Ireland: Ahern on borrowed time

THE BATTLE against the bin tax in the last two months has raised ominous signs for all workers. The capitalist establishment in all its guises – political parties, media, courts and the Gardai has demonstrated its ruthlessness in dealing with this challenge to their rule.

This time it was anti bin tax protesters the next time it could be striking prison officers, Aer Rianta workers, ordinary people fighting hospital closures or even bin men themselves fighting privatisation.

Anger amongst working class people on the bin tax issue is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a generalised anger in Irish society that has not been seen for some time. Working class people are disgusted by the behaviour of the political establishment. Lies, broken promises, cutbacks continued corruption, and tax evasion by politicians have turned the vast majority of people against this government.

By jailing 22 people and trying to intimidate tens of thousands through their non-collection policy the government has shown how fearful they are of organised opposition from the working class. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to crush this movement. Fianna Fail and the PDs are well aware of the deep rooted oppostion that exist in society. The government are aiming to send out a message to everyone – if you dare stand up against their neo-liberal agenda, you will face the full might of the establishment. They are preparing the ground to implement further stealth taxes, cutbacks, attacks on our public services and a programme of privatisation.

Unpopular Government

Thousands of people were conned into returning the FF/PD coalition to power on the basis of lies and broken promises. This con has been systematically exposed with each passing month and as a result support for the government has tumbled dramatically beginning just after the election and continuing apace since then. The government entered the general election in 2002 with an approval rating of 61% but within three months this had collapsed to 36%. The most recent opinion poll puts support for the government at 27%. Bertie Ahern, the man who could do no wrong, the "Teflon Taoiseach" now has dropped to just 36% down from 70% at the election. Fianna Fail’s core support has dropped to its lowest in over twenty years.

On the back of this poll it was revealed that while driving home one night extremely drunk, Dublin North TD GV Wright ran over a woman seriously injuring her. In return he got a two-year suspension from driving and a paltry 900 euro fine. If that were not bad enough, he has admitted at the Mahon tribunal that he got 10,000 pounds from a property developer.

It was also revealed that Fianna Fail TD Michael Collins had received a tax clearance certificate for entry into the Dail after the general election while he possessed an off-shore bank account and intentionally avoided paying tax. These scandals really exposed the double standards and hypocrisy of this government.

A recent revenue commissioner’s report illustrated just how widespread tax evasion is among the rich elite in this country. They collected nearly 1 billion euro in outstanding taxes from some of the wealthiest people in our society. Contrast the treatment of Wright and Collins and those rich tax evaders with the 22 bin tax protesters who spent an total of 54 weeks in prison facing a total of 16,000 euro in fines, and court costs for participating in peaceful protests over an unjust double tax.

It is now quite clear that Bertie Ahern is on borrowed time as Taoiseach. He is likely to be given until the Local and European Elections next June to prove himself. However if as is very likely, Fianna Fail take a hammering at the polls, then he is likely be replaced as leader of Fianna Fail. This would represent an incredible turn around for the man who nearly brought them an overall majority last year.

Neo-Liberal attacks

The budget due in December will continue the attacks on the living conditions of the working class. The budget estimates just published give a clear indication of what is in the pipeline.

They are proposing to increase hospital bed charges and accident and emergency charges by 10-15%. They are intending to increase the threshold level for the drug refund scheme for the second year running from 70 euro to 75 euro. This hits mainly people who are in need of regular medication. This gradual increase cuts more and more people out of this scheme every year.

These proposed increases come on the back of the Hanly Report published in October, which is another in a long line of reports produced by this government to try and deal with the health crisis. This report, if implemented, will lead to the scaling back of A&E units from 40 to 12 mainly at local hospitals throughout the country. It also means that many small hospitals will be unable to provide a maternity service. It was this lack of this service that contributed to the unnecessary death of a baby in Cavan last year – how many more will die if this report is implemented. This attack on local health services throughout the country has caused huge anger. Even Michael Smith, Minister for Defence and TD in Nenagh, Tipperary, which is one of the hospitals under attack, was forced under pressure from the community to break ranks on collective Cabinet responsibility and condemn the report.

It’s not just cutbacks but stealth taxes are also on the agenda. Whilst the return of water charges was raised by Ahern and is on the cards at a future date, the government won’t introduce them while the bin tax battle is raging. However, other taxes are increasing massively. From March 2004, councils are legally obliged to introduce levies on new developments to bankroll infrastructure such as sewerage, roads and water. These levies could be as high as 28,000 euro. With the support of the government, this levy will be slapped on developers who in turn will pass it on to house buyers sending the price of houses soaring even higher and further screwing first time buyers in particular.

Also because of the continued under-funding of local authorities by central government, bin charges and other service charges are also set to increase in the coming rounds of estimates meetings.

