In May of this year the unemployment rate in the USA had its
highest monthly increase in 22 years. In the 26 counties (Irish
Republic) there was the largest rise in the unemployment figures for
15 years. In early June the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn
"We are passing through the most prolonged period of
financial turmoil that most of us can remember. Whether, as the IMF
has argued, it is the worst period of financial stress since the
1930s is too early to judge."
He also said that recent financial "party" of
cheap credit and excessive risk-taking has left a situation where,
"when the party ends, some innocent bystanders may lose
their homes altogether." (The Independent, 11th June 2008).
World oil prices jumped nearly $11 to a record $138 dollars a
barrel, "after a senior Israeli politician raised the
spectre of an attack on Iran and the dollar fell sharply against the
euro" (Jad Mouawad, "Oil Prices Skyrocket, Taking
Biggest Jump Ever," New York Times, 7 June 2008).
Oil prices have quadrupled since 2004.
All of these facts impact on Ireland both North and South. The
implications of these facts need to be taken on board by Republicans
in Ireland. To neglect the economic implications of these facts would
be politically disastrous for any republican organisation.
Historically Irish Republicanism has neglected the class struggle.
(See Communists and the Irish Civil War, published in The
Plough, Vol. 5, No 7).
During both the 1930sand the 1950s as the Irish emigrated in their
millions, driven out by unemployment and poverty, mainstream Irish
republicanism concentrated on military actions, almost totally
ignoring the social conditions around them. Unfortunately today there
are still some republicans who either deny the existence of class
struggle or say that the class struggle can wait until the national
struggle is solved. Such an approach will make republicanism
irrelevant to the mass of the Irish people.
The four main Parties governing the Northern Statelet argued
consistently in their campaigns to set up a Northern Administration
that political peace would have economic benefits. They did not of
course specify ho would receive those economic benefits. Now that
they have achieved their aim of a local administration they are
sending out messages that it may take decades to construct a vibrant
economy for the north. For example the Institute of Directors
calculates up to 140,000 new jobs will have to be created over the
next decade if the economy is to show overall growth. Most economists
suggest that inward investment particularly from the USA and a
massive investment in tourism facilities are the best means of
economic growth. Recently a lot of money was spenton a major
investment conference bringing CEO’s from major USA financial
investment institutions to the North to "sell" our
financial benefits to the USA investors. Years ago the then President
Clinton "hosted an investment conference in Washington, and
supported a similar one in Belfast, amid all the excitement after the
signing of the agreement." (Paradox of peace: private
wealth, a weak economy, Irish Independent, April 12 2008, By Brendan
Keenan and Yvonne Hogan).
Positive economic messages are being sent out to investors all
with a view for them to come and invest.
Should we all be equally optimistic and welcome the new riches we
will all soon receive? Well actually it is not so simple as that.
Yes, there have been economic benefits of the new dispensation.
Businesses in City centres have been transformed. There is a vibrancy
and excitement about some of these city centres. Many working class
districts have seen big increases in car ownership in the past ten
years. The centre of Belfast has been transformed with major new
buildings shopping centres and a vibrant café culture
established. There are huge changes taking place in the Titanic
Quarter with a new city village being established. The regeneration
of the riversides in both Belfast and Derry is modelled on
regeneration schemes in Britain The road networks are being upgraded
to permit a faster flow of traffic. For two to three years there was
a property boom as house prices increased by an incredible 36% in
Is this not all to the good? Well actually no. Take the Titanic
Quarter, which is being built with imported migrant workers and few
if any from East Belfast working class areas being offered work
there. The apartments are being built with an eye for investors or
aspiring white-collar city types.
The road-building programme is geared towards speeding up the
movement of private lorries (even as oil prices soar) to
facilitate big business and ignores almost completely public
transport systems. Little or no environmental considerations are
taken into account especially the effect on the health of working
class communities adjacent to the motorways. The farcical appointment
of S. Wilson as the new Minister for the Environment shows very
clearly the priority the administration takes on the protection of
the environment. Wilson is the least friendly member of the DUP
towards that environment. Few expect Wilson to challenge the planners
and business interests who have destroyed inner city working class
The so-called property boom has forced working class families out
of traditional working class areas in Belfast, such as the Lower
Ormeau Road, the Holylands, Stranmillis and the Village. These areas
are now blighted by hundreds of "to let" signs and
empty houses and apartments for much of the year while newly weds,
young couples and ordinary families wait on the housing list for
social and affordable housing that is not there.
The private investor is king. Many of these investors came from
the South of Ireland and bought up huge blocks of apartments with a
view to making quick financial gains. The result? There is now a
growing housing crisis. This is of course the inevitable consequence
of "Thatcherism". Huge swathes of public housing were sold
off to tenants who joined the property owning classes. The Housing
Executive, which once had total responsibility for public housing
became weakened as many of its functions passed over to housing
associations. Unfortunately the Housing Executive allowed itself to
accommodate to local sectarian tensions by having separate points
allocations for Catholic and Protestant families. That is why
hundreds of homes in North Belfast lie empty within so called
Protestant areas while hundreds of Catholics cannot get a house. If
houses were allocated on the basis of need only then would all those
empty homes be filled by families.
