As the EU line up to kick Ireland again, unions must lead in defending jobs, sustainable Irish business & provision of improved public services
Brendan Ogle: As the ESRI predict the worst recession in our history, trade unions and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) have led the way in providing a comprehensive and workable counter-analysis to the hawkish calls for austerity from Ireland’s crushing neoliberal consensus.
In the very weeks when Fine Gael and Fianna Fail first seemed to rule out tax increases going forward (including the ongoing refusal to accept the Apple Tax), and then state-led borrowing, an attack began on the COVID-19 payment, with people who have been forced into isolation being targeted for ‘being better off’ on €350 a week. Now we learn that, of €750bn targeted by the European Commission in a recovery fund of grants and loans for 27 member states, Ireland is earmarked for just €1.9 billion, a tiny 0.25% of the total. This for a country that Eurostat found had been forced to pay 42% of the total cost of the European banking debt following the financial crash.
Brendan Ogle on why we should be able to access the state pension at 65 like our hypocritical politicians do.
‘OH NO WE DIDN’T’ – ‘ OH YES YOU BLOODY WELL DID!’
Last Tuesday (21/1/20) Unite’s Irish Executive Council passed a motion committing us to campaigning to restore the state pension age to 65 in the Republic of Ireland. This was on foot of a motion brought forward from the Waterford Community Branch. Yesterday (23/1/20) I attended a News Conference for the ‘STOP67’ campaign, supported by ICTU, that seeks to prevent the enactment of the legislative provision that would see the current pension age of 66 rise further to 67 in January next year. The background to this issue, which has suddenly become an election issue, is extraordinary and exemplifies both the hypocrisy in Irish politics and the failure of the Irish media to effectively call that hypocrisy out.
When we all retire is of course linked to when we can draw down our state pension, or as I like to consider it my saved wages paid in retirement, that we accumulate and provide for over a lifetime of work. In 2010 Fianna Fail and the Greens in Government did a deal with the ‘Troika’ that required us to increase our state pension age which was then 65. Remember the parties, Fianna Fail and the Greens.
Labour campaigned in the 2011 General Election against those changes, and much else (ssshhhh, don’t mention water charges)! When it was pointed out that this was part of the Troika bailout Labour were bullish – or was it another word beginning with ‘bull’ – in their ‘Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’ response. Post-election however they couldn’t wait to run out to the RDS and feign anguish at a special conference before leaping in to coalition to prop up their latest of many right wing Governments. Once in office of course it was quickly ‘Frankfurt’s way’ and then Minister Joan Burton quickly put the boot into those about to retire. As early as 15 June 2011 Burton was in the Dail espousing the:
‘fundamental principle that people need to participate in the workforce for longer and they need to contribute more towards their pensions if they are to achieve the income they expect or would like to have in retirement’.
The 2011 election was in March, Labour campaigned against the increase in the pension age, but by June just three months later not only had they smashed one of many, many election pledges but they had made the smashing of it a ‘fundamental principle’. Despite the lies in the run up to the election, once in Government a Labour Minister who later went on to be the party leader and Tanaiste, and the current leader Brendan Howlin in no less influential an office than the Department of Public Expenditure, made making our retirement ages go up to 68 by 2028 a ‘fundamental principle’.
But wait. That is unless of course you were one of them. Because guess what? The changes don’t apply to Politicians! They are still allowed to get the state pension at age 65. In fact perhaps a related news story here is that we now have actual, factual and legislative proof of something many of us have long suspected, that based on Joan Burton’s own words it is clear that ‘fundamental principles’ don’t apply to Politicians.
What utter hypocrisy.
Fine Gael of course were, and are, delighted. Listen to Regina O’Doherty justifying this abuse of working people in the run up to the election. At the time Enda Kenny as Taoiseach was happy to give glib answers to a rightly irate opposition while the Labour Party went around doing his dirty work for him. If that lot stay in Government look forward to ever increasing retirement ages and lower net pensions in perpetuity.
So fast forward to this 2020 election campaign. Labour, the Greens and Fianna Fail who all did this haven’t been in Government for a while and they all want back there. They are looking for a way to get votes. SIPTU’S Michael Taft yesterday described, correctly, these pension changes as ‘a cynical move on low paid people that was highly regressive and socially damaging’.
