September 2011        


Shaping the Irish economy

Conor McCabe, Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy (Dublin: History Press, 2011; ISBN 978-1-84588-693-6; €16.99)

When Conor McCabe launched his book in Connolly Books some weeks ago he spoke to a crowded audience representing a broad variety of left-wing activists. So it should be, as he has built up over the years his reputation as a labour historian with an appreciation of our history and the individuals who helped shape it.
     Much has been written on the present crisis, and there will be more to come, analysing various aspects and characteristics of the problems. Home-grown “experts” have the corpse on the autopsy table, and all are issuing different post-mortem results, while others, including the political elite, are resurrecting the corpse, à la Finnegan’s Wake.
     Common to them all is the opinion that the economy since the foundation of the state has been an ad hoc mixture of different remedies tried by different political groupings and strata while in government, subject to internal and external pressure—a sort of “make it up as you go along” approach to building an independent new state.
     What Conor has done in this book is to show that there was a conceived pattern of economic strategy about how the Free State was to be constructed and the corresponding political justification to achieve this. The big Irish bourgeoisie, who wrecked the potential Republic, saw in the Treaty the means of consolidating their power.
     The Free State was an integral part of the British economy. Britain had ensured that Ireland’s role was predominantly agricultural, more specifically the export of cattle for the finishing-farms and slaughterhouses of England.
     The main beneficiaries were the big and middle farmers and all the mercantile, legal and accountant hangers-on, the social composition of what became Fine Gael. They had no need to further challenge the empire: their interests coincided.
     They were not interested in what is now called a national plan for development, and they continued to link Irish banking to the London financial markets. So cattle, banking and labour continued to flow to London. This subservience to imperial interests was only mildly challenged by Fianna Fáil, which attempted—pushed by popular radical pressures—to encourage indigenous industries in the 1930s.
     But, as Conor writes, “by the end of the 40s the Irish State was more dependent on Britain than it had been by the time of independence, while an overweight Irish pound stood, drenched in sterling, and out of breath, its hands on its knees, desperately trying to take a few more steps towards expansion before it collapsed from exhaustion.”
     The book analyses the essential strategic intervention to fashion an Irish bourgeois state economy through four essential features: housing, agriculture, industry, and finance. At the heart of each of these were the interests of bankers and speculators; and therefore the present crisis has its roots not in present greed but in an accumulation through the decades of serving these interest as the primary task of successive Governments.
     Few shouted Stop. The Kenny Report on land speculation and the Telesis Report on the dangers of reliance on the inward investment of the transnationals were ignored as Fianna Fáil jettisoned any pretence of indigenous manufacturing potential. The links with the British economy and the EU monopolies soon turned Ireland into a glorified offshore bank.
     This book is an essential read, and not just a read but a foundation for how the left treats the political consequences of the economic journey of the Southern state, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as the drivers.
     That trajectory of the political elite through the decades was cheered on by the media, the academics, and the state bureaucracy. It was never seriously threatened by the Labour Party or the trade unions. Maybe they were ignorant of economics from a class viewpoint; maybe they were absorbed in current happenings; maybe they were more concerned with their careers. But, as Conor points out, the social consequences were that the working class emigrated, leaving behind only skirmishes of heroic struggles.
     Peadar O’Donnell told the tale of de Valera ringing him up after Peadar had written an angry article about how a million people had had to emigrate. Dev told him that even if he, Peadar, had been in power a million would have had to emigrate. Peadar, however, replied: “Ah, maybe, but it wouldn’t have been the same million.”
     More’s the pity!

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