VOTE NO TO THE RACIST REFERENDUM
20th May 2004
Notwithstanding any other provision of the Constitution, a person born in the island of Ireland which includes its islands and seas, and who does not have at the time of his or her birth, at least one parent who is an Irish citizen or entitled to be a Irish citizen is not entitled to Irish citizenship or nationality, unless otherwise provided for by law.
The amendment to article 9 of the constitution to be voted on by referendum on June 11th will allow the current government to legislate in the Dail a new Irish Nationality and Citizenship Act that will restrict citizenship to those who have one Irish or British parent or who have one parent who has been legally resident for three of the previous four years. The latter will not include those who have come to the Irish State to study, those applying for asylum or those who have contravened work permit regulations.
This proposed amendment has provoked widespread revulsion and opposition. In response, some of those opposed to the change set up a ‘Campaign against the Racist Referendum’, reflecting their view, and that of very many others, that the new constitutional change is racist and should be opposed as such.
How do we know it is racist? Well, one reason we know is that the arguments put up to justify the change are demonstratively fraudulent and dishonest. They could not possibly be the real reasons. We can also clearly see that these arguments are either a cover for the real reasons or are a none too subtle pointer in their direction. The only rationale that makes any sense at all is that the proposed change is an effort to enshrine racism into the constitution, the foundation of the state, subverting any claim for it to be based on equality.
Some opponents of the change didn’t want to use the word racism in the title and don’t want to describe those who might vote for the amendment as racist. But why would they oppose the referendum if it wasn’t racist? And if it is then why should anyone be afraid to declare it as such? What other coherent rationale is there for the change besides racism? And why should we be afraid to characterise those who agree or succumb to the arguments of the referendum’s supporters that they have accepted a racist position?
The anxiety about calling the amendment racist stems from a fear that the referendum will powerfully record the racist nature of Irish society, so let’s get the excuses for the big racist vote in early by not calling it racist in the first place.
Irish workers have endured years of racist propaganda and this has led to a pervasive racist sentiment. This sentiment is not very intense or deeply entrenched but it has the potential to grow. Socialist Democracy will not be surprised if large numbers of workers vote yes, and we will have no hesitation in saying that this is a vote for racism. The size of the vote and the nature of the debate (or lack of it) during the campaign will allow us to say more definitely how strong or systematic such racism is, but racism it will be.
The nature of the racist offensive and how to respond, particularly the role of the left in this referendum, is the subject of this statement. We can put it briefly in this way: we understand that racism is primarily directed against the working class. Only this class can be its consistent and irreconcilable opponent. It is not a question of rejecting the anti-racism of others, but just like socialism itself, it falls on the working class to represent the interests of all the exploited and oppressed by taking the lead and placing its demands to the fore.
How can we claim simultaneously that the working class are the irreconcilable opponents of racism and at the same time believe that there may well be a big working-class vote for the racist amendment? As Marxists we understand that this is an example of Marx’s dictum that the ruling ideas of society are the ideas of the ruling class, and the ruling class has long used racism as a means of dividing and weakening the working class and its organisations. We should not be surprised if racist ideas have grown since belief in equality is consistently held and fought for only by the working class movement which has been in retreat for many years.
All round the world it has been the working class that has most consistently fought for democratic rights, including the right to vote. It has engaged in many struggles against the abuses of power by governing elites and again and again instinctively rebelled against the gross inequality generated by capitalist system. It understands that such inequality is antithetical to its most basic interests and needs. The practice and ideology of racism cuts against this dynamic.
The role of racism
Many idealistic militants fervently opposed to racism make the mistake of not clearly understanding its nature. Very often the working class is seen as living in a state of virginal solidarity until race hate is imposed on them from outside. (An Irish nationalist version of this idealism dreams of a non-existent ‘Ireland of the welcomes’ where the democratic impulse automatically leads to tolerance of others. It imagines an almost genetically programmed solidarity with the oppressed of the ‘third world’ because of Ireland’s own history of imperialist domination). In fact the nature of the working class as an exploited class under capitalism means that impulses towards solidarity and collective action have to struggle against endless rivalries, divisions, quarrels about different group’s status within the hierarchy of capitalist exploitation.
