CULTURE: Being a working class writer in Ireland

By Dave Lordan.

On the same Easter Week of the 1916 rising, a Charlie Chaplin lookalike competition was held in Dublin. Chaplin, well-known to be a socialist as well as the world’s leading entertainer at the time, had a mass following among the Dublin working classes.

Truth be told, among many in the Dublin working class, there was probably as much interest in the Charlie Chaplin competition as there was in  what the crowd of poets with guns and big ideas were at in the GPO. There were many dozens of entries to the lookalike competition and the various merits of each were discussed in newspapers and among young and old in working class communities. For many, the Chaplin lookalike competition must have seemed a supremely important event, and the unannounced eruption of the Rising an unwelcome distraction.

The story goes that about halfway through Easter Week — while field guns pummelled the GPO from across the street, and the rebels inside did their best to hold tough and return fire — one of the most impressive of the Chaplin lookalikes decided to amble Chaplinesquely right down the middle of O Connell St, in between the hostile lines.

Both sides, it is said, ceased fire and both sides, it is said, looked on in appreciative amazement at the slick and entertaining performance — as unexpected and courageous as the Easter Rising itself.

Once he/she/they had finished the cannon-silencing performance, they turned and bowed in both directions, and a general applause broke out. No observer could have told which portions of the noise of the applause was British Loyalist, and which emanated from the clapped hands of Insurrectionary Irish.

Minutes later, once the fabled impersonator was out of range, the unresolved hostilities resumed and bullets sought heads to explode in every direction.

Art does not ask or expect of its appreciators that they subscribe to one political point of view or another; does not inquire as to whether they be on one side of the class and anti-imperialist struggles or the other.

Mozart was popular among the officers of the death camps. Trotsky recognised the avid fascist Céline as the greatest of inter-war French novelists. No contemporary liberal novelist could or presumably would claim to be of equal artistic stature to the religious reactionary Fyodor Dostoevsky.

So it’s not the purpose of this essay to dispute this fundamentally supra-political aspect of art. Great art disintegrates all borders, ignores all our divisions. Within this universally levelling effect, the aesthetic bears a radical promise of no nations, borders, classes or any kind of unequal and agitating divisions on Earth — “all the people together in harmony,” as John Lennon sings it.

Art is Utopianising in its collective effect on us as a species — it unites us by temporarily obscuring or abolishing our real divisions and without asking for a sacrifice of our individuality. Though of course it does so only temporarily, only in the realms of feeling and imagination, and without much actual impact on borders and class divisions in the here and now.

It is important not to have the illusion that making art, generally speaking, is a kind of political activism. Art is most often not political activity so much as it is the suspension or deferral of political activity.

Bertolt Brecht wrote many songs and poems and plays and novels aimed at, and enjoyed by, millions of German workers in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascism came to power anyway and would likely have done so in exactly the same way had he never in his life bothered to write a single line.

All the protest songs and singers of the 1960s and 1970s couldn’t prevent the election of Reagan and Thatcher.

There certainly are occasions when art and artists can make a centrally important contribution to social causes. The relationship between Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League is one such good news story, as is the successful resistance to the Carnsore nuclear reactor here in Ireland.

Others will have more examples, I’m sure, but all will be exceptions to a general rule of artistic creation, which is that it takes place in a separate sphere from political activity, and with its own traditions and orientations which are different to and even opposed to political activity. Activism always seeks to highlight the social divisions that anthropologists argue it is art’s social and evolutionary role in human societies to paper over and obscure.

On the other hand, this grand distinction between spheres of activity makes anyone trying to fuse them a priori a subversive. And it is obviously true that a poem on a picket-line or an artistic online video can inspire and promote causes.

But it is usually the case that artists make their best contributions to social movements in the same way as plumbers or nurses — that is, by handing out leaflets, turning up to meetings and demos etc. — by blending in rather than standing out.

Similarly, the cultural value and aesthetic quality of a work of art has nothing to with the class background or political opinions of who has produced it or who is relaying or performing it.

Nor does the personal morality of the artist have any bearing at all on whether the music they compose will be beautiful, or the book they write un-put-downable.

W.B Yeats lived a long and luxurious aristocratic life paid for by the hard labour of Irish peasants.  He owed the inspiration of many of his plays and poems to the lore of Irish peasants. The music and diction of much of his poetry is simply a refined version of the daily speech rhythms of the Irish peasantry.

Nevertheless, he enthusiastically supported the war crimes of extra-judicial torture and execution of socialist and republican POWs from peasant backgrounds during the so-called Irish civil war. Yet he remains the most melodious and memorable Irish poet of the early 20th century.

Margaret Atwood’s practical support for apartheid Israel in breaking the cultural boycott does nothing to reduce her status as one of the pre-eminent global novelists.

Conversely, some of the worst poetry ever written has emerged from council estates where a local loudmouth has discovered an online rhyming dictionary and decided to inflict their thoughts on world affairs on us in toddleresque rhymes.

So when we talk about how injustice and inequality manifest themselves in class society in relation to the arts, we are not talking about anything to do with aesthetics or the internal qualities of works of art.

Demanding increased access to art for workers

Working class people, despite the obstacles they face, make and appreciate art in countless ways and by various means. There, obviously then, is no one way of being a working class artist, and there is no ‘working-class aesthetic’ as such. Therefore, a socialist party should have no aesthetic policy or prescriptions whatsoever.

The role of a socialist party or movement is to campaign for increased working class access to the arts, period. It is never to poke its nose into the processes of artistic creation. A Stalinist policy of interference in artistic creation and limiting artistic freedom must be totally rejected and struggled against for art as well as for politics’ sake — there are no ‘socialist realist’ novels worth reading.

None of this means that we cannot highlight and unpack some distinctive ways in which working class communities have evolved artistic traditions, and which are markedly distinct from the dominant bourgeois way of doing things — ways that might incorporate something subversively political, above and beyond the artistic.

My focus is on illustrating just this kind of politicised working class literature. For any worker to start making art is by definition to make the case that we are not born solely to consume and be exploited — that we too, just like the bourgeoisie, are capable of both creating and appreciating on the higher plane of art. It is in this sense that we can agree with Michael Hartnett when he writes, “the act of poetry is a rebel act”.

The work of art is always concrete and historical, whether it be artefact or current. Art has all the apprehensible qualities of the real, whether it is a song that passes us by in three minutes or a statue of a mother deity that has withstood 65,000 years on Earth. Because of this, we can both share an encounter with an artwork, and differ widely in our opinions of it, as we can with all other historical events and objects.

But we can say definite true things about works of art as well. We can keep in mind that the work of art is a self-contained object that can only be authentically judged in relation to other self-contained objects of the same kind. As stated above, we cannot judge art by the nature of the person or person who produces it. The work of art is supremely indifferent to the name and nature of he/she/they who made it, be they saint or sinner.

And yet class is a determining factor in who gets to make art and appreciate it in so many unjustly political ways.

For example:

1) Working class access to arts education

Access to quality arts education is not provided at all in many Irish public secondary schools, and only at the most rudimentary, amateur, and unenthusiastic levels in most of the rest. Despite the overwhelming pedagogic evidence of a hugely positive impact on teenage mental health, there is no creative writing curriculum in public secondary schools.

Even more disgracefully in the year 2019, there is no multimedia creativity education (production of podcasts, videos etc.) whatsoever in Irish secondary schools. By contrast, private schools have all of the above. Well-off parents can and do pay for additional extra-curricular arts education, giving their children a huge advantage.

2) The lack of Arts Council support for predominantly working class art forms.

Literary funding in the Arts Council goes almost exclusively to predominantly middle- and upper-class forms such as the page poem, opera, and so-called ‘literary’ fiction.

There are no funding streams for performance poetry, rap, storytelling, singer-songwriters or bands, online video, podcast, digital music production — all forms that are far more accessible to and engaged with by working class people as both producers and consumers of art.

This is nothing but institutional class prejudice.

3) The cost of being an artist.

Many successful writers (it takes 15-25 years to become a successful writer) are sustained by crucial financial support from their well-off families.

Most of us do not have such parents and so we are systematically excluded in yet another way.

So to level the playing field, we need not a few legislative tweaks, not just a token couple of panels on ‘being a working class writer’ at literary festivals few working class people have ever heard of, but a complete overhaul of education, art funding, and arts access from the bottom up — that is, a revolution.

Part Two of this essay will appear on Irish Broad Left next week.

Photo above shows Christy Moore performing to protesters at an anti-nuclear protest at Carnsore Point, Co Wexford, in 1978. Picture by Eddie Kelly.

Dave Lordan is a writer and community educator and socialist activist. Check out his work at www.davelordan.com.

Neoliberalism is dead, long live neoliberalism!

By Lisbeth Latham.

Neoliberalism is a term which has entered the left lexicon over the past three decades, although in different countries it can have other analogous terms. While it is a term that the left has embraced, the right, and the advocates of what is commonly referred to as neoliberalism, deny it exists as a phenomenon, instead arguing that it reflects the conspiratorial nature of the left. 

Contrary to these positions I argue that there is a usefulness in conceptualising neoliberalism as a distinct response to the capitalist crisis, and that it is not only the hegemonic response to capitalist crisis but that its proponents use crises to deepen and strengthen its hegemony. Moreover, because significant sections of the governmental left have embraced neoliberalism, challenging neoliberalism is central to not only rebuilding left alternatives but to challenging the rise of the far-right internationally. 

Why does capitalism experience crises?

Capitalism is the only economic system in the history of humanity that is driven by a need to expand and take over pre-existing social relations. It is also the only economic system in which  economic crises are characterised by the production of too much use values (at least in the early period of the a crisis). Marx postulated that the primary underlying driver of an economic crisis is the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. Adding to this general tendency is the anarchic character of the capitalist system, where individual capitalists seek to maximise their own profits by shifting investment to areas of higher rates of profits, which leads to a series of additional crises, specifically crises of overproduction and crises of over-accumulation. 

The rate of profit is profit (or surplus value) over the sum of constant capital and variable capital. Political economists dating back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo argued that it was an undeniable fact that there was a tendency of the rate of profit to decline; however, they believed it remained unclear what the mechanism for this decline was. Marx, in Volume 3 of Capital, argued that this tendency was driven fundamentally by profit (i.e. surplus value) being derived from labour. 

Therefore, increases in constant capital (an increase in the organic composition of capital – for example, factory machinery or the value of the goods and materials required to produce a commodity) would reduce the amount of labour power involved in production and thus overtime would result in a reduction in the amount of surplus value being extracted in comparison to the total constant and variable capital involved in its production. 

Crises of overproduction 

Overproduction simply means that too many goods – of either a single category or multiple categories of goods – are being produced to be sold and generate sufficient profits. Since the earlier period of laissez faire capitalism when markets were generally expanding, this is the normal state of affairs. In the US auto-industry, for instance, the industry operated at 75.9 per cent of capacity in the first quarter of 2019. 

A crisis occurs, however, when the production and sale of goods is no longer able to produce a profit, or at the very least a sufficient profit which can lead to individual companies, or whole industries collapsing. Such collapses, while a disaster for individual capitalists or corporations and the thousands of workers who are employed by them, creates opportunities in the economy to remove excess capacity from circulation and reduce competition.

Crisis of over-accumulation

Over-accumulation crises occur when the level of capital accumulation in the system reaches such a point that there is too much capital in circulation for significant levels of capital to be profitably invested or reinvested in production, or at least increases the appeal of capital investment in financial speculation rather than in investment in new capital goods. 

Overcoming a crisis of over-accumulation requires either the destruction of significant amounts of capital, such as through war, a major recession with widespread bankruptcy, the opening of new markets to create expanded demand, or via the development of new technology – opening new avenues for capital investment. In all of these circumstances, the relief provided cannot and will not be permanent.

Throughout the history of capitalism there have been a range of responses to capitalist crises, particularly large-scale crisis such as recessions and depressions. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash and resulting Great Depression, then US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, along with a range of governments in advanced capitalist countries, embraced Keynesian responses, which focused on what Roosevelt referred to as “pump-priming” – i.e., public expenditure on infrastructure, much of which was subsidised by using the unemployed as a cheap labour source. 

The Great Depression

Such measures were essential in overcoming the impact of the Great Depression, and they undoubtedly ameliorated some of the worst levels of poverty unleashed by the depression. But there are two important points to remember: the first is that in many countries the Great Depression unleashed significant levels of class struggle, including both the unemployed and the employed – with this struggle resulting in the victory of fascism at the domestic level in Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain – and with the emergence of social democratic governments in a number of countries for the first time. 

In response to an increasingly combative US working class, exemplified by the West Coast maritime strike, the Teamster strikes in Minneapolis, and the Toledo Auto-Lite strike – all of which occurred in 1934 and are seen as key drivers of industrial unionism in the US –  Roosevelt’s second New Deal in 1935 had specific measures seeking to limit the level of violence in the class struggle with formal mechanism for union recognition (Preis, A. 1964. Labor’s giant step: Twenty years of the CIO. Monad Press, New York). 

The second point to note is that many economies did not truly recover from the Great Depression until the second world was, where the massive investment in armaments, mass conscription, and the destruction pf capital goods fed economic growth, and massive profits, this was particularly the case in the united states where the majority of unions, particularly in Stalinist lead unions, made no strike pledges to help support the war effort (ibid). 

Expansion of capitalist accumulation 

In the wake of World War II, the environment was set for the rapid expansion of capitalist accumulation. These were the massive destruction of capital goods wrought by the war, and the opening up of new markets as more and more imperial colonial powers broke up under the pressure of anti-colonial national liberation struggles. 

At the same time, the growth in confidence of the working class, along with the enhanced standing and expansion of the Soviet Bloc through its role in the defeat of fascism in World War II – placing whole swathes of Western Europe at risk of being ‘lost’ to capitalism – despite the efforts of the Soviet leadership to maintain the division of Europe as agreed between Britain, the US and the Soviet Union at the Yalta Conference. 

In this context the US government launched the Marshall Plan to massively boost the rebuilding of capital in Western Europe and Japan. In addition, there was pressure to expand social services and public welfare provisions. These steps lay the foundations for the long post-war boom in Western Europe and the US, which was also prolonged by imperialist spending on their militaries as part of Cold War and hot wars in Korea and Vietnam. 

The 1973 oil crisis

However, the long boom held within it the roots its own demise, which were exacerbated by other dimensions. These were the absolute limits of expanding markets via the collapse of European colonial empires; the rebuilding of capital in the wake of the destruction of World War II leading to greater capitalist competition and reduced opportunities productive capitalist investments; and growing US deficits due to the cost of the Vietnam war. 

In addition, more and more markets were either removed or became more restricted from access to imperialist capitalism as a consequence of national liberation struggles and attempts to build their own national economies. These developments led to a growing stagflation crisis, where both inflation and unemployment grew. This meant that the international capitalist system was vulnerable to further shocks to the economy as the long boom came to a close. Of particular importance were the 1973 OPEC strike and subsequent oil crisis and along with global decline in the demand for steel, exacerbating pressures of deindustrialisation, particularly in the US.

Insurgent neoliberalism

In response to these challenges, a wave of conservative economist and social theorists began to gain a greater hearing among governments for their alternative model for saving capitalism. These groupings, commonly referred to as neoliberals, have their origins in a serious of meetings that founded the Mont Pèlerin Society (MPS) in 1947. 

Although not having a clear economic doctrine, it represented a political project to reassert capitalist class power and defeat the growing strength of the working class and its organisations the trade unions and the social democratic and communist parties. During its early existence neoliberalism sought to construct a international thought collective represented by a range of national and international think tanks, and seeking to influence and take over university economics departments transforming their positions into increasingly common-sense and thus hegemonic responses to economic crisis.

The ‘Chicago Boys’ make their mark

The first experiments with the implementation of neoliberalism came in Indonesia and Chile following the respective coup d’etats  in those countries in 1966 and 1973. In Indonesia, following the establishment of Suharto’s New Order regime, which had been supported in its smashing and mass slaughter of the country’s communist and nationalist left, orchestrated by US intelligence services (particularly the CIA), moves were made to remove barriers to investment by capital from the US and other imperialist nations. 

In addition, the Indonesian economy was actively carved up between US corporations. Despite these changes that enabled the expanded imperialist exploitation of Indonesian natural resources and labour, investment processes were extremely corrupt, with investments requiring joint ventures – with domestic Indonesian capital generally with connections to Suharto’s family and the cronies around him. 

The extensive level of poverty within the country, exacerbated by the opening up of the economy, also meant that the state was forced to provide a significant level of subsidisation of basic goods to enable much of the population to survive – essentially state subsidies for social reproduction in order to allow the imperialist extraction of super-profits. 

