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Ireland on the March

Tens of thousands of Irish public sector workers are due to stage a one-day strike on November 24 against the pay cuts and the social impact of the government’s plans for massive spending cuts as a result of the global economic and financial crisis which brought an abrupt end to the Celtic Tiger boom. Fiona Harrington reports.

Trade union anger is mounting against the Irish government as it insists on slashing £3.6 billion from next year’s budget and the call for a one-day strike on November 24 is expected to receive a big response from teachers, health workers, civil servants and local authority workers.
 
Close to 100,000 people took to the streets across Ireland on November 6 in militant and bitter protest against government cuts to wages, welfare and public spending. These come on top of previous draconian cuts and tax levies on all payments, including benefits and pensions, have tried people's patience to breaking point.

In a day which saw 60,000 people marching in Dublin, about 15,000-20,000 in Cork, the next largest city, 6,000 in Galway and thousands more in Waterford, Limerick, Dundalk and other towns, workers from the public and private sectors, the unionised and those not in unions, the retired and even a contingent of police, all united in common cause. Many among the ranks of the unemployed also took part. Unemployment is currently at 13% and rising.

Furthermore thousands more people took to the streets in Belfast in solidarity. They had their own grievances too as all parties in the Stormont Assembly have united in piling pressure on workers there. One thing is certain if parties in Northern Ireland agree on little else, when it comes to imposing punitive measures on an already hard-pressed population they can come together in almost admirable unity!

The catalyst for this latest mass protest and also the call for a national strike of public service workers on the November 24, was a set of recommendations by the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes set up by the government in 2008 to advise on expenditure cuts and savings. The group, chaired by economist Colm McCarthy, reported on its recommendations in July of this year. This board, committee, or group, however you define it, is (un)popularly known as “An Bord Snip” (The Snip Board). Peculiarly, the media and indeed all of  “official” Ireland now also commonly refer to it as “An Bord Snip”. Truly irony and satire really must be dead, or co-opted! 

The range of cutbacks advised are nothing less than horrifying as the merest glance at the report reveals. It is not only heartless, for major savings must apparently be made in the areas of health, education and social welfare, but also philistine since it recommends that the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs be shut down and sees no particular need either for the Department of Arts, Sports and Tourism. (Gaeltacht areas are parts of the country, mainly rural, where Irish is still spoken as the first language of the people.) Even the Irish Film Board should be closed down it says. So no arts, no sports, no distinctive language and culture, less education and healthcare unless you can pay for them, many fewer “wasteful” public sector jobs.

Overall the report proposes a €5.3 billion package of cuts to be effected by slashing 17,000 public sector jobs, slicing €1.8 billion off the social welfare budget and many other mean-spirited measures. These sorts of spending cuts would not be insubstantial in a country with a much larger population but there is only a population of about four and half million in the Republic.

The Irish Socialist Network in the latest edition of its quarterly paper Resistance described the report from An Bord Snip and another almost equally savage set of recommendations from another “think-tank” the Commission on Taxation, as “essentially tarted-up versions of the austerity measures imposed on the people in the 1980s and early 1990s – only the cuts now proposed are much deeper in scope.”

 “We won't stand for it, we've had enough” declared the people and so up they got and out they went into that wet and windy November afternoon to say so. The November 6 mass protest formed part of an overall Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) organised “Get Up, Stand Up” campaign. As a part of that there was also another smaller day of protest on the following Wednesday. There is overwhelming support for a strike on the 24th, with ballots showing 80% support in very high turn-outs. The ICTU called off protests earlier this year but a turnabout this time could be genuinely self-destructive one would think.

It is not only An Bord Snip that has aroused the ire of the populace. Another contemptible government initiative known as NAMA, which stands for National Asset Management Agency, was formed for the sole purpose of rescuing the banks and finance houses. NAMA is essentially a bail-out operation which is to receive a generous €54 billion from the government in order to undertake this selfless rescue work. The government is in turn borrowing this money and the massive interest payments on it will of course be met by the taxpayer over the course of the next decade at a cost of  €2 billion per year. 

There has been heavy criticism of the government's policies and NAMA in particular from none other than Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank and winner of the Nobel Prize for economics. Speaking at Trinity College Dublin in October he said:

“Countries which allow banks to go under by following the ordinary rules of capitalism have done fine. The US has let 100 banks go this year alone, as did Sweden and Norway in their crises." He described the bail-outs as “a simple transfer from taxpayers to bondholders, and it will saddle generations to come”. Stiglitz added: “The only thing that might give you solace is that, as chief economist of the World Bank, we see this type of thing happening in banana republics all over the world. Whenever a banking crisis happens, the financial sector uses the turmoil as a mechanism to transfer wealth from the general population to themselves. I’ve been very disappointed to see that it has happened, not only in banana republics, but in advanced industrialised countries."

