On 20th October 2012 the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions organised thousands of trade union and community demonstrators in a march in Belfast for an alternative to the Westminster government's austerity policies. Speaker after speaker lambasted the policies of austerity.
For example the chair of the NI Committee of the ICTU, Pamela Dooley, explained that:
"As we approach Halloween, the nightmare is unfolding in a very public fashion. It is clear, that since the Good Friday Agreement, a massive section of our society has been living that nightmare for the past 14 years”.
"Working class women and children in our society are being driven deeper into poverty and the Government response is to attack their vital public services and the benefits system which is supporting them."
The President of ICTU, Eugene McGlone called for:
“ a fair better way of getting out of the crisis.- We also need to hold the arrogant careless criminals who so merrily bankrupted our society to account for what they did”
Peter Bunting of ICTU said
"All of us standing here today have suffered under the plague of Austerity for over two years now, two years of wages freeze and rising bills, two years of redundancies and continuing unemployment, two years of cuts to care and services, two years of misery."
“What hope is there for school leavers, for those born around the time when the peace process started and in whose name we signed up to an Agreement based on inclusion and equality?
They face either unemployment or low skilled jobs where they are undervalued and underpaid. Or worse still they face having to leave their families and their communities to seek work and a better life beyond these shores. They are fast becoming a lost generation.”
The speeches were fine, full of fiery rhetoric. Indeed the pointing out of the failures flowing from the Good Friday agreement as Pamela Dooley did was an advance as the trade union bureaucracy had been one of the foremost proponents of the GFA. 14 years on they belatedly recognise that not only did it not bring economic benefits but entrenched even deeper the sectarianism built into the state structures. But what was the way forward? Just what was the solution put forward to fight austerity? Perhaps it is best summed up in this extract:
“Let this rally today send a message to our MLAs and our MPs from all political parties that we, the people, are firmly opposed to the failed policy of austerity which destroys lives and futures.
“We demand that they stand up for the people of Northern Ireland and refuse to slavishly implement the cuts.”
This was said after the Assembly had just approved welfare cuts - cuts which target the unemployed, those in need of social housing and those with disabilities. There is absolutely no chance of those elected representatives ever standing up to the Westminster government. Oh they might tinker a little bit and say this shows the Assembly is working but the reality is they share the same world view as Westminster.
Both Unionist Parties are essentially conservative in their world view and believe in the privatisation of public facilities, public private partnerships and the out-sourcing of public service jobs. In effect this is the “theft of public property, public services, public space and public accountability”
On the nationalist side the SDLP are a reformist Party tied to the British Labour Party whose leader, Ed Miliband, threatens more pay freezes. They may protest verbally but will step in line with the austerity process. Provisional Sinn Fein has already implemented some elements of austerity in their role in the Northern administration. (Thankfully this writer saw no Sinn Fein banners on the March) but will talk a good fight against austerity. When it suits them they will veer from a rightist to a leftist position as the political wind changes.
Their opportunism knows no limits- radical on the ground among their electorate they swiftly switch to the right when on Wall Street or in the corridors of power. And as for the Alliance Party - tied to the Liberal Democrats the less said the better!
Placing your trust in politicians is not the way to fight austerity. Only the mass mobilisation of the working class can halt the implementation of austerity policies. That mobilisation needs to be continuous to be effective. Marching workers twice a year will threaten no one. Austerity is class war being waged against the working class.
The working class needs to fight back and all the weapons of mass mobilisation, including a continuous general strike, should be considered. All of us who consider ourselves on the left need to unite to stir the working classes to take direct action against the austerity programme. Would not the united action of northern workers protesting against austerity send a powerful message to our brothers and sisters in Britain and the Irish Republic?
[Originally published in The Red Plough, Vol. 3-No 9, October 201,http://theredplough.blogspot.com/]