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The election's over and so is the strike 

24 MAY 2007

The election has just coming to an end but so has the strike that had the potential to become its central issue but never did.

The nurses strike has ended after seven and a half weeks with a concession on hours – they are to be reduced by 1 1/2 hours from the current 39 by June next year - but a giant step backwards in moving to support for social partnership and its latest deal –‘Towards 2016.’ This of course means acceptance of benchmarking as the means through which the nurses pay claim will be processed. Since the strike took place in explicit rejection of this process, and condemnation of its previous short-changing of nurses, the statement by Irish Nurses Organisation leader Liam Doran was as open an admission of defeat as could be expected.

He said that he ‘fully realised that many of our members are disappointed that their goals have not been fully achieved, but I call on the other parties to this dispute to now play their part in ensuring that nurses and midwives can at last have confidence in a procedure that will be fair to them.’ In other words Doran is asking the employers who were about to cut nurses wages by 13.6 per cent to do now what they set their face against for nearly eight weeks.

He is appealing to a government, which has presided over a health service in which patients sometimes don’t have to wait on trolleys because the hospital has even run out of trolleys, to do the right thing! Calling on this lot to play fair is about as pathetic an approach as can be imagined.

This rotten deal has been put forward by the National Implementation Body, a social partnership organisation which specialises is making sure trade union intervention into disputes is directed towards getting them stopped as quickly as possible. At no point was there any talk of support for the nurses by the wider trade union movement.

We warned that the real enemy of the nurses was social partnership and so it has proved. This does not make us crystal ball gazers. We knew this because it has happened before and to the nurses - in 1999.

The reaction around the country at regional meetings has shown that many are very angry – one official admitted to being ‘savaged’ at each one he attended. The vote itself was close - 54 to 46 per cent - with only 1,746votes separating the sides.

If opposing partnership is one lesson to be learned the second is that the nurses need new leaders. Whoever thought that the action taken would be enough, or that its taking place in an election would somehow make the difference, was mistaking the enormity of the struggle they were engaged in. Those nurses with the stomach for struggle need to organise in their unions to galvanise the membership around the lessons to be learnt and the response required to the future consequences of the deal. They are now shackled to a partnership deal which commits unions to whatever work changes are demanded in return for pay rises more or less already eaten up by inflation.

Rank and file mobilisation by the nurses around opposition to partnership and its strike busting machinery and a campaign targeted directly to other workers - that by-passes their leaders - was the minimum required to put the employers and government on the defensive. The nurses needed less of their special status and more of their being in the vanguard of protecting and defending a real health service, a platform of opposition to the privatisation of health and the two-tier service. They needed to become the explicit voice demanding a service adequate to everyone’s’ needs. In this way they could more easily win everyone else’s support for their own demands.

The anger shown during the strike and at the meetings after it, plus the closeness of the result, show that the possibility is there for this sort of perspective to be put into practice in the future.

The strange death and miraculous resurrection of the Progressive Democrats 

22 MAY 2007

One of the minor themes of the election has been the poor showing of the junior partner in the present coalition, the Progressive Democrats. Their poll rating, at 3%, falls within the margin of error, and it has been widely predicted that most if not all of their TDs are in danger of losing their seats, even possibly party leader and justice minister Michael McDowell. This would be one very popular outcome of the election, as the PDs are hated – not just not supported, but viscerally hated – by most of the electorate.

This is a long way from the PDs’ glory days of 20 years ago, when they were seen by many as the new broom that would clean up Irish politics. At their launch in 1985 after splitting from Fianna Fail, they had little in the way of definite politics except that they were bitterly opposed to Charlie Haughey and had come to realise they would never gain a majority in FF. This very vagueness helped them to their big breakthrough in the 1987 election, when they beat Labour into fourth place. But their main selling point, that Fianna Fail and particularly Haughey were unfit to govern, was forfeited in 1989 when they formed a coalition with Haughey.

