No to nationalist response
There is no solution to the Irish crisis within its own borders. Anne Mc Shane calls for internationalism and solidarity
The political turmoil that is gripping Irish society is unprecedented. With the government humiliated into accepting a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund and European Union, it is collapsing under the stress of internal splits and disarray. A general election is imminent.
The heady days of the Celtic tiger are long gone - obsession with consumption and property ownership replaced by immiseration and insecurity. Working class people were encouraged to borrow large sums of money to live the dream. Now the credit bubble has exploded, they are left jobless and, increasingly, homeless. The social dislocation is intense.
Following weeks of lies, spin and pathetic attempts at cover-up, the government finally admitted what everybody knew. There will be a bail-out - of almost €100 billion - of Ireland’s financial sector. After warning us for the last two years that the consequences of not submitting to austerity measures would be a take-over by the IMF and a loss of sovereignty, the day has finally arrived. Despite protestations to the contrary by taoiseach Brian Cowen and his finance minister, Brian Lenihan, the IMF and EU are now firmly in charge of the Irish economy.
The situation has been so appalling that the arrival of the IMF seemed to some to promise relief. Recent opinion polls have shown a desperate hope for stability. But, of course, the IMF-EU package will mean even more draconian attacks. There will be very strict conditions on the refinancing of the banks, resulting in yet more pain for the working class. Ireland is to be a model of austerity for Europe. This bail-out is aimed at protecting and stabilising the euro zone and disciplining the economy - in other words, even more strict controls on spending. The future is very bleak unless our class takes effective action to defend itself.
The four-year plan which was announced by the government on November 24 makes clear just how difficult that outlook is if the government - backed, of course, by the EU and IMF - gets its way. The bail-out is contingent on the enforcement of measures by this and all future governments. It includes cutting the minimum wage by €1 an hour - meaning that somebody working a 39-hour week could receive just €298 before deductions. Rents in Ireland are on average €200 a week, so there is not a lot left over. Social welfare will also suffer another round of cuts - by 14% over the four years - with further major reductions in health and education spending. The one thing that remains stable is corporation tax - at 12% - which is the third lowest in the EU and the pride of establishment politicians. This four-year plan, coming ahead of another savage budget on December 7, will generate yet more anger and despair. The lives of the working class are utterly expendable, while low taxes for the capitalists remain untouched.
Instability has and will continue to intensify, as the outcry and disgust at the government creates splits and divisions in the ruling elite. The Fianna Fáil/Green government is already in deep crisis, with the Greens unexpectedly pulling the plug on the coalition by calling for an election in January. Cowen’s shaky leadership is evidenced in that he has been forced to agree to an election - but only after the December budget has been voted through the dáil. Enormous weight is being brought to bear by the EU and IMF, who are horrified at the possibility of even further instability for the euro resulting from the uncertainty of a general election. The budget must be passed and the government must stay in power to do it.
But despite these pressures the political collapse seems unstoppable. There is mutiny in the ranks of Fianna Fáil, with many calling for Cowen to resign. Still others are threatening to vote against the budget and demanding a general election now. The government could in fact be saved by the opposition party, Fine Gael, which - keen to show that it is a safe pair of hands for capitalism and stay onside with the IMF - has hinted that it might abstain or even vote for the budget.
The loss of economic sovereignty and the shame of the IMF intervention has been a major feature in the controversy. The media have been full of wrath at the erstwhile ‘soldiers of destiny’ of Fianna Fáil, which has sold out ‘our’ independence. This spirit of injured patriotism was reflected in the Irish Examiner on November 19 - the day after the arrival of the IMF in Dublin - with a front cover parody of the 1916 Proclamation of Ireland, decrying the desecration of the republic at the hands of greed and cronyism. The proposed loan from the British government has added to the humiliation.
But some on the left have also taken up this theme. The Communist Party of Ireland has been the most openly nationalistic - with a call for the defence of family, community and country against the IMF/EU. The CPI demands the “return of fiscal powers from Brussels to the Irish people” and the establishment of a state investment bank, linked to the “establishment of an all-Ireland economic development agency under democratic control”, with “social control of all natural and marine resources ... by the people.”
The Socialist Party has also emphasised nationalisation under the democratic control of “working people” as the solution. A recent article on the SP’s website calls for nationalisation of the banks and financial institutions and argues that we can overcome “the budget deficit by taxing the super-rich and big business, and policies that will create economic growth”. But that is simply nonsensical. Ireland is a tiny part of a world capitalist economy in deep crisis. We are completely and totally bound up with this crisis. The reason the EU/IMF are so desperate to impose a bail-out is because our insolvency is contagious and has seriously destabilised the euro - with Portugal and Spain looking like they will be the next to experience economic failure. Ireland’s economy is completely dependent on outside finance. There is absolutely no way that an Irish government of any type can solve this budget deficit, let alone create an island of socialism.
