The fall of the informal National Government
In looking at the collapse of the last government of national unity we have to look at the underlying contradictions it failed to resolve. All attempts by the Irish State at papering over the cracks had arrived at the bottom of a cul de sac. The methods that had served them well until that point were intended to see them through a normal cyclical downturn in the capitalist business cycle but austerity and the almost indistinguishable 'recovery' had lasted a decade.
That austerity hadn't been so much imposed as negotiated in the traditional way - by making an agreement with the trade union leadership in the spirit of the social partnership agreements that has dominated industrial relations since the 1980s. This has paid dividends for the State in terms of stability by gaining an austerity programme that was consensual with their social partners in the union bureaucracy.
The period of austerity saw the bureaucracy demobilise strikes and publicly proclaim their commitment to staying within the 'narrow confines of the troika programme'. As well as the demobilisation of a variety of industrial disputes the, very energetic, housing campaign was sidelined and the campaign against water charges which the trade union bureaucracy had disowned initially was put into cold storage.
The problem was that this was no 'normal' downturn in the business cycle!
No real recovery was around the corner that could allow the provision of any concessionary fig leaf to the bureaucracy so the issues continued to prove their potency.
After the water charges campaign had been wound down and the Apollo house occupation ended the housing issue was handed over to the Left bureaucrats, who outsourced responsibility, in the absence of a viable Labour Party, by trying to gum together a Left front with Sinn Fein as their people in parliament. The strategy of this 'Left' bureaucracy remained the same essentially as that of the top bureaucrats and a mobilisation of the working class was no where on the cards.
But the objective grinding conditions of austerity, and particularly of homelessness, remained! Chronic problems wouldn't go away, especially the issue of two tier pay in the Public sector which afflicted the partnership agreement, never going away but never quite coming to a head either due to the efforts of the union bureaucracy.
The traditional partnership method of demobilising the discontented working class had proved successful in so far as the result was a demobilisation. What it was not successful in dealing with was the causes of the discontent, or the simmering undercurrent of discontent itself.
But while the outcome of these disputes remained the same, with the bureaucrats fully in charge, the cracks were beginning to appear revealing that the trade union leaders were standing on increasingly shaky ground. This began to show itself in 2019 and the result was that the desperation of the bureaucracy to maintain control began to show itself in the Siptu leadership's outright scabbing on the health disputes. The Nurses, who struck in February 2019 partly against defunding and privatisation, were successfully isolated and returned to work and the later non medical health workers' strike suffered the same fate thanks to the union leaders' demands that the latter must cross the picket lines of the former. Paul Bell of Siptu had gone to the extent that he ordered non medical staff to scab on the nurses because they already had 'a deal' with the HSE. Then when it came to the non medical staff's dispute the HSE renaged on an 'understanding' they had with Bell.
These disputes also more clearly revealed that the issues that were motivating the strikers can best be described as 'legacy' issues. Agreements on pay restoration and implied improvements were not being implemented as expected and although these issues were relatively long standing, demands for their resolution were getting louder.
These problems were piling up, on the one hand partly due to the State's claims that Ireland was in recovery, on the other hand, it was due to the fact that broad masses of workers took this assertion at face value and believed that the benefits of that 'recovery' should be extended to the working class.
The disputes were symptomatic of the pressures building up within a social partnership model that required at least some minimal concession to be made when none was possible. Now the State was treating the social partners with contempt. Petty concessions already promised to the bureaucrats were not forthcoming despite all the usual methods being applied. Going to the WRC and Labour Court produced nothing leading even Paul Bell of Siptu, the most committed proponents of social partnership, to describe relations as; “ the worst he has experienced, even at the height of the economic crisis.”
Discontent in the teachers' unions was also simmering away over the iniquity of two tier pay and the bureaucracy were facing calls for strike ballots in 2019. Broad swathes of public sector workers faced the same difficulties as the teachers and nurses with increasing housing costs and wage restraint and this scissors effect of a housing bubble and skyrocketing rents and simultaneously the suppression of wages was a direct consequence of the strategy for recovery.
The capitalist strategy for economic recovery demanded the expansion of corporate prestige development projects and the use of Vulture funds to clear the non performing loans from Irish banking, preparing them for future stress testing. The attraction for global investors was the very high prices for city office and residential developments which pulled up domestic housing prices in its wake. The government's deliberate refusal to build adequate amounts of social housing had the object of protecting these investments by maintaining a housing price bubble. This meant that workers in general - and health workers in particular, were priced out of accomodation and couldn't afford to live in the main cities where they worked. At the same time the numbers of homeless were growing.
