One hundred years ago this month, an inspiring revolt kicked off in Dublin. After tram workers in the city centre demanded a pay rise, the industrialist William Martin Murphy locked out trade union members from their jobs. The dispute that ensued caught the attention of socialists in many countries. Vladimir Lenin praised the “seething Irish energy” of the union leader Jim Larkin.
On a recent trip home (I’m a Dubliner living in Belgium), I heard several radio interviews with representatives of the Irish Labour Party. Though Larkin was a founder of that party, its present-day grandees dance to Murphy’s tune. One of them, Ruairi Quinn, is now the country’s education minister; he has been boasting about how the school curriculum has been revamped at the behest of major companies.
The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) wants science and maths to be given greater priority at secondary level and more courses with an “explicit focus on enterprise” in higher education. Ibec’s objective here is to achieve a “well-skilled and flexible labour force”. Part of the flexibility being championed is that companies don’t have to recognise unions. The industrialists of 2013 insist they should still be able to lock out recalcitrant workers.
Labour is the junior partner in a coalition government with the centre-right Fine Gael. Known colloquially as the “Blueshirts” because of the party’s historical ties to fascists who aided Francisco Franco during the Spanish civil war, Fine Gael fought the February 2011 election on a pledge to “burn the bondholders”. Lenders to Anglo Irish Bank, a feckless institution that almost capsized the economy, would not be repaid, according to the party’s manifesto.
The promised incineration has not materialised. Ireland’s real masters – officials at the European Commission – told Fine Gael and Labour before the election that satisfying such creditors as Deutsche Asset Management and BNP Paribas was non-negotiable.
Hospitals have been forced to pay Anglo’s gambling debts. Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and speed of health cutbacks undertaken by “developed” countries. The Health Service Executive, which runs Ireland’s medical services, has had its budget cut by €3bn since 2008. The Irish Times has reported that the reductions are making it difficult to comply with standards for childcare and cancer treatment.
A bizarre twist to this sorry saga is that Ireland’s government is committed to introducing a universal health insurance scheme. How can this be achieved at a time of austerity? The details remain fuzzy but the overriding goal is clear: the private insurance industry will be put in charge of the scheme.
Mary Harney, the health minister between 2004 and 2011, once claimed that Ireland was “closer to Boston than Berlin”. The current “reforms” reflect that spirit. It is instructive that Alain Enthoven, an American free-market economist, also advocates that Ireland adopt universal health insurance with private firms in the driving seat. In his view, medical care is “a kind of luxury good”. Dublin is toying with ideas from a man who compares life-saving operations to Fabergé eggs.
I love going home to Ireland. However, when I think about the regressive measures being implemented in my country, it is impossible not to leave with a sense of despair.
David Cronin is the author of “Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War” (Pluto Press, £17.99)