The Socialist Workers Party also argues in a similar fashion that Ireland - presumably under the leadership of the working class - can solve the current problems. In a November 22 online article it argues that “we should not despair. This is a wealthy country. The rich have €151 billion in assets and €40 billion in cash. There are over 33,000 multi-millionaires in this small country of ours. It doesn’t have to be this way.” In other words, the rich can be made to pay and we can draw on all of Ireland’s natural resources to build an alternative economy.
The problem is that these ‘schemes for socialism’ create the idea and expectation that there can be some Irish solution. They dovetail in with nationalism and create a barrier to the working class making the necessary links with other workers in Europe and beyond. It is true that the SP calls for European-wide solidarity and for a day of action across the continent. But the continued assertion that we can build a national alternative to the present crisis creates dangerous illusions in nationalism - and is a complete dead-end for the working class.
The only way we can move forward as a class in the present situation is by building our organs of struggle - and in particular by building a mass revolutionary party. We must have a programme for what the working class needs to transform itself and build its own alternative. Therefore we should, for instance, struggle for a minimum wage of €700 a week - the very least that is needed. We should also struggle for the unemployed to receive this same income - why should they be penalised because of capitalism’s crisis? Many unemployed people have mortgages for which they receive no state assistance to pay. They are facing repossession and homelessness. We need to defend them against banks and bailiffs - by asserting our needs over those of capitalism.
We also need to look to creating links with workers across Europe - and in particular in Britain. Anti-cuts committees should be formed to defend our rights and conditions and to make common cause with workers and students in Britain. George Osborne is well able to bail out his own class by offering loans to Irish banks. Instead of being peeved about such initiatives from the capitalist class we need to take our own internationalist initiatives.
There is, of course, a debate to be had about the legacy of 1916. Fianna Fáil has always presented itself as the rightful heir of James Connolly and Patrick Pearse. Now that legitimacy has been seriously undermined and may lead to the terminal decline of the party. We know, of course, that Connolly had very different views to that of Fianna Fáil. He struggled for socialism and was a brave and heroic fighter. But his socialism most certainly had its limitations. He idealised the past before the English conquest and had a very romantic view of Ireland. His legacy has implications for the left in Ireland today which we need to overcome. Above all, we need to look beyond our borders when it comes to constructing an alternative. We cannot foster any illusions in an Irish solution to the present crisis.
United Left Alliance
The formation of the United Left Alliance (ULA) has marked an important and welcome move to build unity among the left. Its public launch is to take place on Friday November 26 and it is set to stand up to 20 candidates in the general election. Some of them, like Joe Higgins and Clare Daly of the Socialist Party, could actually win seats. The expectation is that there will be a huge shift to the Labour Party in the coming election, resulting in a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. Both of these parties accept the austerity criteria in one form or another, so the struggle for the working class will most certainly continue. To have ULA TDs would be a step forward - and would bring working class politics, however insufficient and flawed, onto the floor of the dáil.
The fact that the ULA says it wants to create a “mass alternative” that goes beyond the next election is also to be welcomed. The Socialist Party emphasises this and calls for individuals to join and become active. It expresses its unhappiness at the “SWP’s view that socialist politics would put people off from voting for candidates or from getting involved in a left alliance” - the SWP refused to include a call for socialism in the programme. The result is a rightist version of the already reformist politics of the two groups, where the call is for working people to unite with unemployed, pensioners and students to “change society” - into what, we are not told. The ULA’s platform contains principled demands, including complete opposition to any cuts and to all housing repossessions. Also there is a demand for all migrants to be given the same rights as Irish workers - and a call for the unity of workers across Europe.
But it is the glue that holds these demands together that is the ultimate problem. The programme calls - unsurprisingly, given the main organisations involved - for “democratic public ownership” of banks, land and construction companies, so as “to use them for the benefit of people, not the profit of the few”. It asserts that “Ireland is not a poor country” and demands that the wealth created during the boom be put to the use of the people.
These ideas create the expectation that a ULA government will sort out Ireland’s economic problems through proper planning on the basis of need. It ignores the reality of the EU/IMF and finance capital and the fact that an isolated Irish socialist republic would have absolutely no chance of survival in a world dominated by capitalism. That is certainly what history teaches.
- CPI newsletter, November 19.