In its general election manifesto and subsequent alternative budget proposal for 2021, Sinn Féin sought to position itself as the party that would rebalance the economy, stand up for workers and deliver a fair recovery. Ciarán Galway engages with the party’s spokesperson on enterprise, trade, employment and workers’ rights Louise O’Reilly TD to discuss support for SMEs and workers.
First elected to the Dáil in 2016, Louise O’Reilly was a representative before she was in representative politics, having previously worked as a fulltime trade union organiser for over a decade. O’Reilly was “born a republican socialist” with strong family roots in trade unionism. Her father was also a trade union official, while her grandmother and grandfather were shop stewards with the Irish Women Workers’ Union and the the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union respectively. “It’s in my blood,” she adds.
O’Reilly regards the Dáil as a platform “to bring forward issues which are pertinent to workers and working families” on a national level, something she feels was lacking in the political discourse.
“There was a lot of talk about working people but not an awful lot of interaction with working people. One of the things that makes Sinn Féin different to other political parties is that we have that genuine connection and that informs our activism and the work that we do,” she asserts.
Until June 2020, the Skerries native was Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on health. It was a role in which she was widely thought to have excelled. Now, O’Reilly is the party’s spokesperson on enterprise, trade, employment and workers’ rights and is tasked with man-marking Tánaiste Leo Varadkar TD who leads the portfolio. When asked about her redeployment to undertake that task, she laughs: “I was delighted. I was very pleased.”
Speaking with eolas Magazine in August 2020, Sinn Féin party leader Mary Lou McDonald indicated that she could “place Louise O’Reilly in any portfolio, and she would shine”. “I am very conscious of the fact that the model which is adopted for economic recovery and economic advancement must have the experience of working people hardwired into it,” McDonald said.
“At a time when work is uncertain, money is tight and people’s sense of their economic future is very much in the balance, you couldn’t have a stronger champion than Louise O’Reilly. That’s why I moved her.”
In her trade union role, O’Reilly worked for several years as the national nursing organiser with SIPTU and represented other grades of healthcare workers. She was also a member of ICTU’s Public Services Committee.
“I did enjoy working in health. It’s an area that I have a grá for, but this is also something that I have been raised with and I’ve had all my life. Now, it’s very worrying and disturbing for me, that someone who holds anti-worker views, someone who is very right wing in the way that Leo Varadkar is, now holds the jobs portfolio.
“Our party leader decided that it would be good to have someone who has a good grounding in workers’ rights and workers’ rights issues to mark that particular individual,” the Dublin Fingal TD explains.
“It’s very worrying and disturbing for me, that someone who holds anti-worker views, someone who is very right wing in the way that Leo Varadkar is, now holds the jobs portfolio.”
Prior to General Election 2020, Ibec CEO Danny McCoy suggested that if the Sinn Féin manifesto was fully implemented, it would have “grave implications”. Following the results, however, McCoy indicated that having “seen them in action in the North”, the party’s instincts “are not that mad when it comes to business”.
Regardless, Sinn Féin is often characterised by its political opponents as a ‘high-tax, anti-business’ party; something which the enterprise spokesperson dismisses. “No, we’re not at all. We’re a fair tax party. I don’t think anyone should object to fair taxation. We are definitely a party that supports business.
“It would be ridiculous for a party that has a focus on workers and workers’ rights in the way that we do to be anti-business. We support decent businesses and decent employers and ensuring that businesses thrive because if there’s no business, there’s no work,” she insists.
Discussing Sinn Féin’s relationship with business lobby groups such as Ibec, the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association (ISME) and others, O’Reilly alludes to “warm relations”. “It doesn’t mean we agree on everything and we shouldn’t. In fact, if there is any politician in [Leinster House] that tells you they agree line-for-line with every single agenda that is put forward by every single lobby group then they’re spoofing because you can’t. But it does mean that you find those common areas,” she emphasises.
Support for SMEs
A key objective of Sinn Féin’s ‘manifesto for change’ ahead of General Election 2020 was ‘rebalancing the economy’. “We want to bring a focus on a different type of economy,” O’Reilly maintains, adding: “A focus on workers’ co-ops and more indigenous industries, less about FDI which is very important and has its place but actually, most people in Ireland work for SMEs and those are very often the people who get left out of the equation because quite frankly they’re too busy working to be lobbying and advocating. They need a voice and they deserve a voice in the Dáil chamber as well.
“We’re marking an individual who has no regard for workers’ rights as far as I’m concerned and, indeed, favours big business over SMEs and family-run enterprises. He needs to be marked and marked strongly.”
Teachta O’Reilly maintains that government should be a driver of local industry. “The Government should be a driver of local industry and it’s very often not. That needs to change. I think we need to have a social clause in government contracts.
“You’ll often hear, particularly among right wing commentators, that governments can’t create jobs. They can’t but they can create the atmosphere for decent jobs to be fostered and I think that that is something that we need to refocus on.”
To support indigenous SMEs in the domestic market Sinn Féin has proposed the establishment of a Irish Enterprise Agency. “We’ve put forward an idea to the Tánaiste which is like an IDA for small business and I know that he’s considering it,” she says.
On the development of a worker co-operative sector, O’Reilly’s party emphasises the resilience, productivity and social benefits among European counterparts and wants to establish a Worker Co-operative Development Unit modelled on Co-operative Development Scotland.
“Workers’ co-ops were thriving back in the mid-to-late-90s. There was a worker’s co-op unit within government and there was a big push on getting workers’ co-ops up and running. When everyone is invested in success, it really works.
