Fianna Fáil’s Eighties Revival

Quelle surprise. Economic difficulties rear their head in the Republic, and Fianna Fáil reacts in the only way it knows how – a reactionary budget that punishes ordinary people, amidst a great deal of talk of belt tightening, difficult conditions, the need for patriotism, and hard choices. We’ve heard all this before, most recently in the 1980s, while the late and unlamented Charlie Haughey was having his suits handmade in Paris, and his buddies were making fortunes from corruption – a house of cards brought down, lest we forget, by Tomás Mac Giolla’s exposure in the Dáil of the nature of the Goodman company. The south, through a combination of EU membership, a young, English-speaking, relatively well-educated and relatively cheap workforce, low corporation tax, and being in the right place at the right time, has as we all know been transformed in the last two decades. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget an unsustainable Thatcherite housing bubble. There has for a large number of the last fifteen years been a large budget surplus, and some good has come out of it – investment in transport and infrastructure (although of course with the usual incompetence and stupidity as over the Dublin Port tunnel, the trams, and the failure to deal with the gridlock in Dublin), investment in education, better services in some areas, more employment, and an undoubted rise in living standards. The liberalisation and secularisation of society has also been accelerated by these trends. Those who raised doubts about the extent to which the money being made was being transferred out of the country by the multinationals, or concern about the short life span of factories owned by multinationals, or the failure to develop a significant native-owned industrial sector, or the vastly uneven distribution of the new wealth, or the failure to tax it properly, were mocked as remnants of the past, economic illiterates, begrudgers, and fools who refused to recognise the profound transformation wrought by recent economic development.

Hmmmm. The arrogant assumption that the Celtic Tiger was a juggernaut impossible to roll back, and that the economic growth would inevibatly continue looks a lot more silly than the questions raised during the height of the boom. What has happened is that a problem centred in America has radiated out from there and is on the verge of wrecking the southern economy. Obviously, every country in the world will be hit, and hit hard, by serious difficulties in America, but the south is particularly vulnerable as probably the most open economy in the developed world, with a huge proportion of its investment coming from the US. That is all understood. The question is, what resources does Ireland have to fall back on when its main sugar daddy cuts the purse strings? The answer is simple. The money accumulated during the boom years has been frittered away, and a government that makes a great deal of its skills in economic planning through its much-trumpeted National Development Plans has done precisely sweet bugger all in creating and sustaining native industry that was not almost completely dependent on the goodwill of others. This was of course very much a consequence of ideology. Not I admit a word much associated with Fianna Fáil, for whom the famous quip “You don’t like my principles? Wait, I have others” could have been invented. However, Fianna Fáil for the last five decades has been committed to a policy of free market economics and reliance on foreign capital for economic development, as have the other main parties in the state.

And we can see the consequences of this in the Budget. Here we have the Minister for Finance:
“The Government is determined to retain and enhance Ireland’s reputation as a pro-enterprise economy and as an attractive location for foreign direct investment. The most important action we can take in this regard is to stabilise our public finances.” The budget speech also spoke at length about the importance of foreign direct investment, added to some references to indigenous industry. There was a great deal of discussion of cutting the debt, ensuring fiscal stability, and all the other buzzwords so beloved of the right internationally – except when it comes to bailing out multinationals and funding armies. So what does all this actually mean? It means that the budget is dominated by the interests of foreign capital, and the people expected to make the sacrifices are the ordinary taxpayer, the young, and the old. As usual.

Corporation tax will stay where it is. Irish government policy will continue to serve the needs of the multinationals. And the Irish bourgeoisie. A 1% levy is being added to incomes – to the gross of all incomes – up to around 100,000 Euro. 2% on anything over that. So much for all the talk of fairness. 1% of 20,000 Euro means a lot more to the person earning that than two percent does to the barrister or whoever earning a million Euro. Not only that, but child benefit is being restricted, numerous education grants – including to Travellers – are being cut, and automatic medical cards are being taken away from the over-70s. This last measure in particular is quite simply barbaric. And turning the clock back not so much to the 1980s, but to the Dark Ages. In a demonstration of how little has changed in government priorities since the creation of the Free State, farmers are getting a great deal of continued support and relief.
Let’s make no mistake. This is not far from the most reactionary budget thinkable in the current circumstances – a budget for the multinationals and the rich at home. A budget right out of a different era, despite the populist pay cut for Ministers.