These parties know this now. But what is worse is they knew it then too. They knew it when they did it, and they did it anyway. Because they don’t care what is regressive. They don’t care what is socially damaging. All they really care about is that they get elected, and they are even prepared to use campaigns against their own policies, their own decisions in Government, to get back into Government. So they can do it to us again. Why are they not being loudly called out on all of this in the media? Even at the Press Conference yesterday nobody dared say ‘Labour did this’. The Leader of Fianna Fail who sat at the cabinet table and put these changes on the agenda, with Green Party leader Eamon Ryan there too as a fellow Minister, are now cynically campaigning against the issue they created. There was an elephant in that room yesterday bigger than any elephant in the Phoenix Park. The entire media was represented there. And nobody said it. Nobody called it out.
I want to lend my support to the ‘STOP67’ Campaign, for what it’s worth. Well done SIPTU, ICTU, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Age Action Ireland and Active Retirement Ireland. Let’s #STOP67. And then lets #STOP66. And then lets #RESTORE65.
And while we are at it what about if, for and once and for all, we stop being silent and failing to call out the insincerity, the hypocrisy, the theatrics and the pantomime politics. Surely as a country we are better than this.
The General Election is already effectively underway and it looks like it will be formally announced in the coming days. It’s already being pitched by the media as a presidential style election whose main purpose will be to decide if Leo Varadkar or Michael Martin will be Taoiseach. To those suffering in this country – whichever of those two sits in the Taoiseach’s office will make absolutely no difference – Unite’s Brendan Ogle explains why.
We are told constantly now that the General Election is already effectively underway and it looks like it will be formally announced in the coming days. It’s already being pitched by the media as a presidential style election whose main purpose will be to decide if Leo Varadkar or Michael Martin will be Taoiseach. Here’s the news, to those suffering in this country – whichever of those two sits in the Taoiseach’s office will make absolutely no difference – and here’s why.
Michael Martin was an integral and supplicant part of successive Bertie Ahern/Fianna Fáil led Governments which wrecked this country in order to facilitate their builder and banker buddies. He sat in high office at every single cabinet meeting and voted for every ‘light touch regulation’ measure, measures that caused or created:
– the financial crash
– a loss of economic sovereignty
– the public bailout of a rotten private banking system
– a troika bailout of the country that has cost this and future generations tens of billions of Euro (€65billion)
– mass emigration of over 300,000 of our young people and families
– a massive transfer of wealth from the poor and middle, to the rich and reckless
These measures led directly to a tragic suicide epidemic and indirectly to an historically tragic housing emergency. Michael Martin and the decisions he silently took at the cabinet table resulted in the loss of life, light and hope and has blighted the futures of our youngest.
Leo Varadkar has been Taoiseach less than three years but he has been a Minister and senior cabinet member since 2011. In that time he has voted to:
– impose austerity on the country to push the sins of the rich onto the shoulders of the rest
– make sure the richest in our society currently carry the lowest tax burden they have had to carry in decades
– he has tried, and failed, to commodify and privatise our water
– he has turned a homelessness crisis into a housing emergency simply to enrich the property and landlord class his party exists to represent
– he is the Taoiseach of tax haven Ireland, suing the EU to try to let the richest corporation in the world keep €13billion it has been found to owe in taxes
– this week our health system plumbed new depths and the number of patients on trolleys hit a new high, all presided over by this former Minister for Health and Doctor!
And what was the Taoiseach doing this week while this was happening?
He was trying to find a way to commemorate crown forces who 100 years ago fought might and main to stop the very state itself from being created.
Of course for many who are secure in their homes, their jobs, their pensions, their savings or otherwise, things have improved from the abyss of ten years ago. The banks we the people bailed out are lending again, even evicting some of those who bailed them out, or selling their homes to vulture funds.
In addition ‘leprechaun economics’ allows massive growth levels to be claimed. Our tax haven status allows it to look like the books are a bit better. Precarious work, and labour and human rights abuses in sectors like hospitality (and others), make it look like there are lots of jobs, and if you are prepared to work for near nothing in one of the most expensive cities in the world that may even be the case.
Yet for many there is no home they can realistically afford, no job they are secure in, no pay that is enough, no pension they can plan for, no single tier health system they can fall back on when sick, no house or family or future they can save for and look forward to.
We live in a country where those of us who simply want homes for our people, who want fair and just taxation, who want a living wage for all and a health system that is the same for poor people as it is for rich people are presented by the media as extremists. And yet those who have caused economic and near social breakdown, who have bailed out the reckless, and who have caused death, despair and hopelessness are unquestioningly allowed to present themselves as ‘holding the centre’.
Whether Leo Varadkar or Michael Martin is Taoiseach this country is run for the few, on the backs of the many.
Guess what, Irish people who vote – and especially those who don’t bother at all – allow them to do this? Are we going to allow our votes be used for it to stay like that forever?