In Chile, following the September 1973 coup against President Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government – carried out by the Chilean armed forces with the backing of the US government (pictured) – there began a program of both mass repression and economic transformation.

During the coup and its aftermath tens of thousands of people were murdered and terrorised, and a further 200,000 people (six per cent of the population) were forced into exile. At the same time, the ‘Chicago Boys’ – academic and graduates from the University of Chicago’s School of Economics, including “Nobel Prize” winner Milton Friedman – were brought in to reshape the Chilean economy. The impact of this transformation saw significant reductions when comparing, wages and social spending when comparing 1970 to 1989:

  • Wages decreased by eight per cent.
  • Family allowances in 1989 were 28 per cent of what they had been in 1970. 
  • Budgets for education, health and housing had dropped by over 20 per cent on average.

At the same time, Chile was seen as an economic miracle in comparison to other parts Latin America, with consistent growth in the economy, and lower levels of unemployment than in other Latin American countries. This helped neoliberals to assert ‘common-sense’ truths that private companies are more efficient than governments in delivering services; that higher profits leads to more jobs; and thus lower wages lead to more jobs. 

Neoliberalism bites in the global south

With these ‘successes’ neoliberals were in a position to push for the application of neoliberal solutions to economic difficulties facing both economies of both the imperialist centre and the global south. These changes were pushed by both the victory of openly neoliberal politicians such as US President Ronald Reagan and British PM Margaret Thatcher, and in the case of Australia, France, and Germany social-democratic (or more accurately social-liberal) governments. 

In these countries the attacks were pitched as necessary to maintain competitiveness, the rejection of social goods, and general social responsibility for the collective good – and the assertion, in Thatcher’s words, that “there is no alternative”. In many global south countries, resistance to change came from governments, who were unwilling to go as far as demanded, then the levers of international financial institutions as such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and World Trade Organisation (WTO), which sought to tie loans and bailouts to deregulation and privatisation of countries’ resources.

These institutions routinely operated on a gaslighting framework where the people whose economies had failed under the strain of neoliberal restructuring were told that the problem was not the changes that was enabling corporations to extract billions in profits from the countries for little return, but rather that that their economies had not been restructured enough and the recipe for their situation was more and more privatisation and deregulation.  

Can neoliberalism be defined?

So what is neoliberalism? There is no definitive prescription of what neoliberalism consists of, which is why its advocates can so readily dismiss its existence.

Neoliberalism began as a small intellectual society founded at Mont Pèlerin in 1947, initially heavily influenced by the ideas of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, but similar societies and think tanks were established globally. These organisations sought to take over and influence university, institutional, and governmental economics programs, forming what Philip Mirowski refers to as the “neoliberal thought collective”

These interlinking bodies do not so much articulate a coherent policy doctrine as seek to build and inculcate policy discussions with neoliberal ideas, which may well be at odds with each other, but have the effect of co-opting and subsuming the language of other movements, but also creating a situation where people are presented with not a choice between neoliberalism or an alternative solution, but simply varying forms of neoliberal solutions – which both, in George Lukács’ view is an articulation of the power of neoliberalism as a hegemonic discourse, but also reinforcing Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative”.

Neoliberalism as a response to capitalist crisis

Neoliberalism constitutes a political project aimed at weakening the political power of the working class, asserting the political power of the capitalist class and seeking to establish profitable avenues for capital investment (Harvey, D. 2007. “A brief history of neoliberalism”. Oxford University Press, Oxford.)

Key features of neoliberal projects include:

  • Reducing barriers to the movement of capital by both removing barriers to capital investment and shattering trade barriers; 
  • Increasing barriers to the movement of workers – which results in increasingly constrained rights and marginalisation for migrant workers (this includes open calls to movement being linked to migrants’ wealth);
  • Prying open more aspects of social life for capital investment – privatisation and ownership of water, for example, exemplified by the 1999-2000 water wars in Cochabamba, Bolivia, between the community and the the Nestlé corporation;
  • Opening of government services to capitalist competition, whether through direct privatisation; corporatisation; “public-private partnerships”; access by government agencies or the introduction of “voucher systems” to enable government subsidisation of the entry of private capital into the provision of social services; and at the same time, deregulating costs. This is often articulated in terms of enhancing consumer “choice”;
  • Reduction in government spending, primarily premised on the justification of the need to reign in deficits, although this has rarely been achieved (throughout the neoliberal decades the US’s budget had regularly been in deficit). Instead reductions occur primarily as a consequence of declines in government income via the narrowing of the tax base to be more heavily reliant on working people, and a redirection of government spending away from social spending on the working class and the promotion of worker-funded retirement funds – which both reduce government responsibility and make massive levels of capital available for speculation on capital markets. For example, the Australian Superannuation Funds amounted to to $AU2.8 trillion in funds at the end of the March Quarter of 2019 .

Weakening the strength and power of organised labour 

The outsourcing of work occurs both within public services and in private companies, often posed as leading to cheaper costs, Outsourcing works to undermine the bargaining power both of the outsourced and non-sourced workers, but tends to have higher overall costs due to the labour hire companies’ own need to provide their own work materials. 

The tying of wage increases to productivity increases has resulted in a significant shift in the share of GDP to profits away from wages, as workers are forced to work increasingly hard to see their wages maintain pace with inflation 

The shifting the cost of the reproduction of labour onto the working class has occurred through a range of mechanism including:

Shifting the burden of paying for the state apparatus via increased taxes on workers and the reduction taxes on capital; 

Reducing spending on social services – via either total elimination of services or means-testing services.

The 2008 crisis and beyond 

The 2008 global financial crisis and subsequent Eurozone crises, with the accompanying response by governments have been seen by some as signalling the death of neoliberalism. However, as Mirowski and others would argue, the responses to these crises instead reflect a deepening of neoliberalism – in that they have resulted in the efforts of saving capitalism being carried on the back of workers, while international capital has largely been free to continue to reap massive profits and pay out dividends and bonuses even as they were receiving public subsidies to survive.  

In response to the global financial crisis (GFC), the US government bailed out banks and financial institutions to the tune of of $US4.6 trillion. This was bankrolled by US taxpayers. The US and other governments facilitated banking consolidation to “save the system” – handing billions in assets to surviving major banks. 

In response to the failure of the “big three” US auto manufacturers, the then Obama administration provided a bailout of $US80.7 billion. This bailout was premised on the tearing up of workers’ collective agreements with demands that workers make significant concessions on their working conditions in order to keep their jobs. 

In Europe, Ireland’s opening up of the purchase of non-performing loans to cheap purchase by vulture funds has driven up housing prices in Dublin at a time of acute economic decline. We also continue to see – in the face of the imminent destruction of our planet – continued refusal and obfuscation by governments and by capital to take serious action to slow and hopefully stop action to combat climate change. The US and Australian governments in particular continue to subsidise the fossil fuel industry .  

Factors behind the growth of the far right

The past three decades have seen a growth of the far right in a wide range of countries, which has coincided with a decline and weakening of the left. This shift has been partly premised on deindustrialisation of certain economies and the erosion of the welfare state, which left-wing parties have at times been responsible for, particularly when in government coalitions with right-wing forces.  

This has resulted in understandable anger and frustration among sections of the working class and the petite bourgeoisie – anger which the right has demagogically sought to direct into anger at marginalised communities, which it blames while at the same time cynically supporting many of the attacks on working people. 

In France for example, Marine Le Pen’s National Front – now National Rally – has sought to court a range of marginalised communities, including Jewish, Islamic, and Queer communities by painting itself as the only force capable of protecting them from “marriage equality” and Islamic fundamentalism respectively. 

Part of the growth of the far right can be explained by the reality that the interests of capitalist class are not homogeneous – the capitalist class is made up of fractions that reflect different interests within its own class. The far right reflect interests of capitalist class fractions that would benefit from a more nationalist framework. Moreover, the far-right in a range of countries have a long history of supporting policies that are not in the interests of working people or the petite bourgeoisie. 

This includes support for:

  • deregulation and privatisation;
  • cutting of legislation which limit pollution; 
  • cuts to social security;
  • attacks on working people.

Left demands opposing neoliberalism

Despite this record, the far-right has taken advantage of the complicity of social-democratic and other left parties in the implementation of neoliberalism to seek to present themselves as the only opponents of austerity and the dislocation of the working class. This includes seeking to cynically accuse social democracy and the left more broadly of abandoning workers for support for multiculturalism and the support of other marginalised communities – causes that the left are more likely to support, but which is totally unrelated to the implementation and support for neoliberalism. 

In response to this challenge, it is important that the left is seen as putting forward proposals that address the needs of working people without giving ground to attacks on marginalised communities. Such demands would include:

  • In the event of mass foreclosures government should protect owner-occupiers;
  • Ensuring our demands are around universal provision of services rather than accepting means-testing for access;
  • Ban redundancies in profitable companies;
  • Job creation through limiting overtime and reducing working hours with no loss in pay;
  • Support for a universal basic income – but it must be set at a level which is liveable, and there must be strict controls on rent/commodity prices to ensure that it is not simply consumed as increased profits;
  • Ending of speculation and separating retail banks from investment banks;
  • Caps on wage ratios between senior managements and the lowest-paid workers;
  • Lifting company tax and personal income tax threshold for higher-income earners to fund an expansion of social services;
  • Reabsorption of outsourced social services back into the government – to facilitate collective bargaining and improved wages for workers in these vital and essential services;
  • Legislate to require companies operating in a country to at minimum comply with that country’s standards when operating in other countries;
  • Legislate to enable workers the option of creating co-operatives in companies facing closure or sale;
  • Give workers veto rights on restructuring plans.

While such demands seem unrealistic in the context of more than 30 years of retreat and defeat globally for progressive movements, it is important for us to consistently challenge neoliberal hegemony and to always, to quote Che, “be realistic and demand the impossible”.

Lisbeth Latham is a contributing editor to Irish Broad Left. You can follow her on Twitter @grumpenprol.

Trotskyism today and Cold War hysterics

By Fergal Twomey.

“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language” – Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

If I were a Trotskyist, alarm bells would be ringing in my head. Globally the Committee for a Workers International (CWI) is coming apart at the hinges in one of Trotskyism’s perennial cycles of splits, as the dialectic seems to be unfolding backwards towards further fragmentation rather than unity of opposites.

In Ireland, the foremost outpost of the international Trotskyist movement, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (SP) cadres are finding themselves in uncertain waters. By financing core parties through state funding, they have rendered the majority of their small membership into full-time organisers and in turn managed to craft a delicate eco-system of fronts to carry the burden of the very same electoral machine that enables their existence.

Such a stable system has, in fact, initiated a unique convergence of factors in Ireland that have enabled the existence of unprecedented “Internationalism in One Country”, as Irish cadres distance themselves from their counterparts abroad, who are, of course, back to their usual habit of depraved theoretical disputations in the case of the CWI, and are, well, just embarrassing to be associated with in the case of the International Socialist Tendency (IST).

In such a context, we can only feel sympathy for our Militant comrades who are discovering for the first time the frustration of having pragmatic responsibilities to their class run into direct contradiction with Trotskyist gospel. To paint the dispute in broad strokes, their electoral focus on popular social struggles in Ireland has invoked the dreaded appellation of ‘identity politics’ from their more ‘class-oriented’ contemporaries abroad. 

However, to waffle on about this dirty laundry would be a waste of paper (or electricity). It would be far too tempting, for instance, to end up “using Kerensky as a gun-rest to shoot Kornilov” by implying that there is a global crisis in Trotskyism based on the poll doubts and international hostility facing the Irish Trotskyist movement. Moreover, it has already been covered accurately and in excruciatingly fine detail by Paul Demarty for the Weekly Worker in articles with catchy titles such as What will be left? and Drop the Dead Donkey, which I recommend be enjoyed ironically.

‘Stalinist’ as a political slur

For the purposes of this article, I want to draw attention to one of the most amusing idiosyncrasies of this clash of personalities (apart from the existence of the non-faction faction) which has been the use of ‘Stalinist’ as a political slur between competing Trotskyist factions. When I turn back through the pages of my memory, I can find countless occasions on which I’ve been called a Stalinist by errant supporters of the goateed prophet for doing such relatively innocuous things as walking my cat, holding a divergent opinion on the 1938 transitional programme, or being in the wrong Facebook group at the wrong time.

The term ‘Stalinist’ can’t be said to have lost any appreciable meaning, for it never held much meaning in the first place, but it has reached the point of sheer parody in the life-course of any decently debased word where it has come to mean everything and anything, approaching the final terminus of “nothing”. 

It is thus with some enthusiasm that I welcome a new article authored by John Molyneux for the SWP’s theoretical journal Irish Marxist Review, entitled The Return of Stalinism? The first thing that springs to mind is an old adage in journalism, Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, which states “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word ‘No’ ”.

Revival of ‘Stalinism’ among Irish youth

This article, at a glance, is a brief overview of the history of ‘Stalinism’ written with the aim of responding to a “certain revival of various forms of Stalinism among a layer of young people on the left, including in Ireland”. I hope I can be absolved of flattering myself in the assumption that this bold claim refers to the recent consolidation of the Connolly Youth Movement (CYM) as a fixture of radical politics on an all-Ireland basis, given its explicit reference to the CYM’s comrades abroad in the UK and Greece.

Comrade Molyneux, hoping by this venture to dissuade a new generation of youth activists from veering too far from the truth of his brand of Cliffism, has divided Stalinism into a series of historical categories, each with an inevitably sordid history reflecting the folly of Marxism-Leninism. 

His characterisation of the Soviet Union inevitably drudges through the hoary old clichés about Lenin’s will, degenerated (or is it deformed?) workers’ states and intra-party feuds, and it is not my wish to contest the documentary evidence surrounding these century-old grievances. It condenses, as always, a complex story of human aspiration and mass socioeconomic development into a neat bundle of betrayal, even going to the extraordinary lengths of comparing Stalin to the blueshirts, a charge I am relatively confident he would have denied.

Material reality of life in the Soviet Union

This whole operation is carried out under the ostensible premise of lip service to material analysis, but even the fundamental trends it cites as the basis for its speculations do not hold up to scrutiny. The standard of living in the USSR, for example, did not fall under Soviet socialism. In fact, it increased year on year until in the 1960s life expectancy in the USSR briefly surpassed that of the USA.

Of course, socialised medicine is not socialism, and institutional ossification eventually slowed the growth of the economy, but central planning, rational development, and workers’ democracy existed in the USSR and were salvageable from its flaws. For those who are interested in a more balanced approach to Soviet history that does not revolve around mental gymnastics in service of failed factionalists, I emphatically recommend the works of the scholar Geoffrey Roberts, as well as other writers such as Eric Hobsbawm, Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, and Moshe Lewin.

Just to show you how totally baseless and steeped in Cold War paranoia the work of John Molyneux is, consider the fact that he cites as a source Roy Medvedev – whose massive death counts hung at the door of Stalin were a grotesque fabrication based on the surely unbiased material evidences of White émigré testimony and on gross distortion of population trends. To use such outdated Cold War historians with axes to grind rather than the most recent and comprehensive reviews of the history is a major lapse of diligence and endorses ideological partisanship over fidelity to good scholarship. 

A mature analysis of the USSR’s successes and failures

Comrades, I want to believe at this point that we can engage in a mature and honest discussion of the failings and successes of Soviet socialism within the Communist movement without frothing at the gob or adhering to the comforting simplifications that Trotskyism has to offer.

The function Trotskyism played for Western leftists was as a disinfectant to wash their hands of the legacy of the Soviet Union, allowing them to act with an autonomy of theory and action that ultimately amounted to adventurism and left them briefly mistaken in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s demise that they really were finally the true inheritors of the mantle of revolution that they so coveted.

For us the revolution is not an old knick-knack or a gaudy coat-of-arms to be fought over; it is the lived experience of millions, and the greatest trove of that experience is in the lives of the liberational struggles of the Socialist world. To cast aside the memories of millions for the bitter recollection of a handful of exiles is an injustice against history.

The fundamental and only real material argument put forward by Molyneux is that the Soviet Union was state capitalist. Far from infested by capitalists, the Soviet Union was a state of workers, scholars and agitators, among whom laboured planners and economists who were more than mere bureaucratic boogeymen. They were dedicated workers shaping the economy in trust and consultation with the party, industrial workers and their trade unions.

