Ireland: Class struggle on the agenda

The situation in Ireland is changing very fast. After almost 10 years of economic boom (the "Celtic Tiger") the whole of the economy is in recession. In October unemployment rose by 5, 000. Aer Lingus has sacked 2, 000 workers, Nortel 265, RTE 160, Irish Times 250, FLS Aerospace 200, AFL 300, Tara Mines 700. The list is endless, and that is just in the third month of the recession. The Department of Trade and Enterprise has announced a 42% increase in redundancies for the year so far (the biggest increase since the beginning of the "Celtic Tiger" myth). Some analysts reckon that 20,000 jobs in the construction industry and 20,000 in tourism will be lost in the next 12 months.

In the last year (during the boom) we saw a teachers' strike, a cab drivers strike and a movement of the secondary school students. Now, once the recession has started, an increase in the class struggle is on the agenda: Fire-fighters are talking about industrial action over health and safety issues and the teachers have been told that they may have a longer school year tied to their pay increase, with last year's mobilisation in mind, that could lead to another strike.

At the moment there is a campaign against a new tax (Bin Tax). In Dublin thanks to the Labour Party this new tax was imposed, but there was a split in the local Labour Group on Dublin Council over this issue, which is going to have an effect in the coming General election. Some voices on the left are asking how a party which claims to be defending the interests of the working people can vote for such a law. These voices are going to increase in the near future due a pressure from the rank and file of the party, and a big change in the labour movement is a perspective that is on the cards.

But the bosses in Ireland seem to be living on another island. In a recent survey among the top 1000 managers, they said: that despite the downturn, the overwhelming majority remain optimistic that the economy will expand in 2002. On the overall economic outlook, 74 per cent of respondents expected growth of up to 3 per cent, while 21 per cent expected growth of 4-6 per cent Only 5 per cent of respondents expected it to contract. However, one third of respondents reduced staff numbers during 2001, and half expected further reductions next year. (Irish times 3/12/01).

This great expectations of sweet times to come clash with the sad reality. The Irish economy slowed sharply in the second quarter, with annualised gross national product growth collapsing from 11 per cent in the first quarter to 1.6 per cent, according to figures released by Central Statistics Office. (Financial Times 2/12/01). And this slowdown in the economy was taking place before the attacks to the World Trade Centre. Obviously the recession that is hurting the American economy is going to have an even bigger impact in the Irish economy, which has become so dependant upon the American giant in the last decade.

Once and for all, reality is going to prove that the "success" of the Irish economy was not an isolated case of good implementation of IMF and World Bank recipes, but a case squeezing the Irish working class and the collusion of the bosses with the Trade Union leaders. In may 2001 the Marxists declared: "The real cause of the Irish boom is to be found in the world market and, in particular, in the US expansion which has kept the entire world economy afloat and dragged Ireland along in its wake". How true these words sound now, when the sick American economy is dragging every other economy into a recession - if not a depression!

Another interesting statistic shows the real character of the boom and the real interests of the American capitalist class in relation to Ireland: Gross domestic product, which includes the earnings of foreign-owned companies, fell less dramatically from 12.7 per cent to 9.2 per cent. The large disparity reflects the level of profit and dividend repatriation by US and other multinationals.

In spite of the propaganda of the "Celtic Tiger" and the fifteen years of continuous economic growth, the working class will be involved again and again in bitter struggles to defend their interests. The honeymoon between the trade union leadership and the capitalist class has finished, not because they wish it, but because of the nature of the new epoch into which we are entering. Actually, some capitalists have already grasped this fact. One of the Directors of the IBEC (Irish bosses organisation) has said: "If we don't get what we're looking for, we would have to raise questions about the future of another Partnership Agreement" (Irish Independent 3/12/01). What a crystal-clear statement of the intentions of these people!

The Government's analysis of the economic situation is more or less the same. The Cabinet thinks that the slowdown is not going to have a real effect on the economy. The budget for Ireland in 2002 shows the kind of mentality of these people. "Charlie McCreevy, the finance minister, was yesterday able to forecast a general government surplus of Euros 837m, 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, for 2002 in spite of the current slowdown, and without having to resort to borrowing". (FT, 6/12/01). The same song is being sung in Britain where Gordon Brown has just introduced his Alice in Wonderland budget.

The anti-war movement

Like everywhere else the effects of Sept. 11th have had an impact in the consciousness of the masses in Ireland. The immediate effects in Ireland were more linked to the economy than the war, especially compared with Britain, where there was the biggest demonstration in 10 years against the bombing in Afghanistan. In Dublin in November there was a demo against the war with about 3, 000 people called by the anti-war movement. The second demo was a bit smaller, around 2, 500 people.

The leadership of the Irish Labour Party is not supporting the movement - using the old excuse of "traditional Irish neutrality." Despite this, the American airforce is using Irish air bases and the Government is very keen on collaboration with the American imperialists.

The mood on the demo was very militant, with very young people participating (probably their first contact with politics). Unfortunately, a class based analysis was almost absent. As in Britain the leadership of the movement is just pushing the slogan: Stop the War!. without explaining the character of the war or posing any solution for the masses. Here one can find the most weird and wonderful positions, which hold no attraction for working people. But needless to say, the perspective of socialism and word revolution never occurs to them.

The anti-war movement in Ireland, as everywhere else, is an indication of the mood among certain layers of the population, just as the anti-globalisation movement was an indication of the real feelings of an important section of the youth and also a layer of trade union activists. In the Irish case, it is not only the Anti-war movement, but also the result in the Nice Treaty Referendum that shows that the masses are not happy with the general situation.

As in almost every country in the developed world the masses show little interest in the professional politicians at the moment, especially in the working class areas. The turnout in the referendum was very low, as well as the election for the President. The coming General Election in Ireland will have to elect a Government in the middle of an economic crisis. Whoever wins, it will probably be on a very low turnout. On past experience, at least, they will talk about economic growth and push the old propaganda about the future and the benefits of Social Partnership. But the time for such music is long past.

The main problem for the Irish working class is the lack of a class alternative. The trade union leadership has long ago abandoned the revolutionary traditions of the Irish working class, forgetting the methods and ideas of the great revolutionary leaders James Larkin and James Connolly. They have been trying to reconcile the interests of the bosses and the workers - that is, to square the circle. The tough reality is that the working people of Ireland have not seen a real improvement in their lives. instead, they have seen rent increases, longer shifts, a worse education system, and so on.

The solution of the Irish problems starts the establishment of a real revolutionary Marxist tendency in the traditions of Larkin and Connolly, which defends a policy of complete class independence, and stands for the socialist transformation of society and a 32-counties Irish workers' republic as the only way of tackling the problems of the working people. This would be a giant step to achieving the socialist united states of Europe and a world socialist federation.

Brian Conlon

December 2001