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Ireland’s ‘gombeen’ government faces defeat

Ireland’s general election on Friday is in fact a crisis election where the coalition government faces a population suffering the pain of harrowing austerity politics. The result could lead to a profound crisis in the Irish state.

Frank Hayes reports

There is palpable anger expressed in most communities, rural and urban, at the savage outcomes of a Troika-imposed destruction of public resources across Ireland. Add to this the privatisation of collectively-owned natural resources, a monologue of media mistruth with a fictional narrative of “recovery” – the only campaign message of the beleaguered far right Fine Gael (FG) and “Blairite” Labour Party campaign – and you find an emerging awareness among voters. 

Some 100,000 homeless people – and their wider families and communities – have lost patience with an arrogant establishment co-ordinating Greek-style assaults on the fabric of their social being. 

This coalition ended the tradition of local authority social housing which has been a characteristic feature of the social landscape and state activity since the once all powerful Fianna Fail Party (FF) came in from the post-civil war cold in the late 1920s. 

Indeed, so-called “Civil War Politics” has seen the fulcrum of alternate power sharing between FF and FG, two socially and economically conservative parties, which have swapped governing duties, often with smaller party coalition support.

The global crash of 2007/8 hit the vulnerable open Irish economy early and hard as property bubble banking went bust, bringing down the entire local banking system with it in due course. Private debt was nationalised on Troika instructions, while public funds were used to bail out the failed profiteering shareholders.

As the Troika swept into town, they brushed aside any semblance of state sovereignty, with Irish budgets being vetted in the German parliament before they were disclosed to members of Dail Eireann.

The incumbent Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition buckled before an IMF/EU Troika bullying onslaught, imposing destructive cutbacks in health, education, housing, and undermining social welfare provision. They were effectively wiped out in the following 2011 election, with the pro-IMF Greens losing all seats and FF reduced from 71 to 20 TDs (MPs)!

The incoming coalition of FG and Labour were elected on promises to oppose and end austerity. It was not long before bombastic former Labour leader Pat Rabbitte admitted when challenged about lying, “that’s what you do at election time – we all do it”.  A previously compliant population began to learn some hard lessons.

In practice, this new coalition proved even more vicious, sacking public service employees and privatising their jobs, reducing wages, cutting community resource funding and all but eliminating local authority subventions. For the first time, a small cohort from parties of the left also won seats alongside diverse and single-issue independents.

Sinn Fein, founded in the heat of revolutionary struggles in the early 20th century, now transformed into a petty-bourgeois, nationalist and populist party, won 14 seats (+9), their TDs becoming the principal effective opposition over the last five years. In this time, the rich elite (including many TDs) have become super rich.

During the present election, all the establishment parties have directed their severest criticism towards Sinn Fein, constantly raising IRA paramilitary activities of the north of Ireland Troubles period. But the more they throw at Gerry Adams, the enigmatic SF leader, the more popular he seems to become.

Standing fifty candidates next Friday, it’s just possible they may become the biggest party as FG plummets daily in polls.  It is likely Labour will be reduced to low single figure representation, such is the hatred towards the right-of-Blair leadership of a party most trade unions have now deserted.

This adds up to a major political crisis commencing with the counting of votes on Saturday. “The count” has long been a national pastime in Ireland, but on this occasion, big changes will be inevitable. No matter what the people say, the entire old regime is crumbling, as the state established in 1922 increasingly fails to meet people’s needs while brazenly championing corporate interests.  

The political class is also terrified of an impending and very possible UK exit from the European Union. The UK is Ireland’s biggest trading partner, and Brexit would also threaten the cosy symbiotic relationship between the Dail Eireann (parliament) elite and its former colonial masters at Westminster.

Over recent years, as the recession deepened, anger has mounted, with the issue of water charges (already specifically paid for through general taxation) and other resource privatisations, spurring a widespread movement against the state. With community opposition to evictions and a national ad hoc movement against the water charge programme, most opposition parties have recently pledged to abolish the corporate “Irish Water” operation.

Right to Change
Supporters on Hill 16 display a flag protesting against water charges during
the Dublin V Mayo semi-final at Croke Park

Some left-leaning trade unions inaugurated “Right 2 Water”, a campaign which has brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets, though these protests are minimised or ignored by the private and state media. This found support across all communities, uniting deep seated opposition to what is described as the “Gombeen” government. 

The Gaelic word “gaimbin” means usury or punitive interest.  At the time of the so-called Irish Famine, the Great Hunger of the 1840’s, its Hiberno-English corruption into the word “gombeen” referred to those who profited from the starvation, death and emigration of the poor people as the population was halved from eight to four million.  

At that time, the population of the neighbouring island of Britain was not much more than eight million also, and the “famine”, actively orchestrated by the imperial ruling class of both islands, largely gave rise to the revolutionary and secular Fenian movement. 

This was the Irish part of a wave of revolt across Europe with the 1840s becoming known as The Revolutionary Decade.  Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848, and Engels went on to visit Ireland on several occasions, learning the rudiments of Gaelic in research for a planned history.

In some respects, a serendipitous symmetry may be found in the circumstances of the present crisis election. As turmoil boils across Europe, and the British state convulses over its “independence”, the Irish ruling elite have nothing to offer the people but more hardship. Their economy is in disarray, and their choice to hide behind Troika skirts has resulted in the Right 2 Water movement having to confront the legal and police institutions of the state.

This movement has now morphed into a more widely focussed action agenda and recent name change. Right 2 Change has produced a 10-point manifesto of rights, “Equality, Democracy, Justice”, asking all election candidates to support it.  This document emphatically contravenes the programme which the Troika imposes.

If, as expected (but seldom officially admitted), the old conservative block fails to secure enough seats to create a government of national unity (an unholy alliance of the old civil war elements) the writing will be on the wall for the existing “Republic”. A constitutional crisis will quickly emerge which poses the fundamental questions about who rules and for whom in stark class terms.

This set of Irish political contradictions cannot be separated from the European Union convulsions arising out of the deepening global economic crisis, with which all of the above are intimately connected. Even the micro-managed media here can no longer avoid reference to these broader factors, as the civil war duo blame each other for supposedly bringing about the death of the Irish Celtic Tiger Economy.

Growing awareness as these simple truths become more obvious, is the driving force of the anger now directed towards the old establishment.  There have been few canvassers as former and/or disillusioned party members refuse to knock on doors which open the endemic hostility towards all establishment candidates.

Inability to install a stable government will create a new set of challenges as this failed Irish economy gives rise to a failed political state. During the bust of the early 1980s, there were four crisis elections over a period of two years, before a recovering economy saved the constitution and stabilised the political apparatus. Some commentators now suggest a similar moment has commenced.

However, on this occasion, after eight years of stagnation and stagflation, there is still no emerging global recovery, nor is there any such thing in sight. Quite the opposite, a continually deepening great recession may signpost the probable end of all present arrangements in Ireland and elsewhere.

The election count will be online at an RTE site from Saturday, and for those who can access oireachtastvchannel (the Irish parliamentary channel on Virgin and Sky), a unique opportunity to watch a worthless penny dropping, live on TV. 

23 February 2016  

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