In Marxist terminology the views expressing these divisions have been called alienation, where the true social interests of workers are misunderstood (sometimes to the extent that workers don’t even consider themselves working class!) and they adopt or accept ideas that further their oppression and exploitation. But just as Marx understood that alienation is not just the wrong ideas in people’s heads, but is the result of a disordered and alienating world, so racist ideas are the result not just of racist ideas but of real world processes. Racist ideas are the product of a racist world. The divisions of the working class are therefore real and significant. Otherwise the socialist movement would have united the working class under its banner a long time ago.
These rivalries by themselves do not spontaneously lead to race hate. The competition between workers – for jobs, houses, other social resources, higher wages and better conditions – does not have to be expressed through racism. Only a society that systematically oppresses people because of their race can successfully and systematically use racism as a tool of division. Modern capitalism is just such a society; built on the blood of millions of African slaves who provided much of the initial wealth on which capitalism was created. Today the most ruthless and intensive exploitation of workers is of those with a brown or black skin, and not just in the sweatshops of Asia etc. but here in Ireland. Just as unemployment is blamed on the unemployed and poverty on the poor so miserable wages and conditions are blamed on immigrants, because they ‘accept it.’
The Irish State is also proof that contemporary racism is not just the result of economic processes but of the racist practices of the State itself. Capitalism has an interest in maintaining racist divisions but also an interest in keeping them in check, to the extent that they do not begin to threaten the capitalist order that ensures more or less smooth exploitation of the labour force. However capitalism almost inevitably errs on the side of ensuring the division of the class. It does so especially when it has little or nothing positive to offer.
When racism is deployed its target is never simply the racial minority under attack who suffer its severest consequences. While racism argues that the enemy is the minority ethnic group, that society is divided up into races or ethnic groups and not into classes, it does so in order to argue that a significant section of the working class therefore owes its allegiance to ‘its’ ethnic or national group, led by the politicians of the capitalist class. Members of this select group can then be put under constant pressure to prove their loyalty and heavily policed to weed out dissidents. Failure to blame the minority for every ill becomes a sign of treachery, stupidity, or at the very least, inability to endorse common wisdom. Every new ill can be blamed on the minority. A most extreme example is not far away – we can see it in the sectarian divisions in the North. The most deeply hated are ‘Lundies’ – Protestant workers who reject the logic of sectarianism. While it must be said that the North is an extreme case, with the existence of the Statelet dependent on sectarianism for its very existence, the mechanism is similar.
Playing the race card
When Michael McDowell published the draft amendment on 8th April he, and the Government he was part of, were playing the race card, a card they had considered playing earlier in 2001. In doing so we can see enacted the role of racism we have just outlined. The support of Fine Gael and the meek opposition of the Labour Party, which seems more upset by the timing rather than the nature of the attack, all show that this is not some exceptional measure out of the blue which puts McDowell out on a limb. It is a significant escalation of an existing racist offensive that goes beyond any cynical opportunist calculations that the governing coalition may have.
Of course we should not underestimate the malevolent, short term motivations of the government. But if it did not suit their purposes it would not be attempted and if it did not already fit into a rising racist offensive then we might have been entitled to see it as nothing other than another example of gombeen stroke politics.
The referendum follows increasing restrictions on the right of asylum seekers to enter the country and to avail of any rights when they get here. They have been removed from the normal social welfare system since November 1999 and put under a policy of ‘dispersal and direct provision.’ Under this they receive only €19.10 per week for an adult and €8.55 for a child, housed in centres which are often overcrowded and would, quite legitimately, be unacceptable to any welfare recipient. From 10 April 2000 they have lost the entitlement to work or avail of a FAS course. The policy is deliberately designed to be as punitive as necessary to discourage others from seeking asylum in the country. It has long faded from public discourse and memory that asylum is a policy of compassion for those around the world fleeing deprivation and repression. A compassionate policy of asylum has become one of deliberate inhumanity. The eight Turkish asylum seekers found dead in a freight container in Wexford in December 2001 are vivid testimony to its fatal consequences.
