right to water Protesters against water charges in Dublin, December 2014. Photo: Workers Solidarity Movement/Youtube

As Ireland goes to the polls on Friday, there is a historic opportunity for a new Irish left to be born, writes Sean Ledwith

Southern Ireland goes to the polls at the end of February with the country’s ruling class haunted by memories of two insurgencies-one from a century ago and one from the recent past. The election takes a few months before the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising which led to the country’s deformed birth in 1921. The elite are cautiously organising events to commemorate the uprising but are also conscious of the obvious dangers of lauding an armed insurrection against the status quo.

Prime Minister Enda Kenny and his ruling coalition are also wary of the rumbling anger that exists among Ireland’s voters over his roll-out of austerity since coming to power in 2011, and in particular the Right to Water campaign that exploded in the past few years in opposition to the attempted privatisation of water utilities. Southern Ireland has witnessed its own version of the anti-capitalist mass mobilisations that have taken place in Greece, Spain, Portugal and elsewhere in response to the onset of the great recession in 2008. Like those countries, Ireland has become a whipping-boy for the agents of austerity who now dominate the EU project. The scale of resistance in Ireland has obviously been on a smaller scale – and with a slower time frame – than the other hotspots, but its potential for a significant revival of the left is just as strong.

Slaying the Celtic Tiger

Kenny came to power five years ago as leader of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition elected to replace the Fianna Fail government that had presided over the country’s spectacular financial implosion in 2008. That was the year the carefully cultivated myth of the Celtic Tiger that the ruling class has generated was shattered when the country was sucked into the wider global recession.

The preceding years had seen Ireland attempt to present itself as a financial haven for global banks and multinationals with exceptionally low rates of corporate tax, positioning the country as a handy bridge between the two giant markets of the US and the EU. Bank of America, Citibank and their smaller Irish equivalents were invited by a supine government to fund a huge property market worth an estimated 40 billion. By 2007 domestic bank debts were becoming unsustainable as the borrowing splurge flooded the housing market with excessive supply. Ireland experienced its mini-version of the sub-prime mortgage crash that was unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic. Fears of a run on the banks forced the Fine Fail government in November 2008 to issue a blanket guarantee of the banks’ liabilities which by that time had collectively rocketed to 440 billion, double the country’s GDP.

The entwining of the country’s financial and political elites was farcically exposed by the ease and lack of scrutiny with which the banks were able to coerce senior politicians into handing over public assets to fund the bailout. 29 billion were pumped into the strategically crucial Anglo Irish Bank, while the Irish Nationwide was handed a tidy 5 billion. An employee of the former later commented: In hindsight youcan look at it and say the government did what Anglo did. They gave the money – they guaranteed without due diligence – they acted too quickly. The government acted in the same way that Anglo had done in handing out loans. Anglo were famous for speed and the government did the same.

Progressive EU?

Following the 2008 debacle, Irish workers were subjected to a regime of austerity concocted not just in Dublin and Wall Street but also in the corridors of power at the EU and the ECB. As the UK prepares to vote on EU membership in a few months, it is instructive to observe the pernicious role the organisation has played in enforcing neoliberal policies in another part of the British Isles.

Voices on the left who argue for maintaining membership on the grounds of the EU’s supposedly progressive defence of workers’ rights must be blind to its destructive impact on the other side of the Irish Sea. The ECB advised the paralysed government in 2008 to bailout the profligate banks and, in effect, to transfer private debt into state debt. The price to be paid by Irish taxpayers was exactly the same as was demanded from their Greek and Spanish counterparts-a savage assault on public services in the name of budgetary stability. The government was forced to go cap in hand to Brussels to secure an E85 billion loan to avoid financial meltdown. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan later commented on his sense of humiliation at the hands of the ECB hierarchy:

I have a very vivid memory of going to Brussels on the final Monday and being on my own at the airport and looking at the snow gradually thawing and thinking to myself: this is terrible. No Irish minister has ever had to do this before…The European Central Bank appeared to have arrived at a view that Ireland needed to be totally nailed down

Ravaging the Republic

The subsequent deal involved locking the economy into a programme of austerity that will last for decades but which has already ravaged the provision of public services.

