Rise to the challenge
Sinn Féin might be about to join a grand coalition, but the left should not join Sinn Féin, argues Anne McShane.
We find ourselves in a truly extraordinary crisis in Ireland. The number of people infected with Covid-19 has shot up from a single case on February 19 to well over a thousand. And the real figure is far higher: there is a huge backlog in testing and now it is being cut back in order to prioritise the most vulnerable. People who were waiting more than a week for tests have now been told they will not be tested at all, as the criteria have shifted to include more serious symptoms. Health spokespeople have warned that we should expect up to 1,000 cases a day by the end of next week. The number of deaths, now edging into double figures, will inevitably surge.
Like other ruling parties in Europe, Fine Gael (FG) has been woefully inadequate to the task of protecting the population. Not only in refusing to acknowledge the possibility of the pandemic spreading here, but in failing to take the kind of steps needed to genuinely allow people to self-isolate. While teenagers have been berated for hanging out in groups, and families for using public spaces in large numbers, the vast majority of businesses have continued to operate. Workers have been lectured from on high for their selfishness in socialising, while at the same time they are expected to turn up at work as normal. Conditions in offices, shops and construction sites are abysmal - downright dangerous in fact. Those so far who have objected have been told to put up or leave. All of this, of course, is frighteningly reminiscent of the situation in Italy.
On March 24 the government announced more severe measures aimed at imposing control. Schools which had been closed on March 12 will remain shut until April 19. All ‘non-essential’ retail units are to close. Pubs will also remain shut, while all sports fixtures are cancelled and stringent restrictions have been placed on movement - only four people are allowed to be together at any one time. The army and navy have been drafted in, as the country goes into this new phase of lockdown, which taoiseach Leo Varadkar refuses to describe as such. In a dig at the chaotic flip-flops of Boris Johnson, he insists that he will be guided by science, not populism, and will take a calm, measured approach.
There is talk of a national government being formed. FG, of course, lost the recent general election, with only 35 TDs returned, as against 38 Fianna Fáil (FF) and 37 for Sinn Féin (SF), which enjoyed a massive increase in support. We thus have a deeply unpopular caretaker government, which needs to win some standing in the population. The Irish Times warns of the problems of containing social unrest if Varadkar does not swallow his pride and include SF in a national government, along with FF - something which to date he has repeatedly refused to countenance.
As previous articles in this paper have reported, the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and Solidarity (Socialist Party) have shamefully called for the formation of an SF-led government as an alternative to the status quo. PBPA has even announced its eagerness to enter such a government. Unfortunately, comrades continue to place illusions in SF as an alternative to the mainstream bourgeois parties, in circumstances where SF president Mary Lou McDonald has made it clear that she is more than willing to act in the “national interest” and enter into talks to form a national government.
In the meantime, the Irish health system has consistently ranked as one of the worst in Europe. It has been through many forms of reorganisation since the founding of the state and is beset by fragmentation and localism, with private, church-owned - and more recently corporate-owned - hospitals running in parallel with those of the state. The lack of an integrated health service has been the focus of many campaigns and government reforms - all largely unsuccessful. Many people rely on private health insurance to get the care they need. While the 2008 crash put a dent in the insurance companies’ coffers, it has remained the case that those with the ability to pay have priority.
FG’s announcement of the creation of a universal health system for those affected by the virus was therefore unprecedented. On March 24 minister for health Simon Harris stated that, for the first time in its history, “the state would take control of private hospitals for the duration of the crisis” and that “patients with the virus will be treated for free, with no distinction between public and private”. Of course, this measure raises many other questions. What if you have another illness? Are you shoved to the back of the queue or issued with an invoice to pay? GPs in Ireland charge between €55 and €70 for a visit. They are now paid by the state for all work connected with the virus. But what if someone has another viral illness - do they need to pay? In other words, are those who are ill, but do not have the virus, discriminated against? Will the private system continue to operate alongside the universal pandemic one?
The same goes for social welfare and employment schemes. On March 24 the government announced that all those who are off work because of illness or job loss will receive €350 per week pandemic payment. But what about those who are already unemployed or ill and only receive €203 a week? They have exactly the same bills and pressures. Why should they get less? And €350 per week is a paltry sum. All benefits should be set at the level needed to live, at the minimum necessary - which is €600 net per week at least.