The first step in this policy is to stop those seeking asylum from entering the country in the first place. In this the Irish State proves itself to be extremely efficient. A mere 2 per cent of applicants get full refugee status in the first instance and overall the recognition rate is only 5 per cent, less than half the EU average. Sometimes when the normal procedures refuse access refugees can remain in the destination country on humanitarian grounds, but in the year 2000 only 18 people in the Irish State were able to do so. In general asylum seekers have been vilified and disparaged as calculating and cunning foreigners who have come to Ireland to abuse its warm and generous hospitality. Many are familiar with the technique of the big lie where it is impossible to easily respond because the whole argument is based on the most outstanding falsehood. In Ireland we now have the technique of the big hypocrisy – a country famed for exporting so many millions that it was described as in danger of disappearing now fulminates against those in a similar situation who seek a better life. Such egregious hypocrisy truly is breathtaking.
The number seeking asylum is small; it has risen from just over 1,000 in the mid-nineties to a high point of 11,634 in 2002. But this is not the point. Arguments showing the numbers of asylum seekers or immigrants to be small are useful only to expose the claims of racists to be false; they are not a refutation of their arguments and indeed can be perfectly consistent with them.
The general shift by the government to mobilising racism can be further seen in its Immigration Act of 2004 which has been condemned by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties as a ‘draconian piece of legislation.’ The recent Supreme Court judgement that effectively removed the right of the parents of Irish children to residence in the country showed that the whole machinery of the State was mobilising in the racist offensive. In a detailed analysis Ivana Bacik pointed out that the majority verdict at no point referred to the constitution itself and was based entirely on the administrative difficulty that a decision to maintain the existing constitutional position would cause the government. The argument of McDowell that the referendum is only to close a loophole in the legislation resulting from unintended consequences of the constitutional change brought through the Good Friday Agreement is true in only one respect. There is a loophole, but the loophole is that the court judgement flies in the face of the constitution and McDowell may worry that a future open conflict may see the latter, as it currently stands, prevail.
The ‘loophole’ argument is a cover for the real reasons for the referendum. Another is that it is necessary to maintain ‘the integrity of the Irish citizenship law’ although only the most extreme bigots found cause for complaint up to McDowell’s initiative. The idea that the integrity of Irish citizenship is to be defended by a government that includes parties which sold Irish passports on the promise of investment just adds a risible aspect to the argument. The integrity of the new arrangement s will endow Irish citizenship on British nationals but refuse it to French, German or other EU nationalities. How ironic, centuries of struggle against cruel Britannia for an independent Irish citizenship only for it to be automatically conferred on them!
People who have never and never will see Ireland will be able to claim citizenship because of an Irish grandparent while those born and seeking to make a living in the State will be treated as aliens. The integrity of Irish citizenship will also entail continuing recognition of those multimillionaires who aren’t so keen on the integrity of the tax laws. People like Dermot Desmond, Denis O’Brien and Tony O’Reilly will still be Irish citizens despite being (or rather supposed to being) resident in the State for no more than 183 days a year or 280 over two years, just to ensure they don’t incur Irish taxes.
The original case for the referendum is a none too subtle pointer to the real reason for the referendum. It is the fraudulent claim that black, and McDowell does mean black, women are coming to Ireland late in pregnancy in order to give birth in the Irish State and so claim Irish citizenship for their children and, until the Supreme Court judgement, residency rights for the parents. McDowell has claimed that the masters of Dublin’s’ maternity hospitals pleaded with him to halt it by referendum: ‘They pleaded with me to do something to change the law in relation to this. They didn’t ask for additional resources, they were asking me to change the law.’
Two masters of the hospitals have flatly rejected his claim; ‘at no time had they pleaded for a referendum.’ Dr Sean Daly said they were being used as ‘scapegoats.’ The claims of McDowell have been further brought into disrepute by his inability to put a number on the problem although he has been keen to throw numbers about. His department has accused immigrants of being ‘citizenship tourists’ and of the masters of the hospitals warning of ‘possible medical catastrophes.’ McDowell has claimed that 25 per cent of births in Dublin’s maternity hospitals were to non-national mothers and his document reported that 60 per cent of female asylum seekers over 16 are pregnant at time of application.
McDowell however has had a hard job converting such numbers into any sort of empirically grounded argument. ‘..I’m not pinning my hat on the issue of statistics from maternity hospitals,’ he said disingenuously. He had to accept that the 25 per cent of births to non-nationals included those to other EU nationals and people on work permits with maybe one-third of the number to asylum seekers. However of this one third many births will have been to refugees who have been in the State some time.
