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You couldn’t make it up – workers’ and human rights in Ireland

Kevin Keating

26th March 2002

The accelerating privatisation drive against publicly owned utilities and public services under social partnership has produced all sorts of lies and evasions from trade union leaders charged with defending workers interests. But one senior trade union official, the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union Con Scanlon, responded to a management memo issued to all workers in An Post in a surprisingly honest and bizarre manner.(Irish Times Feb.8)

The memo, issued by Chief executive John Hynes, outlined a program of cuts and redundancies planned for the immediate future which included the loss of 1,140 jobs and ‘major changes’ in the delivery and collection of mail. On the post office network “we will proceed to reduce staffing and associated costs by 10 per cent.” Mr. Scanlon welcomed the initiative ‘We’re more than happy to engage and always have been. The fact that the company has decided to intensify its efforts is probably proof that their efforts up to now were insufficient.’

In the 2002 awards for craven leadership this must be up with the leaders of IMPACT in their response to the recent teacher’s dispute when the employers reacted to the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland boycott of voluntary supervision by bring in scabs.  The leaders of IMPACT protested vigorously at the additional work this involved for their secretarial members and demanded increased money for them so that they could facilitate the scabs.

What happens when the workers movement, under its existing leadership, abandons all semblance of progressive leadership can be found in another setting.

Human Rights Privatised

A strangely surreal conference took place in Dublin Castle this January - Front Line, a new Irish based international organisation dedicated to protecting human rights ‘defenders,’ was launched. Mary Robinson and Bertie Ahern were the main speakers along with a host of genuine human rights defenders flown in from all over the world’s trouble spots

This was a human rights organisation with a difference.  Firstly it wasn’t broke, its chairman and benefactor was none other than that well known champion of workers rights Denis O’ Brien, who donated $3 million to help set up Front Line. Mr. O’ Brien who profited enormously from the deregulation and asset stripping of the Irish Telecom industry perhaps cannot make the connection that the violence and oppression against working people and the poor around the world is directly related to resistance to the global neo-liberal offensive, the source of his wealth.   But no such conflict of interest can be offered as an excuse either for the blindness of other participants nor for the uncritical coverage in the media.

The director of Front Line is Mary Lawlor who was formerly director of Amnesty  International Ireland and was headhunted by O’ Brien. This extends to Ireland a trend in Britain where PR firms working for companies with notorious records on workers rights and environmental destruction have taking to hiring prominent ecological figures such as the former director of Greenpeace to front their firms. Perhaps, being the egotistical businessman that he is, O’Brien decided to go one better and buy out the whole human rights franchise in Ireland. The lack of response then and since the conference from genuine human rights and solidarity groups gives rise to concern he might be succeeding.

In her address to the conference Mary Lawlor is reported to have said, apparently without irony, that governments are highjacking the language of human rights. “They say the right words but are always driven by their own strategic or political interests.” (Irish Times Jan.18)  Precisely; or as any sensible 12 year old might remark--duhhhh!

It seems that irony has become one more victim to the post Sept. 11 climate. Further evidence of its demise provided by the fact that the widely distributed picture of millionaire rockstar and human rights campaigner Bono with one arm around Bush and the other making a peace sign has not provoked fits of laughter.



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