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Trade union anti-austerity rally brings tens of thousands onto streets of Dublin

JM Thorn

29 November 2010

Up to 100,000 people took part in an anti-austerity march and rally in Dublin on Saturday.  Organised by ICTU its stated purpose was to protest at the Government’s planned budget.  However, given the events of preceding weeks, in which the Irish state had been forced into accepting an EU bailout for its banks, the focus of the event was more generalised.  It became an outlet for people’s anger and disgust at the political and business classes that had brought about such a debacle. 

There had been speculation in the media that such a gathering could have the potential for major disturbances.  On the day it passed off largely without incident.  That it did is in large part down to ICTU doing everything in their power to limit any potential flashpoints.  This was reflected in the choice of route for the march, from Wood Quay to the GPO, which avoided any potential targets for prospects such as Government buildings and bank headquarters.  The route of the march was so short that the front of the march had reached the GPO before people at the back had even left the starting point.  The clear impression was that ICTU wanted to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.    However, it wasn’t just psychical restraints that put limits on the rally, it was the political positions being put forward by the trade union leadership which imposed the severest limits. 

These were clear in the speeches from the platform at the GPO.  Even before a word was spoken the sight of tricolours and people dressed as 1916 volunteers gave a strong indication of what their content would be.  The tone was set by Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, who compeered the event and also gave the opening address.  He declared that despite the bailout debacle Irish people knew who they were, that there were citizens of a republican democracy.  He pointed to the statue of Jim Larkin and the GPO building as symbols of how the Irish people had struggled for dignity and independence.  They were again gathering outside the GPO to reclaim a sense of citizenship. O’Toole said that as the fate of Ireland was being decided in negotiations between Government and EU officials, it was a case of “mind over matter”.  The officials don’t mind, and the people didn’t matter.  He said that the rulers of Ireland had no shame, and believed that the people have no voice.   However, they were mistaken.  "We are not subjects, we are citizens, and we want our Republic back", he declared.    O’Toole went on to criticise the four year, saying it was plan to save the “Irish elite”.  He spoke of the "savage assault" on the minimum wage by the Government and he said that cuts in social welfare would further impoverish people who were struggling to survive.  In his concluding remarks O’Toole claimed that working people in Ireland did not mind making sacrifices. He said that they made sacrifices every day for their children, for their families and for their communities. However, they did not want to be the sacrifice.  He ended his speech by declaring that the citizens of Ireland wanted their republic back.   Keeping with the theme set by O’Toole, there then followed a series of readings from the Declaration of Independence and the programme of the First Dail. 

The next speaker was Jack O’Connor of SIPTU.  He said that the aim of the rally was to object to the insistence of a Government with no mandate “to draw up a plan and sign an agreement in our name which will decide the future of one or two generations of our people”.  He said that people had turned out to assert their rights as citizens to decide the future of their country.  He noted reports that the IMF was on a rescue mission to Ireland, but according to him it was not a rescue mission for the Irish people but for those at the top of the banks in France and Germany.  O'Connor said that it appeared the Government did not intend to go away and they had brought in an old-fashioned, right-wing, four-year plan devoid of imagination.  He noted that it contained no mention of the contribution wealthy tax exiles could make.  Instead, the Government was trying to fix the problem by cutting the national minimum wage of the most vulnerable in the country.  After his lashing of the Government, O’Connor concluded by saying that Ireland’s recovery from the financial crisis wouldn’t be easy, but the trade union movement would insist on a fairer plan.  This was the typical bluster from O’Connor, but what was notable this time was the hostility towards him of a large section of the crowd.   Throughout his speech O’Connor was heckled and booed.  As he spoke of the politicians' failings, cries of "You've sold out" and "You're in bed with them" could be heard from angry protesters.

O’Connor was followed by Marie Doyle of the Retired Workers Committee.  She said that many pensioners were living on the edge of poverty and were fearful of the extra taxes and charges that would be in December 7 budget.   She said that pensioners resented being told they were a burden on the state; they had paid for their pension and were not parasites.   Marie concluded by saying that the purse was empty, and that people couldn’t pay.   She was followed by a young unemployed worker who spoke about the lack of job opportunities in Ireland and the pressure to emigrate.    Next up was Siobhán O’Donoghue of the Community Platform, who began her address by tearing up a copy of the Government’s four-year plan.  She said that the plan should be rejected and called for an immediate general election.   She urged trade unions and community groups to stand together. Siobhán was followed by one of women involved in the Laura Ashley dispute.  After this Fintan O’Toole led the crowd in a one minute chant of “OUT, OUT, OUT” directed at he Government. 

The final speaker was David Begg of ICTU.   He said that the march sent a powerful message to Dail Eireann.  He claimed that the IMF had come to Ireland bearing weapons of mass destruction. Begg said that the country could not afford to pay the terms of the proposed €85 billion EU-IMF bailout package.  He said that the Irish people could not afford to pay 6.7 per cent on money that they not ask for in the first place and that was being forced upon them to bail out the banking system in Europe.  Begg warned the Government that they should not under any circumstances  “accede to the terms of this Versailles Treaty."  On the end of the same type of heckling as O’Connor he noticeably cut his speech short.   The rally ended with a couple of songs from Christy Moore, one of which (An Ordinary Man) was dedicated to trucker Joe McNamara - the man who drove a cement lorry up to the gates of Leinster House with the words 'Anglo' and 'toxic bank' on the side.

Overall, the rally was disappointing.  It showed that ICTU still retains the ability to mobilise tens of thousands of workers, and that despite the booing of Begg and O’Connor, most workers continue to adhere to the leadership line that there is a better fairer way.   There was also a strong nationalistic tone to the proceedings, which ranged from Finatn O’Toole’s appeal to republican ideals to more chauvinistic sentiments that in a period of austerity could find an outlet in racism.   Much of the patriotic posturing, particularly from trade union leaders, is also completely phoney.  It is notable that most of their attacks were directed at the IMF rather then the EU, even though it is the junior partner in the rescue package.  Despite the draconian terms being laid down by the EU, trade union leaders remains fully committed to the European project. 

There was also an effort to promote a change of government and political reform has some sort of panacea to Ireland’s economic woes.  This is mistaken; a change of government will not fundamentally alter the situation.   All the main parties, as well as the trade unions, are committed to the programme austerity.  The only questions they pose are over how the cuts should be implemented, or how the terms of the bailout can be made slightly less draconian.   It doesn’t address the fundamental point that the Irish people cannot and should not pay the debts of the banks; there is no better fairer way.  It is only from this position that a more favourable path for Irish workers out of this crisis can be charted.  This is the position that socialist and trade union activists have to fight for.


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