Containing by restraining

Nothing worries an established ruling class so much as a series of unpredictable events over which they have no control. This is especially so when these events pose questions about the stability of the status quo. There can be little doubt that developments over the last six months have given rise to just such concerns within governing circles in Dublin.

Look at what has happened over that short period.

Last December’s British general election showed the fragility of partition, with unionism losing out in three of the four Belfast Westminster constituencies. Reconvening the Stormont Assembly has offered only temporary relief with the pandemic showing London rule to be more incompetent not to mention more undemocratic than anything emanating from Leinster House.

Electoral upset in the North was followed a few weeks later by shock in the South. Sinn Fein received the highest number of votes for any single party thus creating an unprecedented situation. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in partnership were unable to form a majority government. The real question posed by that result is whether Sinn Fein’s manifesto and canvas was so inspiring that it reversed the dismal results of its two previous election performances or did it reflect something different. Did it indicate the slow burning anger of a very sizeable percentage of the population? A disadvantaged section of working people outraged with the arrogant mistreatment meted out by a Fine Gael government kept in power by a clueless Fianna Fail?

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic appeared at first to have given a reprieve to Leo Varadkar and his party. Clever PR created the impression of a competent and caring government. However, the mask has been slipping of late. He is preparing to reverse much of the €350 weekly pandemic payment while talking caustically about those drawing down more from that measure than they do at work. At the same time his ministers and mainstream media supporters speak darkly about budget deficits and no free money.

All the while, a global recession is looming on the horizon. Capitalism is facing a much greater crisis than that triggered by the financial crash of 2008 and in the opinion of many, its greatest challenge since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The International Labour Organisation is predicting 12 million full-time jobs will be lost across the EU in 2020. The OECD has estimated the decline in output could be in the level of between one-fifth to one-quarter in many economies, with consumers’ expenditure potentially dropping by around one-third.

Compounding this, emergency measures taken to deal with the pandemic are raising concerns among free marketeers the world over. The Financial Times editorial of 9 May reflected the fears of the ruling classes when it wrote that short of a communist revolution it would be hard to imagine governments intervening in private markets more deeply than happened during the first months of lockdown.

Just one example illustrates the difficulties this could cause for a neoliberal Irish state. Currently, 80% of the nursing homes in the Republic of Ireland are privately owned profit-making business. These institutions are now coming under intense scrutiny. Over 50% of Covid-19 related deaths in the 26-Counties are associated with care homes, one of the highest rates the world. The obvious answer, to bring all healthcare under centralised state control, threatens this nice little earner for the private sector. Moreover, since the situation vis-à-vis care homes in the North is little different, this could well raise for a partitionist Dublin establishment the unwelcome spectre of demands for an effective all-Ireland health service free to all at the point of entry.

Recognising what is at stake, several high-powered commentators, here and abroad, are advocating a Keynesian approach to deal with the anticipated recession. In reality, they recognise the threat a second more intensive round of austerity would pose for capitalism. However, this would be a difficult option for a Dublin government that doesn’t control its own currency and adheres slavishly to EU regulations preventing state intervention.

Moreover, even if the EU were to temporarily ease back on neo-liberalism, the southern Irish bourgeoisie would be reluctant to adopt Keynesianism. Crude demand stimulation would inevitably lead to another uncontrollable speculative bubble. On the other hand a more controlled investment programme might encourage demands for further, widespread state intervention. Something that could put us on the slippery slope towards socialism.

Faced with this dilemma, the more attractive option for the Southern Irish ruling class will be to batten down the hatches, protect big business, maintain a de facto austerity regime and hope to ride out the storm. With a right-wing coalition in office for the next five years, vague promises can be made but never kept. Meanwhile, a compliant mainstream media will point to southern Europe and tell us how much better off we are with our prudent, frugal government.

A major concern for the establishment will be to contain the disaffected, that disturbingly large number of people who voted for Sinn Fein and/or left-wing candidates. While coercion is an option, it is not the first choice. The more sophisticated strategy of shaping the opposition is favoured. It worked in Britain and no doubt it will be tried here.

Watch for the pundits encourage Sinn Fein to show maturity and serve patiently as an effective official opposition and tell them by thus acting ‘responsibly’, Mary Lou will undoubtedly lead the next government. Wait for the modest concessions offered to ‘reasonable’ trade union leaders who recognise that ‘we’re all in this together’ and show restraint for the good of the nation.

Listen then for the howls of outrage directed against those in organised labour who call for direct action to break the emasculating Industrial Relations Act or resist redundancies or reject poverty wages. Hear too the demonisation of those activists calling for mass street protest against iniquitous inequalities.

Take time finally and consider whether capitalism deserves a five-year respite and an extension to its tenure thereafter. Or should we take a lesson from their own book and not waste this crisis?

Some men, faint-hearted, ever seek
Our programme to retouch,
And will insist, whene’er they speak
That we demand too much.
’Tis passing strange, yet I declare
Such statements give me mirth,
For our demands most moderate are,
We only want the earth

James Connolly