In the meantime, the PDs’ distinctive politics came into view. In essence, they were a right wing of the Dublin 4 “liberal agenda” subscribed to by the South’s chattering classes. They adopted Thatcherite economics including low corporate taxes and wholesale privatisation, took a vociferously unionist position on the North, and later on added an anti-immigration stance, and most recently support for Bush’s War on Terror.

None of these were very popular positions with the Irish electorate, and they explain why the PDs have never been more than a small niche party. However, this small party that everybody hates has had a huge impact on public policy. In fact, you might say the PDs are victims of their own success.

All the major parties in the Dail support privatisation as a cornerstone of government policy. Since Sinn Fein abruptly dropped its call for higher corporation tax, all parties subscribe to the low-tax regime of the Celtic Tiger, with Pat Rabbitte’s Labour even offering lower taxes. The number of sitting TDs who seriously oppose the neoliberal economic agenda can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

At the same time, although all major parties have adopted the PDs’ policies, the others have been canny enough to present their politics as having a softer, more human face. Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, while acquiescing in British rule in the North, have been careful to keep their formal commitment to a united Ireland. Bertie Ahern managed to present himself as being both for and against the War on Terror, while Sinn Fein members protested Bush’s visit to Hillsborough at the same time as Adams was meeting him.

This adoption by all major parties of the politics of the neoliberal offensive has therefore robbed the PDs of their political distinctiveness. Their main distinction today is that McDowell represents these hard-right policies in their raw, unvarnished form, without bothering to add a human face. This is the main reason why the PDs are likely to do so badly in the election; but at least they can have the satisfaction of knowing their politics have triumphed.

The stink of corruption 

21 May 2007

The immediate trigger of the current election is seen to be Bertie Ahern’s attempts to avoid immediate investigation of his financial affairs. The affair dominated the early part of the election and recent polls indicate that a majority of electors do not believe his eventual statement.
Yet at the same time Fianna Fail’s share of the vote is seen to increase. Why is this? Is there anything that can be done about corruption?

The ousting of Paul Wolfowitz as chair of the World Bank provides an insight. He was acting for Bush in leading a crusade against corruption in Africa – never mind that the imperialists had installed and owned the corrupt politicians or that the crusade was to force privatisations and wring more wealth from the continent. He fell from his post because of the most blatant corruption on his own part. How then can we expect Ireland to be exempt?

In fact corruption is endemic to capitalism. Capital rules within the forms of democracy because it is able to buy support for the policies that it needs. There is however ‘normal’ corruption, seen as oiling the wheels of politics and the economy and parasitic corruption, where it reaches such levels as to smother and impede capitalist production.

In Ireland Bertie escapes unscathed because there is a widespread perception that he is guilty of only minor corruption, when in fact the Irish capitalist class is entirely parasitic. They enriched themselves during the boom years but were unable to build a viable native economy or a basic level of public services. Two of the major elements of the election – the inability of workers to get housing and the state of collapse of the health service – are directly linked to their corruption.
Unfortunately, no matter how the workers vote, they will either get a coalition led by Bertie, with exactly the same policies as the last lot, or an alternative coalition led by the Blueshirts, again with identical policies. They are denied choice because those who claim leadership of the workers have capitulated utterly to the capitalists.

Only the working class can escape from this morass, by uniting behind the Workers Republic and by rooting out the corruption at the heart of their movement – the corruption of the partnership bureaucracy within the unions who enrich themselves at the expense of the workers, who retire from one post only to re-appear as a leading light in a major bank or investment company and who fight tooth and nail against even the suggestion of a fightback by rank and file workers.

The Coalition will win! 

20 MAY 2007

So who will win? The answer of course is the coalition? But which coalition? And does it really matter?

Fianna Fail will undoubtedly suffer losses just as Fine Gael will make gains, the PDs may face complete annihilation, the Labour Party may do ok, as may the Greens. Sinn Fein may do very well and independents may be squeezed. The precise degree of these judgements will determine the character of the coalition.

