The economic and political situation in southern Ireland is undergoing important changes. Economic growth is still taking place, with large numbers of new jobs created. However the position in manufacturing is weakening in terms of jobs and exports. The property market, construction, credit and consumer spending are increasingly driving the economy.
The boom in construction is unprecedented and unsustainable. Approximately 12% of all workers are now directly involved in construction. Proportionately six times more houses are being built in Ireland than Britain. The ratio of household debt to disposable income has increased from 112% last year to 133% now, which is storing problems for the future. There has been an increase in exploitation and attacks on rights and conditions.
Support for the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat Government, now eight years in power, is diminishing and the relative political stability that existed has been undermined over the last two years as opposition to their policies grows. In many important ways, consciousness has been pushed forward and we find more of a general acceptance for our socialist ideas. A general election has to be held before June 2007 and the government could have a collapse in support, particularly if there was a real opposition and an alternative.
The changed economic conditions and the new offensive by the bosses are placing real strains on the ‘Social Partnership’ agreement between the government, the unions and the bosses which have operated for the last 18 years. Discussions on a new deal are currently suspended because of the crisis at Irish Ferries [see December 2005 articles on Irish Ferries dispute on socialistworld.net].
That the bosses are planning a generalised offensive was indicated by the stout defence by IBEC, the bosses’ organisation, of the management at Irish Ferries. There has been a big increase in the numbers of migrant workers. Approximately 10% of the population are immigrants, and, if anything, a higher percentage of the workforce is made up of migrant workers. Some figures put immigration from the new EU countries to Britain, Sweden and Ireland (the three countries that gave immediate access) at around 400,000 since May 2004 and of those close to one third came to Ireland.
These workers are being used to start a downward push on wages and conditions but this is still at an early stage. However, there is a growing awareness of the dangers. Migrant workers have also showed a certain openness to fight for better wages and conditions, as was shown particularly in the two-month strike of Turkish workers in Gama [see reports on socialistworld.net]. There has been limited industrial action in the post office, amongst electricity workers, and some smaller strikes, but, in general, the figures for action are lower than ever before.
The underlying developments, particularly taken in the context of an international crisis, are pointing towards conflict and struggle and a sharp shift to the left in society, at some point. This process is complicated by the lack of a real alternative in the unions and politically. But as a result, developments could be explosive and unstable when they take place.
The main tasks for the Socialist Party has been to try to connect with the new layers of young people and workers who are most affected by the changes
In June and July we had a recruitment campaign. We gained from a series of public meetings on Latin America. We have re-launched the party work in Galway. The party has made some links with workers over the last year, in particular amongst post office workers.
The main focus of our work has been to develop youth work. We’ve done particularly well in Limerick and Cork Socialist Youth re-launched the Youth against War to build for anti-war demonstration on September 24th and took initiatives against ASBOs (‘anti-social behaviour orders’), which the government will propose.
A lot of emphasis has been on the programme of discussions at the Socialist Party branch meetings. Branches held successful daylong cadre schools in the summer and more are planned. We held a youth festival in late August, which included rallies and seminars. We held a special meeting open to all members in September to discuss the world and southern Ireland economies. We also held a special meeting open to all members in unions and, in the workplaces, at the end of November to discuss industrial perspectives in Europe, Britain and Ireland, and how we work in the unions.
The SP National Committee will meet more often to help develop the party’s political discussion and campaigning work. We agreed to produce a members’ bulletin on political issues and aspects of the work, three or four times a year. The first issue came out in November 2005.
We produced a document on the bin tax battle that took place a few years ago and in which the SP played a leading crucial role (‘The bin tax battle and the role of socialists in the working class movement’), earlier this year, and it was discussed through the branches.
As well as the youth initiatives mentioned, the party has organised a number of ‘Workers’ Forums’ and industrial initiatives and has been involved in many campaigns in local areas, on issues such as planning concerns and against the privatisation of the services for housing estates. The party has had initial discussions regarding the tasks in the areas where we have elected representatives and where we will be standing in the general election whenever it takes place. We have organised mass distribution of local Socialist Newsletters in four constituencies. There are positive indications of the general level of support for the party in these areas.