In announcing the wording of the referendum McDowell made an admission that betrays from the horse’s mouth the racist nature of the referendum. Rejecting charges that the timing of the referendum was politically motivated he said that holding it on its own could also inflame racist views. But as Bertie Ahern also stated, the day the vote is taken does not change the nature of the proposal.
Its racist character can be seen in McDowell’s offensive remark that he knew of ‘women from Eastern Europe and elsewhere in the world who have come here on holiday visas, given birth, collected the passport for the child and returned home.’
The proposition that immigrant women are putting pressure on the State’s maternity hospitals does not withstand even the most cursory examination. The number of births has fallen from 72,158 in 1981 to 54,239 in 2000. Most immigrants are from within the EU or from the United States and McDowell certainly isn’t targeting the latter. In fact up until 1999 over half of immigrants were returning Irish.
The numbers availing of McDowell’s purported loophole that has caused such a crisis is tiny – a mere 2,585 asylum seekers (including both parents) were given leave to remain in Ireland between 1996 and 2001 because they were the parents of Irish children. In 2001, 3,153 people were granted residency on this basis and in 2002 4,027. In 2003 just 442 births in the two largest Dublin maternity hospitals were to non-EU nationals who either booked into hospital late or arrived without booking at all, and some of these were to asylum seekers already in the State but outside Dublin – a maximum of one a day so-called ‘citizen tourists.’
Again these facts are only of use to refute the lies of McDowell. They are not the working class case against this referendum and the prominence given to them must reflect their subordinate place in our argument. This argument, as we have said, is that racism, and this racist referendum, must be rejected because it seeks to divide workers and put the blame for the ills of existing society on its most vulnerable members. In fact, as most people will readily recognise when pointed out to them, health services in Ireland – both North and South - could not work without Filipino or Indian nurses or the approximately 1,600 non-consultant doctors in the South who come from outside the EU.
Strains on maternity hospitals are due entirely to closure of hospitals such as St James and Loughlinstown and proposed closure of services such as in Ennis. It is due to underfunding of existing hospitals and a health policy that has failed to provide the sort of services that a supposedly rich society such as the Celtic Tiger should be able to afford easily. To scapegoat immigrants is to let the real culprits off the hook.
What sort of Arguments?
The claim about maternity services is a blatant assertion that black immigrants are stealing resources from the natives. It could hardly be more racist. It chimes with all the other racist claims that immigrants steal jobs, steal houses and welfare, and lower wages.
In answering these charges the left has recourse to many arguments. The notion that the Irish State is crowded by immigrants is laughable as we have seen in the case of the number of asylum seekers. We have also seen that they are far from receiving preferential treatment in terms of social welfare. Nor are they allowed to go on the housing list. The shortage of social housing is entirely the result of the policies of successive governments and their failure to build such housing, constructing only half of the already inadequate target set in the National Development Plan. As we have also noted they cannot be held responsible for any shortcomings in the health service, indeed it could not work without them.
But there is a problem with part of such arguments – they can only be made because the State has already succeeded in scapegoating and discriminating against immigrants. These facts cannot therefore be used to reject racist arguments. The racists can turn round and say that we can only make these points because of the success of their policies. The low numbers of immigrants, their lack of welfare and inability to join the housing list – its all due to the policies of the racists. How can the left endorse these consequences as arguments against racism?
The argument sometimes used on the left is that immigrants do not threaten native workers conditions because they provide skills that lead to stronger economic growth. This is at least partially correct, but what does this mean? It is likewise claimed that immigrants do not lower wages because they take jobs native workers would not take at prevailing wages. Again partially correct, but again what does this mean? Likewise it is claimed that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they receive and generally this is true, but is this the criteria we use to defend immigration?
In fact there is no little lack of consistency in some arguments that are used on the left. Let’s take some of the arguments above. It is true that immigration can lead to economic growth but since when have socialists uncritically endorsed capitalist economic growth? We have just witnessed a decade of economic growth, due in part to immigration, in a phenomenon called the Celtic Tiger, but the left remains resolutely opposed to its legacy. The argument that immigration promotes growth uncritically repeats the line that if capital and commodities can move ‘freely’ then so can people. A useful propaganda point but no more than that.
