Radicalisation grows in leaps and bounds

Protests and strikes are breaking out across Ireland in response to the government's attacks, reports Anne McShane

Every section of the working class is being affected by the vicious budget announced on April 7. Income levies have been doubled and new ‘health levies’ introduced. This is on top of previous levies and existing taxation. Child benefits have been slashed and mortgage relief axed. Young people under 20 have had their social welfare halved from €200 to €100 a week. Public service workers are already shouldering a crippling pension levy. Disposable incomes of many families are now down by almost 20%.

In the face of this onslaught, the anger is palpable. The February 21 demonstration of 120,000 people struck panic into the heart of government. Fear of the masses reverberated through the corridors of power, as talk of the possible collapse of society dominated the media. Now many are ready to take to the streets again.

Unofficial strikes have begun, with the walkout this week of Dublin bus workers in defiance of an agreement negotiated between the union leaderships and employers. This led to physical confrontations on picket lines and a major offensive by the media against the drivers.

It is no wonder that workers are taking things into their own hands. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions ignored the wishes of more than 70% of their members who had voted overwhelmingly for industrial action when it called off the national strike due on March 30. The ICTU tops did so in order to insinuate themselves back into ‘social partnership’ talks with government and employers. The threatened strike was simply a lever to this end. David Begg, the general secretary, promised that ICTU input would ensure a more just and equitable ‘sharing of pain’ on April 7. That the budget was so vicious meant that his claims were completely exposed and the arguments for social partnership undermined. Workers across the country are not in any mood for it.

Many are now tremendously frustrated and disillusioned with the union leadership. The ICTU is comfortable within the cosy confines of social partnership and is apparently oblivious to the depth of hardship and antagonism outside. Begg has in fact complained that his aim of preventing industrial unrest is being hampered by continual announcements of cuts from government departments. He needs to be properly briefed if he is to be relied on to keep a lid on things.

In such an environment rank and file groups like the Bus Workers Action Group in Dublin are coming to the fore. It was this group rather than the union leadership that actually negotiated the temporary return to work of bus workers on April 28.

Joining the fray on that date were Dublin taxi drivers. A protest organised by Taxi Drivers for Change demanded an end to the issuing of new taxi licenses. As unemployment hits, there is a glut of taxis in Dublin - more even than in Manhattan. Because of this most drivers have to work a 90-hour week to make ends meet.

Other local strikes are breaking out despite the social partnership talks. Small disputes in local areas have escalated into furious confrontations. Shop workers in Cork are currently on all-out strike action over attempts by management to reverse their terms and conditions of employment.

Teachers’ conferences held over Easter voted for industrial action and also for a one-day general strike. The minister for education, Batt O’Keeffe, who attended the events, was met with hostility and walkouts.

Obviously worried that the same fate would befall him, minister of defence Dermot Ahern failed to show up at the conference of the Garda Representative Association this week. He had been invited specifically to account for massive wage cuts. Gardai are among the most severely affected of public service workers, with many wage packets down by more than €500 a month.

One of the most interesting aspects of the present crisis is the response of the armed forces. Members of the Gardai took part in the February 21 demonstration. They then held their own protest of over 3,000 on February 25. Soldiers have said they will not scab in the event of a general strike. Such protests are unprecedented in the history of the state.

Meanwhile unemployment soars, with a hike of 15,800 to 388,600 in April - in a population of just four million. The Economic and Social Research Institute has forecast that 300,000 more jobs will be lost before the end of next year. The future of Irish capitalism is bleak.

My involvement in a local campaign to prevent the closure of a community centre over the last two weeks has brought home to me the depth of feeling. Meetings and demonstrations have pushed the local council into taking emergency measures. The centre, like public-private partnerships throughout the country, is in crisis. The private management company has bailed out, complaining of lack of profit. But people are adamant that the centre is needed and should not fall victim to the laws of capitalism. The struggle has been combative and intense. It is a microcosm of the contradictions and problems at the heart of Irish society today.

It also points to the glaring need for a working class party. There have been initiatives from the left in jointly organising strike action, yet when it comes to the June local elections it is business as usual, with every group standing separately.

But the working class is becoming increasingly radicalised. If a united party with a revolutionary programme were launched now, it would surely make tremendous headway compared to, say, a year ago. There is a vacuum at the heart of society which needs to be filled urgently. Only a Communist Party will fit the bill.