Brendan Ogle’s latest blog on the UK General Election “in an era of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Donald Trump, in a world which has swung inexorably to the right and where greed is now considered not only good but great, finding a person with human traits of empathy, social justice, equality and dignity and putting them into high office would dramatically buck recent trends.”
The question keeps popping up within media circles, in various forms – ‘why is Jeremy Corbyn so unpopular?’
I could make an argument that the presumption in the question is unsound. After all the British Labour Party has had its greatest level of membership ever during Corbyn’s leadership, at times his meetings have taken on the size and sound of mass rallies, and young people in particular seem inspired by this aged Marxist in a way which is extraordinary to see. Yet it is certainly the case that all this is happening against a constant background of vicious and dishonest attack, blatant media bias, and personal vilification so intense and sustained that even some people that I would have thought would have had more sense on the left here in Ireland have descended to ‘Corbyn bashing’.
Then of course we have the liberal commentariat. In Britain they are called ‘Blairites’, or ‘Red Tory’s’ to give them a more incisive name. To understand them remember that Margaret Thatcher herself, when asked once what her greatest achievement was, answered ‘Tony Blair’. They are those who have effectively given up on a radical reform of society, of a re-distribution of wealth downwards from rich to poor, of just taxation and of improved and increased public services, and instead believe that the best the working class can achieve is a compromise with neoliberal greed and inequality. They use the words ‘compromise’ a lot as if neoliberals are into compromise. They talk about ‘holding the centre’ as if the centre hasn’t already moved to the extreme right, and they measure public opinion by what people text into TV and radio shows on the ideological sect that passes for media these days. Oh, and they carry a White flag, ready to wave to their masters whenever challenged.
Faced with such times and circumstances a win for a Corbyn led Labour in today’s UK general election would be extraordinary. But to me, who has taken some stick in my time myself, the most extraordinary thing is this – that Jeremy Corbyn is still standing after everything that has been thrown at him and is in with a fighting chance on denying Johnson’s toxic dishonest, selfish and greedy agenda a majority Government (or even better)! I take my hat off to the man.
Jeremy Corbyn has never voted for, let alone started, a war. He has never made a person homeless. He has never closed a public service. He leads a humble, some would say frugal, life. Unlike his opponent he is not a liar, he doesn’t threaten people, he doesn’t hide from robust and difficult debate and he doesn’t try to manipulate tragedy and murder victims for political gain as Boris Johnson did recently. He is a decent, humble and deeply compassionate human being. Any country should feel privileged to have the potential to be led by such a man in a Profession littered with liars, crooks, narcissists, sociopaths and even psychopaths.
But Corbyn does something very rare in politics today. He speaks truth to power, and he promises reform. Here’s a wee secret, power doesn’t much appreciate the truth, and the rich and powerful certainly don’t want reform and change. They are doing very well thank you very much, and the media outlets that they own and control know it. Corbyn threatens their hegemony, so much so that they would prefer an uncouth buffoon and renowned liar in power that will do their bidding, that they can put in their pocket like a possession.
I am not going to dignify the disgusting slurs peddled as fact about Corbyn and anti-semitism. Just remember this though while you are looking and failing to find any race of religion that Corbyn has ever attacked, this man of principle would be the first every British Prime Minister to have a pro-Palestine position and has promised to stop selling arms to Israel – arms that they use for their ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. In a world where Zionists consider standing with the oppressed children of Palestine enough to damn you as anti-semitic, it’s not hard to see why the powerful ‘Israel Lobby’ so dread Prime Minister Corbyn. Shame on them.
As I write this, polls are narrowing, but probably not quickly enough. A Labour/SNP coalition is still possible, highly desirable, but maybe unlikely. Is there a Labour surge that the unreliable polls are missing? We’ll know soon enough.
But I am certain of this – in an era of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Donald Trump, in a world which has swung inexorably to the right and where greed is now is considered not only good but great, finding a person with human traits of empathy, social justice, equality and dignity and putting them into high office would dramatically buck recent trends.
It would be an immensely positive turn, a necessary change #ForTheManyNotTheFew, a precious moment of fight back for decency.
Next Friday, 20th September, young people across the globe will march down the streets of their cities and towns singing, chanting, carrying banners and placards to demonstrate against impeding climate chaos and the lack of political action to avoid or avert the grave risks we are all facing. This is not hyperbole, it is simply the facts, the scientific consensus. We are destroying the planet and the half-hearted measures proffered by political entities are wholly inadequate to deal with this crisis.
