Monday, October 12, 2009

Lisbon – Illusion & Reality

Brian CowenAn indication of the power of the corporate state in the Twenty-Six Counties was revealed over the course of the Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign.

The Treaty was passed at the second time of asking with 67 per cent in favour, while 33 per cent voted against, representing a 20 per cent swing from 2008 when 53 per cent of the electorate rejected Lisbon 1.

Just two constituencies voted No to the Treaty; Donegal North East and Donegal South West. All 12 Dublin constituencies returned a Yes vote, with Dún Laoghaire and Dublin South voting 81 per cent in favour. The highest No vote in the capital was recorded in Dublin North West, which was divided 55-45 per cent in favour. Tally returns indicated a strong No vote in working class areas of the city. Once again, workers’ rights were prominent amongst the issues of concern to voters, particularly in working class communities.

With a budget of over €5 million (£4.7 million); four of the five political parties in Leinster House backing the Treaty; a heavily biased media; the public support and finances of the business class; a Referendum Commission that dispensed with any semblance of impartiality; a trade union leadership that was content to play the government tune and a Yes campaign that served on the one hand to tap into genuine fears about job prospects and, on the other, to proclaim Lisbon’s powers of economic recovery; it was not all that surprising the Treaty was carried with a comfortable majority.

Given that the ‘right’ result was delivered, the Dublin government will have no difficulty accepting this particular referendum result. In matters pertaining to the European Union, democracy only counts when the people agree with the establishment. A year ago, we were told that the people didn’t have sufficient information on the Treaty and could not possibly have made an informed decision. It is unclear, given that, during the course of the campaign, the Yes side wanted to discuss just about everything else bar what was actually in the Treaty, how much better informed voters were this time around. The Yes campaign had a simple but effective message: ‘Vote for this, or the country sinks’.

Uncle EUThroughout the course of the campaign, there was a mood of both fear and anger amongst voters. Anger at being asked to vote for a second time on a Treaty soundly rejected just a year ago and anger at government bailouts to bankers and developers while nothing is done to protect or create jobs. However, coupled with this anger was genuine fear in relation to the jobs catastrophe. In May 2008, during the first Lisbon Treaty campaign, there were 205,900 people in the Twenty-Six Counties on the live register. In just over 12 months, an additional 224,000 people have lost their jobs as unemployment soared to 429,400. A steady diet of news stories predicting economic collapse in the event of a No vote and the wallpapering of streets with posters hailing ‘Yes for Recovery and Yes to Jobs’ convinced many to swing from the No to the Yes side.

Since the announcement of the result of the Lisbon Treaty, the posters proclaiming that a Yes vote would create jobs and put the Twenty-Six County state on the road to economic recovery have been disappearing fast; almost as quickly as announcements of savage job cuts have been landing on news desks around the country.

In a seven-day period after the Lisbon result was declared, over 1,000 jobs cuts were announced in different sectors across the state: 670 jobs at Aer Lingus; 200 jobs at Linen Supply; 60 jobs at Moffat Engineering in Dundalk; 30 jobs at Condron Concrete in Tullamore; 65 jobs at GE Money in Shannon and Dublin and 80 jobs at Tecnotree telecommunications company in Clare. Meanwhile, O’Brien’s sandwich chain, with 800 employees, has gone into liquidation.

Serious questions must be asked in relation to the timing of the announcement of job losses at Aer Lingus. The Dublin government holds a 25 per cent stake in the company. Public acknowledgement of such massive jobs losses could have seriously undermined the government’s case during the referendum campaign and put the SIPTU leadership under pressure to withdraw their support. The sight of the vulture-like Michael O’Leary, who put €500,000 (£468,000) of Ryanair’s money into supporting the Yes campaign, waiting in the wings to pick over the carcass of Aer Lingus may have been too much for many workers to stomach.

The role of the trade union leadership in securing a Yes vote, thereby saving the Dublin government from collapse, was shameful. Jack O’Connor, president of SIPTU, addressed delegates at the union’s annual conference last week and denounced the Thatcherite policies of the coalition government as they slash their way through the public services while simultaneously conferring largesse upon the banks.

Jack O'ConnorOf course, O’Connor is correct in his critique of government policy; however, a flick through the admittedly dense and at times complex Lisbon Treaty would have enlightened him that this was not a document written in the interests of workers or in defence of public services. The question is why did he and the leadership of the trade union movement offer the government a life line and call on workers to support a treaty that gives a legal framework to the race to the bottom? The fig leaf of the charter of fundamental rights was erroneously offered as evidence of the protection workers would receive in a post-Lisbon world. SIPTU members locked out of their jobs at Dublin Port for the last three months and still awaiting the leadership of their union to initiate a campaign of support can take little comfort.

In the course of his address to SIPTU delegates, O’Connor also took the opportunity to castigate social partnership as a ‘myth’. While, again, his analysis is correct, it has come a little late.

For the last 20 years, social partnership was treated by the Dublin government and the trade union leadership as the Holy Grail. To criticise social partnership was considered sacrilege.

