Manus Lenihan on the distinctions between the responses to the Eurozone crisis in Greece and Ireland.
14th November saw a united general strike across six European countries. Predictably, RTÉ talked about riots and disruption of flights with only a throwaway line on the subject of austerity. This was a coordinated action across all of southern Europe, plus Belgium. Though a protest against austerity is due to be held in Ireland on 24th November, we saw practically no action on the 14th. Apart from the news reports, which focused on one side of several violent incidents that broke out and excluded all relevant issues, Ireland saw nothing of this historic day and certainly did not share in it.
There is a long list of government ministers across Europe in the last few years who have gone on record as insisting that their county “is not Greece”. Many of those ministers are Irish, and Greek ministers have of course returned this nationalistic insult. These politicians were all, somewhat farcically, trying to deny contagion, but the comparison is understood in a different and more serious way by workers and radicalised young people.
In February 2010, there were workers marching in Athens chanting: “This is Greece, not Ireland, we fight back!” On the other hand, very many Irish victims of austerity have said to me, wistfully or bitterly: “The Irish aren’t like the Greeks. We’ll never stand up for ourselves.”
In fact, Ireland has seen struggle, and huge layers of people have proved that they are willing to take to the streets. February 2009 saw a public sector protest of 120,000 against cutbacks; then, in November, 250,000 workers took a one-day strike. Action fell back again until 100,000 braved the snow to march through Dublin after the bailout a year later. Since then, we have seen the Croke Park agreement, followed by a deathly silence from the unions.
If you look through any trade-union newspapers or press releases you will find information on how austerity is destroying the economy and what a toll it is taking on ordinary workers. A recent report from Mandate, for example, brings home the absolute misery of the low-paid. You will find that unions representing hundreds of thousands of workers are in (verbal) opposition to government policy; but there has been no reflection of this in action for around two years.
There is a parallel in the student movement. Two enormous demonstrations in November 2010 and 2011 showed what was possible, but the leadership of the movement has allowed one fee hike after another every single year. If there was a strategy, it was not to win, but to demobilise and demoralise.
“In February 2010, there were workers marching in Athens chanting: ‘This is Greece, not Ireland, we fight back!’”
So this is the picture in Ireland: a general mass of students and workers who are enraged, but who are saddled with institutions of solidarity and struggle which are a block to action. Since the unions went into the Croke Park deal, Ireland’s Occupy movement and the non-payment campaign against the household charge appeared as vehicles of protest that were totally independent of the conservatism of the trade-union leadership. Anger is bubbling away, and every so often it explodes, but it generally has to circumvent the unions.
Greek trade-union leaders do not, on the face of it, seem to be any more militant than their Irish counterparts. Around 2009-2010 they echoed each other in promising that their members would “pay their fair share” for a crisis they did not create. Of course, across Europe the Irish trade-union leaders are renowned for their timidity and conservatism. But this does not quite explain why Irish unions have signed up to rotten deals while Greek unions have organized 22 general strikes in the past three years.
Greece’s more militant union members have pushed the leadership into action. In Ireland, by contrast, 20 years of “social partnership” have bled the movement of its activist layer and experience of militancy. Greece never had a Celtic tiger, with all the accompanying complacency and lack of struggle.
Massive comparisons must be made between Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain before we can move and look at the differences. All have always had relatively low public spending, have let their richest citizens off the hook for a lot of the tax burden and have spent a fair slice of the century under rightwing authoritarianism to one degree or another.
This all fed into the massive crisis faced by these countries. The great credit bubbles of the noughties seemed to offer their ruling classes an easy way to prosperity, but have in fact landed their people in debt traps that could scupper the whole euro.
Irish history veers sharply away from the others in one very important respect. In the 1918-1922 period, Ireland’s labour movement looked set to play a defining role in Ireland’s history, but its leadership consciously took a back seat to nationalism, ignoring every opportunity to lead the mass struggle of those years. Since then, Ireland’s Labour party has been a very timid and conservative movement, propping up rightwing parties in government from the late 1940s until today.
“You will find that unions representing hundreds of thousands of workers are in (verbal) opposition to government policy. But there has been no reflection of this in action for around two years.”
Compare this to the left tradition in Greece. In Greece, “communist” is not a bad word, being associated as it is with the civil war against the fascists and monarchists in the late 1940s. The left generally, including Greece’s Socialist party, Pasok, are associated with the Athens Polytechnic uprising in 1973 which was a defining event in bringing down the military dictatorship. Spain and Portugal can tell a similar story. In Ireland, by contrast, the labour movement has always taken a tragic political backseat.
It is this simple fact of not having the same inherited tradition of class solidarity and revolt that means that, even though we are suffering under comparable conditions here in Ireland, we have not inherited from history the same culture or experience of fighting and winning.
Of course, Michael Noonan insists that Ireland is not Greece – that the situation is just not as bad and that it will soon be all better. In Greece 68% of the population are now apparently living below the poverty line. Church soup kitchens feed 200,000 people every day. The entire social housing department has been shut down. We cannot safely and clearly compare Ireland to a country which appears to be on the verge of collapse.
But when an Irish minister says it, the sentence “Ireland is not Greece” means that in Ireland the situation is under control and there is no possibility of upheaval in the coming years. This is entirely wrong.
A graph published in early 2011 shows that, yes, Greek government debt is substantially bigger than its Irish equivalent. But total Irish debt is still over twice as big, because our household, corporate and financial debt are all many, many times bigger than their Greek equivalents, amounting to 663% of Irish gross domestic product.
This reflects exactly the crises of Greece and Ireland. In Greece, the government faked their accounts to hide the downturn and went massively into debt. In Ireland, a spectacular property bubble transformed the country, only to disappear, leaving behind a collapse in revenue and a mountain of debt.
“This is the picture in Ireland: a general mass of students and workers who are enraged, but who are saddled with institutions of solidarity and struggle which are a block to action… Anger is bubbling away, and every so often it explodes, but it generally has to circumvent the unions.”
Since then the government has not tackled one single contributing factor to this crisis, hoping for a return to profitability for business based on trampling living standards to “competitive” levels. Nobody has explained to us how the country is supposed to fund itself and return to “sovereignty” when the condition of Troika funding is the destruction of our ability to create wealth.
Mass unemployment, mass emigration and increasing mass misery are facts on the ground in Ireland as a result. A surface-level stability created by bailout funding cannot gloss over or deal with the steady disintegration that is taking place. This year saw the largest quarterly decline in consumption since records began. The number of jobs lost between April and June was 14,000, and this is consistent with the trend.
Two international factors will almost certainly destabilize Ireland: a Greek exit from the euro, or the sudden realisation that the European stability mechanism is not a fraction of the size it would need to be to bail out Italy and Spain. But even if the Irish situation were somehow to develop in isolation, all other factors that hold back struggle are temporary.
The illusions people have in a recovery are evaporating. At some point the unions will not be able to surrender any more, and will act. We who can afford to study will have to come to terms with the fact that there is mass unemployment and a disintegrating economy waiting for us when we leave college. The property tax boycott should dwarf the household charge campaign.
Ireland is not Greece, in that working-class and youth militancy is somewhat more damp and unenthusiastic here for historical reasons and because of the trade-union leadership. Ireland is not Greece, in the sense that our crises are of a different nature; whether they are of a different depth remains to be seen.
In any case, mass struggle is very likely to develop in Ireland. Mass struggle, by the way, is not what RTÉ presents it as. It is not a mindless campaign of violence which, horror of horrors, delays flights, but rather a search and a fight for an alternative.