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No National Solution: The New Wave Of Austerity Being Unleashed In Ireland
Working class people throughout Ireland are suffering deep anxiety. With poverty, homelessness and unemployment escalating, the feeling is that we are on the edge of a phenomenal disaster.
That sense of dread has been exploited by a government bent on even more savage attacks on public spending. We had been told previously that we were facing €3 billion in cuts this December. Now it is certain to be much more. A new four year economic plan is to be imposed aimed at reducing the economic deficit to 3% by 2014. So there could be up to €7 billion in cuts this December, with more to follow. This will mean increases in taxes, in particular the introduction of taxes on the low-paid. It will also mean unprecedented attacks on health-care, social welfare, child benefit, pensions, education and just about every area of social provision.
The government has warned that if this strategy is not implemented Ireland faces loosing its independence. We will be taken over by faceless bureaucrats from the EU or IMF. They - unlike our own government - will not care about our national well-being. Unless we take the bitter medicine to be doled out by our own rulers, we will suffer more from foreign powers. It seems as though we are on the brink of an invasion.
In the face of such a challenge, the Green Party in its role as the junior partner in government has taken an initiative to “lead the country out of disaster”. Its leader John Gormley has argued that in the national interest all party politics should be set aside. He wants to set up a forum - or even a government - that will act together to ‘pull us out of this mess’. The Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, is not so keen, although a number of Fianna Fail TDs are supportive. Fine Gael has described the initiative as a piece of political theatre aimed at avoiding a general election. But with the opinion polls reporting mass disillusionment with all politicians, the pressure to unite is intense.
There is also external pressure. The reality is that the European Commission is already playing a direct role in overseeing the plan for the next four years. The austerity package is being examined in detail at this very moment in Brussels. It must be approved in full by the commission before it is implemented by the Irish government. The EU has made it clear that there can no derogation. Both the government and the commission are said to be extremely nervous about the destabilising impact of a general election. International finance capital is even more jittery about a change in personnel. So with only enough in the coffers to sustain public funding until early next year, the government and all the opposition parties will have to toe the line.
Of course the opposition has already pledged its commitment to EU and IMF directives. This is as true for the Labour Party as for Fine Gael. Labour leader Eamonn Gilmore is without doubt the most popular politician of the present time, consistently receiving steady backing in the polls. A huge groundswell of support for the Labour Party is predicted if there is an election. But Gilmore has made clear that there are very tough times ahead. People may have illusions that it will not be as bad under a majority Labour government but as we have seen in Greece it could be even worse.
A recent Socialist Workers Party article showed that Irish banks are two of the largest government bondholders (www.swp.ie). Allied Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland continue to receive state funding, which they use to lend back to the state. In this bizarre situation, the Irish working class is both directly funding these bail-outs and paying the massive interest rates on the loans. Meanwhile the highly toxic Anglo Irish Bank continues to receive massive injections of cash.
The SWP quite rightly attacked the idea of a national government - it would be used as a way of repressing any struggle against the consensus. There is worry in the corridors of power that the current anxiety will translate into fierce anger when the next round of cuts comes. The public sector is a particular concern. Last year’s militant strike action by government workers was ended by union leaders in exchange for a new social partnership deal. The only thing that appeared positive about the Croke Park agreement was that there would be no further wage cuts for four years. It was of course linked with an agreement that there would be greater ‘efficiencies’ and ‘flexibility’ within the public sector. But the worry about pay seemed over for the time being.
But the agreement, which was only signed in June, included a get-out clause which allowed the government to revisit this pledge in the event of a significant deterioration in the economy. They are now putting out feelers which indicate from their perspective that this time has come. It means little that the ink has barely dried on the agreement or that the current situation was easily foreseeable. The union leadership sold out the militant opposition of public sector workers for an agreement that looks unlikely to survive the year.
The question of what the left will do becomes ever more urgent. As I have argued in previous articles, the need for the working class to have a mass party based on Marxism is urgent. The nonsense of creating half-way houses should be well and truly ditched. The working class can see clearly that capitalism is not working and that the Celtic tiger was a hoax which has left them more debt ridden than ever before. As property developers and bankers continue to get bailed out while jobs are lost and houses repossessed, it is clear that there are two nations. There can be no reformist or national solution to the current crisis that will be of any benefit to the working class.
At a recent SWP event I questioned its leader Kieran Allen on precisely this issue. He assured me that there are plans afoot to set up a united left slate for the general election between the SWP, the Socialist Party and others. When I pressed him after the meeting, he would give little additional information except that there would be a meeting to ‘announce’ the coalition. He appeared surprised that I would take issue with their decision to meet privately to decide on the make-up and politics of this slate.
In his presentation to the meeting he had argued that the most important thing was to get the masses out onto the streets. We also needed to campaign “door to door” with a petition to demand the seizure of the assets of developers, linked to a refusal to pay off the government debt. The bailout could be stopped and instead (when the banks go bankrupt) a good bank set up, which would distribute finance fairly. All national resources should be taken into public hands. He believed that these “sensible demands” implied revolutionary change without saying so.
Despite his assertion during his presentation that now was the time for the left to present a challenge that is both “serious and practical”, it seems to me that very little has changed. This is in essence the alternative economic strategy proposed by People before Profit, the front organisation of the SWP (www.peoplebeforeprofit.ie). It is a programme that seems leftist but is essentially national in nature. It reminds me of the demands of the Scottish Socialist Party, in particular the unfortunate call for the nationalisation of ‘our’ national resources. One SWP member in the audience went so far as to reassure us that it was of course possible to have a “little island of socialism in Ireland that would be an example for other socialists elsewhere”.
An attempt to present an Irish solution would of course dovetail in with the agenda of the Socialist Party in Ireland, well-known for its commitment to near-universal nationalisation. All the more important therefore for the debate on regroupment of the left to be had openly in front of the class.
Any concept of solving the current problem within Irish borders is simply lunacy. We need more than ever to be internationalists. Ireland is a tiny country on the edge of Europe. We simply could not survive without the solidarity of the working class internationally. We have seen socialism in one country in the travesty of Stalinism. That cannot be repeated.