There have been massive closures and job losses over the last two weeks, with predictions that more than 100,000 jobs will be lost by the end of the month. The government has now stepped in to try and stem the flow, with a scheme to top up employers for 70% of wages paid out, to a maximum of €410 a week. Again another unprecedented action.
Only ‘non-essential’ retail companies are to be closed. There are very serious risks for other workers and there are reports of walkouts from factories and shops in protest at the dangerous conditions. The Socialist Party has taken a lead and issued a statement calling for a “workers’ shutdown” and for workers in non-essential work to act to close their workplace immediately with no loss of pay. While undoubtedly there is tremendous sympathy with such calls, there is a real problem with the lack of unionisation and the worry that if workers do walk out they will lose their jobs and not be entitled to benefits. It is urgent that unions launch a mass recruitment drive to safeguard workers who are vulnerable. We need organisation now.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) has acted true to form in expressing solidarity with employers and the national interest. Instead of backing demands for the closure of crowded, non-essential construction sites with no loss of pay, it issued a joint call with the Construction Industry Federation (CIF) for workers to cooperate with employers in implementing government guidance on social distancing. CIF, of course, wants all sites to remain open, so its members can continue to make profits. Leading health professionals have quite rightly argued that personal safety equipment like masks should not be used in construction when health workers don’t have them.
In contrast to the ICTU’s slavish support for construction bosses, the Unite union has launched a campaign for the closure of construction sites. It has demanded also that all workers, including those who it categorised as “bogus self-employed in the construction sector”, be covered by a wage subsidy scheme proposed by the trade union movement, which would see the government pay about 75% of employees’ wages up to a cap equivalent of €40,000 per year over the coming months.
There has been no indication of closure for any of the multinational companies. Some have already laid off workers, but many continue to operate. I am personally aware of many instances of lack of social distancing and other protections - there is a real problem with lack of unionisation. Companies refuse to recognise unions, and shop stewards have difficulty convincing workers to join in circumstances where they see no benefits. It is also clear that transnationals are something that the ICTU has steered well clear of, so as not to put off any inward investment.
Health workers are, of course, the most at risk and there are many problems for them in terms of their working conditions. Public-sector workers are also under huge stress. It is clear that the present circumstances offer major opportunities for unionisation, despite the restrictions with social distancing. It remains to be seen whether these opportunities will be taken advantage of.
The question of how essential industry and services are run is crucial. The nationalisation of all of these sectors would provide the security of an integrated system, which protects both workers and users. And private employers cannot be relied upon to abide by health and safety or to pay their employees properly.
There have been a number of online meetings to launch workers’ defence groups by the left. The Socialist Party held its first on March 22, which featured leading member Ruth Coppinger. Paul Murphy TD, who resigned from the Socialist Party to form his own organisation, Rise, held a similar meeting the following evening. And PBPA held an online meeting on March 25, entitled ‘Covid19 - a 32-county approach’. Each of the above appear to have their own petitions and their own set of demands. It is fair to say that the Socialist Party has been the most leftwing and, while criticisms can be made, it is important to acknowledge the problems of trying to provide leadership in this crisis.
However, what is not justified - and indeed is to be deplored - is the fact that we seem to have at least three different leftwing campaigns. So we not only have a fractured parliamentary left, we also lack a united workers’ defence campaign. Can it really be the case that the left is focusing on recruitment to their own organisations to the detriment of building working class unity? I do not want to be pessimistic, but I am afraid that might be the case.
And, of course, we need more than united workers’ defence. We need political unity at the highest level. It is so apparent that capitalism cannot provide for the needs of the working class. Our class can organise a fightback, but this will be seriously undermined if the left takes a sectarian, ‘business as usual’ approach. Or if it places illusions in SF, which is pledged to the continuation of the capitalist system. Comrades need to remember that working class power is based on the overthrow of this system and that this needs to be an international struggle. And that all socialists need to be in the same party, arguing out our differences, as we develop our ideas and strategy. Anything less is a betrayal of our class.