The whole point about socialism is that the movement of money and goods should be consciously planned and managed. Our argument is that people are different from these human creations and require and deserve infinitely more freedom. The case for free movement of capital, commodities and labour is one endorsed by the neo-liberal right such as ‘The Economist’ magazine because they are supreme believers in the power of the ‘free’ market. We are not.
When it is claimed that immigrants do not lower wages of native workers because they take jobs Irish workers wouldn’t take, these workers can turn round and say we would take them if wages were higher and they would be higher if immigrants weren’t here. The left is quick to point out, correctly, that immigrants are being used as a super-flexible workforce subject to harsh and extreme exploitation but they then turn round and say that this has little or no effect on native workers. This is not convincing to many of these workers.
This is what we mean when we say that some want to oppose the division of the working class without accepting that that division has a real material basis. This is what we mean when we say that racist ideas gain their power not from the ideas themselves but from the real world. It is what we mean when we say that there is a material basis for the call for workers to unite. Weak groups of workers will always be used to undermine the wages, conditions and rights of the stronger. The answer to racists is not to deny validity to the attempts of the government to undermine Irish workers position but to explain that it is precisely the government and bosses that are doing this and that the answer is not racist division but workers unity.
This is why we say it is absolutely necessary for a working class campaign to take up the issues. To deal directly with the wrong ideas and fears that will lead many workers to vote for the racist referendum. In the last analysis liberal arguments will not convince because liberalism is not and never will be the ideology for or of the working class. Sometimes workers’ attitudes to liberalism are expressed in reactionary terms but its real opposite is socialism.
It is not a question of looking on immigrants as victims. They must become actors in resistance against their own exploitation and this can only be successful if they unite to organise with native workers. In turn native workers are given no real reason to do this except compassion (or pity) if it is not explained that the attacks on terms and conditions suffered by immigrant workers is an attack on them. Why is it an attack on them? Because the State and capitalist class would love to spread and generalise their conditions. The left will be useless if it simply parrots the arguments of the ‘Economist’ that there is no such competition.
The left has to accept that when they say that racism derives from competition for resources that in any competition there will be losers. Again and again this is immigrant workers, but the whole point of the game is to lower the living standard of all workers. Irish workers must be won to the slogan that immigrant rights are workers rights.
This can be seen most clearly in the case of immigrant ‘guest’ workers who form the largest proportion of immigrants in the State. In the year to April 2002 while asylum seekers numbered around 10,000 a total of almost 44,000 non-Irish nationals entered the country, two-thirds of whom were from Europe, North America or Australasia. Today there are about a quarter of a million non-Irish nationals living in the Irish State. From the mid-eighties when emigration was rampant to the Celtic Tiger boom when around 47,000 people immigrated every year there has been a sudden and dramatic change to migration patterns. The economic boom has seen the workforce increase by around 50 per cent in a very short space of time. Immigrant workers have been central to it. An Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and FAS report estimated that 110,000 of the 305,000 people with higher education who entered the labour force in the 1990s were immigrant with about two-thirds being non-returning Irish. In the rest of this decade they estimate that another 300,000 will have to enter the labour force and much of this will also have to come from immigration.
While significant numbers of immigrant workers here today are either highly skilled or have a high level of education many will not be in an employment commensurate with their education. Many have been encouraged and bodily delivered here in order to create a super-exploited section of the workforce. This is primarily done through denial of basic democratic rights, now to receive the sanction of the constitution. The precise mechanism is the work permit system in which the right to employment, and thus to legally be here, is held by the employer. It is not a US type ‘green card’ system in which an individual worker has the right to work and can seek out the best opportunities he or she can get. In the Irish system the permit for a year belongs to the employer leaving the worker totally dependent on the employer and vulnerable to the most intense and degrading form of exploitation. In effect they become indentured labour, often having to pay recruitment agencies €1,000 to €2,000 for the privilege.
This system has increased dramatically over the last number of years, rising by 600 per cent between 1999 and 2002. When these workers are of no further use they can be shipped back home no matter what roots they have put down in Irish society, whether their children go to school here or, since the latest assault, their children were actually born here. In some cases, such as in the construction industry, it is explicitly clear that the purpose of these workers for the employer is to undermine the conditions of native workers. In such cases the answer might seem to be to unionise these workers in order to maintain terms and conditions and solidarity between immigrant and native worker. But sometimes this is not enough.