Although between the 1960s and the 1980s, significant chasms of miscommunication opened between the different channels of Soviet administration and life, their relationship was fundamentally cooperative rather than competitive. Even a culture of corruption and black marketeering did not replace the Soviet system at once, but rather created an underbelly parallel to it.

The ‘state capitalism’ that wasn’t

A capitalist class, as we are aware of it as Marxists, consists of individual actors. Trotskyists would argue that the collective became one gigantic capitalist, devouring the fruits of its own labour. In reality, inflation was virtually non-existent in the Soviet Union as prices were fixed and the exchange rate was static with foreign currencies.

Money in this closed publicly owned economy did not operate according to the principles of money in a capitalist economy and came close to Marx’s conception of the lower phase of Communism described in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. To say that in such an economy, where the majority of re-investment was not through valourised profit, free to be spent on luxuries, but rather through the rational redistribution of materials to new projects, that the state acted as a capitalist and that moreover its planners were capitalists is nonsense.

The main suggestions of the proposed Kosygin reforms in the Soviet Union was the introduction of ‘autonomous enterprises’ and re-alignment (i.e. inflation) of prices to more accurately reflect the cost of production (i.e. to allow the new autonomous enterprises to be able to profit). We can see here that the opportunist ‘reformers’ in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union knew exactly what the socialist elements of the Soviet economy were and how to dismantle them. 

Democratic central planning

When we speak about capitalist economies, especially those of scale, we often forget that the capitalist is a planner. The chaos of production in capitalist society is that of thousands of disproportionate planners each deciding where the investments of owners will go and trying to absorb the profits of the others.

Central planning removes that chaos and replaces its incoherent competition with growth in the interest of all rather than the individual. Regardless of the good or ill health of Soviet democracy at different points in enabling the workers to communicate their desires to planners, fundamentally the goal of the economy was not the enrichment of individuals but the decency of all.

We can’t wear blinders about the inconsistencies in Soviet society that charted it on a course to dismantlement and the mass poverty and death wrought by neoliberalism. Neither should we have fantasies about ‘state capitalism’ to justify counter-revolution over self-criticism. 

Out of the frying pan and into the fire, we turn next to the second and third faces of Stalinism in Molyneux’s categorisation. These are the Stalinism of the Comintern/World War 2 and the Stalinism of the later USSR’s intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as well as the Stalinism of Ho Chi Minh and others.

As you can see by now, we’re beginning to rack up a lot of Stalinisms. Given that the term is applied to countries and outlooks that are completely removed from Stalin as an individual as well as from orthodox Marxism-Leninism, ranging from other Trotskyists, to Gorbachev, to Ceaușescu, to Kevin O’Higgins and Eamon Gilmore (perhaps Bertie Ahern is the final torchbearer for true Stalinism in Ireland), we ‘Stalinists’ should take care not to become Dizzy with Success or overcome with a sense of vanity at how far our tendrils reach.

Hungary 1956

The highlight of these sections is the description of the counter-revolution in Hungary in 1956 as being a ‘workers’ revolution’ crushed by Soviet tanks. This point of view is so far removed from reality as to need no real response, but in service of my insidious plot to lure the working class to Fully Automated Luxury Stalinism, I’ll point out the most glaring flaws.  

Molyneux asks the rhetorical question “How was it to be explained that after 10 years of ‘glorious’ socialism, fascism suddenly gained mass support in Hungary?” I will showcase my typical Stalinist arrogance here by answering a rhetorical question. One decade before the Great Hungarian Workers’ and Peasants’ Revolution of 1956, ended a World War where Hungary was in the grip of a fascist movement that had emerged in reaction to the legitimate Hungarian revolution. A reactionary past doesn’t disintegrate in 16 years but is a painful and lengthy process of disempowerment and re-education.

Imre Nagy was little more than a figurehead, a leader on paper, incapable of controlling a section of society that had years earlier supported Miklós Horthy. He wanted to adopt a position of neutrality between the USSR and Western powers – hardly a workers’ revolutionary position. We have seen with the course countries like Austria, Italy and France took in the 20th century, that in bourgeois democracies ‘neutrality’ quickly became repression of the Communist Party, vote-rigging, and armed opposition to the socialist states.

To call it a ‘workers’ revolution’ is a solecism and abuse of phrasemaking at the expense of meaning much the same way that calling Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (brownshirts) a ‘workers’ revolutionary organisation’ might be correct in that it was an organisation; it called for a reactionary insurrection; and it had workers in it.

I will advance this as one of my primary criticisms of Trotskyism – it embodies the very ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ mentality that Molyneux says he is writing against. As soon as any group acts against ‘Stalinism’, which, as we have seen, means whatever Trotskyists don’t like, then suddenly that group gets the words ‘revolutionary’ and ‘worker’ tacked onto the front of its name with no material basis for such absurd claims.

Trotskyists are fond of trotting out Stalinist disruptions and Stalinist diversions of communist parties and movements across the globe, but in reality Trotskyists have failed to ever achieve the mass mandate or democratic legitimacy of Marxist-Leninist parties in leading the working class into power. The book Quite Right, Mr. Trotsky by Denver Walker elucidates this pathetic history of backstabbing and collaboration, with a unique focus on the history of the SWP. It responds with much panache to many of the critiques of the international role of the Comintern which Molyneux makes. 

Irish Communist formations

On Irish Stalinism, the final Stalinism (I hope in the sense of being the Hegelian absolute), Molyneux weaves a colourful tapestry of the Communist Party of Ireland’s purported intrigues to corrupt the Irish republican left from within with ‘two-stagism’. He levies the charge at the CPI that it is guilty of a sort of ‘Labour Must Wait’ misinterpretation of James Connolly that originated with Menshevism (!) and passed to C. Desmond Greaves through the Comintern’s policy of promoting temporary power-sharing with the national bourgeoisie.

It claims that the two-stage corruption then passed from Desmond Greaves, who is now allegedly responsible for the Stickie-Provo split, to the Workers’ Party. Finally, this wild rollercoaster arrives at Eamon Gilmore. We can answer an intellectual question that no one has ever asked – how do you trace the ideological genealogy of Eamon Gilmore back to his Menshevik and CPI handlers? 

In the Leninist/Comintern sense, the idea of revolutionary power being approached in stages is not an “inheritance from the mensheviks” as Molyneux describes it and is how the Bolshevik revolution proceeded. The Mensheviks saw the industrialisation connected to capitalism and market forces as something that could only be performed by the bourgeoisie. Lenin states, as published in Letters on Tactics

What, then, is the first stage?

It is the passing of state power to the bourgeoisie.

Before the February-March revolution of 1917, state power in Russia was in the hands of one old class, namely, the feudal landed nobility, headed by Nicholas Romanov.

After the revolution, the power is in the hands of a different class, a new class, namely, the bourgeoisie.

The passing of state power from one class to another is the first, the principal, the basic sign of a revolution, both in the strictly scientific and in the practical political meaning of that term.

This is the sense in which Lenin speak of stages of revolutionary transition – as a brief step in removing a more entrenched obstacles before quickly (in the same year in the case of the Bolsheviks) finishing off the state power that the working class had to share. Not the Menshevik concept of the development of the economy according to the impetus of the bourgeoisie, but rather, the transfer of state power from a feudalistic regime to a broad alliance, followed by a workers’ and peasants’ state.

Colonialism and emancipation

However, this is neither what the Communist Party of Ireland or Connolly advocated for Ireland.  For a colonial state like Ireland, which shared many similarities to the level of class development of Tsarist Russia, British colonialism occupied the same position as the local aristocracy in Russia.

Patriotic internationalists, including Connolly, have understood the necessity of allying with the peasantry, which was highly present in the rank-and-file, although not the leadership, of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and Irish Republican Army (IRA). A nationalist revolution for the overthrow of colonial domination was deeply intertwined with the alienation of the landless farmers and workers.

Many falsely believed that a bourgeois revolution would also involve social emancipation, and many others falsely believed that socialist emancipation was possible under colonialism. The workers’ soviets and industrial upheavals that coincided with the War of Independence were crushed by the neo-colonial Free State.

Connolly knew what he was doing. He was temporarily allying with the national bourgeoisie to gain Irish sovereignty, which was a natural predecessor for the working class to wrest power from the national bourgeoisie, which depended on colonial support to maintain its privileged position. His writings show that he was under no illusions as to the nature of who he was working with. The consciousness of the workers and peasants could have developed to the point of making the national bourgeois element redundant.

Moreover, this trend was already taking place more slowly, for example, Liam Cahill writes in Forgotten Revolution: Limerick Soviet, 1919 that IRB and Volunteers were restructuring in 1916, and that working class agitators were taking a more prominent role. This is what happened in the Soviet Union, as first the hold of the Tsar was broken, only to be overthrown by the Bolsheviks as the political situation changed. 

Moreover, the Revolutionary Workers’ Groups (RWG), the CPI’s forerunner, did not attempt to join Fianna Fáil because of some tactical madness in believing that Fianna Fáil could usher in socialism, but rather saw Fianna Fáil as a fertile potential recruiting ground. The Fianna Fáil of that day was releasing regular articles in support of the Soviet Union through The Nation and many radical IRA members had joined.

RWG members also had to join Fianna Fáil because their members were being attacked or killed, and their offices and presses were regularly moved, withdrawn or assaulted. They were presented with total illegality and disintegration or joining Fianna Fáil to try to influence the left-most members safely. That this was a mistake is a testament to the terrible conditions these early communists operated in and the trying decisions and stigmatisation they were faced with.

It is not some secret conservative kernel at the heart of the CPI, which has been at the forefront of workers’ and tenants’ struggles in Ireland; it is the reality of doing the best with the hand you’re dealt. The RWG struggled from attack and dissolution to attack and dissolution in the 1930s, whilst in the 1960s the CPI were out and open as communists in one of the most repressive environments in Western Europe, whilst the SWP was attempting abortive entryism into the Labour Party. It is a shame for Molyneux that he cannot recognise the bravery of these visionaries who struggled without credit in the dark. 

It’s clear from this article that the SWP knows which way the wind is blowing. It hasn’t recovered and is unlikely to ever recover from the serious crisis of identity it suffered in the early 2010s. Based on my previous observations of interactions between members of the CYM and the SWP, they are starting to build up a repertoire of talking points that seem to, now, have finally developed into something that purports itself to be a substantial critique.

Poverty of thought

It is telling, then, that all Molyneux can do is inveigh against the CPI for imagined past sins. This escape into the past is very telling of the priorities of the SWP, given that its present is not an enviable position to occupy. It is a reflection of the poverty of thought in the Trotskyist movement that it engages in the vulgar practice of calling for materialist analysis, of claiming to be adept in performing material analysis, but carefully avoiding lifting the hood to discuss the phenomena on which its justifications are based.

This search for moral high ground that it has lost today has led the SWP to bizarre accusations that the CPI is responsible for the defection of the leadership of the Workers’ Party to the Labour Party in 1989. 

The most glaring evidence of this poverty of thought can be found in Molyneux’s self-plagiarism of his past publications in this latest article. The subsection shown below is recycled straight out of his 1983 book What is the real Marxist tradition? without any self-citation:

The Bolshevik party found itself suspended in a vacuum. To administer the country it had to take over and use a vast army of Tsarist officials and against all its intentions it itself became bureaucratised. Bureaucracy is essentially a hierarchy of officials not subject to popular control from below. In Russia the social force that Marxists (above all Lenin) counted on to prevent the development of bureaucracy, an active revolutionary working class, had been cut from under the feet of the party. In this situation it was impossible to implement the Marxist programme in pure form. For a period it was possible to mount a holding operation, relying on the hardened socialist commitment of the Bolshevik old guard, to cling to the basic revolutionary aspirations while making the necessary practical compromises (for example the New Economic Policy or NEP) and waiting for help from the international revolution. This in essence was the course taken by Lenin. But failing the international revolution (and it did fail) a stark choice had eventually to be made. Either remain loyal to the theory and goal of international proletarian revolution, with the possibility of losing state power in Russia, or cling to power and abandon the theory and goal. The situation was extremely complex and the participants did not see it in these clear terms, but, essentially, Trotskyism was the product of the first choice and Stalinism of the second.

You might be wondering what exactly is wrong with this – self-plagiarism is considered a form of fraud in academia, because it repackages an old work as a new one, thus avoiding originality while tricking audiences into believing that they’re consuming novel work.

This brings me to my fundamental criticism of Molyneux’s outlook that I hint at in my opening quote. Trotskyism is a repackaging of various personalities, figures, and feuds of a different age and an attempt to build a cargo cult. By attempting to go through the rituals that Leon Trotsky, Ernest Mandel, Tony Cliff and their contemporaries went through in the great factional hullabaloos of their day, Trotskyists are constantly enjoying a form of live-action roleplay where they are invariably persecuted geniuses and academic revolutionaries chased by conspiracies of conformist Stalinoid bureaucrats.

This re-enactment of the Comintern struggles of the 1930s satisfies egos while providing a safe merry-go-round to dissipate revolutionary fervour of young people in alignment with Western soft power foreign policy and domestic interests. The Trotskyist electoral machine, meanwhile, continues to burn out young activists with potential and enthusiasm in futile and hollow electoralism. Red Youth are building a new revolutionary form of popular struggle from the ashes of the old, and sectarian partisans will have to recognise that their methods are spent and that a new chapter is beginning for socialism in the 21st century. They must decide whether to become obstacles to that progress or actively aid it. 

I would invite the youth activists of today to not go glassy-eyed gazing at the past, nursing old grudges, but to critically and coldly scrutinise it for fundamental principles of theory and action to apply to the present. By working in one mass communist party, along the lines of democratic centralism and a serious commitment to class work and dialectical materialism, we can win back the future.

Decaying capitalism will not inevitably deliver socialism

We shouldn’t wait around for any Trotskyite delusion that the ‘class balance’ or ‘decaying features’ of capitalism are going to bring us socialism on a silver platter. Nor should we, in the name of most revolutionary slogans, lend our voices to any revolution in any country regardless of its class character and its ideology. Let us not forget that it is Molyneux’s erstwhile comrades in the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) who referred to Aleppo as the “Paris Commune of the 21st century”.

Considering that the ISO, like the IST and CWI, are teetering on the brink, we will soon gladly consign useful-idiot gullibility and left-wing anti-Communism to the dustbin of history. No to re-constructed “socialism”, no to counter-revolution, no to euro-communism. Forward to victory and a new unity. 

To quote Che Guevara: “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You must make it fall”.  

To quote Lenin: “To wait until the toiling classes bring about a revolution on an international scale means that everybody should stand stock-still in expectation. That is nonsense”. 

To quote Regina George: “Why are you so obsessed with me?”

Fergal Twomey is the former National Chairperson of the Connolly Youth Movement. Follow CYM on Twitter @ConnollyYM .

This article is part of a general debate and, like all articles we publish, does not reflect the views of the Irish Broad Left editorial team. We welcome responses to this article from those with opposing views.

Barnyard socialism revisited: Farmers are victims of market manipulation

By Niall Monaghan.

For what toil the sons of Róisín, is it pennies?

In this period of increased focus on the climate breakdown, our primary producers are often perceived as holding back progress. They are commonly viewed as another polluter that must be challenged to change their ways.

But farmers are generally not multinational corporations solely focused on selling us things that we either don’t need or are bad for us. Farmers are workers at the bottom of a supply chain, which produce the most essential things for our survival. They are price-takers not price-makers because they have very little bargaining power.

Like any other body of the Irish workforce, they deserve respect and a fair standard of living based on their labour. Even in places like Tubbercurry, County Sligo, or Glenties, County Donegal, they have not been insulated from the scourges that affect the rest of the modern economy and political thought – neoliberalism and globalisation.

A common misconception has arisen in recent years that farmers are making money hand over fist as they not only profit from their products but also are directly supplemented by EU funding. However, the reality is that these payments are not a supplement but rather a drip-feed fund to keep an industry on its knees from collapse; it is the outworking of a failed system.

Subsidies keeping farming industry from collapse

The reason farmers are supported is not EU generosity but more so that we depend on this system and cheap labour to keep food prices down. In fact, the surplus left between the prices farmers were paid for their products and their costs shrunk by 16.1 per cent in 2018, resulting in a 15 per cent drop in farm incomes.

Here is the chilling reality for the average farmer in the west of Ireland – let’s call him ‘Joe’. Joe is a beef farmer, receiving the industry average EU payment for his region, €9,881. Not unusually, this makes up about 103 per cent of his income.

Put simply, after everyone is paid Joe is making a loss consistently and depends on his EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payment to cover his losses and to be able to survive. This equates to less than half of the living wage in 2019. Those on the right will assume Joe is a bad businessperson and we should not be subsiding his loses. However, since Joe earns the average salary for his sector the problem is not Joe but rather the market, right?

