Political change is never easy to achieve. It takes time. It requires collaboration with others. Sometimes it requires compromise. But change is possible.
As a Labour Party TD and Minister I served in government in the period following Ireland’s worst ever economic crisis. They were traumatic times. Both governments that held office during that time had to deal with a collapse in the public finances. Tax increases and spending cuts – austerity – caused hardship to many workers and their families, even though it was the crash itself that was the principal cause of the distress they experienced.
I first ran for election in 2004, serving as a local councillor for Rathfarnham 2007. In that year I was elected to Seanad Eireann, and then to Dail Eireann in 2011. Like many who have taken the uncertain plunge into electoral politics, I wanted to help make Ireland a better place. I was idealistic.
The financial crash of 2008 was a catastrophe – principally for the tens of thousands of people whose jobs and businesses collapsed. It shattered confidence in the ability of State institutions to regulate the banking and financial systems. Its impact endures to this day through the housing crisis, the legacy national debt, and the continuing impact of budgetary measures taken by governments from the outset of the crisis.
But idealism was another casualty of the crash. Instead of making change and advancing reform, precious government time and political currency were spent on stabilising a shattered economy.
My party suffered huge losses in the 2016 election. We were punished for some of the decisions we made, especially on water charges. Some of our critics accused us of betrayal, a charge I reject without hesitation. But there is no doubt that in saving our country we jeopardised our party. We made some mistakes, some excusable, others less so. But we also made some real gains, even in the teeth of an unprecedented economic crisis not of our making.
We prevented Fine Gael from imposing the much deeper and faster cuts to public expenditure that they proposed in their 2011 manifesto. We maintained core social welfare rates – even in the face of demands for cuts which that would have impoverished tens of thousands of vulnerable citizens. We successfully resisted the wholesale privatisation of publicly-held assets. We restored collective bargaining laws after they had been struck down by the courts. No-one today believes that the marriage equality referendum or the X-case legislation would have happened without Labour in government.
It is true that Labour did not succeed in achieving everything we fought for. We had gains and we had losses. That is the practical reality of coalition government. Politics is about ideas and principles. Politics is also about taking responsibility. You can’t have one without the other.
Today we face enormous challenges – greater in magnitude even than those we faced when our economy collapsed in 2008.
As a Labour candidate for Dublin I want to serve this city in the European Parliament and to help address – and solve – these problems. And I want to help renew the politics of social democracy in Europe – to take on the resurgent far right, to show how the Union and its member States can lead the fight against climate change, and combat the rising inequalities that characterise the ‘data age’.
Idealism may have been a casualty of the crash, and of austerity. But idealism is not dead.
I will bring my experience – and my idealism – to the European Parliament if you elect me on 24 May.