Ending the privileges of the elite

Katherine Zappone’s rejection, respectful or otherwise, of an invitation to appear before an Oireachtas committee investigating her irregular appointment was symptomatic of a wider phenomenon. It was an example of a sense of entitlement shared by all those in the well-to-do strata of this, our class-bound, class-divided society.

This is a self-serving conviction that the well-to-do are entitled to and indeed worthy of the privileges they enjoy. Moreover—and this is important—there are no lengths to which they will not go to protect the system that guarantees their position.

The practical manifestation of this in present-day Ireland is evidenced, north and south, within two principal, albeit overlapping and complementary, currents. In the first instance, there are those operating almost exclusively within the domestic economy—private landlords, property speculators, major retailers, large construction companies, and private medical services, to name but a few.

There is then the other sector, dominated by foreign capital, with, among other things, the enormous energy-consuming data centres, tax-favoured digital businesses, rapacious extractors of natural resources, and of course hedge funds, such as the Canadian-controlled residential property landlord IRES REIT, Ireland’s largest private landlord.¹

As a consequence, we have a section of society, or in reality a class, that sees itself as deserving to benefit—by their rack-renting of workers, through access to expensive private health, or by reaping dividends from privatised industries or the exploitation of natural resources by transnational corporations. It goes without saying that this comfortable life-style is gained at the expense of the working class.

We are witnessing here, quite simply, the working out of the class struggle in Ireland. Nor is this observation about the nature of our society unnoticed in wider circles. Professor Daire Keogh, president of DCU, recently warned in a press interview that the shortage and exorbitant cost of students’ rental accommodation would create a “class divide,” benefiting the children of wealthier families.

This is an intolerable situation and one that must be changed. However, change for the better won’t come easily. Only last month we had the unedifying spectacle of the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, aggressively promoting and defending ratification of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada.² If ratified, the treaty would allow, for example (as Varadkar himself admitted to Paul Murphy TD), the above-mentioned Canadian company that owns IRES REIT to sue the 26-County state in a special investor court should the Dáil introduce rent control.

This gives rise to a couple of pertinent questions. In the first place, this trade agreement is not merely a Fine Gael initiative, because it also has the support of the three coalition parties, including Eamonn Ryan’s Green Tories. Moreover, there is the fact that CETA is being equally promoted by the European Union, raising the question of who supports Ireland’s continuing membership of that neoliberal entity, and why.

Nor should we overlook the North in this examination. The Dalradian Gold company is planning to extract precious ore from the Sperrin Mountains in Co. Tyrone, against the determined opposition of the local population. Not only would such mining ravage an area of outstanding natural beauty and poison the local environment for centuries to come but profits arising would fill the coffers of Dalradian’s New York hedge fund, Orion Resource Partners. Worryingly and ominously, not one of the main parties in the Stormont Executive has actively campaigned to have this rip-off halted.

As in the Republic, the reasoning underlying the Executive’s position is a mixture of cynical self-interest and centrist social-democratic economics. Either option simply reinforces the hegemony of the privileged ruling class.

To change the balance of power away from this greedy coterie and in favour of the working class requires the active involvement of all sections of the class and especially its organised elements, those in community organisations and the trade union movement.

Two articles in the September issue of Socialist Voice are of particular relevance in relation to this matter. These are Barry Murray’s article advocating the concept of a people’s participatory democracy, and Nicola Lawlor’s very informative overview of the condition of Ireland’s trade union movement today. The two writers give an honest and realistic assessment of the present situation in both fields. At the same time they are also hearteningly positive about the potential for advances in either area.

It would appear, to this writer at least, that the best results would be obtained through agreed co-operation or combination of both strategies. We have witnessed in the recent past the effectiveness of the campaign against water tax when organised labour and grass-roots organisations combined, to powerful effect. Surely there is a lesson in this that needs teasing out and building upon. If this much can be achieved for a single-issue campaign, why not a similar policy for a system-changing initiative?

Moreover, there is now an urgency for implementing these proposals. There is growing evidence that the global economy is about to undergo significant destabilisation, something that is bound to inflict further pain on the working class. The potential crisis is partly due to covid, partly to a realignment of global economic influences, but even more so to the inherent instability of capitalism. Early indications of this are emerging, with rapid increases in energy costs, talk of inflation, and fear of a trade war with China.

To prevent Ireland’s working class enduring still further disadvantage and pain it will be necessary to end the privileges accruing to one section of society under capitalism, to end the inequalities arising from their sense of entitlement. This can only be done by bringing the means of production, distribution and exchange under the control of working people in a workers’ republic.

Hence the need to organise for such an outcome; and, as is so often the case, we can draw upon the great James Connolly for inspiration and insight.

With Labour properly organised upon the Industrial and political field, each extension of the principle of public ownership brings us nearer to the re-conquest of Ireland by its people; it means the gradual resumption of the common ownership of all Ireland by all the Irish—the realisation of Freedom.

James Connolly, The Re-Conquest of Ireland, 1915.
  1. “IRES REIT returns to profit in first half of the year,” RTE News (https://bit.ly/3o0qILJ).
  2. See Daniel McConnell, “Leo Varadkar: CETA trade deal ‘should have been ratified ages ago’,” Irish Examiner, 22 September 2021 (https://bit.ly/3nY4Z6V).