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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 14 Apr 1948

Vol. 110 No. 6

Committee on Finance. - Adjournment Debate—International Labour Conference.

I gave notice to raise on the Adjournment the circumstances surrounding the decision of the Government not to send a delegation to the annual International Labour Organisation Conference this year. That decision, I think, has shocked many people, even amongst supporters of the Government, who are familiar with its implications, and I think it is desirable that the Minister for Industry and Commerce should have the opportunity of giving, or attempting to give, some adequate explanation to the Dáil. I presume that Deputies are familiar with the character and work of the International Labour Organisation. It was set up by the Treaty of Versaillcs. It is almost the only thing left that was established by that Treaty. It was created very largely on the initiative of President Wilson of the United States, who thought that the arrangements for the creation of a system of world peace which the negotiators at Versailles had in mind would be incomplete unless there was associated with them some permanent organisation for securing social justice.

President Wilson urged upon his fellow negotiators that the main cause of international strife was the divergence of social conditions amongst nations and urged that the interests of peace would be fostered if an international Parliament of Labour was established which would discuss all matters bearing upon the welfare of workers in all countries and endeavour to advance their conditions throughout the world.

The idea was accepted. Its acceptance was perhaps influenced by the belief that it was undesirable that nations should seek to secure competitive advantage over one another in international trade by unequal conditions of employment for workers. It has functioned since then. This State became associated with the International Labour Organisation simultaneously with accepting membership of the League of Nations and at every international conference since then, excepting two provisional conferences held during the war, this State was represented by a delegation constituted in accordance with the rules of the organisation.

Each year the organisation holds a conference. That conference is equivalent to a Parliament of Labour, a world Parliament whose concern is the welfare of the workers in all countries, which seeks to secure that there will be established an international code to which all countries shall conform and which would prescribe a minimum of reasonable social conditions and working arrangements for workers. The annual conference discusses conventions and resolutions and every year a number of new conventions is added to the code of the International Labour Organisation. These conventions, it is true, are not binding upon Governments unless ratified by them but I think it is true to say that with the passage of years the influence of the International Labour Organisation has grown enormously, grown so greatly that there is in fact a moral compulsion upon domestic governments to accept its conventions and to keep their domestic legislation in accordance with its conventions.

The growth of the influence of the organisation has been marked by the fact that Ministers of Labour have attended the annual conferences in increasing numbers. At the first full conference held after the conclusion of the war, the director of the organisation, who, incidentally, is an Irishman, said, and said rightly, that probably little social legislation in the world in the last quarter of a century was not affected by the activities of the International Labour Organisation.

Ireland has had a high reputation with the International Labour Organisation. We have, as I have said, been represented by a full delegation on every occasion. I cannot remember any year when, for any cause, a full delegation failed to attend, except during the war. Our delegates have played an important part in the discussions of the conferences. I think it is true to say that we acquired there an influence far out of proportion to our size. The delegates of Ireland, despite our relatively small size, with remarkable frequency have been chosen as chairmen and vice-chairmen of the committees of the conferences, and on one occasion an Irish delegate was chosen as president of the conference. We have also, I think, ratified here a very large number of the conventions of the International Labour Organisation and at all times have conscientiously endeavoured to keep our legislation in conformity with the provisions of these conventions.

This year's conference is being held in San Francisco. I have been unable to find in the Library any papers relating to its agenda, but my recollection is that the agenda includes a number of matters of importance, including one matter in regard to which I would have thought the trade union organisations of this country would be particularly concerned, that is, the proposal to draft an international convention concerning collective agreements.

Deputies are perhaps aware that national delegations to the International Labour Conference are composed on a tripartite basis. A Government is entitled to two delegates subject only to there being sent along with these two Government delegates one delegate representing the organised employers and one delegate representing the organised workers of the country. The delegates can be, and usually are, accompanied by advisers.

