple terms.

The idea of demanding passports at the border between North and South is abhorrent to me and I suspect it would be unacceptable to any Irish Government.

We value the ease of movement and the improvement in relations which we have seen in the last few years and we would be loath to give it up.

So that is our position. But it is not unconditional.

I have already said we will seek to ensure that Britain gets a good hearing and that reasonable proposals for reform are accommodated.

“Reasonable” is important in this context.

I share your general secretary Paul Kenny’s view that reforms must not be ones that hollow out workers’ rights.

In the context of the Good Friday Agreement, I should also mention the Human Rights Act.

As part of the Agreement, the then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, agreed to incorporate the provisions of the European Convention into Northern Ireland law.

This was designed as a way of providing an international underpinning of human rights in Northern Ireland.

Needless to say, I am aware of the current debate on this issue in the UK.

I very much hope that the position of Northern Ireland will be taken into account when a decision is finally made.

Suffice to say that the Irish Government is very concerned about this and we have conveyed our concern to the British Government.

Relations between Ireland and Britain have improved enormously in recent years.

For decades, Irish people have gone to Britain to live and work, and by and large they have been welcomed there and have contributed to British society.

More recently, many young people from England, Scotland and Wales have come to Ireland to study and work.

British people have bought holiday homes here.

Many have made their lives here; pensioners have come here to retire.

All of this is underpinned by the right of freedom of movement which is guaranteed to all our citizens by the European Treaties.

I don’t underestimate the difficulties which mass immigration can produce for host societies.

It is a complex and sensitive debate, but it is one that should not be avoided.

But freedom of movement for our citizens is a fundamental freedom.

It is not an unqualified right but it is something we should be slow to tamper with.

I think that the debate in Britain so far has been very interesting and of course it has encouraged debate in other countries too.

I think it is useful for all of us to ask ourselves from time to time what sort of Europe we want.

For my part, I want a Europe which is good for business.

A Europe which facilitates free trade, which provides a single marketplace for goods and services.

But I don’t just want a Europe that is good for business.

I also want a Europe which is good for its citizens - I want a social Europe.

This means a Europe where the needs of business are set side by side with the needs of workers.

A Europe where the rights of consumers complement the rights of producers.

A Europe which pushes and guarantees environmental standards.

In short, I don’t want a Europe which is just a single market.

I don’t want a Europe which serves the wants of the elites.

I don’t want a Europe which serves the needs of the boardroom and ignores the needs of the shop floor.

If the European project is to work, then it must mean something for all our citizens.

In simple terms, it must make all our lives better.

As a social democrat, I am acutely aware of the role of Europe in improving the lives of workers and consumers, in guaranteeing the rights of women in work.

Indeed, it is true to say that Europe played an important role in initiating legislation in Ireland in the 1970s dealing with important questions such as equal pay for equal work and the rights of workers.

I know that this union has been actively engaged in Brussels for many years and I compliment you for the work that you are doing there.

Those of us who do believe that the EU is a force for good need to make the case.

We need to take on those who suggest that health and safety is just red tape.

We need to take on those who argue that environmental standards or food safety regulations are just bureaucracy.

We need to argue with those who say that workers’ rights are just an

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