Turmoil, Floods and crisis: Ireland in 2009

The last year has marked a huge turning point in the Irish economy and most importantly a huge shift in the relations between the classes in Ireland. While the Celtic Tiger had been on life support for a while, 2009 saw a huge crisis that has had massive economic consequences and political change that will play out for a whole period. This year represented a shift from one historical period to another; a whole new perspective has opened up for Irish society, not just in the 26 counties, but increasingly across the whole island as the impact of the capitalist crisis begins to be felt to its full extent in the north.

Photo by jaqian on flickrThe so called “credit crunch” represents a huge crisis of capitalism across the whole of the world, but it has been most keenly felt in the smaller and weaker economies, which are tied into the world market and are dragged down by the coat tails of the likes of the US and the major European powers. When things were going well in the world then Ireland felt the benefits of being part of the EU on the one hand and benefitted from inward investment from US and British companies keen to have a toe hold inside the euro zone. The economy boomed, emigration was reversed, meaning there were more people, more jobs and a big demand for housing. The success of the Irish economy also benefitted the north, although the 6 counties are still massively dependent on the subvention from the British state.

But once the economy went into freefall, the Irish economy was rapidly exposed as a small trade dependent economy prone to a range of problems. Ireland’s economy is small, we are a long way from the rest of the euro zone, the cost of transport and reliance on exports means that when trade collapsed after the crash Ireland was affected severely. Likewise, the big drop in the value of the £ sterling meant that the cost of goods and services relative to the north rose rapidly. The outcome of this has been to choke off demand from shoppers and companies north of the border and at the same time hundreds of thousands of people have started travelling over the border to do their shopping – particularly to Newry.

The impact of the slump was sudden, property developers and building companies involved in speculative building were left high and dry when the banks called in their debts, while many companies dependent on exports, the likes of Waterford Crystal for example went into liquidation. The effect of these closures and all the short time working has been dramatic and has been much worse than the headline figures would suggest. Take Waterford for example, 300,000 visitors every year went to the Crystal factory. The effect of the closure will be felt far beyond the factory itself. No wonder the population of Waterford were so determined to support the occupation of the plant. Unemployment stands at almost 450,000, its no wonder that emigration has started again.

As you might imagine, as soon as there was wind of an economic crash the bosses started to demand that the working class picked up the tab. There was a huge wave of pay cuts in the private sector and throughout the year there’s been a huge clamour from the rich and powerful for attacks on the public sector workers. The press has led the way in this with blatant attempts to try and create artificial divisions between public and private sector workers. What they don’t acknowledge is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of families where one partner works for the council and the other works in a local company. Or one might be a teacher and one might work in a shop. The public and private sector workers are not two separate species, on the contrary they are one class and they have the same interests. The bosses know that they would be powerless in the face of a united workers movement and they are desperate to sow confusion and division. That is the basis of the slogan “The workers united will never be defeated”, 2009 made that very clear in Ireland.

The effect of the government’s assault on worker’s living standards has been dramatic. Not only was there a vicious budget in 2008, but then there was the April emergency “slash and burn budget” midway through the year and now we have had the wage cuts budget. On top of all that we have the An Bord Snip report and the Nama legislation – to bail out the speculators. It would seem that in 2009 the government has been spending all its time bailing out the rich and pouring the pressure and the cost of the crisis onto the workers. No doubt the Brians, Lenihan and Cowen would argue that they were only after stabilising the economy and dealing with the budget deficit in the only way that they can. But the truth of the matter is that hundreds of thousands of workers saw right through that in 2009.

As we have pointed out on several occasions during the course of the year, the Irish working class was immensely strengthened throughout the Celtic Tiger years. Employment rose at a faster rate than the population increased (as people came home) and the economy doubled in size. The working class was bigger and although the percentage of workers in trade unions fell, the total numbers increased significantly. There were some gains made during that time, when the bosses could give some small reforms and the profits were rolling in. But, it’s not so easy to turn the clock back in the real world. The Irish working class gained in the boom years, we have a lot more to lose now than we had in the past and the response to the assault from the government has been dramatic.

While history will record the big demonstrations in February and November and the public sector strike on November 24th, there have been a large number of disputes throughout the year, Waterford Crystal was occupied for months, the workers had no choice their backs were up against the wall. This occupation had a direct effect in the north where under similar conditions the Belfast Visteon plant was occupied, sparking occupations at Visteon plants in Britain. Thomas Cook workers occupied the office in Grafton Street, before being arrested and jailed when the Gards turned up at 6am in the morning. Dublin Docks were on strike, the bus workers, civil servants, bin workers and Galway council workers as well as the Electricians who fought the attempt of sections of the electrical contractors to tear up the REA.

But the 200,000 strong demonstration against the levy in February illustrated the extent of opposition among the working class, the success of that demonstration should have been followed up by a one day public strike on the 30th March, but at the last moment the trade union leaders pulled the plug in favour of talks with the Fianna Fáil ministers. The talks dragged on and on and then some more. There was no progress and no shift in government policy. But why were the trade union leaders surprised at that? “Social Partnership” was the line of least resistance in the boom years. But now things have completely changed. Any agreement that could be cobbled together under these conditions would have more holes in it than a Swiss cheese. We explained this throughout the whole of the year. But still, even at the last moment just before the budget in December where Lenihan was after €1.3 billion in public sector wage cuts the leadership of ICTU were standing outside the tomb of social partnership shouting after Lazarus to come and join them.