Supermarkets and food giants suppress prices

Let us take a closer look. Joe sells his carcasses to the beef processor who in turns sells them to the supermarket. The retail price of his product can be broken down to 51 per cent for the supermarket, 29 per cent for the processing factory and the remaining 20 per cent for Joe, who does the vast majority of the work.

The two actors above Joe in the food chain are constantly doing their upmost to ensure they pay as little as possible for his product. Supermarkets, for example, do this by below-cost selling. This involves selling Joe’s products below the purchase price. The aim of this practice is to undercut the competition. That competition is usually small, independent retailers that then pressure Joe to lower the price of his products or they will just purchase them from the nearly supermarket.

After this is achieved the objective, or fair price, of the product has been lowered and becomes the new norm, affecting the price Joe is offered in future. This practice is also designed to push competitors completely out of the market so he will have fewer options of who to sell to, thereby weakening his bargaining position further.

While the supermarket is focusing on the sale price, the food processing factory is focusing on the price they buy the product for. The food processing industry in Ireland is highly concentrated: the three biggest factory groups in Ireland had started out by owning single factories and they now control 60 per cent of the kill in Ireland and Britain, as well as further factories in Eastern Europe.

This allows them to act as a cartel and often offer farmers a price below the cost of production. The farmer has a perishable product, which leaves them little scope to negotiate. Traditionally the only weapon available to the farmer is his or her ability to negotiate in times of short supply.

Have the food processing factories been cunning enough to find a solution against this rebalancing of the scales? You can bet your bottom dollar they have. In recent years, they have established their own feedlots, which are grassless industrial factory farms where animals are grain-fed to fatten more quickly and be ready for slaughter.

Feedlots now constitute 18 per cent of the weekly kill in Ireland. These are used strategically by factories to release cows into the market when supply dwindles, thereby out-manoeuvring the farmer. The reason factories do not use these all year round is because the Irish public prefer pasture-reared animals for animal welfare reasons, and rightly so.

Government ignores cartels and market manipulation

Now that we understand how the food chain acts to squeeze the farmers, we would assume government intervention would have put in place measures to combat such exploitation. But this is wishful thinking at best.

The approach of the Irish government and the EU has been to ignore the market manipulators and plaster over the issue by subsidising the beef farmers’ losses. We all need to think long and hard about what this means: instead of putting in place measures to protect farmers from such exploitations, we have taken the approach of watching the farmers make a loss and then sending them money to cover those losses and just about survive.

EU money comes from European taxpayers; therefore the EU is facilitating a system where public EU funds are used to allow supermarkets and processors make a greater profit from paying unsustainably low amounts to farmers. This is effectively taxpayer-funded aid to multinational supermarkets.

Free trade deals will devastate Irish farmers

The European Commission is also negotiating and agreeing free trade deals to facilitate the export of things like German car parts in exchange for the import of cheap beef. The proposed EU-Mercosur free trade agreement is a perfect example of this: the EU will allow 100,000 tonnes of beef, mostly from Brazil, which will cause the price of EU beef on supermarket shelves to plummet.

Those on the neoliberal right are supporting such free trade deals and coming out against a ban on below-cost selling, when they are fully aware that such positions make deep EU intervention in the market essential, in the form of cash subsidies to protect farmers from bankruptcy.

Some have even gone as far as supporting a financial cut to the CAP. This radical position has been taken knowing that without protection, regulation or subsides, European farmers will be something you have to learn about in a museum.

The logic of this position is clear – there is an entire developing world sector just waiting to be exploited, so why waste money keeping in place a system, EU agriculture, with a higher cost base? They are quite happy to have all food imported from places where production is not burdened by animal welfare or environmental laws. For them, not only would food get cheaper but we could remove agricultural emissions and preach to the rest of the world how Europe has moved closer to our climate targets.

How can Irish farmers fight the tide?

As Clann na Talmhan emerged in 1939, farmers themselves must be at the fore of resisting this system and fighting for change. Two organisations have emerged in recent years that are fighting for those farmers on the edge of bankruptcy, the Irish Natura And Hill Farmers Association (INFHA) and, more recently, the Beef Plan Movement.

The Beef Plan Movement have now have amassed 15,000 members and hope to get to 40,000. This would be a big enough portion of the weekly kill, 50 per cent, to have a major impact on production and make a shortage unmanageable for the factories. This would allow them to create a supply crisis if the factories refuse to play ball.

Further to this, they are examining setting up cooperative processing factories to bypass the industry completely and negotiate directly with supermarkets, which would give them a significantly bigger chunk of that per euro percentage.

Whether they are conscious of this or not, these organised farmers have seen the flaws of the system they operate in and came to the same conclusion that we have come to on the left: the market needs regulation to curtail exploitation of the workers and those businesses at the bottom. Not only have they identified the problem but have realised what they can achieve if they band together. Talk of sending empty cattle trailers to the factories, as a message, sounds to me like the kind of direct action Connolly or Larkin could have got behind.

What should the government do?

In terms of legislation, we must as a matter of urgency ban below-cost selling and even look at the feasibility of banning a company offering a farmer below an agreed cost of production, outside of times of great oversupply. Fine Gael, which is committed to non-interference, has flatly rejected these ideas, which begs the question as to why such a high percentage of farmers vote for them?

Farmers cannot continue to vote against their interests if they are to survive. Voting for Fine Gael because they are seen as the traditional party of rural Ireland is like taking up smoking because Benson and Hedges sponsor the local GAA team.

Finally, if we fail and agriculture is fully shifted to the developing world to be exploited, it is not only Joe that will be out of business but the town that depends on him. This was confirmed by a recent study, which stated every €1 of direct support for cattle and sheep farmers underpins over €4 of aggregate output in the rural economy.

The health, housing and homelessness crises should give you an indication of how likely it is that the neoliberal Fine Gael would be wading in to replace that output in the rural economy.

Niall Monaghan is a Sinn Féin policy advisor in the European Parliament, working on the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee.

Economic democracy, trade unions and labour-managed enterprises

By Michael Taft.

“It is the supreme paradox of democracy that every man is a servant of the matters of which he possess the most intimate knowledge, and for which he shows the most expert proficiency; namely, the professional craft to which he devotes his working hours; and he is a master over that on which he knows no more than anybody else, namely, the general interests of the community as a whole.”

Beatrice and Sydney Webb pointed out that where people had intimate knowledge and expert proficiency – the workplace – they were denied the right of participation they were allowed in political society. Democracy is not a 24/7 process. It stops at the beginning of each working day.

There are many arguments for economic democracy: rights-based arguments that claim people should have the same entitlements as they do in political democracy; performance-based arguments showing how greater democracy improves economic and social outcomes; and psycho-social arguments emphasising how it enhances the individual.

All of these arguments are valid but unfortunately they are made ineffectual as they are painted as naïve or impractical, anti-business or anti-entrepreneurial.

But the real complaint is the privileging of labour. This is economic democracy at its most audacious – the idea that people, the producers, have the capacity to run workplaces and economies in a better, more efficient and sustainable way than capital.

The privileging of labour: both the trade union movement (producers coming together to exert more power than they can do individually) and the cooperative movement (where labour hires capital rather than the other way around) are agents of this. But, unfortunately, with so much in common, they do not always act in concert.

Ladder of participation and productivity

The jury is not out. It came in a long time ago. We have what can be called the ladder of participation and productivity. It is the same ladder. Let’s take one example: employee participation, a rather bland term which, however, conceals a more insidious, essential message. Academic studies and government papers, institutes and special commissions: all report that the greater the participation of producers in the decision-making processes of the enterprise, the better the performance.

Participation operates in a continuum, or on different rungs of the ladder, ranging from the minimal right to information, to the right to suggest, to prior consultation, to bargaining, to veto, to co-decision, and finally to unilateral workers’ decisions, or labour-managed enterprises. Each step up these rungs has been shown to improve the performance of the enterprise.

So if the evidence is so overwhelming, why isn’t democracy at enterprise level more widespread? Simply because it undermines so many vested interests – the status of senior executives and management, and the financial interests of shareholders. And more.

Ever since societies started producing surpluses, there has been a hierarchy that dictates what is produced, how it is produced, who produces it, on what terms, and – most importantly – who derives the greatest benefit. This is the source of social and political power.

The trade union and cooperative movement enter the frame at the enterprise level. However, they enter at different rungs on the ladder. Trade unions enter at the most basic level, organising workers, their voice and their potential collective strength.

The cooperative movement enters at the top of the ladder – as contractual owners of the firm. These different stations inevitably create different perspectives and strategies.

Rethinking enterprise and ownership

One perspective might be that workers in a cooperative are both the producers and owners whereas workers in a traditional, capital-privileged enterprise produce but do not own. However, the distance between the two is not so great in practice.

Workers in both types of enterprises want the business they work in to succeed. Obviously, workers in the cooperative want the business to succeed. But so do workers in the traditional firm. Living standards, job security, social benefits and social networks are all vindicated by and through the enterprise. Nobody wants the business they work in to fail.

Indeed, the biggest group within any enterprise that wants the business to succeed is the workers. They outnumber management and shareholders. Shareholders are mostly passive, rentiers by definition, extremely short-term, with no interest in the company beyond dividends and share appreciation. Workers look to the enterprise to provide for their future; for shareholders, the future is short-term and contingent.

Given its centrality to economic democracy and people’s lives, we need to redefine and reconceptualise the enterprise. We need to reframe the very idea of ownership. In this task we will have a lot of help. Academics, lawyers and researchers – even court rulings – have concluded that no one owns a corporation. Instead, it is described as a legal person, a nexus of contracts, a franchise government which is neither public nor private, and an economic commons.

In other words, the enterprise is a social space where a number of interests – workers, management, shareholders, creditors, suppliers and the community – have contractual rights and obligations but no one group owns the business. If shareholders or management have power, it does not derive from the essential activity of the enterprise, but from law. Its power is politically defined.

This may appear as highly theoretical and detached from day-to-day struggles. But it helps us to go to the heart of the problem. We are all too aware of how the odds are stacked against us when are adversaries frame the debate and define the terms.

Labour is a cost and we need to keep our costs down, we need to be flexible, we need to adapt quickly, we need to be competitive, we no longer can afford permanent full-time jobs, etc. etc. Employers, management, entrepreneurs are the wealth creators and who would oppose wealth creation. We lose the debate before we enter it.

Economic democracy as a cultural struggle

Democracy’s enemies license what is acceptable and what is unthinkable in society and the economy; in other words, they determine what is ‘common sense’.

And how do they enforce that license? They rely on us. We adopt what is acceptable and what is unthinkable as if we came up with these ideas on our own. Such is the power of this ‘common sense’ that we end up policing ourselves. Ironically, the debate that we lose before entering is actually framed by us.

Therefore, economic democracy first presents itself as a cultural struggle – a struggle over ideas, over what is desirable and practical. We must refashion common sense, reframe the debate and redefine the key terms. The current construction of the enterprise masquerades as a natural order.

In an alternative construction, the enterprise is a social space. Capital may have rights based on contract but this does not equate to ownership. And employees, in this construction, cease to be a mere vendor of their labour, a downsized party in the hierarchy of the enterprise.

Our pragmatic and ideological arguments for economic democracy may receive a wider audience if, at the same time, we reframe the debate into a new common sense.

State support for cooperatives

At first glance, the cooperative movement appears to have solved this problem since they are both producer and shareholders. However, the cooperative can be extremely circumscribed and vulnerable within markets dominated by capital.

They may be forced to compete with traditional companies that pursue ‘race-to-the-bottom’ labour strategies, engage in below-market selling, externalise their costs (especially in the environmental sphere) and other predatory practices while at the same time face discrimination by the financial system.

This is even more so given the weakness of the cooperative movement in Ireland. We do not have the long-established and deep-rooted ecosystems that sustain cooperatives in the Bologna or Basque regions, in the American plywood industry or in the French construction sector.

The cooperative movement would have a better chance in markets where economic democracy is making advances – where collective bargaining is widespread, where transparency is not the exception but the rule, where precarious practices are suppressed, where there is supportive public banking. The wider democratic agenda is the cooperative movement’s best chance of taking root.

Economic democracy is not just about reframing the enterprise as a social space. It constitutes a long march through the market economy itself. This can be done by changing the relationship between the state and enterprises, or creating new enterprise models.

For instance, Mariana Mazzucato has shown that the state is not only an entrepreneur but actively creates markets through its role as risk-taker and first mover in investment and R&D. However, the state does not act like a market investor who takes a direct stake. This means that the costs and risks of investment in companies are socialised but the profits are privatised.

This should be addressed by taking of equity in companies and markets the state supports. The equity can be leveraged to extend democracy – ensuring collective bargaining, introducing participation programmes and even requiring workers’ representatives on the board – within those companies which benefit from direct and indirect grants. This is similar to a ‘social value’ clause in public procurement contracts, requiring enhanced democracy in firms that seek to win public contracts.

Role of public enterprises

A second form of market intervention is the promotion of public enterprise, especially at the local level. Throughout Europe and North America local public enterprises play an expanded role; it is far more limited here in Ireland.

Public enterprises can be used for a number of purposes. For instance, a rural town in Kentucky found itself a victim of a cartel of petrol stations. It countered by establishing a public petrol station that sold petrol at cost. This broke up the cartel and forced other petrol stations to cut their prices.

Local public enterprises can be used to provide goods and services where private capital is absent or engages in monopolistic practices. It can set benchmarks for prices – as in the Kentucky example – for wages and working conditions, and for democratic practices in the workplace.

Local public enterprises can become laboratories where labour-managed practices can be tested, workers trained in self-management, creating spillover effects that can drive the formations of worker cooperatives and other civil-society led businesses.

Social infiltration of the market space

And it is in the promotion of civil society-led enterprises where labour-managed activities can find traction. We must get out of the mindset that the public is only served by state intervention. The creation of community enterprises, labour-managed enterprises, and innovative hybrid models of small capital, public capital and labour-managed – all these represent opportunities for the social to enter the private and market space.

Economic democracy – whether reframing the enterprise or creating new enterprise relationships – can also help the trade union movement square a perennial circle. The Fabian Society, following up on an earlier survey by the TUC, found that employees want a number of things from the workplace: fair pay, certainty of hours, opportunities for advancement and promotion, chances to learn new skills, better work-life balance, reductions in the gender pay-gap and a say in how their work is organised. All of these point to the enterprise as a social space as referred to earlier.

The Fabian survey also indicated that employees want the trade union to protect them from problems that arise – that is, protect them from employers’ actions – while at the same time they want unions to work with employers. This may seem contradictory but it is not; it merely reflects the actual conditions of capital-privileged enterprises.

The enterprise may be the source of workers’ living standards but it is also a place of insecurity, stress and discrimination. Capital allows the former on its own terms and engages in the latter when it suits it, unless there is a counter-veiling collective force.

This dichotomy – working with and being protected from – can be reconfigured in the social space to labour’s advantage. But this requires us to champion that space for interests other than our own. For instance, it has been shown conclusively that collective bargaining leads to productivity gains. When management refuses workers’ collective rights, they are actually undermining enterprise performance and harming other interests or stakeholders in the firm.

Therefore, rewriting common sense requires unpicking alliances that currently oppose labour, finding the fault-lines that can pry apart those alliances, and to develop new – if ad hoc – links that can advance economic democracy.

Challenging the infantilisation of workers

So where do we start? It is very simple and extremely subversive: to challenge the infantalisation of people whether in the workplace and in civil society. We’ve seen this throughout history (‘you are not capable of reading and properly interpreting religious text’. We experience this today (‘you are not capable of understanding complex economic issues or sophisticated business strategies’).

A number of cultural tools are employed to maintain hierarchies in society and in our heads: the idealisation of the lone ‘entrepreneur’ and the assertion that hierarchy is the natural order of the enterprise. These need to be challenged.

This is exactly what both the trade union and cooperative movement do: challenge the sociology of infantilism. All of us promote the idea that people are the producers, capable of writing their own contracts, possessing – as the Webbs put it – intimate knowledge and expert proficiency of their craft, their workplace.

To promote people’s confidence that they can participate fully in the workplace is the very first condition of economic democracy. This is the common station where we both enter, the common ground, the alliance, the partnership. It’s a good starting point. So let’s start. It can only take us to better places.

Michael Taft is a SIPTU researcher and author of the political economy blog Notes on the Front. Follow him on Twitter @notesonthefront and on Facebook here.

