The huge scale of opposition throughout Ireland to government cuts was made crystal clear on November 6. Despite poor organisation by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions nearly 100,000 marched in protest in major towns and cities.
New forces were very much in evidence, as non-unionised workers, the unemployed and pensioners joined trade unionists in protests against the draconian attacks on pay, benefits and public services - to be intensified with the December 9 budget. Many middle class people are also up in arms against the government’s determination to make them too pay the billions needed to underwrite the National Asset Management Agency - its bail-out of finance capital.
The demonstrations were part of the ICTU-organised ‘Get up, stand up’ campaign. Another march took place on Wednesday November 11 and a national strike is planned for November 24. Ballots for strike action have received overwhelming support - with over 80% ‘yes’ votes received on turnouts of more than 70%. The mandate for action is unquestionable. So is the militancy. Public service workers are at the forefront of the dispute, being the most highly unionised and also being a central target of government cuts.
The 24/7 Frontline Alliance was formed in September to mount a united fightback and includes nurses, paramedics, firefighters and gardai (police). It also included servicemen and women until minister for defence Willie O’Dea warned them to withdrawal immediately. But defiantly soldiers have warned that they will not scab on any national strike. The alliance organised a militant demo of over 4,000 on November 11, with gardai marching in baseball caps displaying the official police insignia, as they were not allowed to wear their uniform. Angry speakers insisted on defiance of the government and assured marchers that no further cuts would be tolerated.
The raw material is certainly there for a major social movement. The depth of the crisis cannot be understated. Unemployment has now risen to 13% and many still in work are also in big difficulty, as wage cuts mean that mortgages and other debts cannot be paid. Public sector workers are facing job losses of between 7% and 15%, while social welfare, including child benefits, is also for the chop. Already charities like St Vincent de Paul have said they are unable to cope with the huge rise in demand for help. Many people have gone from being charity-givers to depending on handouts themselves.
The scale of the problem is immense. During the Celtic Tiger years people were actively encouraged to go into major debt. Housing prices were astronomically high, but credit was easy. Banks would phone mortgage holders enticing them to borrow still more - for a second house, a holiday of a lifetime, a new car: the sky’s the limit; you could have it all. Many were already living way beyond their means before the current recession hit. Now they are drowning in debt.
Unfortunately the problem remains lack of leadership. ICTU is not serious about fighting the cuts. More than that, it is actively undermining the militancy of those prepared to fight. It has a 10-point programme which openly accepts the need for “pain”. But rather than short, sharp shock treatment, general secretary David Begg proposes a “more gentle adjustment over a longer period”.
ICTU is therefore using its members’ militancy to pressurise the government into accepting a programme that is directly counterposed to the interests and the wishes of its members. Desperate to uphold ‘social partnership’, ICTU remains in talks with government about how best to cut €1.3 billion from public sector wages. This is despite the militant speeches of individual trade union leaders. Begg has promised that the strikes and protests can be avoided if agreement is reached on minimising the pain. Conflicting messages are being sent out and there are splits and divisions between unions.
Meanwhile the Irish government is hell-bent on squeezing the working class. Social welfare and pensions as well as wages will be slashed in the December budget. And now that union leaders are indicating their acceptance of some cuts, taoiseach Brian Cowan is upping the pressure even further. He has promised that the €4 billion-worth of savings to be made in the budget is only the beginning. Much more ‘sacrifice’ will be needed. By participating in the drive to save Irish capitalism, the ICTU leadership is shamelessly selling out the working class. An urgent challenge to this complicity is needed.
So the left has a major challenge to face. Although talk continues of electoral unity (or a non-aggression pact at any rate) between the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party’s People before Profit, nothing tangible has emerged. The SWP is calling for committees of action to be set up by public sector workers in the run-up to the November 24 strike. The Socialist Party has called on ICTU to turn it into a general strike. Meanwhile both groups continue to run their own separate campaigns.
A meeting on November 7 organised by the Irish Socialist Network and the magazine Fourthwrite to discuss left unity reflected both the possibilities and problems facing the left. Addressed by a number of speakers, including Chekhov Feeney of the Workers Solidarity Movement and Tommy McKearney of the Independent Workers Union. One of the sessions was chaired by Mick O’Reilly, former Irish regional secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union. There were also contributions from Murray Smith of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France and José Antonio Gutierrez, a Chilean activist.
The meeting heard about the crisis at the heart of global capitalism, whose effects are being felt particularly deeply in Ireland. From the floor comrades spoke of the frustration of forever fighting a losing battle against cuts. There was recognition of the potential. More than 50 people were present, from different traditions, including anarchists, republicans, Labour members and Marxists. There were obviously enormous differences and a lot of confusion. But all were there to discuss left unity and there was an expectation that a further initiative would be taken. However, none was, although it was called for from the floor. Mick O’Reilly said it would be “up to the organisers of the meeting”. Perhaps the discussions are being held behind closed doors and we will all be enlightened later.
It is not clear as to whether any invite went out to the SPI and the SWP to attend. Certainly any initiative around unity must try to involve these two left organisations. The need for a mass workers’ party based on Marxism received minority support. None at all from the platform speakers. Although the need to challenge social partnership was raised by members of Socialist Democracy (a group that originated in the northern-based Peoples Democracy and is now part of the Fourth International).
Hopefully this meeting is a spark for something more ambitious. Meanwhile those of us committed to the formation of a single revolutionary party will raise the need for it whenever we can. It is the only serious answer for a working class desperate for change. Workers can see with their own eyes that capitalism has failed. What they need now is inspiration, ideas and, above all, organisation.