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ICTU Conference meets amid fruits of partnership

John McAnulty

15th July 2003

The ICTU conference in Tralee at the beginning of July was a grim week for the leadership of the Irish Trade Union movement.  From first to last a rotten leadership were presented with the evidence of their own corruption and with growing indications that the whole structure of social partnership is growing ever more threadbare and less convincing as a shield against the anger of rank and file trade unionists.

Just before the opening of conference the spotlight fell on the ghost of Xmas future in the person of Phil Flynn.  Flynn, one of the architects of social partnership and former vice chair of ICTU and vice president of Sinn Fein, had just re-emerged as a leading capitalist entrepreneur, leading a finance and property consortium who were staging a multi-million asset-stripping operation engaged in acquiring for property development the site of the failing Belfast shipyards.

Any attempt to suggest that this poacher turned gamekeeper was a one-off was stymied by the publication of the Seanad directory of interests.  Senator Joe (ATM) O’Toole, the man who sold benchmarking to teachers as being like taking money from an ATM machine, and who was to chair the conference, had proved unable to wait until his formal retirement before changing sides, proving to have his own extensive portfolio of shareholdings.

The real nature of the bureaucracy was driven home on the first day of conference by Con Scanlon of the Communication Workers Union, who had an unusual complaint about government regulation of the telecoms industry.

The leadership of the communication workers had initially opposed privatisation of the state telecoms company.  Then they had supported it, subject to tight control and the issue of shares to their members. Now, in a new twist, they complained that government regulation was too tight. Presumably this was holding down the value of their shares and government regulation should be cut to allow bigger profits in the sector!  No one was impolite enough to point out that cutting regulation would lead to increased exploitation of the workforce!

Militants should ponder what both these say about the nature and interests of the trade union leaders, increasingly less dependent on the support of their members and more on the policies of the State and profitability of companies.

Public Services

The Congress never recovered.  It never even began to look relevant to the bad news that broke at its door every morning. The week began with the news that a young child, Roisin Rundle, had died after having been denied a heart operation at Dublin’s Crumlin hospital due to a shortage of intensive care nurses.  This was followed immediately by revelations that the hospital concerned had not received any money for building in nineteen years.  The following day a march of 200 nurses on the Dail was called off only when their contracts were extended from 2 weeks to 2 years.

That was followed immediately by claims from the further education sector that it also had seen a 20-year gap in capital investment and that the educational component of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ had been launched from overcrowded portacabins.  To cap it all each day of the conference saw the announcement of a steady stream of factory closures and mass redundancies from each corner of the compass and every sector of the economy.  Statistics now showed a 19-year high in unemployment figures.
No one in the union bureaucracy responded or had anything to say to the workers of the collapsed firm Navan Carpets about the decades of capitulation to government and bosses which were supposed to pay off by guaranteeing public services and full employment in manufacturing!

Just how grim the situation is was made clear at the start of conference with the announcement from the government that an expected shortfall in tax income had increased by over 500 million euro.  The reason for the shortfall was illuminating.  The workers, who had no choice, were paying through the nose, but the feeding frenzy among capital and the middle class was such, and the willingness of the government to overlook tax dodges so great, that it was difficult to obtain tax from sources other than the PAYE sector.

This means that a government already committed to massive cuts in public service, privatisation and wage freezes will look to even further attacks based around a privatisation agenda.


This led to the one attempt by Congress to take up the offensive based around privatisation – a debate on the proposed break up of CIE and Aer Rianta in order to hand control of the airports to private capital and deregulate the pay and conditions of the workforce. (The government also proposes to solve the health crisis, in part caused by massive subsidy of the private sector, by the privatisation of the semi-state component of health insurance).

The ATGWU secretary John Bolger suggested a general strike – a pretty radical proposal until one considers that this was not actually a call for a real general strike but a proposal that the ICTU leadership themselves strike against their partners in government while remaining inside the social partnership agreement. The ATGWU has recently gone through a massive crisis because their former secretary, Mick O’Reilly, had suggested supporting workers outside the agreement and making mild criticism of ICTU’s continuing support for it.

Just how utopian this approach was was demonstrated by the immediate rejection of the proposal by the platform.  In a familiar refrain general secretary David Beggs intoned the famous Thatcherite maxim that there was no alternative to negotiation with the government.

The meaning of this must be crystal clear.  The privatisation offensive is not outside but part of the current social partnership agreement.  The ICTU leadership’s role is not to oppose the attacks and to police the unions to ensure that no effective opposition to privatisation develops.  Beggs only demand was that the unions would forgo opposition in return for a seat at the top table, with the opportunity to negotiate with the government and employers.   This suggested that they would manage to blunt or dilute the intensity of the offensive or ‘win’ some protection for their members as the privatisation proceeded but there was and is no chance that they will actually oppose it.  It was later ‘revealed’ that Beggs had written to the Bertie Ahern saying that social partnership was finished if they were not allowed to negotiate.

The bureaucracy thought they were home and dry when Ahern turned up at the Congress welcoming the continuing partnership with the unions and promising that they would have a say.   They appeared devastated when the government side of the partnership announced the Aer Rianta break-up the following week, but Ahern had made it pretty clear that all changes would be introduced in the spirit of partnership, which is exactly what is happening. Union leaderships including SIPTU, who breathed fire and industrial action at the conference, are now backpeddling furiously and calling for an enquiry.  Promises that proved useless at Aer Lingus are now being sought for workers terms and conditions at Aer Rianta while the wider interests of workers are ignored in classic trade union style.

Fig Leaf

The conference was to end in triumph with the unveiling by Bertie Ahern of the rewards of partnership. Unfortunately a policy of selling yourself as a bearer of social peace is subject to the law of diminishing returns.  The fact is that it has been a generation since ICTU last met government or employers outside such a deal. The current bureaucracy have had the role of police within the working class for all their working lives.  It not clear that they would know how to confront the State or employers even if they wanted to or if any serious workers would listen to them given their history of betrayal.

The end result was that their partnership reward was something that Fianna Fail would have done anyway – a populist programme to build subsidised private housing on public land.  It should be clear that this is in fact yet another privatisation that will enable the party of the property developer to clean up yet again while doing nothing to stop speculation or little to provide desperately needed social housing.  It was clear from the glum faces behind Bertie that the ICTU bureaucracy knew that they would have some difficulty selling this as a victory for the working class.

The latest capitalist offensive consequent on the death of the Celtic Tiger is in full cry.  The government have publicly kicked the unions in the teeth and torn from them the pretence that they hold power behind the scenes as protectors of the working class.  How likely is it that David Beggs and the ICTU leadership will tear up the agreement and organise an effective resistance?  To ask the question is to answer it.  It is far more likely that government and employers will continue to walk away in the conviction that ICTU have so demobilised the working class that a fightback is unlikely.  Already sections of the government and employers are suggesting that the benchmarking settlement that linked pay rises in the public sector to productivity and job restructuring was far too generous and it’s time to tear it up.

Many working class militants see the corruption at the top of the union movement but have given up hope, or believe that we can go around the leadership and organise independently. The truth is that we can’t ignore the ICTU leadership because they are part of the problem, a major part.  The organised working class is the only force that can take on Irish capital but to do this they must defeat their own bureaucracy.  Organising means opposing the corrupt time servers of the ICTU leadership who shackle workers action.



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