This article is based on a speech Michael presented at the ‘Economic Democracy and Workers Cooperatives: the Case for Ireland’ seminar held on April 9 in Liberty Hall, Dublin.  

Ailbhe Smyth: Repeal warrior speaks on future challenges for abortion rights

Ailbhe Smyth has been fighting to repeal the eighth amendment banning abortion since it was inserted into the Irish Constitution in 1983, and has been fighting for women’s liberation and LGBTI rights since the late 1980s. More than any other individual, she has provided the consistent leadership, energy and commitment to alliance-building that resulted in the historic victory of the Repeal movement in 2018. She spoke to Irish Broad Left editor Emma Clancy on Saturday April 20 about the significance of the campaign’s victory; the ongoing problems in implementation; and solidarity with those in the North fighting for their reproductive rights.

When I spoke to Ailbhe Smyth last week, it was just days after the three leaders of the Together for Yes campaign – Ailbhe, Grainne Griffin and Orla O’Connor – had been recognised for their work by Time magazine, who named them as being among the 100 most influential people of the past year.

“This recognition was terrific, of course”, Smyth said, “but not for us as individuals. It was a very important decision made to put the three co-directors of Together for Yes on this list because it put the issue of abortion itself at the very centre of this international and influential agenda.

“The Repeal campaign had a big impact internationally, and this recognition by Time should be viewed as a ‘hooray’ for women, copper-fastening the victory of the Repeal campaign in the international mainstream.

“Consider the international context: There was a specific reason why we were recognised for our successful campaign for women’s rights at a time when these rights are coming under attack around the world. Our victory was a much-needed morale boost for the pro-choice activists fighting for their rights in so many countries, including in Brazil, in Poland, and in the US itself, where there is a massive attempt by the conservatives to roll back hard-won reproductive rights at the state and federal level.

“We also welcome Time’s recognition of our movement because it demonstrates that despite the rapid growth of the far right around the world over the past several years, Ireland was able to buck this trend in 2018, just as we had done with the marriage equality referendum in 2015. So we have proved that people and communities working together can stand up and overcome the far right and the threat they pose.

“That is particularly significant at this precise moment, when we have progressives and socialists fighting to resist the drift to the far right in the crucial European Parliament elections in May. At this particular moment, there is enormous value in our campaign being named, recognised and applauded internationally. It is an affirmation that abortion rights matter, that women’s lives matter.”

A ‘phenomenal moment’

Ailbhe and her fellow pro-choice activists are not sitting on their laurels. At an event held on 13 April 2019, the Coalition to Repeal the 8th met for a working conference with its members, focussing on key topic such as international solidarity, ‘The North is Next’, and implementing the new abortion law and services.

In our interview, Smyth outlined some of the practical problems of implementation of the new law in the southern state, as well as problems with the legislation itself. In a way, she said, the real work is just beginning.

“We were always very clear in our broad campaign, involving 120 organisations, that Repeal was just the first step. We had to remove the obstacle preventing legislation for provision on abortion; we always viewed that goal as the first step in a much longer and more complex process. As soon as the eighth amendment was gone, a huge amount of hard work would have to take place,” Smyth said.

“Stage one was Repeal. Stage two is the very challenging work of making sure that the legislation is implemented properly and that services are provided for everyone who needs them.

“In fact the legislation itself is actually more progressive in certain ways than we had hoped for or anticipated when we started this process after the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act 2013 was enacted in the Dáil. The broadening of the the legislation came about as a result of hard lobbying and campaigning over years, and were given shape and substance by the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly.”

Like most pro-choice campaigners at the time, Smyth viewed the creation of Citizens’ Assembly with scepticism. “We saw it as a delaying tactic by the government and a way for the government to hide behind a smokescreen – regardless of whether the outcome of their deliberations was a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. But pro-choice activists engaged fully with the Assembly regardless, and ensured that they heard the facts and the evidence, and, most importantly, the real-life stories of what the denial of abortion rights had meant for women in Ireland for decades.

“The Citizens’ Assembly gave genuine consideration to what abortion rights really meant to women’s lives in reality, and in the end, they gave a resounding ‘yes’. They voted firmly in favour of the legalisation of abortion here in Ireland for up to 14 weeks without restriction, and up to viability where there is a risk to a woman’s health. They also voted in favour of abortion in cases of fatal foetal anomaly.”

The Joint Committee in the Dáil then broadly upheld the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly, although it did not vote for abortion for socio-economic reasons, and reduced the ‘on request’ time limit from 14 to 12 weeks.

“Ireland took a new direction when we voted to repeal the eighth amendment, and it was a phenomenal moment. We were asking voters to take this major step in a new direction on this, and asking them to affirm that they believed women should be able to make their own reproductive choices,” Smyth said.

“The referendum result indicated that we had indeed undertaken this huge turnaround as a people and as a society, as abortion had previously been considered so taboo, unacceptable, unspeakable.”

On 26 May 2018, the Repeal the Eighth campaign won the referendum with a massive 66.4 per cent of the vote. The new legislation came into effect on 1 January 2019.

Transforming culture in the health sector

Smyth said: “The outcome was better than we hoped, but the reality is that women’s autonomy is still subject to a set of laws in place regulating our bodies. I am opposed to any laws placing restrictions and regulations on women’s bodies and limiting the right to abortion. But that was always going to be the case, especially in Ireland. It means we have further work to do. To my knowledge, Canada is the only country in the world in which abortion is not subject to legislation. ”

Ailbhe went on to say that while the new law is to be welcomed, there are certain specific restrictions causing problems for individuals and groups of people.

“The legal profession, the medical and healthcare professions have all had to undertake a sharp turn on this issue since January; they have had to make a 180-degree turn in their mentality, and transform a culture of prohibition to one of making abortion legal and accessible. It is inevitable that there will be some problems in achieving this transformation, especially as we are only 100 days or so into the process. But it is very important, of course, that these problems should be resolved promptly.”

Training has has already taken place or is ongoing for health professionals, including GPs, midwives and nurses, and training in abortion provision is also taking place in public hospitals. Precise numbers are difficult to estimate but around 1,000 medical professionals have had training since 1 January 2019.

There is a political debate going on between different groups of GPs – one group argues that medical abortions should not take place in a general practice setting. However, a larger group of GPs have responded to this claim by stating that abortion provision is now already established in a GP setting in Ireland, as recommended by the World Health Organisation, and that limiting abortion provision to specialised abortion clinics only would add to the stigma and shame felt by women seeking an abortion.

Smyth believes these debates are inevitable but is already heartened by the strong response in favour of normalised and accessible abortion care from growing numbers in the healthcare profession.

“We need to support this cohort of progressive doctors, nurses, midwives and healthcare providers as they are engaging genuinely with their colleagues in general practice and in hospitals to put abortion services in place to meet people’s real needs.

“All hospitals are now offering some level of service, although only 10 hospitals have full abortion services. But I believe that all hospitals have now realised that they have a legal obligation to provide the services that the people effectively voted for in the referendum. Most hospitals appear to be developing provision and training.

“It is about moving the whole profession along – and the health service as a whole – and the hospitals are very aware of this. There have been complaints made that guidelines have been slow to come into the hospital system, so the process is not complete; it is ongoing and requires further development. Of course, as campaigners and activists we would all like to speed up that time so that everyone who needs an abortion can access it here in Ireland.

“Doctors need to be reassured that the people support them. The people voted overwhelmingly in favour of this. And there are so many people in the medical profession working wholeheartedly right now to make choice a reality. They need and deserve our support.”

Smyth said that abortion rights campaigners are hearing relatively positive feedback about the state-run Health Service Executive (HSE) My Options website and helpline aimed at providing information, including about abortion services, for people experiencing crisis pregnancies. “In general in the HSE I think there is a broad willingness there for people to work together to make this happen,” she said.

Legislative problems

“As we always knew, some of the biggest problems are those contained in the legislation itself. The so-called ‘three-day cooling-off period’ is a prime example. The insertion of this patronising provision was a strategy to try to mollify the reluctant politicians, and it is proving to be problematic in all the ways clearly outlined before the referendum by health professionals, lawyers and campaigners,” Smyth explained.

“The ‘cooling off’ period involves three visits by a woman to a GP; the first one where she indicates she wants to have an abortion; the second visit after the three day period; and then typically she will have to go back to the GP a third time for the actual service (i.e., the ‘abortion pill’), provided she is within the nine-week period.

“This is clearly not good for women psychologically or emotionally. But practically it can pose major problems. People from rural areas especially are experiencing problems. There may not be any GP locally willing to provide abortion services, and they will have to travel to another town, or perhaps to to Dublin or Cork to see a GP. This means time off work, travel costs, and childcare costs which may well prove very difficult. Where a woman is unfortunately in an abusive relationship, it may be very difficult for her to ‘explain’ these visits.

“There are specific difficulties which can arise for trans people, for women living in poverty, for women with disabilities, for migrant women and particularly for asylum-seeker women living in Direct Provision, who are appallingly supposed to survive on €19.50 a week.”

Smyth said to make abortion provision genuinely accessible, medical and health services must put supports in place to respond to the needs of specific groups, especially people who are marginalised, who always take the hardest hit where access is restricted.

“We have a lot of work to do to ensure that women who are marginalised have genuine access to these services. We always have to bear in mind that people do not come in one uniform shape and size; we live in a society riven with inequalities and these inequalities come to the fore as barriers that are so important when a person may be in a state of anxiety or turmoil and in need of an abortion.”

‘Conscientious objectors’

“So-called conscientious objectors in the medical profession are causing problems of access for women, particularly in rural areas. But they cannot simply turn a woman away; they are legally obliged to provide her with a referral. A woman who knows or suspects that her local GP is anti-abortion will most likely have to travel to a GP in another town. Rural women are hardly a marginalised group numerically, but given the negative response of some GPs, they may be made to feel that way,” Smyth said.

“We are trying to limit the damage that can be done by a small number of people who are trying to obstruct and thwart women from going about their absolutely legal business. It will take some time to get the new reality into the heads of those who oppose abortion – that providing abortion is the law of the land, and a human right that can no longer be denied. Opponents need to be made aware that they cannot obstruct people from accessing their rights without committing a breach of law, and being sanctioned in response.”

Abortion after the 12-week ‘on request’ period

“Within the first nine weeks of pregnancy, abortion access is straightforward – at least in principle. Medical abortion (the abortion pill) is not administered by GPs in Ireland after the first nine weeks of pregnancy, and in the nine to twelve-week period, women are referred by the GP to a hospital service,” Smyth said.

“After 12 weeks, abortion is available only in restricted circumstances: where there is a risk of ‘serious harm’ to a woman’s health, and where there is a diagnosis of a fatal foetal anomaly, which means that the foetus is affected by a condition which is likely to cause its death before or within one month of birth.

“At this early stage of service provision we do not yet have official data, in the public domain, on how either of these situations is working out for women. But I think it is fair to say that problems may well arise when it comes to ‘serious risk’. ‘Serious’ is a subjective term, not a scientific one, as doctors pointed out to the Joint Oireachtas Committee. It is open to differing interpretation, and dependent on the judgment of the medical professionals. Similarly, there are likely to be difficulties with late diagnoses of fatal foetal anomaly.

“A key point we need to bear in mind, once past the 12-week period, is that the law has not fully decriminalised abortion. As it stands, medical professionals are still liable for prosecution and imprisonment if they perform an abortion outside the strict terms of the law. This obviously has a chilling effect on doctors’ activities.”

The Abortion Support Network, which supports people who need to travel from Ireland (north and south), the Isle of Man, Malta and Gibraltar to have a safe, legal abortion, have told Smyth that travel from the south of Ireland has dropped significantly this year. Ailbhe said this is a very welcome indication that “in general the law is working for the majority of people seeking abortion, but that there are certainly problematic areas which will have to be reviewed and resolved”.

Upcoming review of the legislation

The existing legislation is due to be reviewed within three years. Smyth says abortion rights campaigners will be pushing very hard for full decriminalisation of abortion to resolve the problems with late diagnoses of foetal abnormalities, and to ensure that the abortion should be able to take place without the subjective ‘serious risk’ requirement. The three-day cooling off period also has to go, she said.

“We were also promised safe access zones by the minister of health, but for a variety of reasons, the bill has not yet come before the Dáil and we don’t yet have this legislation in place. It is urgent that we get it into law. There were a few extreme examples of protests, harassment and intimidation of women, especially in January.

“The Taoiseach has said he is seeking advice on this matter from the Attorney General on the conflicting rights at play here. But it should be abundantly clear that in any conflict between the right to free speech and the right to safe access, the fundamental right to security must be paramount. It is absolutely crucial to have safe access – so we need this legislation in place now.”

Solidarity with women in the North

Ailbhe said the coalition of activists and groups who worked together on the Repeal campaign continue to work closely together, with several shared priorities. One of these is to ensure the effective, swift and smooth implementation of the existing legislation in the south to make sure that all women, including those from the most marginalised groups, have access to abortion services if they require them. Another priority is monitoring the problems in the existing legislation, and building a case for reform to be submitted to the government as part of the three-year review process.

Of course, building solidarity with the pro-choice activists in Northern Ireland, where women are still denied basic reproductive rights is a top priority of the all-island campaign networks.

Smyth said: “There is a tremendous sense of solidarity. Last week we held an event where the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth met for a conference where activists sat on a panel themed, ‘The North is Next’, with northern pro-choice activists such as Dawn Purvis taking part.

“There is a tremendous commitment to solidarity ideologically, but there is also huge level of practical solidarity through the close cooperation of organisations such as Abortion Rights Campaign and Alliance for Choice.

“The victory of the Repeal movement undoubtedly had a big impact in the North and gave a huge morale boost to organisations like Alliance for Choice. And that is brilliant. But for me, solidarity is not about telling people how to follow your own campaign, however successful. Each jurisdiction has its own set of unique circumstances and specific context. There is no template to follow.

“What we can do is respond to requests for practical solidarity, respond to questions about certain lessons we learned, and turn ourselves into a resource that can used by the people on the ground who understand their own jurisdiction and its particular challenges best.

“I would hope that we can keep the pressure on politically in the North. What I hope to see in future is unified legislation on unified abortion service provision on the island of Ireland – that’s the kind of solution we have to put on the agenda.”

Defending women’s rights internationally

Smyth concluded by pointing out that women and their reproductive rights have been a permanent target of the far right, meaning vigilance and solidarity in the coming years will be exceptionally important.

“International solidarity on abortion rights is becoming more important than ever in the current political climate where we have an upswing in the far right in Europe, the US and around the world.

“Women’s rights and women’s bodies are always one of the prime targets of the far right – so we have to continue to work together, support each other, and share our resources in order to defend the gains we have won and push for more,” she said.

Photo pictured above: Ailbhe Smyth (centre), with Orla O’Connor, left, and Grainne Griffin, who collectively were named as among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people as the three co-directors of Together for Yes.

Ailbhe Smyth is co-director of Together For Yes and Convenor of Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment. Follow her on Twitter @ailbhes. Follow the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment @repealeight, and Together for Yes @Together4yes. To support the Alliance for Choice in the North, follow @All4Choice.

The eurozone’s ‘soulless market’ and its thuggish enforcers

By Emma Clancy.

In his open letter to Europeans last month, French President Emmanuel Macron revealed that he feared Europe “has become a soulless market” in the eyes of its citizens. Twenty years after the introduction of the common currency, and more than a decade after the global financial crisis, the soulless market is in trouble – again.

The eurozone has experienced a period of anaemic GDP growth over the past five years, during which a peak of 2.4 per cent growth in 2017 – the highest in a decade, but a rate that pre-crisis would have been considered to be very low – was celebrated as heralding the final end of the crisis, and christened with the hashtag #euroboom.

After a dramatic fall in growth in 2018 in which growth slumped to 0.2 per cent in the third quarter, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission have both sharply revised downwards their growth projections for the eurozone in 2019. In its February Winter Forecast, the European Commission said it expects eurozone growth to slow from 1.9 per cent in 2018 to 1.3 per cent this year and 1.6 per cent next year.

The ECB followed in March with a gloomier quarterly forecast, projecting growth to slow to 1.1 per cent in 2019 and 1.6 per cent in 2020. This announcement was followed by several ECB policymakers anonymously briefing Bloomberg that they thought the projections were still too optimistic. Apparently abandoning all pretence of hope of achieving its target of “close to 2 per cent” inflation at any point in the near future, the ECB also cut its inflation projections to 1.4 per cent for this year, 1.5 per cent in 2020 and 1.6 per cent in 2021.