Fianna Fail and the PDs are likely not to have the numbers to continue the present coalition while Fine Gael and Labour may not have them to form the alternative. Until recently the Greens were seen as being able to make up the numbers for the alternative coalition but it is testament to their new found respectability that there is now also speculation that they may be partners with Fianna Fail. The Labour Party has distanced itself from any such suggestion, knowing full well one of their few attractions is opposition to Fianna Fail. Entering another coalition with them, like Dick Spring did, would be very damaging.

Increasingly Sinn Fein is no longer viewed as anathema and the press paves the way by not asking why but why not? Fianna Fail figures have rubbished any suggestion of even an informal coalition but following up behind the Greens the Sinners are now respectable. The ostensible reason for rejecting coalition – their economic policies – have been so watered down that even were they to join a coalition with Fianna Fail there is comparatively little they could be accused of having betrayed.

They no longer promise a tax of 50% on those earning over €100,000, no longer talk of raising capital gains tax and have dropped proposals to slightly increase corporation tax. All their other policies involve such vague commitments that they can easily be ignored and forgotten. The Sinners are eagerly touting themselves for government while playing to their more gullible left wing supporters by asserting meaningless demands, e.g. for a Green paper on Irish unity which wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

Fianna Fail have reason to fear Sinn Fein since many of their gains could come at their expense but may still abide by the old maxim to keep one’s friends close and one’s enemies closer.

Whatever way it pans out a coalition will form the next government with policies in no fundamental respect different from any other potential arrangement. In this sense it hardly matters which exact constellation of parties coalesces together, except that perhaps inclusion of Sinn Fein may hasten their exposure as not being any sort of radical alternative to anything.

In these circumstances, where any of a number of coalition arrangements are possible, the declarations by left candidates that they would not enter one are meaningless, doubly so when they mostly have no or little chance of being elected, and yet more so when their policies present no fundamental challenge to the capitalist system – why then no coalition? To state opposition to coalition is to state inability to take part in government which invites a programme to explain why this must be so and thus one that proposes extra-parliamentary solutions to working class voters. Standing becomes a process of raising the consciousness of these voters.

Instead the mantra of no coalition appears to have been taken as absolution for campaigns that are even more electoralist than those of the main parties since the latter seek election to form a government while the former just seek election. It has absolved them of having to present a political alternative i.e. one that answers the main political questions of the nature of society and the nature of State power. Instead the clientelism of the main parties is also exceeded by openly community campaigns that emphasise more than the larger parties the local and narrow horizons that afflict much of Southern politics.

More than ever the left needs to state some fundamental principles around which a socialist alternative could be built. At the moment the various parties that some have described as ‘left’ – Sinn Fein and the Greens – remind one of the quote by Marx, Groucho Marx, – ‘Those are my principles. If you don't like them I have others.’

What's good for us 

17 MAY  2007

There is something very apt about Fianna Fail running TV ads in which leaders of the US and Britain tell Irish people who to vote for. While Clinton is an ex-President he is still a leading figure in the US establishment while Tony Blair has not even left office. Such public interference in the election in another supposedly sovereign State would not normally even be considered by either party. If it was, the opposition would cry blue murder about outside interference in domestic affairs and native collaboration with outside big powers. That this hasn’t happened and the whole exercise accepted shows the domination that such powers have over Irish society.

Bertie Ahern has pursued an election campaign in which this domination has been celebrated. We know how bad things are when he seeks political advantage from attending the opening of a new administration at Stormont, which has always been the symbol of sectarian domination, and then celebrates at the Boyne with the arch bigot whose own joy is motivated by memory of the period ushered in by the battle – the Penal laws.

Perhaps most pathetic however was Ahern’s invitation to speak to the British parliament, where Blair was announced to have a hitherto unnoticed ‘honoured place in Irish hearts.’ Bertie waxed lyrical about their shared commitment to democracy’ and ‘human rights’ on the ‘world stage’ which doesn’t appear to be invalidated by invading another country after telling bare faced lies and killing over 600,000 people in the process.