Having regard to the aims of the International Labour Organisation, to its remarkable record of successful achievement in a sphere in which I would have thought we are all interested, having regard to our long association with it and our high reputation with it, I find the Government's decision not to send a delegation this year to be completely inexplicable. I could understand it if the Government was hostile to the aims of the organisation and wished to make its hostility clear by refusing to sanction the sending of a delegation. I could understand it if the Government was dissatisfied with the activities or the method of operation of the organisation. I do not know if that is so. If one or other of those reasons has not operated, the decision is completely inexplicable. It is desirable that any doubt as to the motives which prompted the Government to take this strange decision should be removed by a clear statement by the Minister here to-night.

I inquired, in the course of a number of Parliamentary Questions to-day, as to what those motives were, without getting any satisfactory reply. I thought that perhaps the decision not to send a delegation this year was due to the fact that the conference was being held in the United States and that the sending of a delegation there would involve some expenditure of dollars. I have been assured by the Minister that that is not the reason. He stated specifically, in reply to my question as to whether the decision not to send a delegation was due to the fact that the conference was being held in the United States, that the answer to that question was in the negative.

This decision of the Government, this extraordinary attitude towards the International Labour Organisation Conference, is completely retrograde. I hope that there will exist amongst the Deputies supporting the Government a sufficient number of them who understand its significance, to ensure a revision of the decision. It is almost inevitable that the position of this country will be misunderstood by the other States, members of the organisation. It is possible that our position will be misrepresented. The fact that the decision should be taken this year is particularly deplorable, because the International Labour Organisation had to fight for its existence in the years which immediately followed the conclusion of the war. There was a movement developed to argue that the International Labour Organisation was no longer necessary, that the work it had been doing could be done equally well by the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

It was only after some thought that the existence of the International Labour Organisation was maintained through the first post-war Conference held in Paris, the first International Conference at which a delegation from this country attended after the conclusion of hostilities. It was attended by the Minister of Labour from Great Britain, Mr. Isaacs; the Minister for Labour in the United States, Miss Perkins; the Minister for Labour in France and Ministers from other States. They assured the International Labour Organisation of their determination to maintain support for it and to prevent and defeat any effort to have it replaced by any subordinate organisation of the United Nations. That movement of hostility, if I may so describe it, to the International Labour Organisation has not yet ended and it is possible that the decision of the Government here not to send a delegation may be interpreted as conveying some support for it in this country.

The Minister told me that the Director of the International Labour Organisation is being informed by letter that there is no change in outlook here towards the organisation or its activities. Is he going to be given any explanation as to the reasons for this decision and, if so, should not the Dáil be given the reasons? No satisfactory explanation has yet been offered through the Press or to the Dáil as to the origins of the decision.

I inquired whether the Minister had consulted with the organisations which normally have the selection of delegates to accompany the Government delegate to the conference, and I was told that no such consultation took place. The Minister said that that was according to precedent. I do not know what he had in mind in that reply. I would like to say, en passant, that the Minister for Industry and Commerce has shown persistent tendencies since he took office to attribute every decision of his to somebody else—usually to me. It is about time he began to take decisions on his own responsibility and defend them himself. In this case, presumably he had some good reason for not sending a delegation, a reason which had nothing to do with precedent. The decision should have been preceded by consultations with the trade union organisations and the Federation of Employers. I have endeavoured, in my time in office, to develop the practice of proceeding in all matters affecting the welfare of workers in consultation with trade union organisations. That system of consultation was, perhaps, less easy to maintain because of the division in the trade union movement; and in this matter of selecting delegates to attend the International Labour Conferences, it was not possible to devise any system which would be agreeable to both sections of the trade union movement. I think, however, there should have been consultation and that it was obviously desirable that the views of those organisations should have been before the Government before they arrived at this decision. If there was a precedent, that need not have bound the Government. Clearly, they must have considered the advisability of consulting with those organisations before arriving at their decision, and decided against it. If there was a precedent, the precedent did not let them out of the obligation for consultation. I cannot remember any such precedent.

