By Stephen Rigney, Socialist Party (CWI Ireland), Dublin
Despite the snow, freezing temperatures and a biting wind, between 50,000 to 100,000 people turned out, on Saturday, 27 November, for an anti-austerity demonstration called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in response to the government’s EU & IMF backed austerity programme.
The Fiancé Fail/Greens Coalition government’s four-year ’National Recovery Plan’ will see €15 billion (€10 billion in expenditure and €5 in tax increases) cut from the economy by 2014, including €6 billion in 2011 alone. This is in addition to the €14.5 billion that has been previously cut over the past three years – amounting to 20% of Gross Domestic Product by the end of 2014!
ICTU estimates that 90,000 jobs will be lost over the course of the “Plan”, with those workers left to languish on the dole queues alongside the 450,000 people who are currently unemployed. Nearly 25,000 public sector jobs are to be destroyed. New entrants to the public service will see their wages cut by another 10% (making a total cut of 25% in two years) and will receive a reduced pension.
Tax increases in the Plan will see the introduction of a €100 flat-rate home tax by 2012, doubling to an average of €200 annually by 2013; a 2% increase in VAT by 2014; a €500 increase (to €2,000) in the student registration fee, along with a reduction in student grants and the re-introduction of domestic water charges. According to one government minister, had water charges not been abolished by a mass campaign of non-payment, led by the Socialist Party in the 1990s, the charge would now amount to over €700 per household annually.
Under the guise of protecting small businesses from going to the wall, the minimum wage is to be cut by €1 or 11.5%. One employer, quoted in the Sunday Business Post, gave the government’s real intentions away – driving the wages of all workers down – when they pointed out that, “If the minimum rate falls, there’s scope to cut the rates for workers who are earning above it.” For someone earning the minimum wage in full time work, this will amount to a massive €40 a week pay cut!
Social welfare payments are likely to be slashed by a further 5% in December’s budget while changes to tax will impact on all workers and will drag the lowest paid workers into the taxation system.
And while workers are being expected to take the pain, especially those on benefits and the lowest paid, €35 billion of the EU / IMF funded €85 billion bailout is to be pumped into the banks, on top of the €50 billion already earmarked for the bondholders and speculators. The government’s contribution will see the effective handing over of the National Pension Reserve Fund to the banks, a fund which was set aside to cover the future costs of state pensions.
As one commentator put it, the Irish government are acting like a desperate poker player who in one last ditched attempt to cover their losses have put all of their chips into the “pot” plus their car keys and the deeds to their home.
In reality, this is nothing short of an open declaration of war on workers, the unemployed and young people in Ireland. But judging by the resilient mood and anger on last Saturday’s demonstration, it is a war that workers in Ireland are more than willing to fight.
Throughout their speeches on Saturday, the general secretaries of ICTU and SIPTU (Ireland’s largest union), David Egg and Jack O’Connor, both faced booing from a significant section of the crowd for their failure to offer any real alternative. This is a significant step forward from the generally passive response to these bureaucrats on previous demonstrations and a reflection of the increasing frustration and anger of people.
Even the union leaders’ decision on where the finishing point of the demonstration should be was a reflection of their cynicism and effective capitulation to any form of struggle against this government, as well as an acceptance of the media’s attempt to spread panic about the demonstration. Rather than bring the demonstration to government buildings as is normal, they chose to finish at the GPO (General Post Office), the one building in Dublin that for historic reasons [the centre of the 1916 Easter rebellion against British rule] they thought angry workers would have respect for.
Despite being forced to the rear of the demonstration by ICTU stewards, thousands of demonstrators joined a contingent organised by the United Left Alliance (ULA), in which the Socialist Party is involved with other left groups. Hundreds of ULA placards calling for a 24-hour general strike were eagerly snatched up by people joining the protest and over 25,000 leaflets were distributed by Socialist Party activists and 500 copies of The Socialist, with a headline declaring, “Under attack – fightback!”, were sold.
Significantly, an alternative left platform, organised by the Socialist Party, trade union activists and other left-wing groups was attended by nearly 5,000 people after the main demonstration had ended. Speakers promoted an important alternative to the government and EU / IMF imposed cuts. A leaflet, distributed by the Socialist Party and left activists, calling for a Budget Day protest on Tuesday 7 December outside the Daily (Irish Parliament) was also received warmly by the crowd.
Socialist Party MEP, Joe Higgins, received massive cheers when he called on workers to “strike and strike again” to ensure that not a penny is handed over to the IMF and when he pointed out that the Labour Party / Fine Gael ’government-in-waiting’ will represent no alternative to the current cutback government. Joe also called on workers to use their votes in the upcoming general election to support the recently launched United Left Alliance and their alternative to the right-wing policies of the government and opposition.
While the cold weather is to remain for the next few days, the political temperature in Ireland is constantly on the rise. The open criticism of the union leadership in the form of heckling and booing, the significant attendance and support for the alternative left platform and the growing response to the formation of the ULA, over the past few days and weeks, are an important reflection of a rapidly changing political consciousness.
Workers are well aware that this hated government is critically unstable and that a decisive push by the unions could bring it down. With the intervention of the IMF, it is virtually impossible for the Labour Party and Fine Gael to pretend they can offer a political alternative any longer. Though it is likely that the Budget will pass next week, there is still an outside chance that it could be defeated, which will force a general election much sooner than the government’s timetable of next February/March.
While this government teeters on the edge, the call for a one-day general strike can increasingly find an echo amongst workers and the unemployed. Such a call should not just represent a punishing of the current government but a warning to the future government that any attempts to make workers pay will be met with resistance.