Following the autumn introduction of budget 2020 ICTU conducted an undeclared truce and the demoralised health workers, nurses and teachers that had witnessed the issues they had campaigned on being kicked in to the long grass now had to accept they would remain there. This budget was a renewal of austerity, introduced as a preparation for Brexit, and it was greeted with silence by the bureaucracy as their partnership strategy, being increasingly proven to work for the State and no-one else, hit the buffers.
The trade union bureaucracy had provided every service to the national bourgeoisie. It depended on the support of the neo colonial State for a share of the patronage. As Trotsky noted this “constitutes the basis for the dependence of reformist unions upon the state.”(1) but little or nothing was forthcoming.
For all their efforts, even before any onset of the global depression and the coronavirus pandemic, we remained in crisis. All the grumbling social pressures were accumulating, expressing themselves not only through working class discontent but also, in spite of the undeclared truce by ICTU, through the instability of the government.
The first sign that the national coalition was in trouble was, unsurprisingly, the first vote of no confidence in minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy. Sinn Fein tabled a motion in September 2018 which he survived in a vote of 59 to 49. Even at this stage cracks were beginning to appear within the ranks of Fine Gael itself. Junior minister, Catherine Byrne, had to be bribed by the withdrawal of housing plans for her constituency in Dublin South Central and threatened with the sack if she refused to back Murphy. Just over a year later in December 2019 housing minister Murphy faced another motion of no confidence, this time tabled by Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats. Although he survived by 56 votes to 53, it was plain that the gap was decreasing and instability in the government was increasing. At the time this was indicated by Fianna Fail's panicky attempts to run with the fox and hunt with the hounds. Sensing the mood on the ground, and keen to put distance between themselves and the consequences of the policy they were supporting, they attacked Murphy's record but adhered to the confidence and supply agreement by abstaining in the vote.
The motion of no confidence was proposed as the homelessness crisis was reaching new heights and coming increasingly in to the open. At the time round 10'000 people were homeless of which 4000 were children. There were 1,753 families living on the streets and 193 children became homeless in Ireland in the previous month alone, bringing the total of homeless youths to 3,829. The Fine Gael / Fianna Fail housing plan had been in place at that stage for over two years and homelessness had increased by 60%. Child homelessness was up by 77% and pensioner homelessness up by 80%. It addition the rate looked like accellerating for those who were struggling to keep a roof over their heads while rents were soaring.
Adding to the growing frustrations the deeply unpopular policy of raising the pension age was being floated. This was the second attack on pensioners, the first time being at the beginning of the banking collapse in 2008 when the State tried to remove medical cards and raided the pension pot, mobilising tens of thousands of pensioners spontaneously in what became known as the “Grey revolt”. All the issues around education, unfinished business with workers' expectations of an end to two tier pay and the programme of cuts in investment in health care were still simmering.
On 9 January 2020, Michael Collins, an Independent TD called for a motion of no confidence in Simon Harris, the Minister for Health. Local clienteleist TD's could not conceal the impact the decline in health care provision was having on their constituents. The issues pushing the revolt by the rural independants were the result of cutbacks and privatisation; the numbers on hospital trolleys, long waiting lists, hundreds of patients being bussed to Belfast for cataract or hip treatment. Fianna Fail TD John McGuinness confirmed he would vote against the Minister and called on other Fianna Fail TDs to defy the party leadership. Noel Grealish the notorious right wing independent TD also announced he would abstain. It was almost immediately clear that the government would be defeated. Varadkar then sought the dissolution of the Dail on February 14th and announced the election for February 8th, the first Saturday election since 1918.
In the end, social partnership could not save them from the rapidly emerging truth about what the recovery meant for working people. It was the end of the national government and following the decimation of both main Parties at the subsequent poll they are now back, as infirmly in charge as before.
(1) Trade Unions in the Epoch
of Imperialist Decay; “Inasmuch as imperialist capitalism creates both
in colonies and semi-colonies a stratum of labor aristocracy and bureaucracy,
the latter requires the support of colonial and semicolonial governments,
as protectors, patrons and, sometimes, as arbitrators. This constitutes
the most important social basis for the Bonapartist and semi-Bonapartist
character of governments in the colonies and in backward countries generally.
This likewise constitutes the basis for the dependence of reformist unions
upon the state.”