Social partnership was premised on tax cuts in return for ‘wage restraint’ and an input from trade unions and other social partners into social and economic policy issues. Over the course of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, profits soared at a rate that far outstripped wage increases. Public spending lagged well behind most other EU states. Significant sections of the public service were privatised while banks and developers dictated economic policy. While all of this was happening, the trade union leadership was telling workers that ‘partnership’ was the ‘only show in town’. Meanwhile, trade union leaders got their ample posteriors appointed onto state boards.

What exactly they were doing on these state boards is not entirely clear. A case in point is the role of IMPACT general secretary Peter McLoone, who was appointed chair of the board of FÁS in 2006. He had former SIPTU president Des Geraghty there for company. Neither of them cried foul as the FÁS board presided over a regime that allowed senior executives to use tax-payers’ money like it was their personal bank account. They were equally silent when its director general Rody Molloy was rewarded with a pension worth €111,000 (£104,000) a year, a tax-free lump sum of €333,732 (£312,020), and a taxable ex-gratia payment of €111,243 (£104,106). He also got to keep the company car. It seems that, for some within the trade union leadership, the lines have become blurred as to whose interests they are supposed to represent.

Pat CoxDuring the course of the referendum campaign, ICTU general secretary and Central Bank director David Begg stood shoulder to shoulder with Peter Sutherland, chairman of BP and Goldman Sachs, Jim O’Hara, CEO of Intel, and Harry Crosbie, one of the state’s biggest property speculators, as ‘patrons’ of the ‘Ireland for Europe’ group. This is the organisation that was jointly headed by former Progressive Democrat TD Pat Cox and Ireland’s chief Europhile Brigid Laffan.

One would find it difficult to select such a quintessential bunch of Thatcherites than this lot. They formed part of what has been erroneously described as ‘civil society’ groups. The media gave the impression that these supposedly non-political civil society groups were akin to the local parish committee banding together to engage in the democratic process. There aren’t too many parish committees that could rustle up €1 million (£935,000) as ‘Ireland for Europe’ did to engage in the ‘democratic process’.

Another of the mythical civil society groups that emerged during the campaign was ‘Women for Europe’, headed by Olive Braiden, who was one of Fianna Fáil’s 1994 EU Parliament candidates and who has spent most of her life in government appointed jobs.

This ‘independent civic minded’ group listed its campaign headquarters as 84-86 Lower Baggot Street. This, co-incidentally enough, is home to the employers’ group.

Fianna Fáil also played a role in the establishment and running of ‘We Belong’, which was fronted by the party’s former press director Olivia Buckley. Not to be outdone, Earnest Enda’s Baby Blueshirts were well represented in the Generation Yes outfit, which claimed “not only will we argue for a ‘yes’ vote, but we will explain clearly and simply, what exactly the Treaty does”. It went on to argue that the Lisbon Treaty would ensure an end to human trafficking. By not accepting Lisbon, we apparently would be guilty of standing by and doing nothing. A particularly mortifying element of its campaign was the sight of young women sporting t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan ‘We only kiss boys who vote Yes’.

Big business interests played their part too.

IBEC plastered the state with posters. ‘Yes to Jobs’ they proclaimed. Curiously enough, there weren’t too many job cuts announced during the course of the campaign. Less than a week after a Yes vote was secured, normal service has resumed and over a thousand workers have been told they no longer have jobs.

Michael O'LearyRyanair and Intel, both of whom refuse to recognise trade unions, ploughed €1 million (£935,000) into the campaign. IBEC were also keen for employers to ensure that companies facilitated workers in exercising the franchise and sent a memo to companies suggesting they be ‘flexible’ in their approach on polling day. Emails were sent to workers reminding them of the ‘benefits’ of voting Yes. Within two days of the passing of the referendum, IBEC hopped out a press statement calling for the suspension of the state wide wage agreement reached last year and looking for a pay freeze until 2011.

So the referendum has been lost, the European Union elite hurtles on to its capitalist dreamland and, soon, Tony Blair, a ‘man of peace’ according to Brian Cowen, will be president of the EU. The people of Iraq and Afghanistan would undoubtedly beg to differ. Not surprisingly, Cowen neglected to mention during the course of the campaign that he intended giving Blair his full backing for president. Either way, the people of Europe will have no say in who is elevated to this powerful position that has a central input into EU foreign policy. It is unclear whether the Czech president will sign the Treaty as recommended by that country’s constitutional court.

What is absolutely clear is that the passage of the Lisbon Treaty will deliver neither jobs nor economic recovery. It will offer nothing to those currently being thrown on to the dole queue. It will give no protection to the Dublin Port workers or the Coca Cola workers locked out of their employment.

What it will do is speed up the process of privatisation of public services and diminish our ability to decide our own economic future. However, with the passage of Lisbon the corporate state has won but a short-term victory. A third of the electorate stood firm in the face of the lies and threats of the Yes campaign.

Given that the majority of the establishment parties supported the Treaty, that is a significant proportion of the population that lacks a political voice. Major battles lie ahead over the coming months. The working class faces an onslaught over coming months as government and bosses seek to drive home its perceived advantage in getting Lisbon through. The trade union leadership has failed to defend the interests of the working class preferring instead to embrace the political establishment. What is required is the building of a new movement of progressive forces comprising republicans and socialists ready to take on the battle and provide the alternative.

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