Climate chaos poses great risks to our planet, to food crops, to water quality and to human health. Rising sea levels will have an adverse effect on migration; it is estimated that 10% of the world’s population will be climate refugees by 2050. By 2048 there will be no fish left in our oceans. Young people face an uncertain future and the toll on human life will be considerable if action is not taken, and taken immediately. This is an emergency of unprecedented proportions.
A report published this week described preparations for climate crisis as “gravely insufficient”. One of the main obstacles is a lack of political will to implement the radical changes that are needed.
Ireland has consistently failed to reduce carbon emissions and is likely to face billions of euro in fines from the EU as it fails to meet both its 2020 and 2030 targets. The governmental response to this crisis has been weak and without vision. Government Ministers have been blatantly two faced on the issue, claiming on the one hand that climate action is a priority and even posing for photographs with young climate activists, while on the other hand continuing to issue offshore exploration licenses and preventing the passage of the Climate Emergency Bill.
Government will acknowledge that the planet is in grave danger because of human industry and out of control consumption yet they continue to push the very policies that are causing that damage; like increasing the national herd and handing out licenses for oil exploration. This is hugely irresponsible.
The over reliance on carbon tax as a solution is unsound as a policy. Ring-fencing money to implement good policies is necessary but that is only one relatively small step out of numerous steps that are needed. As it stands a carbon tax implemented by Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil will only serve to push the costs on to consumers and ordinary people. And those political parties will do very little to tackle the biggest polluters. Just 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet and nothing is being done to curtail their behaviour.
The need for radical and visionary policies is now. Our society has to consider huge changes in how it produces, consumes and embraces transition. That starts with the need to stop measuring our society in the narrow parameters of economic growth, profit making and GDP. The pursuit of economic growth has led to a high level of inequality whereby Ireland, as one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, lags way behind its neighbours in terms of public services. We currently have over 750,000 people at risk of poverty and the highest level of homelessness than at any other time in the state’s history.
Taking new and brave decisions is the only way we will be able to stop climate chaos. For example Ireland should be moving forward to introduce free public transport as other countries and cities in Europe are now doing. The fact that the minister for Transport has ruled out this move is an indication of why Ireland is currently the EU’s worst performer on climate action. They have failed to take this seriously.
Unite the Union commends the lead given by international school students and urges those members to come out and support the September 20 ‘climate strike’. There are events taking place across the country and details of actions taking place near you can be found on the Global Strike Action website.
Climate change is the biggest challenge to our generation, and is a trade union issue and a class issue; it is riven with inequality and will leave no part of the economy untouched.
The greatest strength we have is solidarity and organisation, the Trade Union movement has to be a vehicle for the struggle against climate change.
Harland and Wolff shipyard in East Belfast may not seem to be the most obvious example of ‘left unity’ you can think of. Yet, currently, the workers in that famous yard have taken a stand in effectively blockading the work-site to prevent their jobs from being ripped out from under them, and their community. As I write there are hopes that this action may yet have created the space for a buyer to come in and rescue the plant that the bumbling British Government refuse to nationalise, even as the Stormont administration continues its disappearing act failing the people and workers of Northern Ireland.
Notably, as often happens, it is from crisis that unity has emerged. Workers with no wages have been supported by their fellow union members, and others, with financial and other support to keep the plant, and hope, alive. This support has been provided across borders of culture and mind. This is ‘left unity’ in action. Workers coming together to support the protection of each other’s jobs.
This coming November Unite will sponsor a new event, the ‘Unite The Union Champions Cup’. On 8 November in Belfast Linfield Football Club will host either Dundalk or Shamrock Rovers and three days later a return fixture will take place in the South. A Trade Union will, for the first time ever, sponsor a football contest between two clubs deeply rooted in working class communities with very different histories. It may well come just days after Brexit when, if the sociopaths leading the British Conservative Party have their way, a border with necessary checks will be re-imposed on this island.
Unite are taking this initiative because we believe our equality agenda is key to delivering a better Ireland for us all. We will promote anti-sectarian work by challenging sectarianism, not hiding from it. We want to promote our anti-racist ethos by addressing it, highlighting it and working in communities to tackle the growing scourge of racism head on. The rights and needs of the LBGTQ community needs discussion too and it, and the vital issue of women’s rights, will also feature in the promotion of this new event.
Will it work?
Who knows? But we are trying to build working class unity, ‘left unity’, in new and exciting ways.
We hear many calls for ‘left unity’, and as much bemoaning its apparent absence from across the political spectrum. Even the establishment right constantly point to the failure of ‘the left’ to provide an opposition that they would try to kill at birth (and have done in the past) should it ever show signs of emerging.