It used to be taken for granted that to be unionised was to be organised and to call for organisation was to call for unionisation. Since at least the era of social partnership this is no longer so. It comes as no surprise that Brazilian butchers are unionised but still work longer hours for less pay than Irish butchers, are housed ten to a room by the companies they work for and are threatened with the sack and deportation when they complain. All of this happens in unionised meat plants, but the unions just look on and do little to help them, willing to collect their union dues but providing no protection. Why should this surprise? After all have the unions not said that they are in partnership with the bosses?
Partnership is therefore a real problem for immigrant workers. The unions have already agreed that multinational companies will be non-union so why should anyone expect them to put effort into organising foreign workers? But partnership is also a problem for Irish workers and many of them also suffer severe conditions of exploitation while remaining union members, and with their union similarly doing little or nothing about it. The call for organisation of immigrant workers is not therefore simply a call for some union to start deducting dues from their wages but a call for real organisation and real unity between foreign and native worker to defend terms and conditions.
One final argument against the referendum must be decisively rejected. Much has been made of the significance of the Good Friday Agreement as an issue, especially by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, echoed by the unionists from a different perspective. The argument here is that the Good Friday Agreement is set in stone and if it is amended it fatally weakens the foundations of the Agreement as a whole. The unionists welcome this prospect as forcing a new deal; the nationalists express fear that this will be the outcome.
An alternate, southern perspective is advanced by Sinn Fein, and also by liberal critics of the government. From this perspective the Good Friday Agreement is a model of inclusivity and tolerance. By advancing the racist referendum, the critics argue, the government is failing the high ideals of the new constitution arising from the Agreement
This is all the purest nonsense, based upon the mythic status of an agreement that few bothered to read. It was necessary to amend the constitution at the time because the existing articles implied an aspiration to an Irish democracy that was to be cast away. In its place came the acceptance of a British and Unionist veto on democracy which would in practice make such a democracy unachievable. It was appropriate to cast the replacement definitions of nation and citizenship in an idealistic form because in reality these definitions were not meant to mean anything, simply providing cover for a profound betrayal. This is the reason for the oversight McDowell and the coalition government now claims.
In a similar way what was portrayed as inclusivity and cultural diversity in the North was simply a way of endorsing a Statelet based on sectarian rivalry and sectarian privilege. The growth of sectarianism since the Agreement confirms its sectarian character. Racism in the South cannot be opposed by defending sectarianism in the North. In any case, fears that the amendment might lead to the renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement are simply laughable. None of its structures and institutions, except for those where London tells Dublin what to do next, are still in place
The deeper reasons motivating this assault can therefore be seen. Sheer political opportunism may be the immediate motive but if this conflicted with longer term interests it would not be embarked on. The Irish State is the fourth richest country in the world if measured by Gross Domestic Product per capita but the lack of confidence in this position by establishment politicians is remarkable. This is what lies behind the repeated warnings about competitiveness and the need to sustain it. It reflects not only greed but a real awareness of how precarious this undreamed of position is.
So far the Irish State has benefited from the process of globalisation that has led to economic growth but there can be no guarantee that this will continue. The growth in extreme inequality evident in the falling share of wages in the economy and corresponding rise in profits, the former declining from 41 per cent in 1987 to 31 per cent in 1997and the latter rising by the same amount, has only driven the capitalist system in a pathological search for more. Maintaining the attractiveness of the Irish State for multinational companies and ensuring profitable conditions for native capitalists are the two mechanisms achieving this.
To do both means intensifying the unequal distribution of wealth. It means continuing to keep taxation on profits low or non-existent, and this can only be done if expectations of adequate public and welfare service provision are destroyed. Refusing benefits to immigrants while exploiting their low wage, flexible labour can do this while also providing a scapegoat for failure to provide these services. Pressure on wages will intensify as multinationals question what they view as high social insurance costs in Ireland. This labour force can therefore also be used to put pressure on native wages and conditions as a means of resisting wage demands by workers. Outsourcing which is increasing rapidly across the US and Europe will see multinationals seek high skilled workers for minimum wages. For the Irish State to compete wages will have to be kept under pressure; social insurance costs and therefore public services also kept to the minimum; and a pool of super-exploited labour created to provide low cost work that native workers will not under any foreseeable future be willing to undertake.
