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Opinion

Perpetuating austerity in Ireland: How far?

Building a mass movement is one way to disrupt the alliance between political and business elites.

Last updated: 16 Jan 2014 10:13
David Cronin

David Cronin is the author of Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War. His earlier book is Europe's Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation.
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The Irish government has increasingly left welfare provision in the hands of the private sector [AFP/Getty]

Between 1913 and 1914, Ireland underwent a painful transition. One year was dominated by an epic industrial dispute in which the employers tried to vanquish the country's trade unionists; the next by the outbreak of a war in which 30,000 Irishmen would die fighting for the British Empire.

As The Risen People, a play now being performed in Dublin's Abbey Theatre, illustrates, the capital's poor were forced to live in rat-infested tenements. The rate of infant mortality in the city was among the highest in Europe.

Unlike a century ago, Ireland is on the cusp of a happier transition in 2014 - or so the establishment wants us to believe. Economic sovereignty is supposedly being restored; my country is hailed as a star pupil in the euro-zone by becoming the first of the single currency's members to leave a "bail-out" programme.

The spin, however, is devoid of substance. Far from becoming independent once again, Ireland will remain subject to rigorous supervision from European Union officials. Ireland's budgets will be sent to the Brussels bureaucracy for approval before they can be debated in the Oireachtas, the country's parliament. An EU "fiscal treaty" will perpetuate austerity.

Cherishing equality?

In two years time, Ireland will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Easter rising. The proclamation of the republic, issued during that rebellion against British rule, contains a beautiful commitment that all the nation's children would be cherished equally.

Ireland austerity measures hit the disabled

Historians generally attribute that passage to James Connolly, who was executed for his part in the rising. Connolly was a founder of the Irish Labour Party. Today, Labour is in a ruling coalition with the centre-right Fine Gael. Jan O'Sullivan, a Labour stalwart, who now serves as a housing minister, has pledged to honour the spirit of the 1916 proclamation by ending homelessness in time for its centenary.

Her promise will more than likely be broken.

Homelessness has risen steadily as a direct consequence of the brutal austerity policies introduced in Ireland. The Simon Community, a leading charity, has cited estimates that the number of people sleeping rough on Dublin's streets each night grew from 87 in November 2012 to at least 139 in November last year: a jump of 60 percent. Expenditure on social housing fell by 72 percent between 2008 and 2012.

It would be fanciful to think that homelessness can be tackled unless that funding can be restored - and then raised. Yet the Dublin government has explicitly ruled out doing so. Rather than improving social housing, the government is prioritising support for developing the private rented sector.

This approach is based on "innovation", according to the official narrative. I'm having trouble, however, discerning any fresh thinking here. Ireland's current economic woes are largely the consequence of unfettered speculation in the property market. Can the private market really be expected to deliver a solution to homelessness?

Part of this "innovation" seems to involve paying greater heed to high-flying management gurus than campaigners for social justice. Mark Kennedy, a senior partner with the consultancy firm Mazars, has been appointed by the Irish environment ministry to chair a group overseeing its homelessness strategy. When I asked the ministry if it had any conflict of interest concerns over how Mazars also provides advice to property developers, a spokesman replied that the oversight group was "technocratic in composition" and that its members were "highly regarded individuals" from business, academia and the civil service.

That is a typical excuse given whenever awkward questions are raised about the cosy relationship between public authorities and corporate representatives masquerading as technical "experts". It cannot conceal how the private sector is being given a greater say in the provision of public services. Ireland's welfare state has come under sustained attack as a result of the "bail-out" programme. The attack looks set to continue: Responsibility for many health services is being handed over to the private insurance industry.

Austerity and corporatism

Ireland is a microcosm for what is happening elsewhere. About 20,000 people have been left homeless in Greece. The number would be even higher if the ideologues in the European Union and the International Monetary Fund had their way. They have been pushing the Greek authorities to lift a ban on the foreclosure of houses, in cases where their owners are severely indebted. Mercifully, the Athens parliament voted in December to extend the eviction ban for another year.

Europe's lost generation

Although Greece now holds the EU's rotating presidency, it will remain under pressure from the Union's top political figures to continue harming its citizens. Some 14,000 public sector workers are to be sacked by the end of 2014 - a condition of an "aid" package from the EU and IMF.

The welfare state looks set to be weakened in Portugal too. When EU and IMF officials visited Lisbon in December, they demanded steep cuts to pensions. Privatisation of many enterprises - including the airline TAP - is also being sought. That mirrors the situation in other troubled eurozone economies: Spain's hospitals are being sold off; ditto for ports, energy and telecommunications providers in Cyprus.

It would be foolish to think that any EU country is immune to the brutal transformation now underway. Der Spiegel magazine recently quizzed Mario Draghi about plans by the new German government to introduce a minimum wage of 8.60 Euro (around $11.5) per hour. His response was that "Germany helps the euro best by further strengthening its competitiveness and promoting growth. Whatever helps that process is right, everything else is wrong."

"Competitiveness" is a watchword for measures designed to boost the profitability of the private sector, frequently at the expense of workers and the unemployed. Though the prospect of Draghi being able to strong-arm Angela Merkel appears remote, the ECB has not blanched at bullying other prime ministers.

Silvio Berlusconi's resignation in 2011 was precipitated by demands [It] from Draghi that Italy introduce far-reaching "reforms" within a strict timeframe. Few tears were shed when Berlusconi stepped down; yet that didn't alter the fact that an unelected and unaccountable institution in Frankfurt had effectively overseen a coup.

There have been many other manifestations of the EU's increasingly anti-democratic nature in recent times. Elections to the European Parliament scheduled for May offer voters an opportunity to register their disquiet with the relentless austerity. Hopefully, they will use this opportunity to fill the assembly's chamber with a left-leaning majority.

Still, it would be wrong to place much confidence in this exercise. Real power will still be concentrated in the army of corporate lobbyists that helps dictates EU policies. The European Roundtable of Industrialists, a hugely influential group that brings together some of this continent's wealthiest firms, is insisting that the austerity agenda be made "more enforceable".

The best way to confront the unholy alliance between the political and business elites is through building a mass movement. The protests that have already been held in a number of countries indicate that such a movement is emerging.

Nurturing it will require a great deal of patience and perseverance and there are bound to be obstacles and setbacks: Spain, for example, has tried to criminalise dissent. But the willingness of ordinary people to fight for alternatives means there are reasons to be cheerful at the beginning of what could be a very bleak year.

David Cronin is the author of Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War. His earlier book is Europe's Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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