Recently one of the smaller political parties called for it again. To the media. This worthy and welcome call came timed for press coverage and late Summer ‘Think-Ins’ and spoke of a letter nobody has seen. The detail of the call was interesting. It spoke of both a failure to build a housing campaign on the scale of Right2Water and the need to exclude Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael from discussion, something I wholeheartedly agree with.
Yesterday (Monday) I was driving to work listening to Morning Ireland on RTE Radio 1. The Irish Labour Party, with a mere 7 Dail seats, were having their ‘think in’ and RTE gave their leader Brendan Howlin a prime time slot to discuss. What they discussed was the potential for Labour to win 7-10 seats in the next Election (they won 37 in 2011 and spectacularly blew it) and whether they would again prop up a right wing Government if they did so. We were told that Senator Ivana Bacik again opposed such a scenario, and Brendan Howlin again supported it. There would have to be a special post-election convention (that’s them deciding what to do with your votes AFTER you have cast them) and it would be ‘difficult’ for the party, but it’s likely that they would enter Government again.
You may be expecting me now to remind you of how this is just a replay of the 2011 ‘debate’ Labour had when they decided that ‘Frankfurt’s way or Labour’s way’ would in fact be Frankfurt’s way and spent the next 5 years skewing the working class with such relish that they became despised. It seemed they fell over themselves to get the Ministries (housing, water, public expenditure) where they could do the maximum harm to the most vulnerable. Well no, I’m not going to talk about that. Go back further. Labour have served the second highest total number of years (19) in coalition Government in the state, second only to Fianna Fail. On every single occasion the Party has asked itself whether it should prop up a right wing Government it has answered ‘yes, we’ll take those Ministers jobs alright’, and on every single occasion it has weakened itself and damaged the working class. Not only have the positions not changed in decades, but even the names are the same. As long ago as 1989 Ivana Bacik and Brendan Howlin were having the same ‘debate’, with the same inevitable outcome.
If we are ever to see Ireland’s first progressive Government this pantomime must be called out, not facilitated on ‘the left’. What do I mean by this?
The recent extolling of the water charges movement in the left call for unity seems to me to miss an obvious point. The water charges movement didn’t begin with politicians. Or Trade Unions. The most united campaign we ever had began when a woman in Cork said ‘thou shall not pass’ to a water meter installer and her neighbours followed her lead. She led! Soon the Community in Edenmore did the same. Citizens led. Unions supported with money and logistics, the politicians got behind the campaign, but the water charges movement won (for now) because it was bottom up, not top down.
History will recall that when it came straight after to the housing emergency the campaign that was formed could not have been like Right2Water because it was deliberately structured to be the complete opposite to Right2Water. It was structured to be headed and controlled by politicians with some limited union support. It even brought the Labour Party itself in from the cold, opened the door to the party that had by 2016 presided over the sharpest rises in homelessness in Ireland since the famine. It was not about ground up community building where parties and unions respond to community building. And so, unfortunately, it didn’t work and the crisis turned into an emergency.
So where to now?
A number of things strike me. Imagine if all those calling for ‘left unity’ from within their own divided parties actually just left and started to work together for a bigger, greater good instead of fighting for 1 or 2 percentage points in polls and elections.
Then imagine if we just all accepted that Labour are simply part of a 2.5 party ‘state establishment’ that needs to be counteracted and that they are as left, right and opportunistic as Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have ever been, and we just aren’t falling for their theatre anymore.
And then imagine if we stopped just calling for ‘left unity’ and got on with building campaigns together, working together, soldiering together and being humble enough to show respect to each other while we did so. Right2Water worked (so far) because it stuck to simple core principles and was community driven, ground up.
Next Saturday (11 am in Abbey Street) the ‘Tom Stokes Unite Community Branch’ will begin the work of building a Deaf Community Branch, and we are also on the verge of building a ‘Hospitality Branch’ for workers – many of whom are migrant workers – being abused in the sector by outfits such as the disgraced ‘The Ivy’ in Dublin. There is work afoot, and work to be done. And yes, let’s talk about not repeating the mistakes of the past for once.
I’m finishing by asking the question again, of everyone. Maybe it is time people started to come up with honest answers:
‘Do you want to be a small part of something really big, or are you content to be a big part of something small?’
(LOOK OUT FOR OUR NEXT BLOG AT THE WEEKEND FROM UNITE’S RHONA McCORD ON CLIMATE CHANGE AND HOW WE NEED TO ALL GET BEHIND THE STUDENTS LEADING THE FIGHTBACK ON THE ISSUE.