So far as I know, a delegation from this country attended the International Labour Organisation conferences in every year except during the war. There were two provisional conferences held during the war, if my memory serves me aright—one in 1941 and the other in 1944. We did not send a delegation to these conferences, mainly because of the physical impossibility of getting delegates to them, but also because these conferences were very largely confined to representatives of the Allied States and devoted their attention very largely to preparing plans for post-war recovery, at the request of the Allied Governments. Even so, at the second of these conferences—that held in Philadelphia in 1944—we maintained our contact with the organisation by having a partial delegation there—the Irish Minister at Washington and another official from his office attended the conference. We could not have a full delegation there, as there was no means of transporting them, but we signified our adherence to the organisation and its aims by having that token representation, if I may so describe it.

I am aware that the Congress of Irish Unions has protested against the Government decision. I do not know whether the Irish Trade Union Congress or the Federation of Manufacturers have expressed any view on the matter. I should think it is highly unlikely that, if they were given the opportunity to express a view, they consented to the decision not to send a delegation. I would be interested to know if they did, in fact, convey a view to the Government, even though the Government did not invite their opinion. The decision was so obviously wrong—perhaps taken hastily, perhaps taken with some mistaken opinion as to the importance of the organisation— that it should be revised and altered. There is still time to do it. It is still possible to get delegates selected and sent to the conference and I think that it would be a far wiser course for the Government to take its courage in its hands and reverse its decision, rather than break our long association with that conference or risk the possibility of misrepresentation arising from its decision.

I am sure we are all obliged to Deputy Lemass for giving us so much information about the International Labour Organisation and all it has achieved and has sought to achieve. If one did not know Deputy Lemass, one would, having listened to him for the last 20 minutes, come to the conclusion that in raising this matter he was concerned only with the prestige of the International Labour Organisation and with the welfare of the trade unions here at home in Ireland. But we know Deputy Lemass too long and too well to accept that. Twice during the course of his speech the Deputy expressed a fear that our position in relation to this matter might be misrepresented. The only ground that could exist for that fear would be that our position will be misrepresented by the people sitting opposite to us, and particularly by Deputy Lemass himself. I do not fear that there will be any misrepresentation from any other quarter in this country or outside the country.

This matter has been raised by Deputy Lemass as part of the campaign of mischief. Deputy Lemass is not one bit concerned whether we send delegates to the International Labour Organisation Conference or not, but he is very concerned in furthering the Fianna Fáil conspiracy of creating industrial unrest in this country. I would like to ask the Deputy when he and his colleagues and the organ which he now controls propose to put an end to those fifth column tactics.

Surely, this has nothing to do with the question?

I am saying that this is part of the campaign and I am challenging the Deputies opposite to tell us when they will stop this campaign of sabotage. The Deputy talks about the difficulties created by the division in the trade union movement. The Deputy has need to worry about that, because he is the person responsible for the division in the trade union movement in this country.

That statement is untrue.

The Deputy is the person who, by this type of motion, is trying to widen that gap in the trade union movement.

The Minister cannot answer, so he abuses the Deputy.

I am not abusing anybody; I am making a statement of fact known, if not to Deputy MacEntee, to the trade unionists of this country and this city.

Will the Minister for Social Welfare make that statement?

I am making it; I am saying that, and it is notorious, and the Deputy is still persisting in trying to widen that cleavage.

Why did the Minister prevent the delegation going to the International Labour Organisation Conference? That is the question

I could talk to Deputy MacEntee on another question in relation to trade unions.

Will the Minister answer that simple question?

I allowed Deputy Lemass to talk for 20 minutes and I never interrupted him. I think I should be allowed by Deputies opposite to speak without interruption. Do not think I object to interruptions, least of all from Deputy MacEntee. Deputy MacEntee only helps me every time he opens his mouth.

There was no abuse of the Minister.