At least in the 1980s, there was a vibrant movement opposed to the right-wing initiatives of government. The PAYE workers’ campaigns, a less pliable union movement, and a serious and committed left voice in the Dáil in The Workers’ Party, which was active in promoting an alternative set of economic priorities through its Research Section. And, as we have seen, exposing the corruption of the establishment. We lack that voice now. And we are going to suffer for it.

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13 Responses to “Fianna Fáil’s Eighties Revival”

  1. WorldbyStorm Says:

    I think the crucial point is the one you make in the last paragraph. There simply is no sustained opposition to this in the way there would once – even weakly – have been. All too often we seem to hear nothing but the mantra of TINA (There is No Alternative). And nothing else.

  2. garibaldy Says:

    Totally agree. A fairly decent statement from the ICTU about the effects on low paid workers, but not much else. We really do have consensus politics in the Dáil, but also beyond. Disaster.

  3. Omar Little Says:

    But why is the trade union movement so pliable now? I think 20 years of social-partnership, supported and in many ways driven by union officials whose roots were in the Workers Party. If you look back at the debates in 1987-88, Labour were against, the ATGWU against, the craft unions against but the ITGWU and FWUI and the Workers Party for. And didn’t a lot of them do well? To give you an example. My union recommended a vote against partnership 4 years ago. Its now led by an ex-WP member; guess what- now we’re for this latest deal.

  4. garibaldy Says:

    My personal opinion of social partnership is that in a state like the south, it probably was a good thing early on, raising wages across the board, enforcing union rights more than otherwise would have been the case, and giving the unions a greater say than they may otherwise have had given that there was not the same culture of union membership as in places like Britain or France or west Germany. Workers in those other countries could secure a better deal without social partnership. I am not sure that was the case in the south say two deacdes ago. However, I think that more recently it has been a bad thing, and has helped prevent as much of the wealth generated during the boom reaching the workers who created it as could have been the case.

    At the time of I think the last negotiations, or the ones before, I was talking to an active trade unionist within The WP who personally was opposed to social partnership, but was of the opinion that most people wanted it, so that the key thing then was to influence the negotiations as far as possible to ensure that as hard a bargain was driven as possible. This seems to me to be the way to approach social partnership arrangements. I think it should be a matter of tactics and not inflexible principle one way or the other.

    As for why the TU movement is so pliant. Yes, those who abandoned The WP and its ideals to pursue a social democratic and careerist agenda certainly bear a great deal of responsibility. But it’s much broader than that. There has been a general shift to the right in politics worldwide across the last two decades, which has seen the virtual annihilation of left social democracy. Ireland, and the Irish Labour Party, has gone as far as anywhere in that process. The result is that serious left politics are further away from the mainstream than they have ever been, easy to isolate and misrepresent.

    There is also the issue of Fianna Fáil influence in the unions, which ought not to be forgotten either. At this point in time, the absence of a committed socialist party in the Dáil like The WP of old is a serious blow, but we should not underestimate the consequences of the absence of left social democracy.

  5. Omar Little Says:

    Union membership in the Republic in the 1970s was higher percentage wise than in Britain. Over 50% of the working population were in unions, including lots of the private sector. Now the recession and changes in industry knocked out some of that and union membership has been in free-fall since the 1990s. But Social partnership from 1987 never addressed union membership; how could it when attracting multi-nationals to Ireland was a touchstone of economic policy? The unions did not demand that the Intels, the Dells etc were unionised and hence they never were. Most young people (and I agree with your comments about a shift to the right and cultural changes) think unions are for civil servants.
    Social partnership is impossible, given that classes have opposing interests, a point made by the CP, Matt Merrigan and others in 1987-88. Workers benefitted from an economic boom not from partnership. It meant that unions refused to use strike action against the health cuts for example. And sorry but I don’t just mean the DL/Labour union officials. The WP were key ideological backers of the idea of partnership against collective bargaining. They may not like it now, but if you called for action back then in the unions the WP always backed the union leadership. If you didn’t agree you were a Trot. There was actually a big difference between WP activists in local communities, who tended to be much more radical than their spokespeople, especially their people in full-time union positions.

