It can’t be conference time already again? There was a time when national conference was held only every 2 years but not anymore. This weekend sees Labour’s third party conference in 18 months, visiting the midlands for the first time ever. You’d think we’d maxed out on issues to discuss, but you’d be wrong and that’s a sign of a healthy thriving party. It’s become a cliché in Labour circles down through the years to say that this is the most important conference, but it’s my view that it is exactly that now, not so much for the party but for the wider body politic. Important because the issues we discuss are key to ordinary citizens in terms of their impact, not because there exist different views on solutions to these problems within the party. And that’s a huge and welcome difference from the time that I first went to Labour conferences in the 80’s.
What makes Labour’s Mullingar conference different to those of other parties is the extent of analysis of our societies problems and the ability of speakers to set out proposed solutions. We’re often criticised for having too many policies and sticking too long with our analysis but I’ve often believed that only in Labour do you get the honest, intense and passionate exchange of ideas and you can be in no doubt that Labour members and TD’s really hold out for what they believe in. In my time in the party we’ve seen Frank Cluskey principled stand over the nationalisation of Dublin Gas, Barry Desmond secured the liberalisation of contraception laws, Mervyn Taylor delivered divorce, Dick Spring contributed to peace in the north through the Downing St Agreement, gave his name to the Spring Principles and the subsequent IRA ceasefire. Niamh Breatnach for free 3rd level education and “Breaking The Cycle”. There’s plenty more now in the party where these came from!
It’s clear that there’s huge ability on Labour’s benches still. These TD’s provide the Dail with an opposition that is carved of the same backbone of those who stood up for values and vision in the 80’s. If there is an election this year and if Labour are in power as I believe we will be, I’ve no doubt that the class of 2009 will lead, challenge and change our society for the better, tomorrows reputations are being made today.
So here we are again at another crossroads and once more Labour is debating key issues in peoples lives; Lisbon, unemployment, the economy, the banks, education, health and social welfare. All of these issues and more will be fleshed out over the weekend. There will be debate, when you reflect on some motions you can see there is an argument on both sides.
I’ve always thought of the party being a national party of equal relevance in every corner in the country breaking beyond the Shannon. It’s a point that I made during the consultation a year ago on the 21st Century Commission and its ultimately one that party members must take on. We must make the party relevant in every village and street in the country. For that reason I confess to reading the agenda motions backwards! I see what a constituency or branch has submitted and then I read the motion to see what issue motivates that part of the country! It’s good for traditional strongholds of the party to listen to motions this weekend from the Rosses in Donegal, South Leitrim, Cavan, Sligo, West Limerick and Mayo. Listening at conference is as important as speaking. If such motions are a sign of a wider interest within Labour in parts of the country where the party wasn’t strong then I hope to meet new Labour councillors from Donegal to South Kerry after the local elections!
I’m going up on Friday afternoon for the opening as I wrote the Wexford addendum on primary education to include references to special needs education and that comes up on Friday evening. One motion that stands out for me that I’m pleased to support is Kilcummin, South Kerry highlighting the appalling decision by the government to withdraw funding for the cervical cancer vaccine for girls. I’ve no doubt that the motion will pass.
Now where’s my overnight bag and delegate card? I expect Eamon Gilmore will take a leaf out of the late Joe Dolan's book and send us home sweating on Saturday night!