The growth rates of the Celtic Tiger will not be repeated and if, despite this unprecedented growth, public services are still in crisis we can appreciate what little promise future growth holds. The use of immigrant workers to create super exploited labour is only one means by which exploitation and greater profits for local and foreign capital can be increased. Other methods such as privatisation – of Aer Lingus, ESB, An Post etc – is already a long way down the road to implementation. The propaganda war has now also begun on public sector wages which are seen as providing some sort of floor on the level of wages and conditions in the wider economy. This is the meaning of the recent report by a bunch of economists claiming to demonstrate that after excluding other relevant factors public sector wages are over 10 per cent higher than those of the private sector. Already we can see one process by which the average private sector wage, reduced by areas of extreme exploitation, can be used to attack the whole Irish working class.
Not that immigrant workers will always be shown in a negative light. The odd one will also be trumpeted as an example to the locals: of hard work in return for next to nothing but still making a success of themselves. If they can do it why can’t the pampered natives?
The overall message however will be that high skilled workers in Eastern Europe and India will work for a fraction of Irish wages and Irish workers should take note. In order to compete ‘unrealistic expectations’ will have to be abandoned. This anti-foreigner message will see its most visible target in the position of foreign workers actually working in Ireland. On this a whole racist and reactionary nationalist world view can be presented to the Irish working class. In this they will join those workers in Britain prey to the blandishments of the fascist BNP, or Dutch workers to the List Pim Fortuyn, or French workers to Le Pen’s National Front. The process is just the same - just as the referendum will signal the Irish State’s adoption in all but name of the reactionary ‘Fortress Europe’ policy of the EU, enshrined in its Shengen Accord. A policy that has so powerfully encouraged racist, xenophobic and fascist movements across Europe. No accident also therefore that McDowell has used conformity with other EU state’s citizenship and immigration polices as justification for the referendum proposal.
The workers, its labour movement and the left must have an alternative, the first part of which is to explain what is going on and to unite to oppose this referendum. The socialist alternative means fighting for the organisation of immigrant workers and their unity with their Irish comrades. To do this means breaking the existing organisations from partnership with the racist government and the immigrant-exploiting bosses.
It means rejecting that foreign workers have second class citizenship – or no citizenship – or that they have any less rights than Irish workers. Once this is our policy there is no obstacle to opposing all immigration controls which are everywhere and always racist. Our demands are for open borders – just what Irish workers have effectively had for many years with Britain. We demand citizenship for anyone who applies for it and automatically for anyone born here. We demand a real right to asylum and view the number of asylum seekers not as a threat but as a measure of success in providing protection to those threatened and persecuted. All asylum seekers must have the right to work and to receipt of decent social welfare benefits, available to everyone without discrimination.
The closure of hospitals and the provision of inadequate health services; the dilapidation of schools and the inequality of educational provision; the lack of affordable housing; these and other failings of our society can easily be addressed through the wealth currently produced in the Irish State. It requires shifting taxation to the rich and the corporate boardrooms.
In other words the concerns being exploited by this racist referendum can only be adequately addressed through a thoroughly socialist response, and this brings us to how we should campaign against this referendum.
The left has responded to it as it has done every other major issue that has faced Irish workers over the last few decades. It is treated as a ‘single issue campaign’ with consequences that follow. Before we look at those consequences let us just look at the idea that what we have faced are a series of single issues. Working backwards we have had the war in Iraq, Bin Charges, the Nice Treaty and other EU treaties, attacks on abortion rights, the Good Friday Agreement and articles two and three, the various social partnership deals; and of course others. All these have in one way or another, related more or less closely, represented assaults primarily on the working class (even if they have affected other classes, as does the racist referendum) by politicians representing the same class – the capitalist class. It is hard to see any socialist disagreeing with this picture. All part of an assault on the position, rights or conditions of the working class by the same enemy which has essentially one neo-liberal agenda, whatever minor differences there might be. Yet the left takes up each issue as if it was totally separate from the last and calls it a single issue. Doesn’t make much sense does it?