But one doesn’t have to go to Iraq to see the results of such imperialism.

We have recently witnessed repeated exposure of criminal murders organised by Blair’s security forces in the North and his government’s open failure to help find the truth about the worst atrocity of the troubles – the bombing of Dublin and Monaghan in 1974. The truth of course, which Blair has so brazenly covered up, is that this atrocity was executed by the British State. Not a whisper of this by Ahern.

He asks us instead to bask in the warm glow of the new political dispensation in the North, or rather shine the spotlight on his supposedly indispensable role, although this role appears to have been to accept whatever insults the unionists could hurl at him – ‘harsh and insulting words’ according to Blair -and accept whatever demands they could raise. No wonder Blair thinks him such a good chap.

We are asked to welcome ‘Britain’s clear commitment’ through Chancellor Brown’s financial package which comprises of £50 billion, of which unfortunately £48.9 billion is existing money, £1 billion is from privatisation proceeds and only £100 million is actually ‘new.’ No wonder he spoke of the ‘success in reimagining British –Irish relations’, because a lot of imagination is required to believe that the ‘Irish question’ – never referred to as the ‘British question’ – has been solved.

The clear master –servant character of this relationship was unconsciously reflected in the column written by ‘Irish Times’ journalist Miriam Lord, who is normally acerbic and scathing, but who on this occasion could not get over that a Drumcondra boy was guest of honour at the Palace of Westminster.

Whether these political dig-outs will save Ahern is open to doubt. His strength is that the opposition has no alternative. Whatever coalition wins will implement the same policies. Michael McDowell took great delight in the television debate pointing out that none of the minor opposition leaders had anything to say about what makes a successful economy or about the dependence on foreign investment. One would search in vain for any mention of this or of the North in the manifestos of the left, beyond perhaps meaningless platitudes. At this level of politics the left has simply no alternative to put. They don’t believe Ireland is dominated by imperialism so they are left with nothing to say. Meanwhile we have to listen to butchers like Blair telling us what’s good for us.

Law and order – a socialist alternative? 

15 MAY 2007

One issue that has featured prominently in the election has been the law and order question. The growing class inequality in Irish society and the demoralisation and fragmentation of sections of the working class have led to increases in drug abuse, violence and crimes against property. The capitalist parties have responded with familiar calls: More Garda, more laws, more repression – hang ‘em and flog ‘em. Never mind the fact that the election seems to have been called to prevent the development of criminal investigations into the finances of the Taoiseach, that the majority of the Irish legal system seem to be employed in tribunals that uncover crime after crime and never convict, that major Irish banks have been involved in financial crime, or that religious police constantly spy on Irish women, looking to punish them if they try to exercise the right to control their fertility.

So far, so bad. 

The problem is that some candidates are proposing a community alternative where the local activists take over responsibility for policing. In part this is a result of the decline of working class politics and their replacement by community politics, often based on professional community activists employed by the state. In part it is due to the increase in the role of non-governmental agencies. The most important element has been the influence of Sinn Fein and their adoption of Community Restorative Justice schemes in the North. No-one appears to have woken up and smelt the coffee and realised that the CRJ scheme in the North has now become an appendage of the RUC/PSNI. This was an inevitable development. No matter what the pros and cons of restorative justice as a technique, in capitalist society there is only one judicial system, one state force and they have only one function – the defence of capitalist property relations.
So what is the socialist position? Very firmly socialists refuse to accept responsibility for the demoralisation and atomisation of capitalist society. Their task is to overthrow that society and their starting point is that section of the working class that remains organised. They may need to take defensive steps to protect the section of the class willing to resist from the demoralised elements. They may be able to use community structures and procedures to help remoralise and win over backward sections.

They should never forget that their job is to defeat and disband the garda and state forces and abolish a legal system based on the defence of property. Without this understanding socialists end up supporting the conditions they were set up to fight.

