The Workers' Party held its annual Wolfe Tone commemmoration at Bodenstown, County Kildare on Sunday, 1st July 2007. The following is the oration delivered on the occasion by Justin O'Hagan:-
Comrades and Friends,
It is a great honour to be here today delivering the annual Bodenstown Oration of the Workers’ Party. We come here to remember Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen and to declare our continuity with their spirit and their politics. We come to celebrate our past and to show our relevance for the future.
Of course Ireland in 2007 is not Ireland of the 1790s, but Ireland then was divided along class lines (complicated by nationality and religion) and modern Ireland is no less a class society where the majority class – the producing class, the working class – is exploited by a relatively small group of capitalists, native and multinational.
The great working class United Irishman, Jemmy Hope identified “the main cause of social derangement” of his time as “the condition of the labouring class”:
[He told R.R. Madden] It was my settled opinion that the condition of the labouring class was the fundamental question at issue between the rulers and the people, and there could be no solid foundation for liberty, till measures were adopted that went to the root of the evil, and were specially directed to the restoration of the natural right of the people, the right of deriving a subsistence from the soil on which their labour was expended.
Ireland is an industrialised capitalist society and a majority of its citizens are no longer tied to the land but as socialists we, like Jemmy Hope, consider “the condition of the labouring class” to be central to our politics, a political outlook hatched in the French revolution under the banners of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
And what is the condition of the labouring class in Ireland in 2007? Where are we the workers with respect to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity?
In theory, we are at liberty to sell our labour, but of course we have hardly anything else to sell and so it is a compulsion more than a liberty. But we can also avail of other important liberties that weren’t available to the men and women of 1798. We can openly meet and discuss our ideas. We can disseminate these ideas openly in our press. We can follow any religion or we can be atheists as we please. If we have the chance, we can attend universities and colleges regardless of gender or religion. Of course, class differences persist in education so that while a staggering 100% of the children of higher professionals and 85% of the children of employers and mangers in the Republic attend university, 25% of the children of unskilled and semi-skilled manual workers make it to third level education.
Although we must be vigilant to protect our hard-fought liberties, especially in this the age of the phoney war on terror – we accept -and indeed are grateful for the fact- that the realm of liberty has broadened immeasurably for the Irish people in the past two hundred years. Indeed in the past forty years the Workers’ Party has been at the forefront of efforts to broaden the realm of freedom in this country, including those liberties which the Catholic Church Hierarchy has been keen to deny the people. Of course, the socialist fight for liberty is unending and, for example, we still seek and fight for the freedom of children of all religions and none to be educated together.
I’ve been discussing the important question of political and cultural liberties? But what of equality and the related question of economic liberty? Where is the balance sheet in relation to equality?
An insight into global inequality was provided in March this year when the US business magazine Forbes published its annual list of billionaires. The world's dollar billionaires grew in number from 793 in 2006 to 946 this year. American writer James Petras puts it this way:
The total wealth of this global ruling class grew 35 per cent year to year topping $3.5 trillion, while income levels for the lower 55 per cent of the world's 6-billion-strong population declined or stagnated. Put another way, one hundred millionth of the world's population (1/100,000,000) owns more than over 3 billion people.
And whereas some seem to believe that poverty can be eradicated by calling for the ruling class to behave honourably, we, as socialists are aware that the dependency and debt repayment of so-called poor countries is part and parcel of the rapacious capitalist imperialist system which calls it an “economic miracle” when a few hundred Indian, Russian and Chinese billionaires are created at the expense of billions of poor peasants and urban workers. For the elite there is an economic miracle, while for those at the bottom of the heap there is what one writer has called “the carefully crafted structural violence under which the poor suffer and die.”
In 1750, the countries that we now call third-world accounted for 75% of global industrial production, while by the end of the twentieth century they accounted for 15%. This didn’t happen by accident or through bad luck or through character defects. Poverty creation, like war, imperialism and environmental plunder, is intrinsic to the world capitalist system. Meanwhile, Ireland has been presented as a test case for the globalised free-market. How have people fared in Ireland?
Over the past fifteen years the Republic of Ireland has seen unprecedented economic growth. Between 1989 and 2002 the population’s average income doubled, meaning that during those 13 years income increased by as much as it had in the previous 8,000 years since the first settlers arrived here. The boom was real. But averages can be deceptive. Ireland remains a class society and not everyone is riding the Celtic Tiger. Indeed, “the gap between rich and poor has grown so much that the UN said recently Ireland had the highest levels of inequality of all western countries except the US.”
