A programme for the 21st century

Over recent years a discernible pattern has been emerging in many of those countries that the BBC likes to describe as “parliamentary democracies.” Long-established precedents are being flouted by elected power-brokers in the leading capitalist states.

While those who govern on behalf of capitalism have never been reluctant to subvert common law or to ruthlessly employ force illegally, there was for decades a degree of regulation. More like honour among thieves than anything ethical, it served as a modus vivendi that maintained a working consensus within capitalist ruling classes, both nationally and internationally.

Over the past decade, though, this convention has been breaking down. The most spectacular example was evident in the United States during the presidency of Donald Trump. The list of his norm-breaking is lengthy: reneging on a multilateral treaty with Iran, withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, blatant malpractice leading to impeachment, and the astonishing refusal to accept election results.

Not to be outdone, the British have also broken with established protocols. The Internal Market Bill gives ministers the ability to bypass international law, while Boris Johnson contemptuously overturned long-standing precedent by ignoring a damning report accusing his home secretary of bullying a civil servant.

Among other notable nonconformists there is the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, negating legal norms, and the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, speaking warmly of the old military dictatorship.

While maybe not on the same scale, the phenomenon has not passed Ireland by. Take the judicial system for a start. There was a time some decades ago when republicans didn’t recognise the authority of judges sitting in Dublin; yet never could anyone have imagined that forty years later a Supreme Court judge would tell the chief justice that he didn’t recognise his authority either. Few other incidents better illustrate the essential nature of the 26-County state. With government in endless disarray, this pillar of the establishment rudely displays the ruling class’s sense of entitlement and indeed contempt for the general public.

Not that the Woulfe is alone in holding this view. Exposed as having improperly shared confidential and restricted Government documents with one of his pals, the state’s taoiseach-in-waiting, Leo Varadkar, spun the Dáil a yarn, and walked away scot-free. In spite of committing an offence that would have had a junior civil servant summarily dismissed, the leader of Fine Gael disingenuously claimed he was acting in the national interest. As a result, he retained the full confidence of his coalition partners, Fianna Fáil and the Green Tories.

Nor does it stop at that in this, the “best wee country in the world to do business in.”

There is the jaw-dropping hubris of the “wham-bam, charge them what we can” company entrusted with building the long-awaited children’s hospital in Dublin. This project is supposedly under review by the minister for public expenditure, Michael McGrath. In spite of McGrath’s undoubtedly scrupulous supervision, the project remains a vehicle for the redistribution of taxpayers’ wealth upwards to the super-rich.

These are only some of the more egregious and outrageous recent examples of the arrogance and the incestuous nature of Ireland’s ruling class. Not only are we witness to the machinations of a deeply flawed system but we are also watching as the so-called guardians of constitutional probity break their own rules. In reality, a system that has been shaped to serve the interests of the Irish bourgeoisie is struggling to retain its hegemony and indeed legitimacy after a difficult decade of austerity, exacerbated recently by fall-out from the covid-19 pandemic.

Of course anything the Southern establishment can do the DUP in Stormont can do even worse. With the covid pandemic surging out of control and Northern hospitals struggling to cope, Arlene Foster and her group of MLAs took contempt for democracy and decency to a new level. Faced with a call for a circuit-breaking lockdown from every other party in the Assembly, the misnamed Democratic Unionists employed the “petition of concern” to block the demand. Notwithstanding that Foster and her cronies were forced into a humiliating U-turn a few days later, the fact that the right wing of unionism would and could prevent the enactment of a crucial measure designed to protect the basic health and well-being of the local population raises further questions about the very viability of the Six-County state.

Allowing for local peculiarities, there is ample evidence of a global pattern forming, a pattern indicating a distinct phase in existing capitalism and something pointing to a developing crisis. Fearful of the influence of the emerging economic powerhouse, China, yet unwilling to forgo superprofits by domestic investment in infrastructural and social wage projects, the political wing of capitalism is growing dangerously reckless.

Working-class communities everywhere have suffered as a result of the decade-long period of austerity following the economic crash of 2008. Understandably, many people in these communities are becoming frustrated. In the midst of this angst, and taking advantage of the absence of a strong socialist alternative movement, right-wing demagoguery has flourished. As in the past, it does so with the connivance of big capital.

All of which raises the question of how Ireland’s left and progressives should respond to what is likely to become an ever more serious problem.

Clearly there is some advantage in publicising the transgressions of the ruling class, if only as a means of informing the wider public. There is a limit, however, to what can be achieved by trying to challenge the bourgeoisie in their own chosen theatres of operation. A more potent strategy is required, and one that lays the theoretical foundation for a strong left-wing alternative.

There is need for a programme that promises to bring about fundamental systemic change—a programme that defines sovereign democracy as one where decisions are made by the people, in the people’s interest; a programme unambiguous about bringing an end to partition; a programme that places the means of production, distribution and exchange in the hands of the people; a programme that understands neutrality to mean ending US military involvement in Shannon Airport and No to NATO in Ireland, north and south.

Last year in Liberty Hall the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum presented the basis for such a programme to a large gathering from around the country. The document, entitled “A Democratic Programme for a New Century,” was well received and broadly endorsed.

The Forum does not insist that its proposals are the definitive, last word on this matter. Seeing it instead as a valuable discussion document, the Forum plans to begin a series of open discussions on this theme early next year.

Make a note in your diary, and watch this space for details of time and venue.