If the government had abided by the “right sort of capitalism” things would be only moderately miserable I suppose. But applying this kind of completely unregulated, turbo-capitalism things are or will become totally miserable! He's correct actually because even if one doesn't see any variety of capitalism as a good thing there are bad and less bad versions of it, although we don't see the US doing just fine despite letting 100 of its banks go.

More radically the Workers Solidarity Movement see NAMA and the capitalist system in this light (or dark):

“NAMA will dump all the losses of the speculators on the shoulders of society in general – in other words on the shoulders of ordinary workers. We’ll be paying the price for generations. The toxic assets will be taken into ‘public ownership’ with something between €30billion and €60billion of our money (or maybe even more). Being the clever businessman that he is, Brian Lenihan [Finance Minister] is going to pay a ‘projected market value’ for these loans. In other words he’s going to re-commence the gamble, he’s going to pay what he hopes the property involved will be worth at some unspecified time in the future.

“To justify this he and his so-called ‘experts’ claim that the property price dip has
bottomed out and that prices will soon begin to rise again. If that’s the case, however, why aren’t all the clever ‘entrepreneurial’ capitalist businessmen queuing up to buy all this cheap property? Perhaps because they know what everyone knows – the toxic assets are more toxic than asset and are probably worth nothing either now or in the future.”

On top of all this there are the notorious levies on all payments from wages and salaries, to pensions and welfare, introduced last year and borne by everyone rich and poor at exactly the same rate of 2%  However those earning over €100,000 per annum will be saddled with a 3% levy and the really super-rich may have to go out and beg in order to pay their share of four per cent! This means that those on low incomes will be paying proportionally more than those at the highest end of the scale. As if that weren't enough punishment there are to be no social welfare bonus payments this Christmas.

During the Celtic Tiger years when times were good and Ireland went from rags to riches in such spectacular fashion that economists were pointing to the country as a model of how things should be done, far too many people incurred huge debts, so that now when the place has, Cinderella like, found itself in rags again they are struggling to meet repayments, or just plain broke and bankrupt.

A major charity the Saint Vincent de Paul society is overwhelmed trying to meet demands on its services. People who never thought they would have to rely on charity for their most basic needs are having to swallow their pride and ask for help.

The Celtic Tiger years now being but a faint, fond memory there is much self-criticism for the way in which people spent with little thought of possible consequences, much self-blame for the level of consumption during the “mad” years. Credit was easy to obtain, mortgages were handed out with little investigation into people's ability to repay. Property prices were ridiculously high but at the same time this new found prosperity was built on very shallow and shaky foundations.

It couldn't last said people with memories of previous recessions and lean times and they were right, but by and large nobody really wanted to think that it could come to an end. The speed at which the economy unravelled took most by surprise; traumatised is probably not too strong a description of how people felt. They're getting used to it now and are variously stoical, wary, or increasingly militant and they are looking for ways to climb back and they are looking also for leadership. But are the union bosses the right ones to offer it?

When you consider that ICTU general secretary David Begg has proposed that the answer lies in “more gentle adjustments over a longer period” it doesn't look too hopeful. He along with well-heeled business people and politicians keep repeating the mantra of “we're all in this together” and “sharing the pain” all pain being equal presumably.

What are the left doing? Having meetings of course and trying to forge partnerships of a different kind. On the November 7 one such meeting took place between members of the Irish Socialist Network, a representative of the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement and the Independent Workers Union as well as supporters from France and Chile. It was well attended and the prospect of left unity was discussed. A similar type of meeting took place back in September to discuss a working-class response to NAMA which involved the Irish Socialist Network again along with Socialist Democracy, the International Bolshevik Tendency and Workers Power. Whether any or all of these varying groups can temporarily become bedfellows, even uneasy ones, remains to be seen. The two main parties of the left, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party were not involved.

There is certainly potential for a lot of interesting things to happen in Ireland now if people can keep their nerve in the face of possible ICTU obstructionism and unite. Real unity between public and private workers, migrant workers, and the unemployed and retired would be a great start and would demonstrate that people are no longer willing to be divided and ruled as has been the case. It is said for example that a public sector worker if asked what it was he did would sooner claim a criminal record than admit his true occupation to someone in the private sector! That is no joke but demonstrates the level of animosity between them. That seems to be dying now as recognition grows that as far as the working class is concerned they really are all in it together, and they're certainly not intending to “share the pain” with the rulers and the bosses.

Ireland was never an equitable country even during the boom years, very many people were left behind and never experienced the prosperity that was supposed to be everyone's lot. There was an awful lot of lining of pockets and too little regard for the public fabric, public infrastructure or the provision of proper public services. Profit was king. Now it's payback time but the workers, whether actually working or not and the pensioners and those depending on welfare, are angry and increasingly determined that they won't be the ones to be fleeced this time.

There is strong support for the November 26 strike next week. Even ordinary servicemen and women have declared that they will not act as scabs if required in the event of a national strike. After that the determination to take things further will be heightened and the potential for substantial and positive change greatly strengthened. It will be an encouraging beginning at least and provide a firm foundation on which to build.

20/11/2009

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