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Speech by President Michael D. Higgins Unveiling of ‘The Plough and the Stars’ installation Áras an Uachtaráin Tuesday 1st May 2018

General Secretary Patricia King,
A chairde,

Tá fíorchaoin fáilte romhaibh ar fad go hÁras an Uachtaráin inniu agus an dealbh álainn seo á nochtadh againn mar chomóradh ar an Stailc agus Frithdhúnadh Mór 1913 i mBaile Átha Cliath.

Tá lúcháir orm féin agus ar Saidhbhín, a bhí ina ceann tiomána maidir leis an dealbh seo a chur i dteach cónaithe Uachtarán na hÉireann, go bhfuil sibh linn, seancháirde agus cáirde nua, agus sinn ag cuimhneamh ar an bhFrithdhúnadh Mór 1913 agus an oidhreacht a d'fhág sé.

[You are all most welcome here today to Áras an Uachtaráin for the official unveiling of a beautiful sculpture in commemoration of the 1913 Lockout of the Dublin workers. For Sabina, who has been the driving force in having this sculpture placed here at the home of Uachtarán na hÉireann, and for myself it is such a joy to have you all here, old friends and new, as we recall the Great Dublin Lockout and its legacy.]

May I commence by expressing my gratitude to Gerry King, a legendary figure in the world of ploughing who has gifted us this plough; sculptor John Behan, Leo Higgins and the Cast Foundry who have re-imagined it into an inspiring piece of art which will now become an integral feature of Áras an Uachtaráin and a permanent reminder of one of the most significant and foundational events of our Irish Revolution.

I am also deeply grateful to Declan Bermingham and his team and to Aoife Hurley and the OPW Installation team who ensured the sculpture would be so beautifully mounted and for the wonderful landscaping. Molaim sibh.

To the members of the Irish Citizens’ Army Reenactment Group, who emerged from the Prison Officers Association for the centenary of the lockout and who had such an active part in the 1916 commemorations, your presence here today has enlivened the occasion and our sincere thanks. Go raibh maith agaibh uile.

Also let me thank the wonderful band, Kíla, Simon Morgan, Drazen Derek and Myles Drenna, harpist Mary Kelly, Communications Workers Union Band and our friends from the Civil Defence, and of course, Mary Coughlan, whose performances and extraordinary talents greatly add to events such as these. Míle buíochas! Today we honour Seán O’Cathasigh, Seán O’Casey whose words from his history of the Citizens’ Army have been inscribed on the statue we have just unveiled.

In remembering the 1913 Lockout, we recall the courage, endurance, and historical human rights significance that lay at its very heart. The event we honour and commemorate today was about the struggle for the right to join a trade union; a right that was challenged in Dublin when 403 employers, under the leadership of William Martin Murphy, locked out their workers who were union members and required those who were not members to sign a pledge saying they would not join the I.T.G.W.U.

The 1913 lockout was a battle for Freedom of Association, but it also brought into focus the intolerable living conditions that many citizens in central Dublin were enduring. While William Martin Murphy has been described by some of his biographers as a man with a social conscience, a former member of the St Vincent de Paul and as a man who favoured paternalistic solutions to social problems, it was not only that he was reluctant to recognise or tackle the root causes of social problems, he sought to cut off any possibilities of collective action that that threatened an insatiable march of capital and its beneficiaries.  By denying his workers the voice of trade unionism he was denying them a say in their working conditions – a say that would inevitably have led to the payment of a fair wage to his workers at a cost to his own profits.

After four months of being locked out from their livelihoods, their children starving, and their families in dire hardship, the workers were forced to capitulate and the Lockout ceased in January 1914. Their despair and despondency at their defeat are evocatively described in the words of James Connolly at that time:

“And so we Irish workers must go down into Hell, bow our backs to the lash of the slave drive … and eat the dust of defeat and betrayal”.

It was, however, to be a pyrrhic victory for their employers. Having witnessed the potential power of the labour movement to ‘shake or overturn the entire social order’, employers were not willing to put it once more to the test. Effectively, therefore, the Labour movement had won the freedom to organise workers into unions, prepared to strike to achieve equal rights, respect and dignity at work.

Today it is essential that work and the workplace, in all its facets and in its essence as a shared human activity, continue to be given a central place in any discussion of the values by which, we, as a community, wish to live. We must test ourselves by regularly asking if we retain the spirit of those courageous men and women who endured months of poverty, hardship and starvation in order to win the right to demand fair and just places of work.

The workers and their leaders of a century ago by their example can inspire us as we respond to what Alain Supiot, describes as “the neoliberal utopia of Total Market” which forces many workers to become victims of a socially unaccountable version of the economy, as decades of hard won rights are being placed under threat, gradually eroded or even lost to the workers of today.

There can be no doubt that many in today’s labour force, all over the world, in the European Union and closer to home in our own economy, find themselves trapped in new forms of chronic job insecurity, part of a newly emerged ‘precariat’ whose working lives are defined by temporary contracts, unpaid internships, and zero hour working arrangements. For many, the consequences of such precarious employment are severe and include financial difficulties, limited career opportunities, and inability to buy or rent a home for themselves and their families.

We have, in recent years, been travelling down a perilous road where we have seen a shift in contemporary forms of work towards an emphasis on performance, output and the commodification of a “flexible workforce”, a shift which has been made often at the expense of a holistic conception of the welfare, security and interests of workers. 

Many hard-won workers’ rights have been forced to be conceded in the name of so-called “economic realism” and people have been reduced to ‘units of labour’. A paternalistic approach, reminiscent of the nineteenth century, whereby employees are offered superficial incentives rather than rights, rather than ethical values.

It is now urgent that our trade union leaders, our workers’ representatives, and workers themselves be supported as they reclaim their say, their autonomy, their right to be viewed as equal participants in the economy and in society - their unique contribution respected, their voice heard, their dignity upheld.

So today, as we celebrate the installation here in Áras an Uachtaráin of the Starry Plough, such a cultural icon of the foundation of the State, let us contemplate the words written on its plaque; words which summon up the passion, ardour and determination of Jim Larkin as he addressed those Dublin workers, now long dead who struggled and fought for a better world and a better future, telling them, as Seán O’Casey told us:-

“that they were engaged in the fight of their lives; that every conceivable combination had united its forces against the workers; that it would be a long and bitter struggle between the Titans of Capital and the Titans of Labour.”

Tig linn cuimhneamh orthu agus a gcuid focal agus a saolta a agair agus sinn ag iarraidh domhain atá níos fearr agus níos cothroma a chruthú; tig linn dul chun cinn a dhéanamh ar a ngealltanas fuascailteach d'ord eacnamaíoch agus sóisialta atá bunaithe ar bhunchloch eiticiúla, a chuireann riachtanais na saoránach i gcroílár ár sochaí.

[Let us honour their memory and invoke their words and their lives as we continue to claim that better and fairer world which is possible; give meaning to the emancipatory promise of an economic and social order that is built on ethical foundations, that places the needs of citizens at its very heart.]

Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.