In 2005 Social scientist Elizabeth Cullen has noted that although the number of people in absolute deprivation has declined, there has been a massive increase in relative poverty, which doubled from 6% of the population in 1994 to more than 12% in 2001. Meanwhile, between 1995 and 2002 tax cuts raised the income of the rich by 12%, not to mention fraud and corruption in high places. For Ireland has what one writer calls, “a stubborn culture of outright tax-evasion” which “survives not least because the perpetrators get away with it”.
According to The Sunday Times Rich List in 2007, Ireland is home to the world's third highest count per capita of sterling billionaires, slightly behind Kuwait and Switzerland. One of these billionaires is Denis O’Brien, late of Esat Telecom and, indeed, late of this country. He now resides in Malta for tax purposes. You will recall that O’Brien gave evidence at the Moriarty tribunal in relation Esat's, securing Ireland's second mobile telephone licence in 1996. He personally made €280m when, four years later, he sold Esat to BT for €2.54bn and, on the basis of non-residency in this country he legally avoided paying Capital Gains Tax, which would have amounted to, € 50 million. Explaining his departure from the country, O’Brien accused Ireland of “turning into a communist state”. If only!
One of O’Brien’s latest wheezes is a company called Trinity Property Golf Ltd which is selling a "superior lifestyle" to the rich and famous. According to The Sunday Independent,
Among the perks on offer to just 24 initial investors, who will pay over €250,000 each, are the use of fast cars, skippered yachts and exclusive properties with a dedicated concierge service. …
For investments of between €265,000 and €325,000, private and corporate investors will have use of properties Doonbeg and Quinta do Lago [in Portugal] for no more than four weeks annually.
Another report in the Sunday Tribune gushes about how the growing ranks of Ireland’s millionaires are flashing their goldcards, buying luxury private yachts, taking shopping sprees to Dubai, purchasing artworks and helicopters to avoid traffic on the way to the Galway races.
Meanwhile, back in the real world as it is lived by all but a tiny minority, the most vulnerable in our society are the old, carers, the ill, small farmers and our children and recent immigrants. This is not surprising, since Ireland’s spending on social expenditure is well below the EU average.
But living in an unequal society has a more general ill-effect on the population. Inequality, quite literally, makes you sick. Experts argue that the health consequences of living an unequal society are as strong as the link between smoking and cancer. Indeed, it has been argued that “distribution of income is the single most important determinant of levels of health in the developed world.”
Research shows that Ireland during the boom years showed an increase in depressive disorders, in alcohol intake, in alcohol-related adult criminality, in obesity, and a lowering of life expectancy. World Health Organisation and Department of Health figures show that, compared to the EU average, Ireland has much higher death rates in heart disease, lung cancer, breast cancer and suicide. The list of indicators of the deteriorating quality of life in Celtic Tiger Ireland goes on and on. On top of all this, the government seems determined to create an American-style two tier heath system, where quality of treatment will depend strictly on ability to pay.
The class chasm is also reflected in housing. While in 2004 the number of people sleeping rough in Dublin was at an all time high, 25% of homes built in the Republic in 2003 were second - holiday - homes, many subsidised by tax relief. While between 1922 and 1966, 50 per cent of all houses built were for public housing, and were, therefore, outside market forces., in recent years, well over 90 per cent of all houses built have been for sale through the market. If, as he says, Bertie Ahern is a socialist, we must assume he’s a socialist for the rich.
Again this inequality and its attendant miseries aren’t accidental. They are inherent to the kind of free market deregulated capitalism that all the main parties - and most of the small ones - support.
And what about Northern Ireland? The think tank Democratic Dialogue recently produced a report which concluded that almost 30% percent of households in the North were poor in 2002/2003. Another 12 percent had such a low income that they were considered “vulnerable” to poverty. In all, 502,000 people were living in poverty of a total population of only 1,690,000. The report shows that nearly 38 percent of our children in Northern Ireland are growing up in poverty.
So, poverty in the North is even worse than that in the South. Politicians of all shades in Northern Ireland would like to emulate the Celtic Tiger by making the province more attractive to multinationals. For example, during the launch of Sinn Fein’s recent Assembly election campaign in the North, Gerry Adams asked: “If there is a Celtic Tiger, why should it stop at the border? Why cannot it come into East Belfast? Is anyone telling me the loyalist people of East Belfast are not going to accept jobs and the economic dividends that would come out of the Celtic Tiger if there is a 32 County Celtic Tiger?”