Support the Nurses! 

13 MAY 2007

The threat by the Health Services Executive to dock nurses’ wages by 13.16 per cent from next Friday 18th has failed to intimidate them from pursuing their claim for a 35 hour week and a 10.6 per cent pay rise. Instead the nurses’ conference on Thursday decided to continue on their work to rule, introduce a total ban on overtime and intensify their series of short work stoppages. They will also no longer stay late after shifts.

The conference invited a series of speakers from the political parties to address the conference and gave the appropriate response to Mary Harney and Brian Lenihan from the government parties. Enda Kenny from Fine Gael made emollient noises but only vague commitments on the reduction of hours and demanded that the pay rise be put through the partnership process that has so ill-served nurses so far. Labour made rather more hard promises on the question of hours but Kenny later said there was actually no difference in the views of the prospective coalition partners.

The nurses should know however that what they win will be the result of their own efforts.

They should also know that the promises to advance their demands through partnership held out by Kenny and Ahern are a trap that has been sprung on their industrial action before. The pay cut they face next week is a direct result of the terms of the previous social partnership deal. Whether they like it or not their dispute has come up against this process and they will only win their demands by driving right through its restrictions.

The nurses’ action has widespread popular support and in the midst of an election the workers have an opportunity to utilise this support in a way that they would not have otherwise. This support has forced confusion on the part of Fianna Fail with a few local TDs opportunistically declaring support for the nurses’ cause and Ahern saying he will bring in an independent arbitrator to advance their demands, only a few days after rubbishing Kenny for making exactly the same proposal.

While the opposition parties are not the nurses’ friends - Kenny too is calling for the issues to be sorted out ‘inside the social partnership arena’ - it is the government parties that are the immediate enemy. The nurses thus need to take their action directly to these parties and launch their own campaign against those being conducted by Fianna Fail and the PDs. They should turn up at every political stunt these parties hold and remind voters of their utter failure to deliver an adequate health service.

They need to do more. They need to go directly to workers and seek support – at factory gates, at offices, estates and supermarkets. They must demand immediate accession to their demands and no entrapment inside the social partnership cage. They should seek the setting up of support groups inside workplaces, union branches and communities and must point the finger at the bureaucratic leaders of the trade union movement.

These bureaucrats have presided over a series of social partnership deals that have allowed the health service to fail, and now given the HSE employers the weapon to dock nurses’ wages. Their utter silence is testament to their opposition to the nurses’ demands, which they know as well as the government and employers threatens the deal all three have agreed.

Pickets of the activities of the government parties must be joined by pickets of their union bureaucrat friends in Liberty Hall etc. Nurses must demand practical support from other union leaders and if it isn't forthcoming demand they get out and seek support directly from the rank and file. The nurses’ supporters in other unions should place exactly the same demands on their leaderships. A national conference of all unions should be called to support the nurses, and if the union leaderships won’t call one the nurses should take the lead in calling a conference themselves. It’s time to turn sympathy into action!

Affordable Housing? 

10 MAY 2007

The demand for affordable housing is one that has quietly crept into the demands of the left having found lip service in a previous social partnership deal and in unfulfilled promises by the outgoing coalition government. It appears to represent an alternative to the more widespread promises of a repeal of stamp duty which has involved the main parties in Dutch auction politics.

Let’s get clear what the demand amounts to: it is a call for housing to be built that average or poorly paid workers can afford to buy because general house prices have gone through the roof. Of course now that prices have begun to fall there is no one saying how great this is – calling or hoping for further falls. But why not if prices are too high?

The reason why not is that the point of affordable housing is that those left behind or excluded by the housing boom should be allowed their first foot on the property ladder and the ladder no longer goes up if prices are falling. Who needs a ladder downwards? The demand for affordable housing is not therefore an alternative to the property price explosion but a demand that more people be allowed to join it. Perhaps by doing so the boom might even be kept going longer or at least prevented from deflating.

