Democratic Left Conference 12th December 1998

Speech made by Catherine Murphy

This is the most difficult political decision I have ever had to make. I don't mind admitting I have struggled with it over a number of months and in the recent weeks.

In making up my mind like many of you, I had to look at the choices facing me, which I have to admit were realistically very few. I constantly asked myself why am I involved in politics and what do I want to achieve.

Like most people in this room I made a conscious decision to join a political party for a purpose. That is almost unusual in an Irish context. One Labour Party member put it recently that he was born into the Labour Party, few if any of us could make that claim. So for me and for most people here, it was a conscious decision to join a political party and it will be a conscious decision to move on.

The driving force for me was about changing what I believed to be an inequitable society....... Since I made that decision in 1983 our society has become much more prosperous but it has not become more equitable, its easy to conclude that job of work remains to be done.

So what kind of a political force do I want to belong to! I want to belong to a political party I believe in, a party where there is a healthy tension rather than internal hostility, a party that is not hanging about the centre in order to pick up electoral support, a principled political party that is about social justice, democracy in its fullest sense, way beyond mere electoral politics. A party that is about substance and not merely style and has the courage to collectively roll up its sleeves and assist through its political practice, the sharing of power through political activity in a way that breaks down dependency and radiates confidence to those who need and want to contribute, and in turn generates an energy that is self sustaining.

The question I asked myself is does such a party exist. My firm conclusion was No, no such party exists. Can it be created, what are the opportunities and what are the obstacles.

An elderly woman once said to me "When you are old the past becomes much more important, you hold on to it you value it, but when you are young the past is unimportant, it is the future that counts"

Clearly this merger between Democratic Left & Labour is about the past and the future, if it is approved today. Labour is the oldest political party in the state while Democratic Left is of a more recent tradition. Both of us have political traditions both of us have political baggage. In my opinion it can only be successful if both parties can learn from the past rather than looking back with nostalgia, or overvaluing tradition. That requires building trust where hostility exists..... That will not occur by an overwhelming vote at any conference or agreement on an effective merger date. It will take time, a shared vision and a commitment to equality rather than subordination.

It also requires a focus on the future and an acceptance that what is being created is new. Its about identifying what is best in both parties rather than a focus on differences, past divisions or past performance.

Clearly the political practice of both parties has been different, I believe Democratic Left has placed stronger emphasis on research and have taken a more principled than pragmatic approach. Labour I feel have been the opposite. That mixture could result in a good mixture of different oils enhancing each other, or it could result in a mixture of oil and water with obvious results. There are no guarantees it will work but neither are there guarantees it wont. Democratic Left has a stronger Urban tradition while there is a strong rural labour base, that is either an opportunity or a threat.

What the document in front of us does is to set out a framework, a mere starting point, it is nonetheless a good starting point, it is up to us to have the energy, commitment and imagination to take it from there and build something new. It is a leap of faith. There are many reasons each of us can argue as to why it should not happen. But we must ask ourselves:

Do we want to participate in the renewal and revitalisation of our democracy. Could this be the opportunity to widen ownership in our economy and increase participation in economic decision making. Are the values of Democracy, Economic & Social Justice, Equality, Sustainability, Pluralism & Community Solidarity the kind of values we would want to put centre stage.

All of the above are contained in the agreement in front of us, it will go no further if we decide not to take it further, it will merely be words on a page.

In the final analysis making a success of this political merger will not come down to having a good constitution, or a good written agreement, it will be about people, it will be about leadership.

The document contains interim measures on organisation one of which is provision for two separate constituency organisations within the one Constituency. Practically speaking this will be necessary in Kildare North. It is my view that it would be unrealistic in the short term to expect both organisations to merge, for a variety of different reasons including vastly differing political practice. This provision is both a useful and imaginative way of accommodating this.

I am clearly not approaching this through a pair of rose tinted glasses, but neither am I approaching it from the point of view of being a passenger. If this is to be a merging of two political parties rather than a take-over it requires people to be active, it requires people to make it different, I believe it deserves a chance. It is easier to believe in something, if you can see it, if it exists. The architecture is there in outline, it requires further development, the building blocks are there but if it is to be constructed it needs skilled construction workers who believe in the project.

Three months ago I could not have imagined I would be standing here saying I am supporting a merger between Labour & Democratic Left. I have come to the conclusion it deserves a real chance, I have also come to the conclusion that chance is improved with every additional Democratic Left member.