So much for Provo radicalism. Sell the ‘dividends’ of a Tiger economy to the Protestant working class – one of the sections of society that would most fail to benefit from a free market multinationalised economy, since we can assume that an Ulster Tiger would do for the Northern Irish poor what it has done in the South. Although Adams was here in Bodenstown last week, his politics are pure and simply nationalist, with a populist tinge.
So, inequality has boomed in Celtic Tiger Ireland. And what of fraternity? I’d like to end with a lengthy quote from the German Communist Hans Heinz Holz, Writing his book, The Future and Downfall of Socialism at a time in the early 1990s when the European Socialist states were collapsing around him, Holz declared that:
“As long as class differences continue to exist there will be a struggle of the ruled against the rulers, and this struggle will always have a need of an organized group of militants who are ready for action. The existence of a communist party is necessitated by the class structure of bourgeois society. Even if it is small, it can carry out the conceptual preparation needed in advance and parallel to the spread of class consciousness. Growing class consciousness, in turn, leads to organizational growth of the party that represents the class standpoint without compromise, no matter how long this process may take.
Such a party takes its ideas and understandings of itself from its roots in the history of the workers’ movement. It does not start here and now out of nothing. Its theory is a theory of history and thus of its own history …. Experiences are brought together in this history and generalized into concepts and theories, errors are made and corrected, knowledge gained and plans shaped for the future. What can be done here and now takes place on the basis of that history: it is a part of our present”.
Comrades and friends, for us in the Workers’ Party our history is a part of our present, stretching back to Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen, through Thomas Davies, from American Socialists such as Joe Hill, to Latin American, Asian and Russian revolutionaries, from James Connolly to Cathal Goulding and to the comrades present here and not present who have devoted their lives to this cause and this Party. Some within the media, academe and even within the working class may write us off as political dinosaurs, as yesterday’s men and women. As the recent major statement by the Workers’ Party on the need for Left Unity noted,
It should come as no surprise to us, especially us, that over 75% of voters have voted for conservative parties and policies. We are living in a very conservative, indeed on occasions, a reactionary society. When the voters then are faced with a choice of which party to vote for they naturally will choose the conservative party closest to their thinking.
The politics of this country resemble those of the USA. Gore Vidal has noted that in the USA, “We don't have political parties: we have one political party with two right wings called the Democratic and the Republican.” More recently a British MP described Gordon Brown and Tony Blair as two cheeks of the same arse. The same must be said of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, which is why Left Unity with serious parties of the Left and with a significant input by our Party is essential in the near future.
The same must be said of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, which is why Left Unity with serious parties of the Left and with a significant input by our Party is essential in the near future.
The defeat of many well known Left candidates in the recent election; the failure of the Greens to make advances and their entry into government with Ahern; and, most importantly, the Labour Party's disastrous alliance with Fine Gael must be noted and analysed. At the same time we must recognise
that a substantial number of voters supported candidates and parties of the Left. There is a Left constituency in the country which needs to be organised and, most importantly, united.
As was noted earlier, the present make-up of the Dáil gives conservative parties and individuals over 75% of the popular vote with a total of 134 seats and a mixed opposition of 32 seats. The most natural coalition was between Mr Ahern and Mr. Enda Kenny of Fine Gael. This would bring to an end the phoney division between the conservative forces that has existed now for eighty five years. If such a situation were to develop it would be possible within a short space of time to demonstrate the true nature of politics in Ireland and the need for radical change in society.
The Left must take the general election in parallel with the recent Assembly Elections in Northern Ireland. In the North we have seen the coming together of two reactionary groups representing Unionism and Nationalism. After thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of citizens maimed the British and Irish governments, assisted by the USA, have succeeded in putting in place a reactionary alliance in a "power sharing" administration designed to ensure the stability and continuance of
capitalism in the northern state.
In Northern Ireland too we must seek to develop the broadest possible range of democratic and progressive forces. We may have an end to the armed campaigns in the North and undoubtedly progress has been made. However there has been no real change in the underlying character of the Northern state. It is still based on sectarian division. One ray of hope has been the formation of the United Community Group in the Assembly by Alliance, Green and Independent Ciaran Deeney. This principle should be extended beyond the Assembly walls into every town and village as the basis of a
radical new approach to politics in the North.
Comrades, people would be wrong to think that because we live in conservative times, the class struggle and socialist politics are over. Because as long as class differences continue to exist there will be a struggle of the ruled against the rulers and the Workers' Party will represent the class standpoint without compromise, no matter how long it may take.
People would be wrong to think that because we live in conservative times, the class struggle and socialist politics are over. Because as long as class differences continue to exist there will be a struggle of the ruled against the rulers and the Workers’ Party will represent the class standpoint without compromise, no matter how long it may take.