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Where now for the Health fightback?

Public campaign dies back, rank and file action on the increase

John McAnulty

6 June 2008

Following the large Dublin trade union march of 29th March, there were great hopes that a major mobilisation in response to the government’s privatisation and co-location drives in the health service might be built.  These hopes fell back somewhat with the Socialist party conference on the 19th April.  Not only was it rather smaller than expected, but a major division opened up, with Des Derwin of Dublin Trades Council proposing we all unite behind the union bureaucracy and the Socialist Party rejecting this in favour of their own campaign.  The Campaign for a Decent Health Service was to be rivalled by the Campaign for a Real Health Service.

Hopes were further dashed when the trade union conference convened on 26th April.  Not only was it tiny, it was also dominated by bureaucrats who clearly wanted to build a bargaining chip for their negotiations with the government. The majority of the socialist movements there capitulated to the bureaucracy, so possibly the major outcome of the conference was yet another major shift to the right by these currents.

It quickly became evident that the purpose of the Trade Union conference was to build an Irish Ferries mark II. What was wanted was a big demonstration behind the bureaucracy that would give them a negotiating chip before the next budget was published.  The bureaucracy waxed lyrical about protesting to the government and became quite agitated when their own social partnership discussions were thrown into the pot. Suggestions that, instead of waiting until the Autumn to protest at the Dail, we could protest much sooner outside the partnership talks, were greeted with horror and anger.

Asked if the health service was on the social partnership agenda, we were told that ‘public services in general’ were an item.  When Dr. Marie O’Connor asked if the issue of the health service could be made a dealbreaker, it was explained that the delegate conferences had already been held.  The bureaucrats had not put this position to the delegates and it was too late to do so now.

There’s nothing new in this.  The bureaucracy has been selling out the working class for decades.  They formally agreed to the privatisation policy that underpins the destruction of the health service in the last social partnership deal.  They supported the Nice Treaty that made privatisation a central EU policy. The fact that they are willing to go along with co-location now is no surprise.

The new element of the conference was the more or less unconditional capitulation of the small socialist layer to the bureaucracy.  The trade union layer around Dublin trades council had come out of the closet and openly promoted the idea of a movement dependent on bureaucratic patronage and constrained by its needs.  They were silent as the bureaucrats opposed any independent action by workers and called for a lineup behind themselves in a rerun of Irish Ferries.

The lineup didn’t stop with the trade union left.  In a disgraceful intervention Richard Boyd-Barrett of the SWP said that we should not put ‘any preconditions’ on the building of the movement.  Translated in this context, he was urging the conference not to adopt policies or put forward demands that would irritate or crimp the action of the trade union leadership.

Besides ourselves in Socialist Democracy only the Socialist Party spoke against partnership.  The small numbers of patients’ groups and local activists present were somewhat bewildered by the lack of militancy, but were not present in sufficient numbers to influence the debate.  Dr. Marie O’Connor, the author of ‘Emergency’, was reduced to asking why were holding the meeting if we were not able to use the partnership talks to force a deal.

The outcome of the trade union conference underlines the Socialist Democracy argument that the Socialist Party should have supported a single campaign.  If the majority of those attending the SP conference had attended the TU conference they would have been able to force an action programme on the trade union campaign.

In the event working-class concern about the collapse of the health service is still high, with a leading role now being taken by IMPACT members.  In the absence of a broader campaign the militants at branch level are at the mercy of the bureaucracy, playing their usual role of militant rhetoric for the members allied with full-scale collaboration with the bosses. This was demonstrated at the Impact conference on May 16th.  ICTU general secretary David Begg and Impact general secretary Peter McLoone played to the crowd.  McLoone, a key negotiator in the current pay discussions, said that despite the challenges an agreement was possible but living standards must be maintained. He also said the government must continue to invest in vital public services like health, education and housing.  He did not tell the delegates that public service was at the bottom of the list inside the negotiations, that there were no specific demands on health, or that explicit support for the privatization of public services had been agreed in earlier deals.

The attacks in the health service are continuing, with IMPACT health members on a work to rule to protest the continuing freeze on recruitment and with national lunchtime demonstrations on Wednesday 11th June.  In the meantime the union leaders, organizers and defenders of the working class, have signed up to the Lisbon Treaty – a treaty that declares it illegal to oppose the privatization of health.

The situation remains unstable, with workers willing to take action but inside the cage of the bureaucracy.  The tiny Irish left could for once have an impact outside its actual size by uniting the trade union militants with the mass sentiment in the country, but their decision to stay inside the tent with the bureaucracy makes that unlikely.


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