The backdrop to this unpopularity is the relentless series of cuts and attacks on the living standards of working class people. It is now an accepted fact by almost everyone in society that this government lied through their teeth to get back into power. The arrogance and cohesiveness that characterised the FF/PD coalition in their first term in office and at the beginning of their second term is beginning to crack. The divisions between the government parties over the possible reintroduction of third level fees and the tension over health spending are small indications of a government under pressure.
The massive drop in support for the coalition bears out the analysis put forward by the Socialist Party after the general election that the FF/PD coalition’s second period in office would be nothing like the first. They were able to get over many of the scandals and crises that affected them in recent years because of the strength of the economy and a certain "feel good factor". That mood has now changed decisively and it is inevitable that they will come up against more serious opposition to their economic policies.
The demonstrations against the war gave a glimpse of the potential opposition to the government. Strong anti government sentiment was a key feature of all the demonstrations that took place during the course of the war. This was reflected in one of the biggest demonstrations in the history of the State when 150,000 took to the streets of Dublin on 15 February. This anti war, anti government mood hardened in subsequent weeks as the government effectively ignored the protests and continued to allow the US military the use of Shannon. The war has had a radicalising effect on whole sections of society particularly young people. That radicalism coupled with anger on domestic issues can become an explosive cocktail.
Flirting with Recession
The government "covered up" the true state of the economy in its election campaign but those lies have now returned to haunt them. The projected budget deficit for 2003 already stands at €2 billion. In 2002, Gross National Product (GNP) grew by only 0.6%. This probably understates the growth in the domestic economy slightly. GNP for 2002 was probably in the region of 2-2.5%. However, in the final quarter, there was a drop of 2.3% in GNP meaning the economy came in to 2003 on a very weak footing. If this trend continues, then the economy will move into recession.
The current strength of the euro over the US dollar will have a detrimental effect on the Irish economy. Ireland is an export driven economy and the US is one of the most important markets for Irish goods. From that point of view the strength of the euro to the US dollar means those Irish exports are more expensive there, putting jobs at risk.
Predictions of 2.5% GNP growth for 2003 are based on an upturn in the world economy, and in particular this would require a major turnaround in the fortunes of the US economy. The US economy has dramatically slowed. Consumer spending in the US, which has been the main driving force of the recent world boom, continues to fall. The effective devaluation of the US dollar (which has fallen 25% in value against the euro) is an attempt to stop the US economy going into recession by giving a boost to US exports. It is also a form of undeclared trade war by the US against EU imports. The most likely perspective is that the US and Britain will join Germany and Japan in recession over the next period. Ireland cannot escape; it will also go into recession.
The declining economy in Ireland has impacted on working class people through the cutbacks and job losses. There is huge anger but the lack of struggle by the trade union movement has meant that workers are less confident about taking on the government. The economic crisis will now force workers into struggle, from the health cuts to privatisation, the anti bin tax battle and many other issues, new fresh layers of activists will develop through the struggles on these issues. Labour, the Greens and Sinn Fein will not reflect or be able to respond to these struggles in any meaningful way. These parties base themselves on the market and capitalism, they will not be able to provide answers to workers and young people looking for an alternative to the crisis of capitalism and the resultant attacks on their living conditions.
A massive 92% of the population believe that the government is not fulfilling their promises on the health service. Health is undoubtedly this government’s Achilles heel. The Fianna Fail general election manifesto promised an increase in capital spending on health of €1.102bn in 2003. So far this year health spending has risen by a mere €7.3m, a paltry 0.06% of the figure they promised! The much heralded health strategy, published just six months before last year’s election, committed an investment of €13bn over ten years, which would end waiting list in three years and extend the medical card scheme to an extra 200,00 people. This has been scrapped.
In Dublin, of a total of 2,800 beds available, 600 have now effectively been closed. 250 beds have just been closed which is the equivalent to 14,000 treatments.
At the recent nurses’ union conference, there was a motion passed calling for a campaign against health cuts. If the health workers’ unions launched a campaign of this character, which was backed by the broader trade union movement, then it would receive the support of the majority of people. Failing this, the potential exists for battles to be fought against the health cutbacks. The current cuts are exasperating a health system already at breaking point. New cuts can push health workers and the communities affected "over the edge" thus provoking resistance to the government.
This government’s neo-liberal agenda is clearly shown by its privatisation plans and the importance it places on the introduction of public private partnerships.
The government plans to begin the privatisation of Dublin Bus routes in January 2004. The privatisation of Dublin Bus would be a disaster just as bus privatisation has been in the UK. Inevitably, private bus operators will be interested only in the profitable routes. The 94% strike ballot by NBRU members is a real indication of the strong mood of workers. So far there hasn’t been a significant struggle in Ireland against privatisation, however Dublin Bus could be different. The leadership of SIPTU and the NBRU are taking a strong stance on the issue but will be reluctant to lead a battle, but they can be pushed into battle by the very angry mood of the workers.
September 11th and the resulting aviation recession has delayed the sell off of Aer Lingus. Instead the new management under Willie Walsh are attempting to sell off the company piecemeal, beginning with the catering section before moving onto to loading, cleaning, baggage handling, and the cargo sections. They will then try to sell the airline just as a carrier. Catering staff have already begun a campaign against their sell off.