In this sense the demand for affordable housing is an alternative to the traditional demand of the left for more public housing in order to meet workers needs for a decent roof over their heads.

The demand for affordable housing would mean this as well if those purchasing these purposely built houses were not able to profit through their purchase by selling them on at a profit. But to do this would be in effect to take away the rights of private ownership which is the rationale for demanding ‘affordable housing’ instead of public housing.

The demand for public housing also sits with the demand for the State to build these houses at least cost and to take steps to prevent land and property developers from making a fortune out of resources that have not changed but have only increased in price because of the latter’s exclusive ownership. As Marx explained - the right to private property is always the right to exclude others from enjoyment of it.

So if affordable houses are to enter the general housing market by being available for resale by their purchasers just how does this break the cycle of booming prices and now perhaps downward spiralling ones? The answer is it doesn’t. Unless the supply of such houses was huge and unrelated to demand such housing would not have prevented the recent price explosion. Unless prices are reasonably low, in any downturn the problem may arise of such affordable houses leaving their purchasers with mortgages higher than their market value – negative equity.

Because the demand for affordable housing (like the government backed Bacon reports – all three of them, and the abolition of stamp duty which will only be factored into the price by sellers anyway) doesn’t break with the market or with capitalist production or with the assertion of profit over need, it is more than doubtful that entertaining such a demand is in any way socialist.

The rise in house prices has benefited some workers and crucified others. A fall in prices will do likewise. Demanding affordable housing is to play the capitalist game in very much the same way as ‘share owning capitalism.’ Imagine the left demanding shares that were cheaper than the existing stock exchange price and hoping that prices didn’t fall below the purchase price!

Housing is a basic right. It is most efficiently provided by a democratically controlled State that ignores the interests of developers and takes land into possession in order to assert this right. The expenditure of millions of Euros on assets built years ago cannot be termed efficient from any rational economic point of view. A dominant rental sector provided by the State is most efficient in allowing planning, provision of much needed services, avoidance of speculative bubbles that burst, and the easy and free movement of people from place to place.

In other words the left should stand fore-square behind a socialist policy that educates workers on the faults and dangers of the market created by capitalist production for profit, not seek a reformist solution that fails to break with this market and thus fails to break with all the problems that it creates.

Silence is Golden 

7 MAY 2007

Reading reports of the Sinn Fein economic manifesto reminded me of the song – ‘you say it best when you say nothing at all.’ Often accused of speaking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time this time Sinn Fein could be accused of not speaking – out of both sides of its mouth.

This however would be to miss the real point. While it is true that Sinn Fein has called only for a ‘review’ of tax policy, only a ‘review of utility charges such as the bin charge, only a ministry of regional development to somehow address growth imbalances, and will only examine new state owned firms, one significant silence says it all. Corporation tax will be kept at the prevailing rate of 12.5%. Its stated intention of creating an ‘Ireland of equals’ will thus continue to see capital taxed much less than labour.

A lot of emphasis is placed on creation of an all island economy although once again an all-island currency should only be ‘debated.’ Presumably this must be the euro since even Sinn Fein has not reached the stage of proposing creation of a sterling area stretching south to Kerry and Cork. As one wag put it, it’s as if calling for something to be ‘all Ireland’ makes it somehow progressive. In fact the euro has been introduced into every country as part of an austerity offensive that aims to make it a strong world currency that can ultimately rival the dollar. Promoting the euro could thus only be to follow the promotion of European imperialism in competition with the US version.

The party is apparently not going to reverse any of the tax cuts given to the rich over the last decade by a coalition government that has included the rabidly right wing Progressive Democrats, but will raise the money for its proposals by closing the tax loopholes used by the rich to pay little or no tax. Once again however very little is said to explain just how they are going to do this. One pointer is that fake non-residents who really live in the State, but claim they spend most of their days in their favourite tax haven, will not be so free to use this little dodge in future. We aren’t told however just how this is going to be done. How many days will they have to be here to qualify for local taxes and how will this be monitored and enforced?