What I have said is not abuse—it is a statement of fact. I say that in all deference to the Deputy as a judge of abuse. There is no better judge in Ireland or outside it, and no better exponent of it—no better, as his Party know to its cost. Let me say this, that the decision was taken by the Government not to send a delegation to the International Labour Organisation Conference at San Francisco for two reasons: one, that there is nothing on the agenda that would be of any particular importance to this country——

Did they publish it?

They sent us a copy.

Was there any consultation with persons associated with the trade union movement?

Will the Deputy be good enough to let the trade union movement look after itself? If he did so it would be much better off to-day. It was always well able to look after itself before ever Deputy Lemass came into this House or became a Minister. It was only when he started interfering with it that the trouble started. For the sake of the trade union movement he ought to leave it alone, instead of trying to widen the cleavage. If he left it alone, then perhaps we might be able to bring about a reunification. The second reason is that we cannot afford to spend thousands of dollars in sending a delegation to San Francisco.

So it is an economy stunt?

You may call it what you like; it does not worry me what you call it. The Deputy does not remember it ever being done before, without prior consultation with the trade unions? There was no delegation sent to the International Labour Organisation Conference at Geneva in 1936 and there was no prior consultation with the unions about it or with the employers' federation. There was no delegation sent in 1944 and there was no prior consultation with the unions. Does the Deputy remember Mr. Cathal O'Shannon, then Secretary of the Trade Union Congress, sending him a resolution of protest from the Trade Union Congress?

In 1944? Certainly. It was explained there was no means of getting them there.

But the Deputy took a decision without consulting them and he did the same in 1936 without consulting them.

I do not remember what happened then.

The Deputy never remembers what it suits him not to remember. So far as our position vis-a-vis the International Labour Organisation is concerned, it was made perfectly clear to the Director-General that this country would be represented, as in 1944, by our Minister in Washington and a Consul.

That is contrary to the rules of the International Labour Organisation.

Then how did you manage to do it?

In 1944 there was a provisional conference which our delegates were not expected to attend.

I am not trying, as the Deputy suggested, to pin my decisions on my predecessor in this or in any other matter. What I am doing is, I am refusing to allow Deputy Lemass to put his sins on my shoulders. I have enough sins of my own to carry without carrying the sins of Deputy Lemass.

Will you take this seriously? If you send a Government delegation instead of employers' or workers' delegates, it will be refused admission.

Then there will be so much saved and there will be no harm done to the Irish trade union movement or to the International Labour Organisation.

It is an ex-Labour leader who is speaking now.

I talked to you on another occasion about labour. I gave Deputy MacEntee a warning during the period when, unfortunately for this country, he was Minister for Industry and Commerce. I warned him when he was putting the Trade Union Act through the House what would happen. I told him it would eventually kick him out, as it subsequently did.

What has that to do with this question?

It has much to do with your silly interruptions. In 21 years the Deputy has not learned that he is not able to make a good interruption on a relevant point.

Will the Minister publish the agenda for the conference?

The Deputy would not understand it even if I did.

Will the Minister publish the agenda and let the workers see what matters will be discussed there?

The trouble is this, that the previous Government, and, in particular, Deputy Lemass, had got into the habit of sending delegates to every conference held about anything in every part of the world.

This is one economy at the workers' expense, anyhow.

We know the economies you made at the workers' expense when the standstill Order was brought into operation. Do not draw me. I advise Deputy MacEntee not to draw me on what he and his Government did to help the workers during the war and at other times. Sit down, Deputy, and have some sense. I want to say to Deputy Lemass that there is nothing hidden or sinister in the decision not to send delegates.

There is not a Deputy in the Dáil who believes that.

Perhaps the Deputy believes what he is now saying—that is what has him as he is—but I say that more people in the Dáil and outside the Dáil will believe me rather than believe Deputy Lemass.

A few thousand dollars are keeping the Labour Party from sending a delegation to the International Labour Conference.

The Dáil adjourned at 10.30 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Thursday, 15th April.