Rising discontent

On one level it could be argued that Jim Larkin’s vision of an equitable society has been fulfilled. Yet there is so much discontent about writes Tom Prendeville

Faithful Place, Dublin, 1913. From the Darkest Dublin Collection (RSAI)

Faithful Place, Dublin, 1913. From the Darkest Dublin Collection (RSAI)


EXACTLY 100 years ago, in 1913, Dublin had the worst slums in Europe, infectious TB was rampant and the city had a huge underclass of working poor.

Eventually things reached a head culminating in a general strike and the great lockout, which followed soon afterwards when 300 employers retaliated.

From the events of that far off time rose the Labour movement and the political leftwing as we know it in Ireland today.

Elsewhere in the world the biggest defining event of the 20th century was the clash between the free world and totalitarian regimes such as the German Nazi National Socialist Party and later the USSR; or to be more precise – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

On the surface it would appear that the capitalist democratic model won. The USSR eventually faded away, China evolved into a free market communism entity whilst the European Union evolved into a highly centralised bureaucracy.

We now have the curious hybrid of Neo Liberalism; the idea that the markets should rule unfettered. In The Rotten Heart of Europe by Bernard Connolly, the former senior commission official reveals how the corporations effectively run and dominate the entire EU decision-making process.

Naomi Klein in her work, The Shock Doctrine – the rise of disaster capitalism, makes much the same case about the modern day USA; with Washington DC swarming with corporate lobbyists laden with money.

Of course Ireland is different, instead of lobbyists giving money to the politicians it is the other way around; the lobbyists end up being given NGO status and money by the State to keep them on board.

As Brendan Behan once observed, “other people have a nationality, the Irish have a psychosis.” He could just as easily have been describing the world of Irish politics.

Historically, socialism in England had its roots in the provision of a free universal education and a national health service. Crucially Ireland already had a free education and health system courtesy of Catholic Religious Orders and Protestant Benevolent Societies; so much so, the socialist movement never really took off in this country.

During the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s Fianna Fáil engaged on a massive programme of slum clearance and the building of quality social housing; a social innovation which deprived radical socialism of yet another societal ill to rally around. In the intervening years wages steadily rose in Ireland to the extent that the workforce is now one of the best paid in the world. Even if you don’t have a job, the social welfare benefits are generous.

On one level it could be argued that Jim Larkin’s vision of an equitable society has been fulfilled. Yet there is so much discontent about. In the 1970s the traditional British Labour Party supporter was viewed as a cloth cap wearing Jack, sucking on a woodbine wheeling his trusty black bike home with a Hovis loaf under his arm.

However, like a broken clock Margaret Thatcher was spot on twice a day – and she realised that the working class aspired to better things such as owning their own houses and businesses and driving a decent car. And it was no different in Ireland.

Internationally the leftwing were always promoters of the notion of high taxation for the common good. In Ireland – in the absence of any identifiable constituency – the left have become anti-property tax, water tax and bin charges. In a sense they now have more in common with the rightwing US libertarian Tea Party Movement. Which brings us back to Neo Liberalism; in Ireland it took the form of the government shafting the people to save the corporate banks. However, that too will have long term consequences.

In 2011 economist Morgan Kelly predicted that the economic crisis would severely damage trust in all politics. He noted that the political parties would become:

“As reviled and mistrusted as their predecessors and that will leave Ireland in the interesting situation where the economic crisis has chewed up and spat out all of the state’s constitutional parties.”

The underlying problem for Ireland is that the State has been in financial trouble since the 1970s when it began the process of completely taking over all the country’s schools and hospitals; services which now cost €8.5 billion and €13.6 billion respectively to run every year (2013 figure).

In absorbing these twin titanic institutions the state went from having no national debt in 1972 to the mess we are now in. The €64 billion bailout being the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

In the real world the government is almost like the cash strapped dad who is forced to sell his car in order to fund his son’s education. He cannot afford both. Hence the reason the state is now charging for water and a whole host of other services – new taxes as it were.

With ‘don’t know’ voters now accounting for a massive 36% percent of the electorate the future shape of politics could be a myriad of groups winning office by campaigning for new local services or the abolition of new charges.

With no money in the kitty it will be interesting to see how long they curry favour with a restive electorate.