Of course there are good things in the manifesto including an increased minimum wage and increases in social welfare. The problems however are four-fold.

Firstly some policies which some on the left think are progressive are not in themselves socialist. For example renationalising Aer Lingus and Eircom (again they don’t say how they would do it or how much compensation would be paid) is not socialist. Socialists oppose privatisation because it involves attacks on workers terms and conditions but our alternative involves workers’ control.

Secondly, as the bourgeois journalists have pointed out, nothing is costed. How much will the economy grow by and how much revenue will be received? How much are their promises going to cost and how will they be paid for? If you present a reformist manifesto that promises to live within the system then you are required to explain how the system will afford it. If you don’t then no one is obliged to believe you.

This brings us to the third problem. The Provos used to exist for one reason only – to drive the British out of Ireland and destroy partition. If they have abandoned this core belief and are now making partition work by putting Ian Paisley into office, why should anyone believe any lesser promises?

Lastly; Sinn Fein say they want to increase workers rights, boost their living standards and increase the amount of tax revenue they take from the rich. Yet their whole strategy North and South is based on a low corporation tax. Why would the latter entice multinationals to come to Ireland when they have lots of other low tax countries to pick from and a new Irish government that includes Sinn Fein wants to tax the rich and increase workers rights?

Something has to give. Given the trajectory of Sinn Fein, which has already dropped its mildly progressive proposal to increase corporation tax before it even comes close to negotiating coalition with Fianna Fail, we won’t have much trouble guessing what that will be.

Abortion – the issue they don’t want to talk about 

6 May 2007

The case of a 17 year-old girl having to appear in the High Court in Dublin to appeal for the right to travel to Britain for and abortion highlights once again the denial of human rights to Irish women. “Miss D”, as she is known, has been told by doctors that her four-month old foetus will not live more than a few days beyond birth. Despite this prognosis, the Health Service Executive (HSE) wants to prevent her travelling for an abortion. If successful “Miss D” would be forced to carry the foetus for the full nine months in the certainty that it would die soon after birth.

This is a truly harrowing prospect. However, this case should not be viewed as an oddity or anomaly. It arises inevitably from the law and the actions of state institutions, and is just the latest in a number of cases over the last fifteen years. The most high profile was the X-case in 1992 when the High Court prevented a pregnant 14-year-old rape victim from leaving Ireland to have an abortion in England. Amid a public outcry, the Supreme Court overturned his decision two weeks later to allow her to go. Later that year two referenda were passed to amend the constitution and safeguard the right to travel and to information. At the same time the government but forward a referendum that would have limited the effect of the X case by excluding the risk of suicide has a legitimate reason for seeking an abortion. This was defecated.

The X case set a familiar pattern on how the state would deal with the abortion issue. Politicians and judges would produce a temporary legal fix to deal with any case that provoked public outrage, but then try and row back on anything that had been conceded. Successive Governments have also failed to codify the limited liberalisation of the X case judgement in law. This is one of the reasons why the issues first highlighted by the X case keep arising, despite assurances from politicians that they had been resolved and that such a scenario would not arise again.

But only five years later there was the “Miss C” case. A 13-year-old girl, pregnant as a result of rape, and in the care of the Eastern Health Board was the subject of proceedings in the District Court as she sought permission to leave the State to have an abortion in England. Again, this case was resolved in the courts, with a High Court judge ruling that that the girl was likely to take her own life if forced to continue with the pregnancy, she was entitled to an abortion on the basis of Supreme Court judgement in the 1992 X Case. When the Government did finally propose legislation in 2002 it once again tried to row back on the X Case. The proposed amendment to the constitution excluded the risk of suicide as a ground for abortion. This was defeated in a referendum.