“But what you have to do is ensure that people have the resources, the education and the skills to put that together. Then you have to support them. That’s something that can be done through the Local Enterprise Offices’ leadership programmes and very much at local level,” she explains.
To establish a more innovative economy, O’Reilly suggests “we need to look at where the opportunities exist” and enhance links with apprenticeships and higher education to “futureproof what we’re doing”.
“We have to ensure that wherever the investment is made, the benefits come back to the State. That absolutely involves a partnership between education, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and further education and apprenticeships.
“What we don’t need is global multinational corporations making tiny donations to universities and then, off the back of that, getting the use of facilities and all the rest of it.”
On workers’ rights, the Sinn Féin enterprise spokesperson contends that “this government has done nothing”. “They don’t have a workers’ rights agenda and they don’t have a workers’ rights focus. I think sometimes they talk as if they should be threatened by workers’ rights. I think workers’ rights and decent wages are a good thing.
“Some politicians will say to you that if you are going to give a company a grant that you have to be able to then say to them, ‘well, you have to give x per cent to workers’ rights’. I would say that workers’ rights cannot be bought, and they should never be bought. Eventually, the price becomes too high.”
Unsurprisingly, O’Reilly advocates for the creation of “conditions for workers to get organised”. “That means supporting trade unions and putting in legislation that means that trade unions can be facilitated to do their work,” she adds.
“We meet with businesspeople every day of the week both locally and nationally and they are planning for the change of government that people voted for back in February. As Mary Lou McDonald has said, that change might be postponed but it cannot be stopped.”
Similar to the July Stimulus, O’Reilly criticised Budget 2021 as a missed opportunity to support businesses and protect jobs. In particular, the Sinn Féin frontbench TD is critical of the Government’s decision to implement a tax back system rather than her party’s proposed stay-and-spend voucher scheme for the tourism and hospitality sector.
“Sinn Féin proposed a stimulus for the tourism and hospitality sector back in late-June/early-July. That worked. It worked in other jurisdictions and it worked really well because it put money exactly where it was needed which was into the back pockets of people who didn’t have money. It was a really quick channel to get that into SMEs at local level.
“[The Government] ignored that. Instead it went for this convoluted tax back system which didn’t come into play until the businesses were shut. There was an entire summer lost when people could have, if they had a few bob in their back pocket, taken the kids down to the local ice-cream parlour, spending the money locally, keeping jobs alive. That is a microcosm of the missed opportunity that was there.”
Covid-19 has had an unrivalled impact across all economic sectors, radically transforming the employment landscape. “Covid-19 has changed how everyone thinks,” O’Reilly says simply. “Things can’t go back to the status quo. The pandemic ruptured society and when we looked down, we saw that the economy had, to a terrifying extent, been built on precarious, low-income and unstable work. That’s not right. As I said on the record in the Dáil to the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach, if there’s going to be a recovery from this pandemic, it will not and cannot be built on the back of low wages and precarious work.”
O’Reilly also emphasises that the pandemic has broadened the definition of essential or key workers which, initially at least, provoked some reflection on the value of low-income work. “Previously, essential workers were the shiny button people, the firefighters or the guards. The essential workers in the pandemic were the men and women pulling the shutters up in the local shop and providing you with food. The essential workers were the cleaners.
“I will do my damnedest, and I see it as my first priority, to ensure that we don’t unlearn those lessons and that we don’t simply say, ‘well, the pandemic is over, let’s draw a line under that and go back to precarious work and devalue people who clean for a living’. That can’t happen.”
Unpacking some of the most significant challenges currently facing workers, O’Reilly emphasises the crippling cost of childcare. “Many families work all week, but they pay the cost of another mortgage just to have kids minded so they can go to work. It absolutely beggars belief. It was a huge issue during the [general] election and we would have produced a very comprehensive, fully costed policy around transitioning from the model we have at the moment, more towards a State-based model, but ensuring that we place a proper value on the work done by early years educators.
“These are the people we entrust to shape the minds of our children; they do a hugely important job and very often they are doing it for minimum wage or not much more than that. That’s not right. The cost of rearing children, particular at the early stages, is absolutely creasing families at the minute. That hasn’t gone away.”
The Sinn Féin enterprise spokesperson also identifies “the right to retire at the age of 65” as something that should be “an absolute fundamental”. “It’s a huge challenge and we know that we have succeeded on pushing the Government back on this, so they have agreed not to move up to 67. They’re going to stop at 66, but actually we need to keep pushing because they need to go to 65,” she says.
Looking beyond Sinn Féin’s current stint as lead party of opposition, O’Reilly maintains that it would be “very foolish” not to plan for a day when her party will hold the levers of fiscal policy in Ireland. “We meet with businesspeople every day of the week both locally and nationally and they are planning for the change of government that people voted for back in February . As Mary Lou McDonald has said, that change might be postponed but it cannot be stopped.
“People know that that change is coming. They also know, by the way, when they talk to us, that there is nothing to fear from that change. Nobody has anything to fear from decent work and decent wages.”
Asked about her vision for the future, O’Reilly replies succinctly: “A united Ireland where decent work and affordable cost of living is the order of the day, where we balance development between cities and regions.”
Brexit has reinvigorated the conversation around Irish unity, she contends, concluding: “When we talk about a united Ireland, we talk about the economic benefits versus the cost of maintaining partition on the island of Ireland. We see then the opportunity that we have to rebuild and reimagine a new Ireland based on decent work, decent pay and unity.”