April 2014        

Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie

(with apologies to Robert Burns)

Enda Kenny has lost control of his government, and of his party, and now even his own position may be in question. The wretched man is thrashing around in despair as his government lurches aimlessly from one mishap to another.
      The party that prides itself on excelling at the management of law and order has presided over a series of spectacular fiascos involving the Gardaí, the minister for justice, and the attorney-general.
      The Taoiseach’s current performance is beginning to make the last days of the Brian Cowen government look like a golden era of skilful governance.
      Yet if the Fine Gael leader is flapping helplessly, his coalition partners are acting as if they were composed of some harmless inert gas. Having begun by performing a spectacular U-turn on its pre-election promise not to pay unsecured bondholders, Gilmore’s team has endorsed home taxes, water charges and the imprisonment of a 79-year-old anti-war protester and watched a generation leave the country. In spite of this shameful record, the Labour Party remains cowering timorously in a coalition fronted by Fine Gael while the Republic’s working class endure an incessant attack on its rights and wellbeing.
      We have to be fair, though, to the Labour Party and credit it with demonstrating a measure of firmness in at least one area of public concern. A number of its senior ministers made it clear that they were unhappy with the former Commissioner’s use of the word “disgusting” in reference to Garda whistle-blowers. Of course they waited until the Fine Gael minister Leo Varadkar had prepared the ground for them. Nevertheless, what’s rare must be appreciated, and Labour Party gumption is, after all, as exceptional as sunshine on an Irish bank holiday.
      Varadkar’s influence has only a limited impact, however, in buoying up Labour Party nerve. When the same Fine Gael minister called upon Aer Lingus to withdraw its threat to sue SIPTU for announcing a strike that never actually took place, Eamon Gilmore and his parliamentary colleagues were silent. Unlike the Tánaiste’s raucous demands for sanctions against Russia, his craven inaction in relation to an attack on the fundamental right of working people to withdraw their labour was as breath-stopping as it was unforgivable.
      The background to the threatened SIPTU strike lies in an €800 million deficit in the airport workers’ pension pot, the Irish Airlines Superannuation Scheme. Were the workers to accept this they would suffer a cut of up to 20 per cent in benefit entitlement. Aer Lingus offered a paltry €140 million, while Dublin Airport Authority offered substantially less. Bearing in mind that a person’s pension is in effect wages deferred into old age, it is easy to see why the airport work force felt so aggrieved.
      Adding to the workers’ understandable outrage was the fact that both Aer Lingus and the DAA are profitable companies, with the former paying a handsome dividend last year to its rival Ryanair and other well-heeled shareholders. More to the point is the fact that the Irish state holds a controlling share in Aer Lingus, and owns the DAA outright. So when Aer Lingus gained an injunction preventing a strike by SIPTU, and followed this by demanding compensation from the union for possible losses, would a Labour Party in government not immediately demand an end to such an assault on a fundamental working-class right?
      Incredibly, the Labour Party undertook no such action. There may have been behind-the-scenes intervention, but that is not the point. No self-respecting party of the working class should tolerate any ambivalence to circulate in public about the right of working people to strike in pursuit of a legitimate demand. No party that claims the mantle of James Connolly can equivocate when the old Wobbly question is asked: Which side are you on?
      Nevertheless, it is a mistake to view this behaviour by the Labour Party purely as the spineless behaviour of a group of politicians that has surrendered its soul amid the plush surroundings of parliament. The malfunctioning of the Gilmore-led entity is symptomatic of the abject and universal failure of present-day social democracy to cope with neo-liberal capitalism.
      Since the neo-liberal onslaught began anew in the early 1980s, social democracy has moved further and further to the right. In Britain, France, Germany and all across southern Europe those parties that believed they could moderate capitalism and appease finance-driven imperialism have merely accommodated themselves to markets and the world’s major superpower. Since the financial crash of 2008, any remaining room for accommodation effectually disappeared, and social democracy is now a mere fellow-traveller with the ultra-conservative bandwagon.
      Nor, indeed, has the Irish Labour Party done anything since the Reagan-Thatcher era to contradict this general assessment of social democracy and its slide into toadyism. Working diligently to help implement the Troika’s agenda of austerity, the best they can now hope for is an economic upturn promised by such doyens of capitalism as George Osborne and Angela Merkel. This improvement is far from assured. Most western economists’ calculations have been based on assumptions of sustained growth in China making up for deficiencies elsewhere in the western-hemisphere economies.
      This comforting belief can no longer be taken for granted, as the most recent news from Beijing is of a potential downturn in its economy. On the 25th of March the head of macro-economic research at Lombard Street Research, Diana Choyleva, told John Arthurs of the Financial Times that it may require a Lehman-type banking failure if China is to deal with its current overhang of personal debt. Whether China experiences a crash of this magnitude is impossible to predict, but there is little doubt that its economy will slow down significantly in the not too distant future, with an inevitable knock-on impact on the United States and the EU.
      What, then, of those bland assurances from the coalition partners that they have restored Ireland to a position of economic stability and progress? We can assume that Fine Gael will continue to muddle along, secure in the belief that cut-backs and recession have limited impact on their well-off supporters. The Labour Party will . . . well, will it matter at that stage what they do?
      What is of crucial importance, however, is that a stringent critique of the Labour Party is not misunderstood as a bitter ultra-leftist tirade but is seen to be a necessary commentary on the inherent flaws in its core philosophy.
      If working people are to prosper, we must recognise the overwhelming need to restructure fundamentally the nature and direction of our economy. To carry out this task it is important that a movement capable of doing so is brought together to challenge the received wisdoms of contemporary social democracy and thereafter organise the socialist alternative.

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