  6. garibaldy Says:

    I wonder though if the unions had anything like the same power in the south that they did in Britain. I doubt it. I think there was probably less political consciousness attached to union membership in the south, and certainly not the same links between the union leadership and the harder edges of the political left (no equivalent in Britain of FF influence in the trade unions).

    I’d agree that full social partnership is a contradiction in terms. But I would still say that deals on limited areas can be done in the correct circumstances, whereas the current union leadership and the Labour Party has elevated partnership to a principle, which is a big mistake. As for the difference between the local activists and people employed in the unions. That seems plausible to me. We shouldn’t forget that those Harris influenced most were concentrated in the unions, and that he was showing signs of significant moves to the right around 1988, as were some of the TDs as displayed in De Rossa’s inaugural speech as President, supposedly written by Harris.

    Equally, mistakes may well have been made. I think too that what were union disputes relevant to the south were poisoned by the differences in attitudes to the north. Which was regrettable, but understandable.

  7. Omar Little Says:

    Fair points. But the union leaderships historically were aligned to the Labour Party here, there was and is a political levy in the ITGWU/FWUI and in SIPTU. However since the late 1930s the unions had also been close in talking/access to Fianna Fail (with severe fallings out during the war and sometimes during the 60s). Hence Labour Party members as trade union leaders met and dealt with Fianna Fail ministers on a regular basis, as they were usually in government, and often claimed that they were easier to do business with than Labour Party ministers. Theres no use bemoaning the influence of Fianna Fail in the labour movement with understanding why trade union activists might support it. Bew and Patterson made a good stab at it in their book on Lemass.

  8. garibaldy Says:

    Sure. I can understand why people would support it, especially when they were possibly more inclined to populist measures than Labour Party people determined to be seen to be “responsible”. I guess this is what separates them from the Tories. The Tories had and have no desire to be seen to be a national movement, which FF also has, and their support may have been jingoistic but not often populist. More ideological at most points I guess, even during the Keynesian consensus after WWII.

  9. Omar Little Says:

    Yes, I remember when Bertie Ahern was supposed to open the new National Museum about 10 years ago. There was a strike on though and he wouldn’t cross the IMPACT picket line. You might consider FF Tories and maybe they are, but they usually have a more flexible approach to the labour movement.

  10. garibaldy Says:

    Interesting, didn’t know that. A tremendous line in populism alright. You can’t help but admire them.

  11. WorldbyStorm Says:

    I seem to recall one or two WP supporters in the unions in the 80s making the trip across to FF with none of the messy inconvenience of having to join Labour on the way. I do think it’s a pity that the strong WP influence on the TU’s dissipated. And while SF has – or rather elements within it have – attempted to emulate that they’ve had mixed success. While I’d agree the unions in the south have never had quite the same direct power as those in the UK (at least anything like that enjoyed on the pre-Thatcher governments) in a somewhat more diffuse way they enjoyed some very strong relationships with government as Omar notes. And it’s as you say Garibaldy. They’re masters of populism in FF.

  12. Trade Unions hurt Labour: Quinn « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

    […] On a side point that will be of interest to many here, Quinn reveals that the desire to curb the influence of The Workers’ Party in political and trade union circles was a significant factor in the creation of SIPTU. There has been some discussion of politics and the trade unions past and present in the comments here. […]

  13. garibaldy Says:

    Amazing to think you could go straight from supporting The WP to FF in the 1980s, unless it was for careerist reasons. The PSF comparison is an interesting one. They have always had some influence in the unions – Phil Flynn being the most obvious example – and have made sporadic attempts to organise a Trade Unions Group (there is even a mural to them tucked away on the upper part of the Falls Road near the Rock Bar where the tourists tend not to stray), but have never really succeeded. I think now they lack the vision necessary to create that type of cohesive group, and the circumstances for it have passed with the settlement in the north. There will always be more efficient careerist options, and what major issues could trade unions be potentially mobilised around relevant to nationalism. I don’t think they are there. That said, the presence of individuals in influential positions has the potential to give them influence, if only in being able to block the aims of others.

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