In Italy, growth was negative for two consecutive quarters in the second half of 2018, meaning the country has officially fallen into its third recession in a decade. The grim surprise came from the export-led manufacturing powerhouse of the eurozone: Germany avoided the recession label by the skin of its teeth, recording negative growth of -0.2 per cent in the third quarter and zero growth in the fourth. Data released last week showed that German industrial production and manufacturing orders and fell in February, with a survey this week reporting “both total new orders and export sales are now falling at rates not seen since the global financial crisis”.

Constitutional austerity

Addressing a bankers’ convention in Frankfurt in November, ECB President Mario Draghi outlined the weak and fragile nature of the eurozone’s recovery: “Since 1975 there have been five periods of rising GDP in the euro area. The average duration from trough to peak is 31 quarters, with GDP increasing by 21per cent over that period. The current expansion in the euro area, however, has lasted just 22 quarters and GDP is only around 10 per cent above the trough. In contrast, the expansion in the United States has lasted 37 quarters, and GDP has risen by 21 per cent.”

What can explain the brief period that saw eurozone growth reach the dizzying height of 2.4 per cent in 2017? In a word – a massive fiscal expansion. But the expansion did not take place in the eurozone; it was a result of the fiscal policies implemented in the US, Japan and China, in the latter two cases funded by their respective central banks. Such an expansion could not possibly take place in EU member states, which must stick to the absurd, arbitrary and stifling debt and deficit limits laid down as gospel in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and Fiscal Compact.

The slow growth and grinding recovery in the eurozone can be partially explained by the post-crisis austerity shock treatment applied to the periphery by the Troika, but the architecture of the common currency has acted as a brake on sustainable growth and convergence since day one. The euro has been built on an enduring effort to constitutionalise austerity, an effort that continues today despite all of the evidence demonstrating that it causes economic contraction.

‘Purely ideological and economically unsound’

The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 enshrined the so-called ‘convergence criteria’ – a set of rules members and potential members of the common currency were obliged to follow. To join the euro, states had to pledge to control inflation, and government debt and deficits, and commit to exchange rate stability and the convergence of interest rates. As the ECB was preparing to begin operating to control inflation and interest rates, Germany pushed for the adoption of an EU-wide SGP in 1997, including non-eurozone members, to enshrine the fiscal control aspects of Maastricht, and more generally to increase EU surveillance and control over member states’ national budgets.

The convergence criteria are purely ideological and economically unsound. When a eurozone member state experienced a downturn, its deficit would inevitably rise as a result of lower tax revenue and higher expenditure on social security. But when the convergence criteria kicked in, causing governments to cut spending or raise taxes, it would invariably worsen the downturn by dampening demand. Even French neoliberal Pascal Lamy, formerly the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, called the SGP “crude and medieval” when he was EU trade commissioner.

The blanket, one-size-fits-all fiscal rules in the criteria – that member states must keep public debt limited to 60 per cent of GDP and annual deficits to below 3 per cent of GDP – were proposed by Germany, based on its own national SGP structure. In 2010, Germany proposed the reform of the Pact to make it stricter and more enforceable through the adoption of the so-called ‘six-pack’ and ‘two-pack’. Despite the vast evidence by this stage that the SGP was counterproductive and unenforceable, Germany pushed for the fiscal rules to be tightened yet again in 2012 through the Fiscal Compact Treaty, which created the obligation for the convergence criteria targets to be inserted into the national law of the ratifying states.

Fiscal straitjacket

The Fiscal Compact Treaty, signed by all EU Member States with the exception of Britain, the Czech Republic and Croatia, enshrines the rule that members in excess of the limit are obliged to reduce their debt level above 60 per cent at an average of at least 5 per cent per year. The structural deficit rule – called the “balanced budget rule” – must be incorporated into the national law of signatory states under the Fiscal Compact.

Not satisfied with the Fiscal Compact being an intergovernmental treaty, the Commission proposed last year that it be permanently enshrined into EU law. The Commission wanted the Fiscal Compact’s automatic correction mechanism to be integrated into national budgetary processes so that deviations would immediately lead to a reduction in public expenditure.

On 27 November 2018, this proposal was rejected in a tied vote of the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. Fortunately for the Commission, it had anticipated such a possibility and had made its proposal on a dubious legal basis that provides for a decision to be taken solely by the Council of member states, and under which the Parliament only has an ‘opinion’ – despite the fact that several EU laws on the same issues have been adopted using the normal process whereby the Parliament and Council are co-legislators.

Despite the opposition of the Parliament, the Fiscal Compact is likely to be enshrined into EU law permanently – with its automatic correction mechanism, designed to remove the power to make a political decision on spending from national governments and put it in the hands of technocrats, beyond the reach of politics.

Surveillance and enforcement

Since Maastricht, the Commission has taken every possible opportunity to impose structural reforms that will exert downward pressure on wages in the belief that this ‘flexibility’ will act to increase convergence of the eurozone’s diverse economies and absorb shocks. The eurozone elites believe (or claim to believe) that if only ‘wage rigidities’ in the member states were overcome, both unemployment and trade imbalances would disappear. If only a country’s population could be forced to work for poverty wages, there would be a job for everyone; and the resulting stagnation in domestic demand would mean prices would fall and this country’s real exchange rate, which had become misaligned and risen too high, could regain its balance.

This view underpins the repeated attacks on the rights and wages of French workers, which has intensified under President Macron, as well as underpinning the EU’s overall agenda and forcing structural reforms in the member states in order to increase productivity, competitiveness and profit. The austerity imposed by the Troika was not only designed to regain market ‘confidence’ in peripheral governments, but also to facilitate internal devaluations in member states by a form of shock therapy. Of course, this adjustment facilitates not only the reduction of trade imbalances but also a sharp increase in the amount of wealth transferred from labour to capital.

The European Semester process – a yearly cycle of policy coordination between member states and the Commission – monitors the ‘progress’ of member states in implementing structural reforms that will facilitate downward movement on wages. In spring each year, EU member states submit their plans for managing public finances, including keeping debt and deficits within the SGP limits, and their National Reform Programmes, to the Commission. These plans are then assessed by the Commission, which proposes country-specific recommendations to member states, that are discussed and adopted by the Council. Then each autumn member state governments are graciously permitted to present their draft national budgets to their respective parliaments.

The next step in the drive to constitutionalise austerity is to establish a European Monetary Fund (EMF) that would replace the existing bailout fund, the intergovernmental European Stability Mechanism (ESM). An EMF could provide emergency funding for member states in a crisis, in return for strict budgetary discipline and invasive surveillance and control.

Accompanying the drive to enshrine austerity in EU law is a relentless push by the Commission to impose ‘conditionality’ over every aspect of its relationships with member states. Just one example of this is that in the EU’s next long-term budget (the multi-annual framework) for 2021-2027, the Commission has proposed to divert €25 billion away from existing ‘cohesion’ funds towards implementing austerity measures in member states. This funding stream will be targeted towards ensuring member states implement structural reforms – such as the privatisation of public services, reduction of spending on pensions, and labour reform aimed at reducing workers’ collective bargaining power – instead of being used unconditionally for direct cohesion policy: to provide support to rural and coastal communities, and support for employment, research, education and the environment.

Winners and losers

It will come as little surprise that a system designed to promote the German model of wage suppression, low inflation and export-led growth, propped up by a currency modelled on the Deutschmark, has benefited one country more than all other members of the eurozone.

In February, a German ordoliberal think tank affiliated with the ruling Christian Democrats, the Centre for European Policy, published an empirical study of the “winners and losers” from the euro 20 years after its introduction. It found that Germany was the big winner, having benefited by €1.9 trillion from the euro between 1999 and 2017, or around €23,000 per person. The Netherlands was the only other state that gained substantial benefits from the common currency. France had lost €3.6 trillion or €56,000 per person; while Italy had lost more than any other state, at €4.3 trillion or €74,000 per person.

Germany’s massive and consistent trade surplus has meant that its biggest export to the rest of the eurozone has been stagnation. But as a result of European fiscal discipline in the wake of the recession, there is not enough internal demand in the eurozone to sustain German industry. Now that a global slowdown has taken hold, and growth is slowing in China due to US trade tariffs and a debt crisis, the dangers of this economic model are exposed. If China’s latest stimulus package fails to boost demand, the German economy will certainly enter recession.

Italy, the euro’s big loser, is there already. The Italian economy is one of just two in the OECD in which GDP has failed to return to pre-crisis levels; the other is Greece. The Italian governing coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right Lega Nord faced its first test of eurozone fiscal discipline last year through the European Semester process. When it presented its draft budget for 2019, including a 2.4 per cent deficit, the Commission rejected it and threatened to enact the ‘excessive deficit procedure’ under the SGP, which consists of deadlines to comply, followed by substantial fines.

Open bias

The proposed deficit did not even cross the SGP’s 3 per cent limit. But using dubious mathematics to measure the structural deficit – what the deficit would be if the economy was at full employment – described here by Thomas Fazi, the Commission argued that the Italian economy – in recession – would be at risk of overheating if a fiscal deficit of 2.4 per cent was reached.

Instead of being technocratic, the budgetary surveillance and enforcement process is overtly political. When Macron’s government announced €10 billion in additional spending in December to defuse the gilets jaunes protests, taking France’s projected deficit for 2019 up to 3.4 per cent, EU economic commissioner Pierre Moscovici gave the thumbs-up.

“The comparison with Italy is tempting but wrong,” he said. “The situations are totally different. The European Commission has been monitoring the Italian debt for several years; we have never done that for France.” This is despite the fact that it was only in 2017 that France emerged from a long period with a deficit breaching the SGP rules.

A French treasury official agreed with Moscovici: “The situations are not comparable. Contrary to Italy, we do not question European rules. We agree that having public finances in order and reducing public debt are the right thing to do.”

Thuggishness dressed up as technocracy

The Commission is not the only enforcer policing the public spending of EU member states. The ECB has played an even more important role, throughout the crisis and in the latest clash with Italy. Its role during the crisis as part of the Troika enforcing austerity shock therapy under the bailout programmes is well known; its role in manufacturing the sovereign debt crisis between 2009-2012 as a means to force governments to capitulate on their budgetary plans, less so.

Adam Tooze refers to the ‘bond market vigilantes’ behind the massive capital flight from the periphery to the core during this period, and adds: “The role of bond markets in relation to the ECB and the dominant German government was less that of a freewheeling vigilante, than of state-sanctioned paramilitaries delivering a punishment beating whilst the police looked on.”

In May last year, during the political and market crisis in Italy arising from the temporary collapse of the coalition after the effort to appoint a eurosceptic finance minister by Five Star, EU budget commissioner Günther Oettinger openly hoped that the market turmoil “could be so drastic that this could be a possible signal to voters not to choose populists from left and right”.

The ECB’s new role, self-proclaimed in 2012, in the context of a mass sell-off of government bonds of a member of the eurozone – the situation that caused the sovereign debt crisis in 2010-2011 – is to support the state’s economy though purchasing the bonds though its quantitative easing (QE) programme. But instead of buying more Italian government bonds during this crisis in May last year, the ECB was buying less, and diverting its investment to German bonds instead.

In October the ECB announced it planned to change the ‘capital key’ it used in its €2.5 trillion QE programme from January this year. Though the ECB announced it would stop buying government bonds from the end of 2018, it is not the end of QE. The ECB is continuing to reinvest the maturing debt it holds – an estimated €117 billion in the first nine months of 2019 – back into eurozone government bonds. How much it spends, and where, is determined by the capital key.

The adjustment to the capital key will reduce the shares of 12 member states including Italy, Spain and Greece, while increasing the shares of 16, including Germany, France and Austria. One economist estimates that the change will result in about €28 billion less in reinvestment in Italian bonds, and €19 billion less in Spanish bonds than would have been the case if the change had not been made. Like the Commission’s bizarre calculation of the structural deficit as potentially causing runaway inflation in Italy’s clearly stagnating economy, the ECB’s capital key adjustment is another example of politicised thuggishness dressed up as ‘technocracy’.

Italy approaches the cliff-edge

This long stagnation caused by the SGP rules, Italy’s inability to recover economic activity to pre-crisis levels, double-digit unemployment and still massive youth unemployment have created the conditions for the election of the racist Lega Nord and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Following the Commission’s budgetary clash with Rome, support for Five Star has been strongly overtaken by support for the Lega. The actions of Commission and the ECB have directly contributed to the ongoing rise of the far right in Italy. It is no mystery if Italians, and Europeans, see Europe as a “soulless market”.

The threat of an economic collapse in Italy, precipitated by an inter-related banking and sovereign debt crisis, remains very real. It is exacerbated daily by the Commission and ECB. The Italian government needs to issue around €400 billion a year in public debt in order to stay afloat, which domestic banks are pushed into buying. This means Italy’s shaky bond market is highly exposed to its vulnerable banking sector, and vice versa. Banks in other EU states hold more than €425 billion euros of sovereign and private Italian debt. French banks are most exposed, holding €285 billion of this.

None of the much-touted reforms put in place in the EU after the crisis will rein in the bond market vigilantes; free movement of capital is sacrosanct. The proposal to end the ‘too-big-to-fail’ problem in Europe’s banks by structurally separating the commercial and investment activists of the banks – the so-called Bank Structural Reform – was officially withdrawn in 2017 after conservatives blocked its progress in the European Parliament and Council.

It is little wonder that there are winners and losers in the eurozone when the game is rigged and the referee is openly biased. Fears of economic collapse in Italy that peaked in May last year receded later in the year. But the country’s recession, combined with the broader global slowdown and a high likelihood of a eurozone-wide recession in the near future will push Italy closer to the cliff-edge. The deficit fetishism of the ECB and the Commission may push them off.

Emma Clancy is an economics advisor for the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament, and editor of Irish Broad Left.

A shorter version of this article first appeared on the ICTU Trademark/Rosa Luxemburg Foundation blog, Brexit, Europe and the Left, on 12 April 2019.

The Left and the EU: Steering a course of principled resistance to neoliberalism

By Andy Storey.

Trawling through the website of the Irish Freedom Party (IFP) – the group calling for Irish exit (Irexit) from the European Union (EU) – is a strange experience. Amidst the xenophobia and often crude and puerile attacks on left-wingers, there are moments where those same left-wingers might find themselves nodding in agreement.

IFP support for Ireland’s “meaningful military neutrality”, for example, would raise few hackles on the Left.

Another reason for IFP opposition to the EU is that it, allegedly, “forbids state aid”. In fact, it does not, but it does seek to strictly limit such aid as a tool that governments can use to boost economic activity and equality. The potential in being freed from that restriction, and the other elements of neoliberal EU economic governance, is a point grasped by left-wing supporters of Brexit in the UK.

But the apparent enthusiasm for state aid sits uneasily with simultaneous IFP support for “slimming the state” and cutting taxes. They even endorse the widely discredited ‘Laffer Curve’, which claimed to show that tax reductions, counter-intuitively, boosted a state’s overall tax take, a proposition that is now considered bogus in the vast majority of cases.

The IFP does, implicitly at least, concede that the state might have a role in resolving issues like the housing crisis, but here their approach is overshadowed by their visceral hostility to immigration – they claim that unless free movement of people within the EU is ended then the demand-side pressure on housing will make the crisis intractable.

Which rather begs the question of how other EU countries seem to have dealt with their housing problems while remaining open to free migration across the EU. Vienna’s much-admired public housing model, to take just one example, has not depended for its success on keeping foreigners out of the city.

There is much more that could be said about the IFP. Its stance on climate change is confused and probably disingenuous. And its nativism is sometimes close to comic, such as the pledge to “support all efforts to strengthen the Irishness of Ireland”, whatever that might mean.

But let’s stick with economic policy for now. One of the billboards it has recently erected claims that a “normal self-governing state… can trade globally”, while the website bemoans the fact that Ireland (within the EU) “cannot make bilateral trade agreements”. You might have thought that the Tory Brexit pantomime would have given the IFP some pause for thought regarding the difficulties of maintaining (existing) and establishing (new) trade relationships while exiting the EU.

Economic consequences of exit

In reality, Ireland leaving the EU alongside the UK, as Irexiters urge, would be economically damaging to this country, as a recent study by Davies and Francois indicates. They argue convincingly that any Irexit would generate even worse economic outcomes than Brexit alone (which will be bad enough for Ireland) – while trade with the UK would be less disrupted by Ireland following the UK out the exit door, trade between Ireland and the EU (which is more important than that with the UK alone) would be damaged to a much greater extent.