Spending cuts worth 18 billion have been imposed and an additional 12 billion has been sought in tax raising measures, predictably hitting the poor hardest. Public sector pay has been cut by an average of 15%. Twenty-five thousand social housing units have been transferred to the private sector, where they are subject to minimal restrictions on rental pricing inevitably. Consequently, there are now an estimated 1,000 children and 500 families in emergency accommodation in the capital city.

Funding for local community development, such as drug prevention programmes and youth organisations, was slashed by 50%. Child poverty rose from 18% in the year of the deal to just under 30% five years later. The male suicide rate is now 57% higher. For an economy that has historically struggled due to persistent emigration, the onslaught on Irish society predictably led to an increase of 10 percent of young people choosing to leave the country. Last year, Dr Rory Heane gave his judgement on the effects on his patients of the EU-sponsored programme:

Debt relief is an important option, as is taxing the wealthy, financial services or higher incomes, rather than taking it from public services, the poor and middle-income earners. The Troika and Irish governments favoured the latter and we can see the human misery and economic damage caused, as a result.

Resistance in the Republic

Opposition from below to the budgetary savagery was initially expressed at the ballot box when the Flanna Fail government that had supervised the bailout was thrown out of office by Irish voters at the first opportunity in 2011. The current ruling Fine Gael-Labour coalition was elected not thanks to any surge of enthusiasm but largely because voters wanted to punish those politicians perceived to be most directly implicated in the slump.

Ireland’s two dominant parties are distant ancestors of the two sides that fought each other to a standstill in the civil war over partition in the 1920s. In meaningful terms they are indistinguishable, although traditionally Irish workers have seen Flanna Fail as a better guarantor of their rights. The fact that this party presided over the first stages of austerity has now opened up a historic opportunity for a new Irish left to be born. A major upsurge of resistance following the Kenny government’s attempt to introduce water meters in 2014 has provided the foundations for such a new re-alignment, with parties such as the People Before Profit Alliance sensitive of the need to engage in both electoral and street politics. 

Directly inspired by resistance to water privatisation in Bolivia, the Right to Water campaign has stunned the Irish elite with its radicalism and popularity. In working class housing estates across the Republic, protesters blocked attempts by Irish Water to install meters as part of a government-backed revenue raising scheme. The mobilisation escalated into Ireland’s belated version of the Indignados movement that had arisen in Spain in response to austerity a few years earlier.

Two giant protests in the latter part of 2014 represented the biggest scale of mobilisation the country has seen since independence; the second one attracting an incredible 200 000 people. The campaign has had significant success, forcing Kenny to cap the water charges and make a commitment to maintain the utility in the public sector. Just as the Indignados uprising inspired the rise of Podemos, the Irish water campaign caused reverberations in the country’s political system. The initial benefiter was Sinn Fein, which at one point early last year, was polling as Southern Ireland’s most popular party. The surge in support by voters alienated by both of the big two parties was shrewdly exploited by Sinn Fein which explicitly tried to position itself as Ireland’s Podemos or Syriza.

As the election has drawn closer, however, Sinn Fein support has slipped back, partly due to the failure of its Greek role model to confront the forces of EU austerity but also due to the party’s unconvincing record of opposing cuts north of the border. Whatever the outcome of the general election, there is no doubt the country is undergoing a widespread disillusionment with conventional politics comparable to the feeling experienced by millions of others across the capitalist world.

Last year’s overwhelming referendum vote to legalise gay marriage in the Republic was another sign of a gradual but significant shift to the left in public opinion that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The left has a major opportunity now to rebuild a movement worthy of the memory of Connolly, Markievicz and the other socialists involved in the uprising of 1916.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters