Ireland's framework for government
A Framework for capitalist survival!
26 April 2020
The author Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine observes that capitalism never wastes a good crisis but always uses one to quietly launch a new offensive.
This is the case with the new Fine Gael/Fianna Fail joint framework document outlining a programme for a new government. Much of the focus is on the vague and general nature of the document, designed to draw in smaller parties and independents who can then write in the sort of minor policy bribe that will bring them into government and secure an overall majority.
The strategic chatter about which parties will cross the line and join the government is somewhat misplaced. The framework says a great deal more about the situation facing Irish capital and its response than the basic algebra of coalition.
The right wing Fine Gael party went into the elections full of confidence. Operating as a minority government they had, in their eyes, rescued Ireland from the credit crunch and put the Irish economy to the fore in Europe in terms of economic growth. They expected to be rewarded by a new term in government. However votes of confidence on health and housing policies that they came close to losing were warnings of trouble ahead.
The more populist Fianna Fail party was more aware of popular discontent around crises in housing and health and the continuing squeeze on disposable income and pensions. They believed that they had kept a great enough distance from the government, even while supporting it through a confidence and supply agreement. It was their turn to rule.
Both parties were mistaken. In total they won 43% of the popular vote and voter discontent was registered through a massive swing to Sinn Fein of over 10%, giving them the largest share of the vote.
Fine Gael and Fianna Fail immediately rejected coalition with Sinn Fein. The problem now is that what was essentially a de facto national government, facing a revolt by a majority of the electorate, are now putting together the same government de jure, this time with Fianna Fail demanding senior partner status with first call on the position of Taoiseach and taking ministerial seats. Even then they have not enough seats to form a government, hence the blank spaces where the minor parties can add the price they will charge to support the national coalition. These parties are now queuing around the block so the mechanics of government, while tortuous, appear to be secured.
But that is less than half the story. A national government is a great risk. It indicates that democracy is a sham and that there is nothing but the tyranny of capitalism. Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are jointly faced with the task now of persuading the workers that they have reformed and that the protest voters that rejected them at the polls are getting a genuinely new government and a new strategy. To that end the framework document lists 10 missions:
The 10 missions
Reigniting and Renewing the Economy
Housing for All
A New Social Contract
A New Green Deal
A Better Quality of Life for All
Supporting Young Ireland
Opportunities through Education and Research
A Shared Island At the Heart of Europe
The document fails miserably! Much of it is meaningless waffle. The core issues of health and housing are attempts to burnish existing policies. There will be no change in the existing economic model or in the social partnership mechanisms for enforcing policy. Of particular interest is the 'shared island' section, which doubles down on a Unionist veto on Irish unity and makes clear Irish capital's opposition to a United Ireland.
On the key question of housing the model remains the same - a giveaway of public land to speculators in return for a proportion of "affordable" and "social" housing. The engine of housing will remain private sector investment and home ownership will be beyond the reach of many. The promise is that the rental housing sector will be controlled to ensure affordable rents and tenant rights greatly expanded. Even these modest proposals seem hard to believe given that local landlordism is concentrated in the government parties and that the rest of the finance comes from vulture funds operating under government guarantees of profit.
The government moved quickly to lash together an ad-hoc national health service by renting the private sector for a unified response to Covid 19. Now they say they will press on to establish a full scale public health sector. Again this is hard to believe. An already inadequate service has been the target of decades of privatisation. The coronavirus massacre in the private homes shows the level of decay in the system. In the operation of the health system there are endless kickbacks at every level from private health insurance. The involvement of local capitalism in this gravy train has led to tale after tale of corruption. The claim is that consultants will be bound to the public sector, but how can this work as it runs alongside a private sector?
As it turns out, the reality is less than the promise. The new “NHS” is another empty promise to be got around to 'in the sweet by and by'. Any reform will be concentrated on pediatric and women's health.
Above all the whole scheme hangs around Slaintecare - basically an Irish Obamacare scheme - which rather than socialising health introduces a compulsory private health insurance scheme.
A Green New Deal
Given the revival in support for the Green party, this section is clearly an open invitation to the party to support the coalition. The fact is that the Green party's programme is so minimalist that the invitation easily meets their needs. More public transport, energy efficient homes, a carbon tax and wind farms do not even begin to address the steps needed to transform Irish society and to produce a sustainable economy. If anyone objects, the whole issue is being kicked into touch with a Citizens Assembly.
When the plan discusses payment it descends into incoherence. On the one hand the State will insert itself into the economy to meet the needs of the workers. On the other hand it will stay within the strictures of EU fiscal rules and the stability and growth agreement. The circle is to be squared by extensive borrowing. The hope is that Europe will provide a ready supply of cheap money to see Ireland through. Given that the last round of borrowing is still being paid off, that every last cent has to be accounted for, and that Europe is tearing itself apart over a new rescue package, this seems a faint hope.
But Irish capitalism has a second string in its bow which will be the mechanism for achieving these modest proposals; a nationally planned partnership with unions and employers - in other words the social partnership model that used the major union leaderships to smother protests against the 2008 austerity programme and which has been in place ever since. As recently as last year this kept health worker's pay rises inside government guidelines and enforced a continuing two tier pay system arising from the austerity programme. It is quite evident by their silence that union leaders have been co-opted into the current government strategy. Even when Gardaí used emergency powers to break up a protest by Debenhams workers who were sacked online there was very limited union response.
Will this mechanism enable Irish capitalism to navigate the current economic crisis? The new framework for government has little support. Even if European money flows freely it will have to be repaid. The question is; can the workers be asked for another two decades of austerity? Emergency health care, housing and basic income measures are in place. How easy will it be for this national government to return the homeless to the streets?
All the sages say that everything will be changed after Covid 19. There is no doubt that there will be a bitter struggle, but is there an alternative? Up until now the alternative has been a left government led by Sinn Fein, but they and their left supporters have been excluded from the emerging coalition. Is there a model where Sinn Fein can lead a left opposition?
This is a familiar question posed inside the party as to whether they are a "Party of government or Party of opposition?" The answer is always a Party of government! In terms of political opposition this means restrained criticism and careful avoidance of radical alternatives and street protest. Radical enough to keep the protest vote but restrained enough to hopefully be invited into the tent next time around.
In fact the return of national government, the return of subservience to the banks and European Commission, the return of social partnership, all indicate that in the resolution of capitalist crisis the Dail plays only a very limited role. Justice for the workers means calling for the repudiation of the banking debt. It also involves a repudiation of the primacy of private property in relation to basic necessities such as health, housing and basic income.
A consequence of the nature and scale of these repudiations is that the workers alongside workers across Europe and across the globe must step outside their subservient role and be prepared to directly expropriate all major elements of the economy necessary for their survival.