Davies and Francois conclude that “Irexit in any form is likely to make a bad situation worse” on the grounds that “erecting barriers to trade with the continent would have a massive impact on Irish global economic integration”, with low-skill and low-income workers (the very people whose interests the Left should be prioritising) hardest hit.

And this is only considering trade effects. In all likelihood, Irexit would also see a downturn in foreign (especially US) investment into Ireland on the grounds that we would no longer constitute an uncomplicated bridgehead into the EU market. By way of precedent, foreign investment in the UK has already been negatively affected by Brexit.

Ireland, as many commentators have long argued, is overly dependent (to a much greater extent than is the UK) on such multinational investment but, as the cliché goes, we are where we are, and the Left cannot now afford to be blasé about this. IFP leaders might have no problem telling the workers who depend on those multinationals that their jobs can be sacrificed in order to “strengthen the Irishness of Ireland”, but it is not a task I would relish myself.

It is worth noting that the immigration restrictions the IFP wants to see implemented would also have negative economic consequences. The (partial and uneven) Irish economic recovery after the 2008 crash was, as my colleagues Sam Brazys and Aidan Regan have shown, largely due to foreign investment from, especially, US tech companies, and those companies would not have come to Ireland had they been unable to freely recruit the skilled, specialised labour they needed from elsewhere in Europe.

Those economic considerations doubtless go a long way towards explaining generally positive Irish attitudes towards the EU, as revealed by the most recent Eurobarometer survey data (collected in November 2018). The data show that 64% of Irish people hold a positive view of the EU (the EU average is 43%) and only 8% hold a negative image of it. Seventy five per cent of respondents express satisfaction with how democracy works in the EU, and 76% feel Irish interests are taken into account by the EU. Seventy per cent of those sampled in Ireland do not believe that the country’s future would be brighter outside the EU.

Distrust

But there are some important qualifications to be taken into account concerning these survey results. The first, as the survey managers themselves point out, is that the views are often ‘soft’ – for example, people’s image of the EU tends to be somewhat rather than strongly positive.

Secondly, and relatedly, these views can change pretty dramatically within a short period of time. Only 8% view the EU negatively now, but that proportion was 31% in 2012 (when the figure for those with a positive attitude was just 35%). Back in 2011, just 38% thought the EU took Irish interests into account, compared to 76% at present.

Thirdly, views of the EU may be broadly positive, but trust is a scarcer commodity – 50% proclaim trust in the EU (up from 24% in 2011) but 38% are still distrustful. Given the EU’s outrageous insistence on Ireland repaying the socialised debts of private banks, that distrust is entirely legitimate and understandable.

A summary paraphrase of what the survey respondents are saying to the EU might read as follows: “we like you, now, and we think we are better off, for now, being a member, but we don’t trust you as much as you might think”.

The relatively high level of distrust may help explain why 25% of people think Ireland’s future prospects would be better outside the EU, a sizeable constituency that could rise if circumstances changed (such as the EU being seen to insist on a post-Brexit hard border on this island) and one which is not currently represented by any major Irish political party. That is the constituency that the IFP (and its allies) is pitching to.

The argument about sizeable sections of the electorate being unrepresented by the current parties is not, of course, confined to stances towards the EU: 38% of voters were against same sex marriage in 2015, 34% were against the legalisation of women’s reproductive rights in 2018. No substantial political party speaks for the No voters on those issues.

The newly formed Aontú party (led by former Sinn Féin TD Peadar Tóibín) is clearly aiming to hoover up that socially conservative vote, and its recent launch saw its leader make a play for the anti-immigrant vote also, albeit under the dog-whistle guise of calling for a “debate” on immigration that would reflect people’s supposed “growing unease and concern” on the issue. Aontú’s position vis-à-vis the EU is not yet known.

Left’s orientation

So where should the Left go in this context? Well, obviously, not towards social conservatism: that would be wrong in principle but also in practical terms – opposition to LGBTQ+ rights and to a woman’s right to choose is a minority stance, and one that seems set for long-term secular decline in Ireland. Hostility to immigration may, sadly, not be similarly destined for the dustbin of history.

More specifically, how should the Left approach EU issues? The points made above – that Ireland leaving the EU would be economically damaging at present, and that the vast majority of people support (for now) Ireland’s continued membership of the EU – are important, but at the same time they do not invalidate the serious criticisms left-wingers are obliged to make about EU policies and practices.

Those criticisms include a neoliberal economic governance framework that is hostile to state intervention in the economy and to the pursuit of economic justice on the part of progressive governments, trade unions and others. The crushing of Syriza’s short-lived (and only ever limited) Greek defiance of that mode of governance should represent a defining moment for all those on the Left who ever harboured illusions about a ‘social’ or ‘progressive’ Europe.

Subsumed under this left-wing economic critique should be the signing by the EU of trade and investment agreements with other countries and regions that lock in the rights of corporations at the (potential or actual) expense of the public good – of Europeans and non-Europeans alike.

The growing drive towards the adoption of a coordinated and beefed-up EU military capacity should represent another red line issue for the Left.

And just as we can make no common cause with the anti-immigrant politics of the IFP and (it seems) Aontú, so also do we have to condemn the EU for cynical deals with Turkey,  Libya and elsewhere that deny many asylum seekers the ability to access Europe at all, and consign them to locations of egregious and horrifying abuse. The EU has also engaged in militarised policing actions against migrants that have turned the Mediterranean in particular into a watery grave for many thousands, even before the Union’s recent outrageous decision to abandon the vestiges of a naval rescue operation for some.

A programme for challenging neoliberalism

In practical, political terms, what all this might translate into is a willingness on the part of the Left to be very EU-critical, but not to call, as a matter of preordained principle, for withdrawal from the EU. What would such an approach look like in terms of a programme for government? Here are a few points that such a programme might contain.

  • We will not be bound by economic rules that prevent us solving crises such as those besetting the housing and health sectors – if we have to breach EU deficit, debt, state aid and other regulations in order to abolish homelessness or fix the health service then that is what we will do. This does not put us out of line with other EU states: Portugal and Spain have breached the EU Fiscal treaty provisions and not been penalised for it, while Macron in France has made tax and spending concessions to the ‘yellow vest’ protests that will likely see France also miss EU fiscal targets. What is sauce for the Iberian and French goose is sauce for the Irish gander.
  • We will not endorse trade and investment agreements that privilege investor profits over the public interest and the fight against climate change; in this, we share, for example, the current reservations of the French government, and of large swathes of European civil society, over the proposed reopening of talks on a trade agreement with the US.
  • We will not sign up to Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) that would see Ireland be pushed to raise military spending and to boost the profits of arms manufacturers – our resources will instead be devoted to lifting Irish military families out of poverty and contributing to genuine peacekeeping operations on the international stage. Again, this does not put us at odds with other EU member states – neither Malta nor Denmark has joined PESCO.
  • We will not participate in inhumane and deadly actions at the European level that prevent refugees claiming protection in Europe, in the same way that we will defend and enhance the rights of migrants and asylum-seekers in Ireland through the abolition of, in particular, the brutal and indefensible system of ‘direct provision’. Our opposition to racism and violence directed against migrants will be as clear and unambiguous on the European as it will be on the Irish stage.

I suspect that critics will respond to such positions by saying that, whatever about individual acts of resistance, the cumulative impact of this suite of measures would put us on a collision course with the EU. And I think we will have to answer honestly: it may well do. And, again in all honesty, it may generate at least the prospect of punitive action against us if we were ever in government – the ECB might, for example, threaten to cut liquidity to the Irish financial sector as a form of leverage against a real left-wing challenge (they have done so in the past to other countries, most notably Greece).

Justice and realism

So there are risks here, and a need for contingency planning (including for exit from the Eurozone) if likely EU threats are followed through on – one of Syriza’s many tragedies was its failure to prepare for what they would do if the EU powers rejected their modest proposals for reform. But this type of resistance on the part of a Left government would have a massive advantage in terms of mobilising potential public support: it would be clearly identified as a last resort that the Left, as it sought to defend the interests of people living in Ireland, had been driven to by a recalcitrant EU.

In other words, the starting position would not be a reflexive Euroscepticism (that can be left to the likes of the IFP) but, rather, a willingness to stand up to bullying and to do what it right by people here (and indeed elsewhere also) – through negotiation and constructive engagement by preference, and working closely with like-minded groups across the continent, but through principled resistance if necessary. That would provide a context in which already changeable public opinion might be more readily brought along to EU-critical positions, even while remaining cognisant of economic risks being run. Tax policy, which I have not discussed here for reasons of space, would inevitably loom large in that context also.

There is no point pretending this is not going to be a difficult balancing act, but nor can we wish away the choices we will have to make. In making those choices, we need to see the Irish-EU relationship as a dynamic and changing one, and one we ourselves can help change, not as static and fixed.

To commit to the EU come what may is to collude in the neoliberal attenuation of democracy and economic oppression of the many in Europe, to militarisation and to the violation of the human rights of migrants and others. Equally, to commit, as the IFP does, to leaving the EU come what may is to gamble recklessly with the welfare of people living in Ireland and to endorse a reactionary right-wing Euroscepticism.

The Left needs to steer a course between these opposite poles, one that is based on both justice and realism and that is willing to seek to change the terms of the debate at the same time as it is willing to adapt to changing circumstances. It will not be easy, but not to try is to cede the field to either the EU’s neoliberal autocrats or to right-wing xenophobes at home, or to some unholy combination of the two.

Andy Storey teaches political economy in the School of Politics and International Relations, University College Dublin, and is on the board of the justice and human rights NGO Action from Ireland (Afri). The views contained in this article are expressed in a personal capacity.

Brussels’ plan for bad loans is a second bailout for the banks

By Emma Clancy.

Barely a word has been said in the Irish media to date about an extremely important new proposal from the European Union (EU) Commission – to develop a so-called ‘secondary market’ for non-performing loans. If implemented, this package of policies will directly cause an increase in evictions and homelessness, enable the harassment of mortgage-holders by debt collectors, and generate massive new risks to financial stability.

This proposed EU Directive on credit servicers, credit purchasers and the recovery of collateral will jettison even the (extremely) limited progress the Irish state has made on regulating vulture funds.

“Credit purchasers” refers to vulture funds and securitisation institutions, “credit servicers” means debt collection agencies, and the proposal for the “recovery of collateral” is for accelerated out-of-court enforcement of loans secured by collateral – meaning banks will be able to seize their customers’ property without going through the courts.

In short, it will let the EU’s banks carry out a mass sell-off of bad loans to US vulture funds; shift almost a trillion euros of bad debt off the banks’ balance sheets into the opaque and unregulated shadow banking sector through the same instruments that caused the 2008 crisis; implement rules that mean the vultures cannot be regulated in any way within the EU and can operate across borders without any restrictions; and add nothing whatsoever to the existing level of consumer protection to borrowers and homeowners in the EU.

A toxic debt mountain

Non-performing loans (NPLs) are bank loans that are subject to late repayment or are unlikely to be repaid by the borrower. EU standards now generally require banks to classify loans as non-performing if they are more than 90 days in arrears. The ability of borrowers to pay back their loans deteriorated significantly during the financial crisis and the subsequent double-dip recession. As a result, many banks saw a build-up of NPLs on their books, particularly in the countries worst affected by the crisis.

Euro-area banks held just over €1 trillion in NPLs in 2016, the equivalent of around nine per cent of the Eurozone’s GDP, and amounting to around 6.4 per cent of total loans in the Eurozone. The level of NPLs differs dramatically across the euro area, with almost half bank loans in Greece and Cyprus classified as NPLs, and Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Slovenia all holding NPLs at rates of 10-20 per cent. While the average ratio of NPLs in the EU has decreased by more than one-third since 2014, the total volume of NPLs remains high, at around €820 billion as of December 2018.

The proposed EU Directive is touted by the Commission as having one main aim: to free up banks to lend to consumers and small businesses again by reducing the high levels of bad loans on their balance sheets.

But even a cursory glance at the lending statistics across the Eurozone and the EU demonstrate clearly that the lower level of lending by banks is not caused by a lack of willingness by banks to provide credit, but rather by a lack of demand for credit from SMEs, companies and households.

In reality the proposal has three key aims:

  • To encourage EU banks to reduce their stocks of sour loans by any means necessary so they can return to pre-crisis profitability levels and compete once more with US banks;
  • To take away the right of EU member states to place regulations and restrictions on vulture funds and debt collectors that may impede their ability to enter the EU and operate freely across borders; and
  • To give the banks and vulture funds new powers to seize their customers property if they fall behind in repayments of debt – without having to bother with the irritating process of actually claiming this collateral through a court in which the judge is legally obliged to consider the rights of the consumer.

Replicating the Irish model across the EU

The European Commission has looked at the post-crisis process in the Irish state where banks have reduced their stocks of non-performing loans significantly, decided it is a glorious success story, and resolved to replicate this process across the entire EU.

The key components of this ‘success’ story in Ireland were the creation of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), which used public funds to take bad loans off the balance sheets of the bailed-out Irish banks; the grovelling invitation to US vulture funds to enter the Irish market by former Finance Minister Michael Noonan; and the eagerness of the Irish banks to engage in the mass sell-off of their customers’ mortgages and loans to these debt vultures at a fraction of their value.

Following this logic of trying to replicate the Irish model across the EU, the Commission made a legislative proposal in March 2018 based on four key aspects:

  • Provisioning by banks – a Regulation to require banks to put aside their own capital to cover the loss of a bad loan;
  • A Directive on developing a secondary market for NPLs – promoting the sale of bad loans to vulture funds, and promoting securitisation;
  • The same Directive to cover debt recovery – giving banks more power to enforce the collection of collateral through out of court recovery; and
  • Non-binding guidance for Member States on how to establish a national Asset Management Company – a NAMA-style bad bank, including possibly using public funds.

In fact, the Commission has proposed that all credit agreements – i.e., even performing loan agreements in which the customer has fulfilled every obligation required of them – should be within the scope of this Directive and therefore able to be sold on to a third party.

ECB Guidance on reducing non-performing loans (2017)

The Commission proposal of March 2018 was preceded by rules issued by the ECB, which published its Guidance to banks on NPLs in March 2017, setting out the manner in which it expected banks to reduce their existing stocks of NPLs. This Guidance is non-binding but subject to a comply-or-explain type system in which supervised banks must explain deviations upon supervisory request, and in which non-compliance may trigger supervisory measures.

The Guidance only applies to the largest banks in the EU, which are supervised by the ECB’s Single Supervisory Mechanism. It states that each bank with elevated levels of NPLs is expected to develop portfolio-level reduction targets with a view to reducing the level of non-performing exposures on its balance sheet in a timely manner. The Addendum to the Guidelines calls for these banks to enact a reduction plan if their level of NPLs passes a threshold of five per cent of their overall balance sheet.

This Guidance has been used by banks in several member states – and particularly by Irish banks – to prompt and justify their mass sell-offs of mortgages to vulture funds. Irish banks constantly point the finger at the ECB when selling mortgages to vulture funds, claiming the ECB forced them to. But this is simply not true.

The ECB “has not expressed a preference for certain NPL reduction tools over others” in its non-binding Guidance, and has clearly stated that the combination of tools or strategy reduction drivers for a given bank is the responsibility of, and chosen at the discretion of, its management, which could include debt restructuring, debt forgiveness and many other measures that don’t involve vulture sales.

No doubt the ECB has applied pressure to banks to reduce their bad debt levels, but it has no legal mechanism to force banks to sell loans to vultures and it explicitly denies doing so.

Having said this, the role of the ECB has been one of consistently undermining the rights of homeowners and borrowers, to the benefit of the banks and vulture funds. Every attempt to regulate the debt vultures that we have seen in the Irish state in recent years – every draft piece of domestic legislation – has been referred to the ECB for its ‘opinion’. The ECB’s opinion always seems to be that the banks should be allowed to get rid of their bad loans by any means necessary.

The Commission’s proposed Regulation on banks covering NPL losses is similar to the ECB Guidance except it applies only to future NPLs and not the existing stock; it provides a slightly more lenient time frame for banks to set aside their own funds to cover future NPL losses; it is legally binding; and it applies to all banks and not only the largest ones that are under the direct supervision of the ECB.

In theory, the proposal for a Regulation to require banks to put aside their own capital to cover the loss of future NPLs is sensible from a financial stability point of view in that it will encourage banks to engage in more responsible lending behaviour, and reduce the likelihood of the need for public bailouts of banks in future.

The Commission’s proposal could have encouraged banks to work through future non-performing loans with their customers on a case-by-base basis; and provide concessions to their customers including extensions of repayment periods, lower interest rates, debt forgiveness or many other options.