With the “Miss D” case falling in the middle of an election campaign, it would have been expected to be a major issue, but all the political parties are determined to keep it of the agenda. The health minister Mary Harney has said that it is not an issue. This is despite the fact she has the power under Health Care Act to give direction to the HSE on these matters. Instead, politicians are hiding behind the legal proceedings. Justice Minister Michael McDowell claimed that the case represented “a balance of constitutional rights”. He even had the audacity to blame the public for the case because they rejected his proposed abortion legislation. (Under that legislation, Miss D would not have had a basis for bringing a case!) Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said it was a “complex, human, tragic case” which might end up in the Supreme Court. He said he did not want to comment further, but ruled out any prospect of a Fine Gael led government introducing legislation. Labour Party leader Pat Rabitte said that the case was “highly complex” and required clarification in the courts before any decision could be made on what laws, if any, might be needed.

Clearly there is no prospect of politicians addressing the abortion issue; they will not even introduce legalisation to underpin the limited liberalisation in the X case judgement. The fact is that in a state, in which the Catholic Church has the leading role in the delivery of health services, women will continue to be denied the right to an abortion, and even in some cases the right to travel for an abortion. To secure these rights we need to create a political movement that will fundamentally challenged to the nature of the state. In its absence cases such as “X”, “Miss C” and “Miss D” will continue to arise.

Corruption dominates but no alternative 

3  May 2007

It has been universally acknowledged that the first week of the campaign has been a disaster for Fianna Fail. After legal challenges failed to stop the Mahon Tribunal, which is investigating allegations that Bertie Ahern interfered with a planning development on behalf of a rival developer; Bertie ran off to get the Tribunal stopped himself by calling the election. It was known by everyone that the Tribunal would suspend itself once the election was called.

If he thought the issue was postponed he was dead wrong. Every day has witnessed new revelations leaked to the media or questions he hasn’t been able to answer. Now the PDs are split down the middle. Having earlier made themselves look stupid by accepting Ahern’s previous story, then seeking more information, and then supporting him again, they now look even more exposed. They stand between a rock and a hard place. Ditch Bertie and they give up any possibility of implementing the tax cuts they have promised to their tiny core support - or keep their mouths shut and share the blame for Ahern’s shady dealings. However hard the controversy around Ahern hits Fianna Fail it will hit the PDs harder.

Without a political alternative to the widespread corruption of official Irish life the opposition parties have been happy to let the media inflict all the damage knowing they can be the only beneficiaries. Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein have all avoided linking Bertie’s dealings with the wider issues of corruption. The latter have still not ruled out a post election coalition with Ahern or Fianna Fail and no one has thought to ask them why. Sinn Fein claim they will be the story of the election but if this proves to be true it will be a story that doesn’t include an alternative.

And it is the lack of an alternative that has been cruelly exposed in this election. After years of talk of left unity the left is as disunited as before and are standing against each other, with no one able to say why their particular programme is superior.

Two news stories this week show the crying need for an alternative.

The HSE have used the Sustaining Progress social partnership deal to threaten striking nurses with a pay cut. The deal, they say, promised union agreement for change in return for pay increases. The nurses got the increases and now management say it’s time for the change. The silence from the ICTU bureaucracy is deafening. That’s because the partners who agreed the deal which now threatens striking nurses with huge pay cuts includes them. In effect they have become accessories to open strike breaking. Once again the need to put opposition to social partnership to the front of an alternative is made abundantly clear.

This week it was also reported that only 7,352 days were ‘lost’ because of strikes in 2006, down on 26,670 in 2005, and the lowest since records began in 1923. This isn’t because workers are so content with their lot. On the same day the Labour Relations Commission also reported that the number of complaints they received over payment of wages, hours and conditions of work and unfair dismissal leaped by 28% on the 2005 figure. The unions and State through partnership have substituted these individual complaints for collective action. The increasing numbers show it hasn’t worked.

One is tempted to note that the left in this election presents a mirror image of this - localist ‘community’ or constituency activity taking the place of a political programme. It will also not work.


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