At the 8 February general election in the South of Ireland, the electorate decisively moved to consolidate their rejection of the two main capitalist parties of corruption and misrule: Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Fed up with a decade of economic crisis and austerity, degraded public services, dysfunctional housing and health systems, all rooted in these parties’ free-market policies, the working class demanded a sharp leftward change in political direction.
The main beneficiaries of this electoral shift were the radical nationalist party, Sinn Fein, and the environmentalist Green Party. The COVID-19 crisis descended less than a month after the election and it has taken almost four months for a government to be agreed.
The Green Party has cheaply traded in the trust placed in it as a vehicle for change for a place in government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael; something it will quickly regret.
All three parties have to get approval for the agreed Programme for Government through their internal processes. For the Green Party, boosted by their best election performance ever, the efforts of the party leadership to browbeat the so-called ‘radical’ wing into accepting the Programme appears to have sparked sharp divisions. A split of high profile ‘radical’ Greens, led by Saoirse McHugh, cannot be ruled out. Nonetheless, the class base of the Green Party is overwhelmingly upper-middle-class, wedded to notions of ‘pragmatism’ and ‘compromise’. Therefore, as in 2007, when they coalesced with Fianna Fáil, it is more likely than not that the Greens will form part of the government.
Deepest economic crisis ever?
The economic context is that of potentially the deepest economic crisis since the Depression of the 1930s and, indeed, the present crisis looks like it might even be worse.
COVID-19 has provoked a crash that surpasses even the bank collapse of September 2008. A look at the consequences for employment starkly illustrates this point. Unemployment hit 694,000 in April and has declined to 654,000 in May. As the economy opens up, the unemployment figures may bounce back but already comparison can be made with the highest level of unemployment in the post-2008 economic crisis, in August 2010, when 467,000 were on the dole.
This represents a profound crisis for workers and the working class. Young workers are particularly hard hit with 110,000 on the Live Register in May 2020. Retail sales have collapsed by 45% as a result of COVID-19. Hospitality and retail have been decimated by COVID-19 –Debenhams high street retail chain closed with the loss of 2,000 jobs, for example – and will take a long time to recover. Many young people are employed in these sectors.
Nothing for workers in the Programme for government
The Programme for Government is phrased very loosely and a lot of the promises its makes will strike most workers as ‘waffle’. It is a programme to support capitalism and profits.
In the election campaign, the chronic housing situation, with high rents, insecure tenancies, lack of affordable and public housing, was the number one issue of the campaign. The shift towards Sinn Fein and others in that election was, in large part, a demand that the housing crisis should be addressed urgently.
Yet, in the Programme for Government the stress remains on the ‘affordability’ of housing and renting but no commitment to what was done in previous decades to resolve housing crises: a mass public house building programme. There is a commitment to increase the public housing ‘stock’ by 50,000 but this does not translate into building 50,000 public homes. It will probably mean an extension of HAP (Housing Assistance Payment scheme) and further subsidies to the landlord class. With 70,000 on the housing list, a figure likely to increase substantially as the long term effects of COVID-19 are felt, this is a deep failure that will worsen the already dismal housing crisis.
There are multiple sections dealing with the post COVID supports for business and ‘promoting enterprise’ but just one single line, with a non-committal reference, to moving to a living wage within the lifetime of the government.
The Republic is a low wage economy with almost 25% of the workforce, some 566,000 workers, earning the living wage of EUR 12.30 per hour or less. The COVID-19 payment accidentally revealed the extent of low pay by actually raising the income for over 200,000 workers. The Living Wage does not even do what it says: it is not enough to live on in one of the most expensive countries in Europe. Keeping pay low is in the vital interests of any government in order to ensure the rich keep getting richer. Indeed, in the years 2014-2019, the number of millionaires grew to over 100,000. That is only possible by keeping wages as low as possible.
There is nothing, not a single word, in the Programme about improving trade union rights or introducing more effective collective bargaining. The Green Party ensured a whole raft of measures for electric cars but did not lift a finger to ensure that workers can organise to advance their interests through trade unions. Forcing bosses to deal with workers collectively and through their unions is the only way under capitalism to improve the economic position of the working class. By ignoring this, the Greens demonstrate clearly that they are a party with no interest whatsoever in advancing the economic position of the vast majority of working people. This is no surprise to Militant Left but it will surprise and disappoint the many people who voted for them in the hope it would yield real change.
There are other landmines hidden within the Programme for workers. There is a promise to introduce greater Labour Activation Schemes, like the infamous ‘JobBridge’ and ‘Gateway’ rackets from the austerity years. In a context where it is possible that unemployment could remain at very high levels for several years, this represents a real threat to all workers. Young workers, in particular, could end up being forced to work for less than minimum wage and such schemes would act as free labour for the capitalists. This will impact on all workers. Where bosses have the option of free labour through these schemes, courtesy of the State, this will encourage them to attack all workers’ wages.
The introduction of an auto-enrolment pension scheme, where 5-10% of workers’ wages are handed over to a private pension company to gamble on the financial markets, is another threat. As has already been mentioned, the Republic of Ireland is a low-pay economy. Many workers in the private sector can hardly live day to day on their low wages. Having to fork out 5-10% for a private pension, which actually does not guarantee a living pension in retirement, will drive many workers further into debt. All workers have a right to a comfortable retirement and pension. Not to have a portion of their wages robbed to provide a nice little earner for a profoundly corrupt private pension industry.
Saving capitalism and profits: The real aim of the Programme
The real purpose of the Programme for Government is to stabilise the capitalist economy mired in yet another crisis, just 12 years after the last one! Its objective is to secure the interests of the capitalist class and to protect the profits, rents and interest payments of that class.
In 2017, profits totalled 159 billion euro while wages were a third of that figure at 52 billion. The Irish political class – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Green Party, Sinn Fein, Labour etc., – are committed to ensuring that the vast majority of the wealth created remains owned and controlled by a tiny capitalist class.
This Programme for Government, which reasserts a commitment to low corporate taxes (which, in reality, means no taxes for most companies), is designed to keep this arrangement in place.
A vicious class assault on workers looks imminent. This is symbolised by the demand for workers in Aer Lingus, the former national airline that was privatised in 2006, to take up to 70% pay cuts along with a raft of attacks on conditions. Worse is no doubt yet to come in other sectors.
Governments in capitalist societies, in the words of the great Irish Marxist, James Connolly, “are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class.” This incoming government will be the same as the one before and the same as the one before that.
Militant Left says to workers that this Programme for Government will not solve even the most basic problems facing society and that no government committed to capitalism can provide a decent life, for all. That is not what these governments are for. Instead, their job is to protect profits and wealth.
Workers’ in the South of Ireland used the February election to roar their demands for decent housing, a fair and equitable health system and for decent jobs with wages that would allow them to build their lives. The Programme for Government does not, in any meaningful way, even attempt to address these demands. Instead, it fixes its focus rigidly on capitalist buzz words, like ‘competition’, ‘entrepreneurs’, ‘incentives’ and securing the interests of rapacious capitalism.
The only road that is open to the working class to secure a sustainable, humane and decent future for all is a socialist transformation to overthrow the capitalist class. This revolution is burrowing away in society, being built today in workplaces, in communities, trade unions and social movements. Working-class people need a mass party of their own, with bold socialist policies. Militant Left welcomes anyone who wishes to join with us in achieving this task.