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Report on Dublin “anti-austerity” demonstration

Walk in the park underlines need for a new grassroots resistance

John McAnulty

5 December 2012

The November 24th demonstration in Dublin was the central demonstration of opposition to the coming year 5 of austerity in Ireland and as such deserves close analysis - all the more so when the Irish socialist movement has largely abandoned such analysis.

The actual numbers on the march - somewhere between 10000 and 15000 - while demonstrating the potential for organising resistance are not sufficient to hold back the imposition of the €3.5 billion cut in the Irish economy.

This is especially the case when the government recently won the vote to endorse the Financial Austerity Pact.  Many Irish workers clearly despair of an alternative.  Those not fleeing the country hang on in the hope that the crisis will resolve itself.

A further handicap was the fact that organisers of the biggest component of the demonstration were sections of the Trade Union bureaucracy. Through a formal system of Social Partnership and the Croke Park agreement they are involved in implementation bodies that enforce the austerity and have been locked in negotiations with the government to agree the main elements of the budget that they now "protest". 

Just how barefaced the bureaucracy has become was exposed when, just before the march, they announced that they were entering talks, "without preconditions" on a Croke Park II deal involving the cutting of a further €1 billion from the public sector pay bill.

The bureaucracy was able to participate in the march by insisting that the march adopt a generalised anti-austerity policy without spelling out how resistance was organized.  As a result the demonstration was fragmented, with different components having very different aims. 

First there was the bureaucracy itself.  It had mobilized workers in the tens of thousands in 2010, only to have to retreat from the platform in the face of worker’s anger.  The 2011 demonstration was small, with most unions sending only token delegations. This time some of the unions organized substantial delegations.  Sections of the left saw this as a first step on the road to greater militancy.

Jack O'Connor, leader of the largest union, SIPTU, was more forthright. The union protest was within "the narrow confines" set by the Troika of the EU, ECB and IMF. In other words the unions, through Social Partnership part of the mechanism for implementing austerity, had already agreed the €3.5 billion cut. They were now engaged in a 3-cornered dance with Fine Gael and the Labour party to win marginal concessions and construct a cover for themselves when the new level of austerity bites. 

Another component of the march was Sinn Fein, who were engaged in a similar process - cadging for electoral support by calling for a "fairer" budget within the constraints of the Troika.

A big problem of the march - and by extension of any future resistance - was the passivity of the socialist organisations. The 2011 march had been a result of diplomacy by Dublin Trades Council. The then leader, Mick O'Reilly, had proclaimed a "popular front" - indicating that unity would be around policy as defined by ICTU.  A confused left had followed along and the march had fallen between two stools - too small to represent a substantial resistance and without the politics that might have united those already fighting.

This year’s popular front was much more conscious and much more clearly defined.  A series of meetings addressed the concerns of the union leaders.  The socialist organizations were left to find a radical gloss. In the case of Socialist Party this was a call to highlight the CAHWT non-payment campaign. For the Socialist Workers Party was a call for a general strike.

In addition there was a significant presence of republican and anarchist groups. They were quite militant, but the alternative they offered was unclear and they tended to ignore the union leaderships rather than see any need to confront them. 

By far the most significant of the groups on the demonstration was the Campaign against Household and Water Charges. The total contingent was over 4000 and they were by far the most radical layer.

The unstable coalition blew apart at the ending rally in a comedy of errors. The ICTU representative, Eugene McGlone, was booed by the workers and drowned out by left calls for a general strike. 

His response was the angry cynicism of bureaucrats everywhere - if you want a strike – you organise it. The press misinterpreted that as a call for a general strike and induced panic and a series of union statements repudiating utterly any desire to strike and culminating in SIPTU leader Jack O'Connor denouncing critics as fascists.

The spat was over almost instantly. The workers had no voice with which to reply, the socialist groups had no desire to confront the bureaucracy.

And that unwillingness points to the weakness of the march and the incapacity of the popular front to advance the cause of the workers. The fact that most of the component groups were seeking ways to bolster their own position indicates that they did not believe a successful resistance to the budget could be built.

Yet the components of such a resistance were all about.  They were clear in the burning resentment of the workers in the household charge contingents and their open hatred of the union bureaucracy. Also present was a spontaneous critique of the Labour Party, with cartoons and posters drawing attention to the treacherous role of their leader, Gilmore.

So a resistance would begin with a simple call, already popular:

Labour out of government! 

Workers voted for Labour in the expectation that they would resist the most direct attacks. They led the offensive.

A second call also arises naturally: 

ICTU out of talks!

Workers are fully aware of the collaboration of trade union bosses, insulated by ossified trade union structures.

A third call is also self-evident 

Repudiate the debt!

The Irish government have spent the year begging for the bank guarantee to be shifted off the books. They failed  and interest payments arising from the bank bail-out dominated the budget.

The fourth demand is for a socialist alternative - that we form grassroots workers organisations and join with our brothers and sisters across Europe and seek to expropriate capital rather than make endless sacrifices to repair it.

The publication of the budget reinforced the necessity for a new resistance. Even within the confines of the Troika it is a savagely regressive budget where Irish capital has yet again spared itself and launched a no holds barred attack on Irish Workers.  The corporation tax subsidy on transnational companies is untouched. The Irish Labour party, who took out press adverts before the last election arguing that it had to be elected to protect social gains such as child benefit, has now imposed that tax.

Jock O’Connor of SIPTU has launched a statement that yet again defends the government and the budget:  “The Government has no discretion on the bottom line.” He welcomes a miniscule pretence at wealth tax on mansions and very rich pensioners and bemoans the absence of an income levy on incomes over €100,000 – presumably the union’s aim in the supporting the budget demonstration. 

The unions have been spared embarrassment – The Croke Park deal is not mentioned even though the components of the new deal are put in place – slashing of public sector jobs and €1 billion off public sector pay.

So the protest rally stands exposed as a lobby for fairness while the Troika, Fine Gael, Labour and the unions stand united in defence of capital and of austerity. 

What further needs to be said in the call for a new workers resistance?


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