That of course would be the sensible attitude of any kind of
radical Administration. Sinn Fein (Provisional) once posed as
A radical response to the Housing crisis would be the
immediate introduction of a Home tax of a £1000 per month on
any apartment or house empty for six months or more and the seizure
for public housing of any similar building without compensation if
empty for two years or more.
Those two steps alone, would lower private sector rents
immediately, make thousands of homes available at affordable rents to
all and end the housing crisis within a short period of time.
Unfortunately it would also go against the pro-capitalist
tendencies of all the parties in the Assembly so it is unlikely to
see the light of day until genuine socialist voices make themselves
But it is not only families on the housing waiting lists who are
in distress. Recently the Northern Ireland Consumer Council revealed
that families are now paying out more than £40 a week more than
this time last year for the necessities. Price rises in food, fuel
and mortgage repayments, as people came off two-year low rate
mortgages, mean that most families are now paying at least £160
per month more. Food costs have risen by 7 per cent in the past year.
For example bread has risen in price by 12 per cent and butter by
more than 60 per cent in the last 12 months. (It’s an odd time
for assembly to hitch itself to US economy, By Patrick Murphy,
Irish News, 13.05.08).
With the slow rise in the cost of a barrel of oil up to $139
compared to $40 last year we can expect a steady rise in the cost of
living for most families in both parts of Ireland. Already
electricity prices have gone up by 14% and are due to rise again in
October. Some families who recently bought new homes are now in
negative equity and some particularly those in the building trade
where there has been a massive slowdown in economic activity, are
having difficulty making the mortgage repayments. The housing charity
Shelter estimates that there are likely to be about 53,000 home
repossessions in Britain and Northern Ireland this year.
Overall the northern economy is heavily dependent on high levels
of public spending. Public spending accounts for 60% of the economy
as against 40\50% in Western European Union states. (Paradox of
peace: private wealth, a weak economy, Irish Independent,
Saturday, April 12, 2008, by Brendan Keenan and Yvonne Hogan).
This public spending paradoxically has benefited to a greater
extent the professional middle classes. They have some of the highest
disposable incomes in the British Isles. With the continued existence
of elite Grammar schools these classes, don’t unlike their
counterparts in England and Wales have to spend a fortune on
sending their children to British public Schools.
The commitment of the Stormont Regime to the neo-liberal agenda
means that government public spending will gradually be reduced as
creeping privatisation speeds up. The professional middle classes in
the higher ranks of the public services can easily make the
transition to the private sector. Those most to lose from this
process will be those valiant civil servants at the sharp end of the
civil service in the so called lower ranks who will see their jobs
transformed and sold off to the private sector. That is why it is so
important to defend public sector workers.
Unfortunately it is the policy of the Stormont regime to carry on
the economic policies as dictated by the London Treasury. That same
Treasury has benefited by the reduction in security costs due to the
outbreak of peace. It is now pursuing a policy of making the Stormont
regime pay its own way. And sadly the new administration has actually
under-spent to the tune of £170million, money which reverts to
the Treasury. Local attempts to be allowed to reduce corporation tax
to 12.5% equivalent to that in the Irish Republic were quickly shot
down by Westminster.
Against this gloomy economic background it should be clear that
there will be increasing opportunities for those of us on the left to
make gains among working class people who find life increasingly
difficulty under capitalism.
After all "N. Ireland is the lowest region for
productivity, 80% of the UK average, public expenditure amounts to
62% of GDP, compared to 42% for the whole UK and 27% for the
Republic; 23% leave school with no qualifications and the
economically inactive are 27% of the workforce, compared to the 21%
UK average." (Good Fences don’t mean good neighbours, Barry
White, Belfast Telegraph, Tuesday, May 13, 2008).
Put simply there are now great opportunities for Left Republicans
and Socialists to make gains within the working class movement. Now
is clearly the time for an intensification of class work. Lest some
think such a call for class struggle is somehow a dilution of our
republicanism and/or a retreat into some form of "Trotskyist
economism" may I suggest that they go back to basics and read
again James Connolly:
"As we have again and again pointed out, the Irish
question is a social question, the whole age-long fight of the Irish
people against their oppressors resolves itself, in the last analysis
into a fight for the mastery of the means of life, the
sources of production, in Ireland. Who would own and control the
land? The people or the invaders; and if the invaders, which
set of them – the most recent swarm of land-thieves, or the sons of
the thieves of a former generation?
"The revolutionists of the past were wiser, the
Irish Socialists are wiser to-day. In their movement the North and
the South will again clasp hands, again will it be demonstrated, as
in ’98, that the pressure of a common exploitation
can make enthusiastic rebels out of a Protestant working class,
earnest champions of civil and religious liberty out of Catholics,
and out of both a united Social democracy."
(Labour In Irish History, James Connolly)
[Originally published in The Plough, Vol. 5, No 7, E-mail
newsletter of the Irish Republican Socialist Party, Thursday, 12th
June 2008, Web