There are 16 cuts in social welfare being proposed, including cuts in rent allowance payments and benefits for lone parents. The payment made to lone parents to assist and encourage them into the workforce has been cut. This cut comes at a time when according to St.Vincent De Paul there are 300,000 children in Ireland living in homes where the weekly income is less than 175 euro per week, this is described as relative poverty. This level of income excludes them from qualifying for a medical card. They also estimate that 70,000 don’t have enough food, warmth or a second pair of shoes.

The cuts in rent allowance payments are particularly disgusting. Rent allowance will now be refused to people unless they have been in private rented accommodation for at least six months. If you are a lone parent on 160 euro per week, and with rent now at 1000 euro in most areas how can you in these situations afford accommodation?

Alongside these economic attacks, the government are gearing up for a major sell off spree of state assets in the next number of years. In reality what lies behind the introduction of the bin tax is the first step in privatisation of local authority services. 41 local and town councils have privatised their refuse collection service after the bin tax was established.

The threat to Aer Lingus remains. The new management under golden boy Willie Walsh will are laying the basis to sell off the company by continuing restructuring and rationalisation of jobs and conditions. Already, catering workers are being told to take 30% cuts in staff levels and 50% wage cuts.

The plans to private 25% of the Dublin Bus routes by January 2004 have been knocked back for the moment, but they are intent in following through with these proposals. This will be a disaster for commuters and workers alike just as it has been in Britain.

The vicious right wing nature of this government is being exposed to the eyes of working class people. The question now posed is: ’Will there be a fight back?’

Will there be a fightback?

The role of the trade union movement is an important factor in the possibility of a fight-back. The disgraceful role of the ICTU under David Begg during the Anti- Bin Tax Campaign, where he was in reality a cheerleader for the Atate and the government in attacking the Anti-Bin Tax Campaign, is not a good indication. However that is only one side of the story. The Dublin Council of Trade Unions called a demonstration to call for the release of the bin tax prisoners with the endorsement of SIPTU. This reflected a pressure from ordinary workers in the union movement. Jack O’Connor, the President of SIPTU, who spoke on the platform got a very angry response from many of those on the demo reflecting their frustration at the union bureaucracy inactivity on many issues not just the bin tax. Despite this pressure, however, SIPTU opposed a motion by the ATGWU calling for work stoppages in support of the Anti-Bin Tax Campaign and the imprisonment of activists.

The union leaders, through the partnership process, have been sucked into the establishment and in reality act as an arm of the government in cutting across and holding back struggles of ordinary people. With working conditions under attack and as the "belt tightening" measures of the government continue many workers will be forced to either confront the bureaucracy and reclaim their unions or find ways around the leadership.

Political Vaccuum

The recent opinion polls that illustrate the collapse in government support also illustrate the huge political vaccuum in Irish society. Fine Gael under the hopeless Enda Kenny are in continued decline and have made no real progress since their dismal election performance. Labour under Pat Rabbitte are continuing their journey further and further to the right. Their silence and total lack of support for communities fighting the bin tax illustrates how out of touch they are. The Greens have been stagnant since the general election. Trevor Sargent is particularly ineffective.

Sinn Fein have continued to climb in the polls with Gerry Adams now the most popular party leader and are set to make gains in the local elections next year. However, the anti bin tax struggle has exposed Sinn Fein amongst many people. While Sinn Fein activists have been involved and play an important role in the Campaign in some areas, in an overall sense the party and their public representatives have not got their hands dirty in this Campaign. The party has been very reluctant to get involved, reflecting the fact that many of their public representatives have paid the charges. Despite a successful mass campaign of non-payment in South Dublin, their Councillor in Tallaght Mark Daly called on people to pay the bin tax!

It’s not just on the bin tax -despite having six TD’s in the Dail their opposition has been completely ineffectual. Their long term goal of being in government in the North and South means they will do nothing to upset that prospect.

Compare their six TD’s to the role of Joe Higgins TD, easily the most effective TD in Dail Eireann. Imagine if the Socialist Party had 6 TDs just how much we could shake up the establishment.

The Socialist Party will be standing in the local elections on a wider basis than ever before. We believe we can make a number of gains. We don’t see the election or elected positions as important in themselves. Their only purpose is that elected positions give us a platform to organise with working class people to take on the political establishment in the communities and in the workplaces. We want to build a party that can challenge the rule of the establishment. The role of the Socialist Party in the Anti-Bin Tax Campaign showed the determination of our members to engage in uncompromising struggle when necessary. No other political force in this country has been prepared to engage in this type of struggle.

The mood of anger against this government has not yet been fully expressed. The bin tax and the anti war movement in the early part of the year gave a glimpse of the anger that is growing in Irish society, but also the potential for a movement to develop against this government. Up to 150,000 took to the streets to oppose the war and Ireland’s participation through the use of Shannon for US warplanes and troops.

Whilst the war went ahead and Shannon continues to be used, the anger has not gone away but coupled with the attacks on living conditions has hardened and deepened among ordinary people. When it reaches boiling point explosive events could rock this government and the rest of the ruling elite to their foundations.

From Socialist Voice, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

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December 2003