Increasingly, the neo-liberal agenda of the government will bring them into conflict not just with the workers directly affected, but also with the general public. Conditions will open up that may lead to a general offensive by the working class to defend its public services.
Bin Tax battle
The major battle this summer will be on the issue of the bin tax particularly in Dublin. The vast majority of citizens across the four Dublin County Councils have not paid this double tax. Despite legal threats and threats of non-collection of rubbish, none of the councils have been successful in breaking the will of people. However the government are now going on the offensive with Martin Cullen’s "Protection of Environment Bill, 2003".
This Bill represents a vicious attack on local democracy by removing all decisions in relation to waste management from the hands of the elected councillors. This is an extremely sinister development. This Bill means that the government would have powers to impose incinerators, landfill dumps and waste charges on communities and households. The clear attempt here is to exempt the right wing councillors from blame on these sensitive issues and that when it comes to elections, councillors can put their hands in the air and claim no responsibility for these unpopular decisions.
When the Bill is passed, it will give the councils the right not to collect the rubbish of anyone who refuses to pay the bin tax. If the government is successful in breaking the anti- bin tax campaigns then it will lay the basis for a parallel local taxation system. It is not a coincidence that 2003 opened with a lot of media speculation about water charges. If they defeat the anti bin tax campaigns then water charges may be re-introduced. This is an attack on working class people by the government and as such must be met with massive resistance. The campaigns throughout Dublin will need to mobilise activists in every community ready to fight this law.
In a recent opinion poll, Labour have over taken Fine Gael as the second party. This is the first time they have achieved this since the run into the 1992 general election. When Rabbitte took over as leader of the Labour Party, there was much speculation about Rabbitte’s political background, his so-called "socialist" past and how he might return the party to its left wing roots. The recent speech at his party conference should end that speculation for good. It is quite clear that Rabbitte, just like Blair in Britain, is intent on moving the party further to the right.
In his speech at the conference he said, "People don’t care who delivers the services, as long as they are delivered, they are not occupied by the ownership of structures". This quite clearly is tantamount to support for privatisation and public private partnerships.
This shows the Blairite direction in which Rabbite is heading, but it also shows the limitations of how far Labour can develop as an opposition force to this government. In reality, the increase in support Labour does not reflect an enthusiasm for the party or an endorsement of their policies. Labour does not challenge the market. They have no alternative to capitalism. They will make gains because of the political vacuum but they will not adequately reflect the enormous anger in Irish society or reflect the struggles that are looming in Irish society.
With the continuing decline of Fine Gael, Rabbitte envisages himself as the leader of the opposition and probably now as the only alternative Taoiseach to Ahern. Indeed it is now possible that due to Enda Kenny’s dismal attempt to make Fine Gael relevant that the Fine Gael party could split with sections joining the Labour Party.
Despite Rabbitte’s categorical rebuff to a potential Fianna Fail coalition before last year’s election, he has not repeated this statement since becoming leader and it is clear that if there were no other alternative, that Labour and Rabbitte would enter government with Fianna Fail.
Labour will gain votes and seats in next year’s local government elections. But it is unlikely that Labour will end up with 33 Dail seats as in 1992. Rabitte’s pro-market policies, and the betrayal the working class still feel at the hands of his predecessors who propped up anti-working class Fianna Fail and Fine Gael governments are problems which are compounded by the competition for votes they face with parties such as Sinn F?in, the Greens and the Socialist Party.
It is clear that what is needed in Ireland is a new mass workers’ party. The Socialist Party is in favour and will be to the forefront building such a party in Ireland. However we don’t believe that the forces needed for the establishment of such a party exist at this time. As struggles develop against neo-liberalism, the building of such a party will be placed on to the agenda.
Will growing anger lead to massive fightback?
The mood of anger against this government has yet to be fully expressed. In the local and European elections in June of next year, the government are likely to suffer significant losses. Labour will make gains as will Sinn Fein and the Green Party and probably single issue and independent candidates. The Socialist Party also expects to make a number of gains at this election. However, while these elections will be important, the main area where the government will come under pressure is when workers in communities and the unions begin to take them on.
Ireland’s EU presidency during the first six months of next year provides an important backdrop and focal point for potential struggles. The agenda of the EU leaders has been one of mass privatisation, attacks on pension rights, social welfare and wages, the same attacks that have begun to be visited on Irish workers by this government. There will be thousands of workers and young people from all over Europe coming to Ireland to demonstrate against the neo-liberal agenda of the EU. This opens the opportunity for a campaign by the unions or various sections of workers against the health cuts and in defence of public services which could link up with other workers throughout Europe against these attacks.
It is only a matter of time before there is a major fight back against this government. The cutbacks have only just begun, as the economy deteriorates so the cuts will become deeper and more brutal. There is a volatility in Irish society that has not been as evident for some time. People are angry and are looking for change, for leadership and direction. What is missing is a "spark"; one cutback too many, or a group of workers taking on the government, could give confidence to the rest of the movement that it is still possible to fight back. When that happens a movement can emerge which could take on and defeat this government.
From Socialist View, Socialist Party magazine