Have you ever wondered why the Fine Gael government, supported by its Fianna Fáil bedfellows, decided to publish the budget a few short days before it was expected that Britain would leave the European Union?
Let’s face it, who in Dublin could have anticipated the mess Boris Johnson created for himself?
If, as we were constantly being told, Brexit would have a profound impact on the Irish economy, why not wait until after 31 October and take those important decisions in the light of concrete facts? Surely a few weeks couldn’t make a huge difference if the outcome were to be neutral as regards the budget. Alternatively, if adjustments were required, applying specific measures to specific needs would appear to be the obvious course of action.
Instead of waiting for clarification, what we heard from Leinster House was a mixture of caution and coercion, with the minister for finance, Paschal Donohoe, blethering on about financial prudence while the minister for employment affairs and social protection, Regina Doherty, threatens to launch a full-scale investigation into 750,000 recipients of social welfare payments.
While there was no indication of any intention to increase—or, in some cases, hardly even to impose—corporation tax, apparently there is to be no letting up on austerity for the less well off. This, believe it or not, is at odds with the current thinking of the EU Central Bank.
Over the past decade, Western market economies defied the old Keynesian logic of counter-cyclical spending to avert recession. When neo-liberal certainties crumbled after the economic crash of 2008, governments in the United States and Europe employed a combination of monetary measures, to provide bankers with cheap money, and the imposing of harsh “austerity” policies on working-class communities.
Now, however, as another recession looms ever closer, these governments will be forced to search for different options. In reality there is little left to squeeze from working people; and interest rates can hardly fall further. Therefore some of the more hard-line neo-liberal finance ministries in the EU have indicated a different approach in response to a call from the ECB to alter their fiscal regulations. The Dutch, in particular, have promised a more expansionary package, relaxing spending curbs and planning infrastructural investment. Clearly this will only be a temporary interruption to the EU’s default neo-liberal position, but it is significant nevertheless.
So what of the Republic? Having obediently adhered to the orthodoxy as dictated by Brussels since 2010, it would appear strange, on the surface at least, that the Dublin government is not now following suit. We might well ask why. After all, there is no shortage of essential projects crying out for investment: a major house-building scheme to address the shocking homelessness and rack-renting scandal; a health package to end the obscenity of over a million citizens on waiting-lists.¹ Then there is rural broadband. Or what about financing the research and development of renewable energy sources? These are just a few of the many areas in need of investment.
Contrary to the tired old mantra that we have no money to spare, there are funds aplenty if the will to use them exists. Take, for example, the building of public housing. Borrowing for the state has never been cheaper, with interest almost at nil, and these projects obviously become self-financing as rent is collected. Such areas as broadband internet and renewable energy are actually income-generators. And that is before any responsible government would make transnationals pay their due share for access to the national infrastructure.
There is a simple answer, of course. The Government and its cabal of privileged and wealthy backers are wedded to whatever policies help maintain the status quo and thereby ensure that the ruling elite continues to hold power. As James Connolly wrote, “governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class.”²
At the present time neo-liberal capitalism suits the parasitic Irish ruling elite best. They fear that conceding that the state can and should invest in the people rather than serve the elite would encourage working people to demand a radical redistribution of wealth in favour of the less well off. Let’s call this what it is: it’s the rich and powerful fighting a ruthless class struggle; and at the moment they are winning.
As always, the challenge for working people is how best to engage successfully and ultimately emerge victorious in this struggle. The superficial answer is to elect a left-wing government, then sit back and applaud as it builds a workers’ state. Reality, unfortunately, is somewhat more complex; because even with a left-of-centre government in office, capitalism will not easily yield its privilege.
Real, meaningful transformation only comes from the grass roots acting as part of a mass movement of the people. This is not to dismiss parliamentary participation but to recognise its limitations. The task, therefore, is to build a movement fit for purpose, a movement that encompasses working people organised through trade unions, community groups, and those engaged in progressive struggle, all acting in concert to transform society and not just pursue single-issue campaigns.
Ideally such a movement would come together spontaneously and sweep all before it. In the real world, however, it requires hard work and determined organisation, coupled with a clear but flexible strategy.
The germ of such a strategy became visible in January this year when the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum organised a celebration of the first Dáil Éireann and simultaneously launched its Democratic Programme for the 21st Century. A central theme of the event was a resolution to convene local assemblies or, colloquially, People’s Dálaí.
To this end the Forum organised a local assembly last month in Coalisland, Co. Tyrone. The event included presentations by groups campaigning on such issues as social welfare cut-backs, fracking in Co. Fermanagh, gold-mining in the Sperrin Mountains, and petroleum exploration along the Lough Neagh basin.³
Although a first step, this was a significant occasion that demonstrated a welcome amount of common purpose. More important still, it proved that it is possible to build a network of progressive activists throughout Ireland, a network able to build the mass movement capable of breaking the political stasis that allows capital to flourish while working people pay the price.
Based on that event, it is obvious that we have the means and the method to transform society. What remains is to implement the strategy. Otherwise Donohoe and Doherty—and their Northern class peers—will continue to play the austerity symphony while workers play second fiddle.
1. Martin Wall, “More than one million people on hospital waiting lists, say consultants,” Irish Times, 21 September 2019.
2. Irish Worker, 29 August 1915. See also Marx, writing in the Civil War in France: “. . . the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”
3. A full report of the event will be published in the next issue of Socialist Voice.