John O’Neill is a member of the Irish Socialist Network and active in the 1% Network.
Ireland is undergoing neo-liberal shock therapy as a result of the Government decision to guarantee the debts run up by speculators in our hyper-inflated housing market that went down the proverbial tubes. The Fianna Fail government, now in its death throes, embarked on pay cuts and reductions in the public sector as its principal strategy for getting out of the mess. It has cut the pay of the 300,000-strong public sector workforce, reduced the minimum wage by €1 per hour and reduced all social welfare payments, pandering to their pals from the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) who demand a 10 percent reduction in pay for all workers (except themselves!), and the retention of our low corporation tax rate, their ‘holy grail’ of economic recovery.
The game plan is clear to all on the left: by inflicting a major defeat on the public sector, where the vast bulk of unionised workers are concentrated, the state and employers hope to launch a new and devastating series of severe wage cuts which it is claimed will increase Ireland’s competitiveness. Translated for workers this means working for less pay, paying more tax, with the introduction of a plethora ‘non income’ taxes like water charges, tolled roads, etc. They display not the slightest shame when a comparison is made between these cuts and their bailout of the banks. In 2009 about €13 billion of public (workers’) money was spent propping up Ireland’s banking system. This is equivalent to the total amount spent on the Irish health service for a whole year.
Back in 2007, the Bank of Ireland’s ‘Wealth of the Nation’ report revealed that 1% of the population owned 34% of the wealth. In October of 2010, Cork Institute of Technology lecturer Tom O’Connor analysed what has happened to this wealth. His figures showed that the total ‘net worth’ (excluding the value of their principal residences and allowing for any borrowings) of the 33,000 Irish millionaires is still a massive €121billion. This fact has largely been ignored by our media who have decided almost unanimously to advance the Fianna Fail/Green Party mantra that we are all collectively responsible for the ‘economic crisis’; therefore all will have to pay for our supposed over-indulgence and that a wealth tax would be counter-productive as ‘high earners’ are already paying proportionally more than everyone else.
The 1% network is a coalition of socialist groups which came together to oppose the cut-back agenda of the government and to promote a socialist alternative to the current socio-economic system. The name of the coalition was chosen to highlight the fact that just 1% of the population control in excess of 34% of the wealth of the nation. Organisations within the coalition include éirígí, Workers Solidarity Movement, Revolutionary Anarcha-Feminist Group, Seomra Spraoi collective and the Irish Socialist Network along with individual activists. The 1% Network is mindful that the immediate beneficiary of Fianna Fáil’s decline is an even more right-wing rival Fine Gael, who will implement a vicious neo-liberal agenda destroying any remnants of the public sector and the trade union movement – with the support of the Irish Labour Party who will probably be the junior partner in the next administration.
The 1% Network is a democratic forum. Organising and planning activities, press statements, all decision making is made at meetings open to all. Although some organisations have activists at meetings they don’t attempt to dominate them, preferring to have collective agreement from all. This is an important aspect of the Network which encourages greater involvement of progressive individuals who are not aligned to any particular organisation.
The 1% network is driven by the belief that it is clearly both wrong and corrupt that a small number of people should hold onto such vast wealth while the majority of people face savage attacks on our living standards and on our public services. More importantly, this concentration of wealth in a tiny number of hands means that political power is also concentrated in the hands of this elite. The Network exists to highlight the fact that Government and opposition solutions to the capitalist economic crisis are deeply unequal – for instance a 5% cut to social welfare payments isn’t the same as a 5% cut in pay for someone earning €150,000 per annum no matter how much media spin is put on it. The Network wants to promote the fact that capitalism is the cause of our economic woes and capitalists should be both held accountable and made to pay for their crisis. It also wants to instigate a discussion on how to re-shape and build a new society based on equality and real democracy, to find a way to take political power away from the wealthy elite.
Since its inception the 1% network has carried out a number of activities including a educational walking tour of the private mansions, corporate headquarters, secret meeting spots and private banks of the business elite. The trip through Dublin’s Georgian and business districts included stops outside the townhouses of Dermot Desmond, Johnny Ronan and Sir Tony O’Reilly, as well as sites linked with gross inequality or the state’s economic collapse. They also organised a well-attended protest focusing on zombie banks at Hallowe’en.
Gregor Kerr, one of the founding members of the 1% Network said on the walking tour that there was a concerted attempt to pretend that wealth didn’t exist anymore, but the tour was designed to disprove this. “The reality is that not everyone is sharing the pain. Those most responsible for this crisis are escaping relatively unscathed,” he said. The network wants to make the 1% of the rich pay for the crisis: we are not content to demand ‘fairer’ cuts for the working-class majority. When the Irish Congress of Trade Unions called a national demonstration on 27th November 2010 in Dublin, the 1% Network decided to become active in promoting and participating in it despite the fact that the ICTU leadership called the march on the basis of ‘fairer’ cuts and a return to the disastrous policy of ‘Social Partnership’. Unfortunately the current Trade Union leadership, with some notable exceptions, have accepted the government’s cuts agenda and are limiting their activities to campaigning for the cuts to be implemented over a longer period of time.
The 1% network took part in the demonstration – not to support the demands of the ICTU leadership, but to outline an alternative, not in the expectation that the ICTU leadership would be convinced but because we want to make the argument to the thousands of workers who took part that it is up to all of us to organise what is needed, a general strike against Government austerity measures that are being imposed without any mandate from the Irish people. The 1% network had the slogan ‘The 1% have the Wealth – We have to take the Power’. The Network argued for the Trade Union movement to instigate a grassroots resistance to the cuts in workplaces and community associations, to begin to build a strong, united campaign and to begin the process of working towards that general strike.
The union bureaucracy, which is joined at the hip to the Labour Party, is scared stiff of the movement that is welling up beneath it. During their ongoing negotiations with the Government on alternative ways of cutting the public sector budget, they suggested they could offer “more for less”, and were willing to trade up to 15,000 public sector redundancies and ‘worker flexibility’ if pay cuts were withdrawn. The union bureaucracy even offered to give up over-time rates in hospitals by allowing its members to be rostered to work anytime from 8am to 8pm. But even after they had got on their knees, the Fianna Fáil-Green government arrogantly replied “Not nearly enough”.
This rebuff has signalled the death of social partnership and means that the union leaders are now under the spotlight as many ask: will they lead a fight? Up to now they are showing extreme reluctance to do so. They are reeling from the collapse of a cosy 22-year relationship with the State and are desperate to avoid a strategy of national stoppages to drive a deeply unpopular government out of office. The 1% Network is trying to raise consciousness amongst the working class that Capitalism is the cause and socialism is the cure, and that Tweedledum (Fianna Fail) being replaced by Tweedledee (Fine Gael) will only further erode workers’ living standards and increase the wealth of the exploiting class.
Originally written for the Republican Communist Network’s ‘Emancipation and Liberation’ journal.