But taken in combination with the Directive on developing a ‘secondary market’ for bad debt, in reality it instead encourages the banks to take no responsibility for their predatory lending practices and dump their toxic debt into the shadow banking sector, or worse, taxpayer-funded ‘bad banks’.

We cannot apply a one-size-fits-all reduction target that will incentivise banks to offload their loans onto the secondary market. Banks should be required to keep their NPLs on their book and to work through them with their customers by writing down, restructuring or forgiving the debt, particularly in cases of residential loans.

Promoting securitisation

As well as giving free rein to debt vultures, this Directive also aims to promote the use of securitisation vehicles to ‘refinance’ bad loans, or to move this bad debt off the banks’ balance sheets and into opaque and unregulated hedge funds.

Mortgage-backed securitisation vehicles are created when individual mortgages are sliced up and bundled together into packages that can be traded on – gambled on – by investors. The idea is that betting on the return of the bundled, securitised vehicle is supposedly less risky than betting on a single mortgage.

The main investment vehicles that held mortgage-backed securities in the 2000s were collateralised debt obligations (CDOs). CDOs were instruments that included slices of different bank loans, each with a different level of risk and a different interest rate. The rationale behind CDOs was that by pooling together risky loans with less risky assets, the overall risk profile would be lowered – the CDO would be able to gain a higher credit rating – and they would be more profitable for investors. But if one slice defaulted, it increased the risk of a default by the next slice in the bundle. The bad loans infected the rest of the sector until major investment banks could no longer put a price on certain securitisation vehicles.

The moment that marked the onset of the global financial crisis was not actually the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, but rather the moment in July 2007 when Bear Stearns found that it couldn’t put a value on a number of hedge funds that were contaminated with CDOs that included subprime mortgages in them. One of these hedge funds lost 90 per cent of its value overnight; another lost its entire value.

It is almost beyond comprehension that, just a decade on from the global financial crisis, mortgage-backed securities – and non-performing ones at that – are being posed by the Commission as a solution to a toxic debt crisis that is the legacy of the 2007-08 crisis, which these instruments literally caused.

Moving almost a trillion euros out of the regulated and relatively transparent banking sector into the opaque and almost totally unregulated shadow banking sector (by the existing ECB Guidance alone) is incredibly misguided and will pose massive new risks to financial stability in the EU and internationally. Expanding this process under the Directive for all future bad debt is incomphrehensible. How exactly does moving billions of euros of bad debt into the wild west of finance improve financial stability?

‘Buy when there’s blood in the streets’: enter the vultures

The Commission wants to move the toxic debt off the balance sheets of the EU’s banks so they appear healthy and well-functioning, and can compete internationally, particularly with US banks.

An 18th century banker is credited with coining the phrase that best defines the “contrarian” investor’s guide to make a killing in a financial crisis: “The time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” This principle underpins the strategy of the private equity funds referred to as vulture funds. You buy when the price is at rock-bottom and make a profit in the shortest possible time frame by any means necessary.

In the Ireland of today this means buying non-performing loans from banks at a fraction of their worth, and securing the underlying asset (usually people’s homes) as quickly as possible through making some sort of dodgy deal with the person who owes the debt, or simply throwing them out on the street.

The red-carpet treatment the Fine Gael-led government has provided to the vulture funds over the past five years – through open-door lobbying access, a virtually tax-free environment for most of the past five years, and consistent government opposition to attempts to rein them in through regulation – has made Dublin a favoured spot for US vulture funds to set up shop in.

Under the proposed EU Directive virtually all restrictions on “credit purchasers” (vulture funds) registered within the EU to operate across borders will be removed, and the fund will be bound only by the regulations of the EU member state in which it is registered. So the light-touch regulation of the Central Bank of Ireland may soon be the only line of defence against vulture funds preying on millions of indebted and impoverished borrowers across the EU.

Third-country credit purchasers – say a US vulture fund that has not set up a subsidiary in an EU member state at all – will simply have to designate a “credit servicer” (a debt collector) to enforce the credit agreement and not even bother with registering in the EU. Only the credit servicer and not the vulture fund itself will be regulated in any way under EU law.

This is precisely the political debate that has played out in the Irish state over the past three or four years. The owners of the credit agreement – the vulture funds – are the ones who make the key decisions regarding the distressed loan, including the setting of interest rates, whether to restructure a loan, and the enforcement of the loan. So it is crucial that the credit purchaser – and not only the credit servicer that acts as an intermediary – is authorised and regulated in the EU, and subject to supervision, investigation and sanctions by the national competent authorities in the member state in which it operates,.

Jettisoning the minor progress made in Ireland

In an Irish context, we have made only limited progress to date in terms of regulating vulture funds and protecting consumers and mortgage-holders. Yet even this modest progress made in the Dáil – usually in spite of Fine Gael opposition – will now be under threat by this EU Directive.

For years Irish campaigners for the rights of mortgage-holders have demanded that the vulture funds themselves, and not only the middlemen must be directly regulated by the Central Bank. Ireland’s Consumer Protection (Regulation of Credit Servicing Firms) Act 2018, which came into effect in January, is a positive step forward in that it allows the Central Bank for the first time to regulate, investigate and sanction the owners of the credit agreements and not just their designated debt collectors.
 
This modest but significant step forward in our framework for regulating vulture funds is now under threat by the EU Directive, as described above. The Irish government must defend our right to maintain this important piece of legislation in the European Council when negotiating this Directive, and all Irish MEPs in the European Parliament must also defend this position.
 
The second substantial potential piece of Irish legislation that must be defended from the EU is TD Pearse Doherty’s ‘no consent, no sale’ bill requiring banks to gain the written consent of their customers before selling their mortgage to a vulture fund; if this bill becomes law based on the will of our elected representatives in Dáil, it will be simply overruled by the EU through this Directive.

Campaigning for the Directive to be withdrawn

Leftists in the European Parliament have tabled amendments to the Parliament’s report on the Directive demanding the direct regulation of the vulture funds and not only their intermediaries; the need for banks to obtain the written consent of their customer before selling their loans on to a third party; a debt buy-back scheme for customers to have the right to purchase their own debt at the same reduced price that their bank would sell the loan to a vulture for; and for a range of additional consumer protection improvements to the Directive.
 
But these amendments are not enough. This Directive is a second bailout for the banks that gives free rein to the vultures and allows the banks to throw their customers under the bus. Minor improvements here and there won’t cut it. It needs to be scrapped in its entirety – and consumer rights groups, housing campaigners, human rights organisations and a range of political forces from across the EU will be organising a campaign in the coming weeks and months demanding this Directive be withdrawn .

Emma Clancy is editor of Irish Broad Left. Follow her on Twitter @emmaclancy123.

Rights denied: The implications of Brexit for Irish citizens

By Niall Muprhy.

On 23 June 2016, 56 per cent of people in the North voted to remain in the European Union (EU). They did so because it is in our best interests politically and economically. The reckless and irresponsible rhetoric that has conditioned the British government’s approach to effecting the party-political intention of the British Conservative Party has thrust the entire viability of the United Kingdom into terminal constitutional decline.

It has heralded the inevitability of a second independence referendum in Scotland and also paralysed our own society with a constitutional convulsion, which in the early part of 2016 was not on the immediate horizon of anyone – Protestant, Catholic or dissenter.

The vast majority of people in Ireland do not want Brexit. No-one in Ireland sought a Brexit referendum. The overwhelming decision of the referendum in this jurisdiction was that we want to remain in the European Union. Brexit is being forced upon us against our will.

Notwithstanding this clear democratic mandate, we as a society and a people are being dragged out of the EU against our will. We are expected to silently comply as the British government plays Russian roulette with our economic and constitutional futures and our rights as citizens. Our EU rights are being ripped from us.

Brexit is one part of a sustained attack on the concept and the practice of human rights, and one further contribution to the attempted erosion of the core constitutional values of our peace/political process.

It was therefore in the spirit of a legal, policy and political challenge and a constitutional confrontation that a group of pro-EU Irish nationalist people from disparate sectors of society – education, health, business, law, the arts, academia, the community and voluntary sector, and sports – came together to articulate our serious concerns.

We collectively invested our future hopes and aspirations in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and it being implemented and thereby opening up a new chapter in the history of Ireland.

The conviction of wider nationalist, democratic and progressive opinion in 1998 was that the GFA would ensure a break with the past and guarantee us and future generations peace, guaranteed rights, equality and respect in an Ireland which continued to democratically transform itself.

Nearly 21 years on, the GFA has still not been fully implemented. Some sections of political unionism still oppose its very existence. Many of the political fault lines within our politics and society remain unresolved. Our hard-won peace process and its political architecture have too often been taken for granted. We may have peace, but we have not seen enough progress, and Brexit does not occur in a vacuum.

When more than 200 Irish citizens from the North signed an open letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in December 2017 it came at the end of a tumultuous and politically defining year.

That January the GFA political institutions collapsed amidst the political and financial scandal of the Renewable Heat Incentive. It served to confirm the growing view of northern nationalists that political unionism was not committed to proper power-sharing through the denial and refusal of equality, rights and respect towards the section of the community to which we belong, rights such as the following:

Access to justice

All victims of the conflict had the right to avail of mechanisms in accordance with European defined laws, to have access to justice.
Compliance with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is not an issue for Stormont. Stormont is not a sovereign entity, but Westminster is, and it is Westminster that signed the ECHR.

That Westminster sought to then derogate from its ECHR duties by alleging that its compliance with the ECHR is somehow a matter for political consensus at Stormont is a deft sleight of hand of Machiavellian proportions.

Marriage equality

Leo Varadkar and indeed the Irish government rightly speak with pride in respect of the referendum vote in 2016 which brought same-sex marriage equality to the south.

Marriage equality was promoted by the Irish government as a fundamental rights issue in the referendum, yet it is relegated to a matter of political consensus here.  Rights are not negotiable or a matter of consensus.

Many Americans voted for slavery but thankfully it was considered to be an abomination and was ended. Why is it that citizens of England, Scotland, Wales and the south all benefit from marriage equality but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro-jurisdiction?

Language rights

A clear example of the DUP’s rejection of the concept of parity of esteem is the party’s sneering contempt for Acht na Gaeilge. Our language is an intrinsic part of all of our identity as citizens, yet we endure contemptuous taunts, such as “Curry My Yoghurt” and “Crocodiles” and the cancellation of microscopic bursaries for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

The fact is that this jurisdiction is the only region in Britain or Ireland that makes no statutory provision for the protection of a minority language in accordance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Irish is an official language in the Republic of Ireland, with Welsh given statutory protection under the Welsh Language Act 1993, with Scots Gaelic protected under the Achd na Gàidhlig (Alba) 2005.

Again – why is it that citizens of Scotland, Wales and the south all benefit from statutory protection for an indigenous language but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro-jurisdiction?

It would seem that there can be no regulatory alignment on this island, and Bangor must be as British as Finchley, unless you are gay and want to be married, or seek to live a life through the medium of Irish with statutory protection.

Rights are not British or Irish. Rights are for everyone. Everyone benefits with a strong framework for the protection of rights, and everyone loses when rights are denied.

This contempt mobilised the nationalist and republican electorate: in turn the unionist political majority in the Assembly was ended in the elections of March 2017. Increased unionist belligerence continued, and then the nationalist constituency sent a stark message during the subsequent Westminster election held in June that year, that it was turning its back on Westminster.

It has been confirmed in a parliamentary response by EU Commission President Juncker to a question posed by MEP Martina Anderson that the North would no longer be considered to be in an EU member state, and that whilst Irish citizens would remain EU citizens, benefits from UK participation in EU programmes would end with Brexit.

This position would leave Irish citizens here with access to almost none of the following EU rights, rendering us, in effect, second-class citizens, in our own country:

  • The political right to stand as and vote for MEPs. The right to vote for an MEP is normally tied into the member state of residency.
  • Continued use of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Access to an EHIC normally involves billing the health authorities in the EU member state of residence – for example, the NHS.
  • Studying elsewhere and being able to avail of EU student fee rates. Access to EU student fees rates normally requires residency in an EU member state for three of the previous five years.

So without special arrangements, access in practice to these EU rights would be lost to Irish citizens resident here – unless of course they left and went to live somewhere else in the EU.

Practical Scenarios

In reality this means:

We will be disenfranchised. The democratic rights of us Irish and EU citizens in the north, including the right to direct representation in the European Parliament, need to be protected. We must continue to lobby the Irish government to ensure that right is protected by creating a mechanism for people in the North to continue to elect an MEP, i.e. by means of a single constituency.

If you are on holiday in France and fall, you will not be able to access their health service without paying or having medical insurance. An elderly person requiring medical assistance such as dialysis will in effect be grounded, as they will not be able to obtain insurance.

If you have a child wanting to study in Trinity or UCD, you will have to pay. For example QUB undergraduate annual tuition fees for NI domiciled students are £3,925; the same figure is applied for EU students – whereas the figure for international students is between £13k (classroom-based courses) and up to £34k for clinical medical courses. If you have a child aged under 16 today, who hopes to study in the south, as things stand they will be treated as a non-EU national and will be charged accordingly as you must be resident in an EU state for three of the preceding five years. So if Brexit happens in March 2019, a child now aged 16 will not have the requisite three of five years to attend Trinity or UCD.

Other rights denied include the fact that the ability to take up work is dependent on mutual qualification recognition, which will end with Brexit. The right to be joined by family members (who are not EU/EEA nationals) are an inherent part of EU treaty rights to work and study, which also end with Brexit.

On 2 November 2018, more than 1,000 citizens endorsed a direct appeal to An Taoiseach and his government to act in defence of the GFA and citizens’ rights. Individuals with varied political affiliations and none made a direct public appeal to the Taoiseach to stand by his government’s stated commitment that no Irish citizen living in the north would ever be left behind by an Irish government.

The letter was signed by 323 business people, the employers of tens of thousands of people; 115 senior educationalists including more than 30 school principals, along with prominent figures from third-level institutions and teachers from all parts of the North; 82 lawyers; 75 healthcare professionals, including more than 20 doctors and consultants; 30 senior All Ireland medallists; doyens of our arts sector and the leaders of our communities. It was signed by dozens of senior journalists and trade unionists, seven university professors, three Olympic medallists, three Oscar winners, two men who lifted the Sam Maguire, and one man who climbed Everest.

In total, the letter was signed by over a thousand leaders from the nationalist community. This is testament to an evolving earthquake in terms of an awakening of nationalist confidence. The 1012 names are symbolic – the letter was not a petition, but a representative sample of the views of hundreds of thousands of people across the North, and indeed across the entire island.

Beyond Brexit conference

That correspondence was then followed up with a truly unique conference on Saturday 26 January 2019 [pictured above], when more than 1,500 people filled the Waterfront Hall in Belfast to attend what the Irish News described as the most significant constitutional event in a century, as the leaders of the SDLP and Sinn Féin and senior figures from the Irish government and Fianna Fáil attended to give their respective views on Brexit.

Constitutional law experts, legacy and language activists, environmentalists, economic experts and political commentators all spoke to the topic of the viability of a new constitutional arrangement.

Conversations about the future, and future constitutional change, are happening in unexpected places. In recent weeks the trade union movement and senior figures from the GAA have spoken publicly about new constitutional arrangements. Ireland has changed dramatically over the course of the past 20 years.

Catalyst for unity

The roadmap for the journey from Brexit Britain to Little England is being led by the blind, the ignorant and the reckless. Mark Twain once said that you should never argue with stupid people, as they would drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.

Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg and their ERG colleagues are indeed experienced; however we cannot stand idly by. We must avoid a hard border at all costs and as reported in the Irish Times recently, preparations are being made as we speak.

Motorists from the south who plan to drive across the Border from the end of next month will have to start applying for a so-called Green Card or risk penalties for driving without insurance. The Motor Insurers’ Bureau of Ireland has issued about one million Green Card forms, as well as electronic application templates, to insurance companies and insurance brokers in case there is a no-deal Brexit. As the realities of Brexit press home in the coming weeks, the tolerance for it will radically diminish.

On a visit to Ireland in December 2017, EU Council President Donald Tusk ruled out a hard border, saying: “Ní neart go cur le chéile” – there is no strength without unity. Our initiatives – at the Waterfront, our correspondence to the Taoiseach, and our ongoing lobbying in Europe and the US – has demonstrated a unity of confidence and purpose, and may become a catalyst for a unity not envisaged by the proponents and architects of Brexit.

Niall Murphy is a Belfast solicitor with human rights law firm KRW Law and an organiser of the ‘Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland’ conference.