So what are the consequences of this? Firstly the single issue approach (called by its supposedly more sophisticated supporters a united front approach of a special kind – never the original kind) means seeking the widest unity on the lowest common denominator which excludes presentation of a specifically working class and socialist answer to the issues. The latter is left to the individual propaganda of the left groups. Apparently maximum unity with non-working class or non-socialist forces is achieved while the working class message is also put forward by individual left wing groups. So what’s wrong with this approach?
Well, first let us state why this suits the existing left organisations and why, far from showing how non-sectarian they are, it shows just how sectarian they are. Essentially the wider lowest common denominator campaign becomes a fish net for drawing in radical youth or others who are then available for the propaganda of the left who say hypocritically that socialism is the only answer. Hypocritically, because they are usually the ones to stop anything socialist from being the platform of the campaign in the fist place. The purpose of the campaign is not to win or advance a working class argument, which the left says is the only answer, but to create a vehicle for recruitment. Some activists can see the sectarianism and manipulation of these organisations, but only in purely organisational terms and fail to see it as a reflection of their politics. Such campaigns cannot therefore be democratic if this is their purpose and cannot therefore become a real alternative to the campaigns of the capitalist class.
They cannot become a real alternative of course because they necessarily, as a single issue campaign, disappear after the vote while the opposition of course does not, but plans the next assault instead. On one issue after another the series of campaigns are incapable of explaining to the working class that the real nature of what is at stake is one of a series of policies of a capitalist system with a common agenda. They are incapable of giving sense to left answers because while the left cannot explain the full context, meaning and significance of each issue being raised, the capitalist class can explain what they are doing as part of a coherent policy. Any workers paying attention are confused as an organisation portrayed as wrong on one issue and part of the enemy e.g. ICTU on the Nice Treaty, are in the opposition on the next e.g. the war on Iraq (what a laugh).
The total confusion and lack of seriousness of these campaigns becomes evident when a party which is actually supporting the other side claim to be part of the opposition – Sinn Fein on the war for example. In reality these organisations never mobilise their membership for the campaign and the left often simply provides a smokescreen for them – SF on the war or ICTU on the war or the bins. All sorts of nonsense and charlatanry is talked on platforms and in all this only the left is usually censored, or rather censors itself. The working class can only be led to believe that these cannot be related issues because the same organisations take different positions. They must also not be linked since campaigns talk as if they have nothing to do with each other.
So what is the alternative? The alternative would be a real united front approach, i.e. a united front of working class organisations that was able to explain the nature of each assault, how it fits into the concerns workers have, and how the particular answer to any issue is part of a global alternative, a coherent one opposed to that of the capitalist parties. Such an approach would unite the left and by doing so maximise the working class answer beyond that of their disparate voices which are at present raised only in order to recruit. Campaigns would then no longer be dependent on manipulation but on the force of argument in democratic debate.
Campaigns would no longer arise and disappear with nothing left as a legacy. Increasingly non-working class forces would look to working class organisations as the leader in any new struggle as the latter repeatedly promoted examples of militant opposition. Far from this approach precluding united activity with non-working class forces such as SF or the Greens, it would put them to the test on whether their position was genuine or bogus and present a clearer picture to their supporters of where the leaders of their organisation really stood. There would be nothing to prevent joint initiatives but the basis of these could then be properly and politically made clear. At present every campaign starts by ditching political discussion at the start as if we all agree on what has to be said – because everyone knows that as a single issue the very minimum has to be said.
The greatest merit of this approach is that the working class could begin to see emerge a coherent alternative to the policies of the capitalist parties. They could begin to see that there is a distinct working class position on every issue facing them. Through these issues they can come to a socialist understanding of society. The role of socialists to advance the consciousness of the working class can start to be addressed. The differences between socialist groups can be ones over strategy instead of organisational one-upmanship.
In this statement we have explained why
this referendum is racist and why it especially affects the working class.
We have explained why the working class must fight it and why it needs
a working class programme as an alternative and its own campaign to lead
such a struggle. Such an approach does not exist today. The
radicalisation of the working class is therefore left more and more to
the class itself without the aid of its most conscious members. The
task of socialist militants is to unite around a coherent working class
programme to advance this radicalisation.