Many people in Ireland are only too aware that some Greek protesters, at the start of last year, chanted ‘we are not Ireland, we will resist’ in response to the policies of austerity unleashed upon the population. In Ireland, the chant stung leftists and cheered ruling elites.
On the surface, something seems convincing about the claim Ireland is different. In the aftermath of the burst construction bubble, with sudden mass unemployment, savage wage cuts, a mammoth bailout of the banking sector, and the country’s economic policy under de facto control from right-wing fanatics in the EU, ECB and IMF, you would think objective conditions exist for a major radicalising of the population. And, if not now, when?
Prominent left-leaning commentator Fintan O’Toole named the ‘Negative Equity Generation’ as the ‘dog that does not bark’. Thirtysomethings who bought homes with cheap credit during the boom were spurning collective action because their consciousness had been formed by the ‘dismantling of the postwar social democratic consensus and the rise of neoliberalism’. Political independence from Britain may have been won through the collective militancy of previous generations, but these people, like their counterparts in the UK, were, O’Toole claimed, ‘Thatcher’s children’.
Thatcher gets far too much credit here. Ireland does have a ‘Property-Owning Democracy’, but its impetus wasn’t the neoliberal turn of the 1970s. Post-independence, the Republic of Ireland’s ruling elites had no need for a Mont Pelerin society. There had been no war, and no social democratic consensus either.
In Sins of The Fathers, a new study of Ireland’s economic history, historian Conor McCabe provides vivid illustrations of how Ireland’s ruling elites fostered a kind of neoliberal consciousness avant la lettre.
Not only would the promotion of home ownership save the local authorities money in the long run, it would also bring stability and good sense to a family. In 1952 the Labour Party senator, James Tunney, told a meeting of Dublin County Council (of which he was chairman) that ‘I am a firm believer in private ownership, because it makes for better citizens, and there is no greater barrier against communism.’
Ireland’s economic boom coincided with the collapse of Catholic Church influence. A popular media narrative of the boom was that sexual freedom and the free flow of capital went hand in glove, and the Church’s repressive authoritarianism, with its child sex abuse and slave labour scandals, had been conclusively discarded, now that everyone was able to buy his or her own house. But this is hardly the full picture.
The social arguments for owner-occupancy were raised once again in 1957 by the Bishop of Cork, Most Rev. Dr. Cornelius Lucey. ‘The man of property is ever against revolutionary change […]
‘Consequently a factor of the first importance in combating emigration and preventing social unrest, unemployment marches, and so on, is the widest possible diffusion of ownership.’ Dr. Lucey raised these points as he believed that ‘ownership [of property] is neither valued nor favoured among us, as it should be.’
If O’Toole’s ‘Negative Equity Generation’ is not agitating for revolutionary change, it’s not least because they have to pay off mortgages many multiples their annual salary on a dwindling income. As Bishop Cornelius Lucey approvingly recognises, this situation does not normally make one a revolutionary.
We need to avoid the temptation of dodgy psychohistory – a much-loved pastime of Irish elites, along with cosy rounds of golf and setting up offshore bank accounts. Against the idea of a unique Irish docility, what concrete resistance has there been of late?
2009 saw the biggest worker mobilisation for a generation in terms of both the number of disputes and the number of workers mobilised: roughly 15% of people in paid employment. Not bad for ‘Thatcher’s children’. These were overwhelmingly public sector workers, as the chart below shows.
In the broad ‘Industry’ category, which includes manufacturing, electricity, gas and water supply, where some 246,000 people worked in 2009, only 268 workers – 0.1%- were involved in industrial disputes. This should tell us something pretty important about the power of capital over labour in Ireland.
Now, look at 2010: in the year of the EU-IMF-ECB ‘bailout’, there were only 511 workers in the State involved in industrial disputes.
One factor shaping this apparent docility is doubtless the shock of the rise in unemployment and fall in living standards, on account of the internal devaluation programme, fostering the fear of losing one’s livelihood altogether.
But another is the deal struck by trade unions with the Government on pay and reform in the public sector, the latest manifestation of ‘social partnership’, where industry bosses, government, and the trade unions engage in negotiations, the basic premise of which is that all have a common interest, and – as the term’partnership’ implies – participate as equals.
Whatever the gains, the political effect of social partnership has been to obscure the conflict between labour and capital, and institutionalise the image of a society where everyone – financial speculator and low paid childcare worker alike – works together for the common good. The public sector – like an alcoholic or petty criminal – now has a (Labour Party) minister for ‘reform’.
Unions are then easily demonised by media outlets run by tax fugitive oligarchs, with any demand portrayed as contrary to the corporate health of Ireland Inc. This enables Ireland’s ruling elites, backed by the EU-IMF-ECB, to dismantle what threadbare social fabric there is.
Even in the middle of the crucifixion of Irish workers as an example to other European populations of what happens when they refuse to dismantle their welfare states, the ideology of social partnership is on display in the Irish Congress of Trade Union slogan for May Day that there is ‘A Better, Fairer Way‘. A better fairer way to what, precisely?
Examining the Eurozone countries hit hardest by the economic crisis, Vicenç Navarro notes that Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain have all been governed by deeply conservative forces throughout most of the 20th century, dominating the political and economic life of these countries. In Ireland’s case, the fervently anti-socialist Catholic Church held massive influence. It has largely left the scene; its authoritarian conservatism has not.
And yet for all that, there is still widespread popular sympathy in Ireland for Marxist revolutionary James Connolly’s apothegm that ‘the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland, the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour’. The idea of a different Ireland already exists.
Connolly held that ‘the struggle of Ireland for freedom is part of the worldwide upward movement of the toilers of the earth’, and that ‘the emancipation of the working class carries within it the end of all tyranny – national, political and social’.
In Ireland, the scene must be set for open confrontation – not consensus – with these conservative forces. The international character of the current crisis engineered by financial speculators and their collaborators in the EU, the IMF and ECB, and at national government level means it is therefore crucial that, pace the chant of the Greek workers, Ireland is indeed Greece, it is Spain, it is Portugal, and – once the shock of 2010 has worn off – it will resist.