This year marks a century since the foundation of the 26-County state. Difficult as it may be to believe, the powers that be are now preparing to celebrate what they will describe as a successful political entity.
There will be no mention of the hundreds of thousands forced into economic migration over the period of its existence. No mention of the homeless or the housing crisis, recently highlighted by Michael D. Higgins. No mention of the obscenity of a two-tier health service. And certainly no regret will be expressed for the selfish abandonment of the northern Six Counties.
What will be highlighted will be the so-called success of the “Celtic Tiger” and the benefits of modernisation that are supposed to have been derived from membership of the European Union. There will be little reference to the fact that, in spite of the so-called benefits, Ireland is one of the most expensive countries in the EU.¹ Moreover, with inflation running at the highest level in twenty-two years and the cost of living spiralling, nothing will be done to alleviate hardship for the least well off until October, if even then.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. Not every section of society is suffering. If you are one of the top civil servants you will be eligible for a pay increase of between 10 and 15 per cent, which will benefit four thousand people earning over €150,000 per year.
That, in a nutshell, is what this 26-County Free State is all about, and has been since its founding fathers ordered the shelling of the Four Courts in 1922. It was designed by people determined to preserve class privilege and the system that sustains it. While the controlling mechanisms may have changed, the objective remains the same for those now in office.
This is the context within which we should assess current political manoeuvring in Leinster House. With less than six months left before Micheál Martin hands the reins to whoever Fine Gael nominate, the Blueshirts are already setting out their stall. Judging by what they are recently saying, it would appear that they are determined to achieve a remarkable feat, that is, to become even more reactionary than their predecessors.
In keeping with its history, the party is planning to protect the most privileged class in society. They intend to do so through a combination of economic measures and pro-partition policies. Shamefully, they will be supported in this endeavour by Fianna Fáil and the Green Tory Party.
Although less dramatic in headline-grabbing than a recent spat in the Dáil between Leo Varadkar and Pearse Doherty, another statement by the Tánaiste in the same chamber was much more telling. When referring to a shortage of taxis in Dublin, he lamented the absence of full-blown Uber or Lyft services. Ignore the faux pas highlighted by Miriam Lord in the Irish Times: the real message revealed the true intent of a Blueshirt minister—and, incidentally, one supported by his coalition partners.
Rather than enabling the provision of a proper public transport service, the Tánaiste was advocating the use of a private-sector operation that exploits labour to the maximum. Generally referred to as the “gig economy,” the type of labour market being sought by the Republic’s neoliberal coalition government is one in which pay and conditions are screwed down to a minimum. Referred to recently by Sarah O’Connor in the Financial Times as the “servant economy,” she likened much work in the gig economy to domestic service in the Victorian era.²
There is no question but that this is precisely the type of neoliberal system sought by the Fine Gael leader and his supporters. Moreover, they will ruthlessly employ dire necessity among workers in order to enforce their will.
With inflation stalling market economies everywhere and increasing the cost of living, the capitalist ruling class is eager to minimise the damage to themselves. Rather than tax the wealthy and expand and improve public services, a Fine Gael-led coalition will seek to make the working class pay for this crisis by lowering wages and reducing the terms and conditions of employment. Never ones to miss a good crisis, they will use the present situation to make permanent their objective.
Crude neoliberal economic policies, however, come as part of a package designed by the party that sees itself as having inherited the mantle of Cumann na nGaedheal. Hand in hand with a determination to preserve economic privilege for the few is an equal and complementary determination to maintain the truncated state established a century ago.
If there existed a question about the party’s determination to maintain partition, all doubts were dispelled by a recent speech to an official Fine Gael gathering addressed by Charlie Flanagan TD. While commemorating John A. Costello, a man who once proclaimed that the Blueshirts would be victorious, Flanagan criticised Sinn Féin for its “constant beating of the united Ireland drum.” He added that “preparing for a united Ireland without unionism is without realism.”
Note how he used the word “preparing.” So nothing can be done until the DUP advocate a “Brits out” strategy?
Nor did he stop at that. Undaunted by his failure to rehabilitate the Black and Tans, Flanagan commended the North’s zombie economy.
In reality, Flanagan and his party colleagues are not greatly concerned about unionist sensitivities. What they are concerned with is maintaining their century-old creation, with all the benefits this has accrued for its privileged ruling class. From their point of view, an end to partition would at best put all back in the melting-pot, at worst would present them with a united working-class opposition.
Nevertheless, and in spite of their efforts, there are increasing demands from throughout the country for something qualitatively different from that envisaged by Varadkar and his coalition partners. The impact of the 2010 financial crisis is still felt by working-class people, and this is now being exacerbated by increases in the cost of living. As a consequence, confidence in the old 2½-party system has been greatly undermined. The de facto merger between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has opened up the real possibility of a significant change in the party-political make-up of the next Government.
The challenge for the left is to draw a lesson from the past and ensure that change is more than cosmetic. We can’t afford or tolerate a new De Valera arriving to replace the old discredited regime, and then repeat, with whatever may be a modern spin, that Labour must still wait.
1. Emma Taggart and Padraig Hoare, “Ireland and Denmark most expensive countries in the EU,” Irish Examiner, 21 June 2022 (https://bit.ly/39Od2ys).
2. Sarah O’Connor, “Farewell to the servant economy,” Financial Times, 14 June 2022.