The depth of the crisis has had a huge impact politically with the FF/ Green Coalition in serious trouble in the polls. This was illustrated dramatically in the county council and Euro elections where Fine Gael the Labour Party made big gains. The shift to the left among the working class was most dramatic in the Dublin Area, where the left took control of three of the county councils and Joe Higgins was elected as an MEP – although well behind the Labour candidate. Since June, the situation has only got worse for Cowen and Lenihan, with their standing in the polls reaching rock bottom. The effect of their trying to implement cuts in the HSE was two defections from Sligo/Leitrim TDs formally cutting their majority in the Dáil to zero. It’s most likely that they will hang on in power for at least the short term, as although Christmas is coming the turkeys are reluctant to vote themselves into oblivion. Likewise the Greens who wrestled with their programme of government with FF. They decided to ditch their principles to stay in office, rather than force a general election where as the county council elections demonstrated they would have been slaughtered. However accidental factors can have an impact and any by elections would be very hard battles for the FF. In fact it seems that they have taken the view that they might as well be hung for a sheep as a goat and have embarked on a no holds barred attack on the workers. They have in practice got nothing left to lose, despite the suggestion from one of the dissident FF TDs that they ought to cut and run in a snap election as there are “thoroughbreds on the government benches”, thoroughbred donkeys maybe.

The Lisbon Treaty referendum should have provided an opportunity for the government to achieve some sort of stability at least politically, but as soon as the vote was over – and did the bourgeois not pull out all the stops to reverse the result of the first vote? – normal service was resumed. Cowen’s days are numbered, essentially the FF/ Green Coalition are a lame duck government, or a lame duck with wilted greens as we said at the time.

All the while, Eamon Gilmore has been attempting to stay in with his Fine Gael friends while trying to appear sympathetic to the pressure from the working class. But, even though he was forced to support the temporary nationalisation of the banks, he has fallen far short of giving unequivocal support to the public sector workers. On the other hand he has been attempting to “modernise” the party. It appears that his apparent personal standing in the polls and the prospect of big gains at a future election have given him a following within sections of the party, but there is growing pressure which will be expressed within the ranks of the party at a certain stage. The fact that the Fine Gael have been tacking further to the right – reflecting their class base means that any Fine Gael/Labour Coalition would come under huge pressures from the working class and the bosses.

The chances are that a Fine Gael/ Labour Coalition will come into power amidst an ongoing financial crisis. The contradictory pressures on the government will mean that the Labour ministers would come under increasing pressure and there would be demands to break the coalition. We are quite clear; Labour should fight for a majority in the Dáil. There should be no coalition with the bosses parties.

2009 revealed the class nature of Irish society in stark terms. But it also revealed the deep crisis at the heart of the Catholic Church. The Ryan and Murphy reports illustrate the extent to which the church and the state apparatus hid and colluded with known paedophile clergy. The extent of the revelations illustrates the rottenness of Irish Capitalist society and the state itself. The gulf between the public face and the private reality of one of Ireland’s central institutions is huge and the implications of these reports will ring in their ears for decades.

All in all it’s been a stormy year economic turmoil, floods and political meltdown south of the border. But there has also a developing crisis in the north. Stormont is at an impasse and there has been a small resurgence of the armed struggle. This reflects the political cul-de-sac in the north with SF and the DUP administering what is essentially a county council with knobs on. At the time of the original Good Friday Agreement, we explained that despite the war weariness and the failure of the armed struggle, the same underlying social and economic conditions pertained. Sooner or later, the contradictions in the SF position would become apparent. Far from offering a socialist solution to the problems of working class Catholics, SF have been forced into a sectarian blind alley. The CIRA and RIRA attacks earlier this year generated widespread opposition, and it is unlikely that they have sufficient support to be more than an irritant to the British. However lack of progress politically has resulted in a crisis within SF leading to a number of councillors defecting on either side of the border. Likewise, the DUP has suffered splits with the development of Traditional Unionist Voice, and the Official Unionists are now even more closely tied in to the British Tories than ever before. All of the parties are affected by the political impasse.

The crisis within SF reflects also the economic crisis which has now struck the north with a vengeance. It is likely that the north will see some big industrial battles as the cuts begin to bite. It is significant however that the IRSP have taken the decision to base themselves exclusively on a political programme and end the armed struggle, it is yet more significant that sections of the IRSP are looking towards revolutionary Marxism as an alternative to a reformist programme or the narrow petit bourgeois nationalism with socialist window dressing of SF. The north is at the crossroads, all of the old pressures are building up, but there is a huge vacuum. Workers, whether Catholic or Protestant are facing hard times, neither SF nor the DUP can solve their problems. Only a mass socialist alternative, uniting Catholic and Protestant workers on a class basis can offer a way out of the impasse.

2009 is drawing to an end, but it’s unlikely that there will be much time for peace and tranquillity next year. Ten of thousands of families will go short this Christmas and many thousands more will be worrying about the future. The ongoing capitalist crisis and the political crisis in Ireland that has resulted in unparalleled austerity measures being piled onto the working class mean that workers have little option but to struggle to defend themselves and their families. If anything the mood has become harder during the year, the votes in favour of the public sector strike on 24th November were enormous, weighing in at 80 - 90% in favour in most unions. The strike was solid, but again the ICTU leaders sought the line of least resistance. They sought further talks even offering 2 weeks of unpaid leave. The government immediately turned this down apparently on the back of great opposition from the FF back benches. The truth is that the FF backbenchers represent the worst representative of the petit bourgeois in Ireland. For sure the events of early December represent a quickening of the pace and an escalation of the situation. The next period will see big struggles and battles in the 26 counties.

Doubtless many active workers will be concerned at the lack of leadership from the likes of Eamon Gilmore and the ICTU leaders. A minority will be looking towards the ideas of socialism and Marxism to provide a solution. We will play our small role at this stage, attempting to analyse events from a Marxist viewpoint and laying the basis for a genuine Marxist tendency throughout the whole island of Ireland.

23 December 2009

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