Tuesday 26 September 2017

Home truths: Bad deeds don't always win out

One of the Clerys signs
One of the Clerys signs
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

THE results of the general election showed us that, despite the economic recovery, the Irish people have remained deeply disillusioned with the state of affairs in this country. There's a widespread perception that those in power in banking, politics, business and elsewhere can still do what they like without respite.

So too thought the consortium that took over Clerys two years ago. But this week, we heard Natrium - which behaved so despicably in its ejection of workers and businesses from the Clerys building two years ago - must stump up "goodwill" payments to 135 of the 400 or so who lost their jobs when it shut the business down in 2015.

The taxpayer had to stump up the redundancy bill of €2.5m while the consortium lined up fat development profits. At the time, this column argued that the closure, the procedures used to separate the business from the property, and the treatment of the workers represented the use of property deeds as a bludgeon - similar to actions taken during the summary evictions seen during the Land War in Ireland.

The objective had been to capitalise on the property and split it out from the business, to enable a cheaper wind-down of the latter in a process which many believe stuck two fingers up to the accepted treatment of workers in this country and to small concession businesses.

The prevailing view at the time was that, in the absence of laws broken, Irish society was now powerless to prevent property power being deployed to treat people like this. For a time, it seemed that, finally, nothing was sacred and anything was possible. But then the word 'boycott' was bandied about by different groups by way of a non-institutional/political response.

Five generations ago, 'boycott' was the people-power response to this sort of deed-wielding chicanery. Charles Stewart Parnell announced it thus: "When a man takes a farm from which another has been evicted, you must shun him on the roadside when you meet him - you must shun him in the streets of the town - you must shun him in the shop - you must shun him on the fair green and in the market place, and even in the place of worship, by leaving him alone, by putting him in moral Coventry, by isolating him from the rest of the country, as if he were the leper of old - you must show him your detestation of the crime he committed."

The word originated from Captain Boycott, a landlord's agent who treated his charges despicably. Thanks to mass action locally, his position became untenable and he was beaten. While the actions of Natrium didn't spark a full blown boycott, what happened since the closure is worth re-examining. Leading public figures across all political parties and media (including Ryan Tubridy) spoke out against the consortium. Protests were mounted and continued on a regular basis - the workers themselves didn't give up. Elected councillors on Dublin City Council hung on to the Clerys issue like dogs with bones. It was made clear from the council chamber that Natrium needed planning permission and the Council, responsible for the general well-being of the city, was not in the mood to be receptive. In June 2015, councillors tabled a vote to prevent Clerys department store from being used for offices or a hotel.

Natrium wanted a "mixed use destination", but councillors described it as "vulture capitalists" and voted to retain the building as a retail premises only. Labour's Mary Frehill said her party's motion, that the council would not "alter the use of the entire Clerys building", was intended to send the message that the council "will not tolerate any organisation that wants to come into this city and asset strip at the expense of workers". Councillors tabled a motion that contractors should boycott the new development plans. It came to fruition when Lambstongue, a restoration contractor refused to take on work at Clerys. A statement said: "We refused to get involved unless the workers were granted a meeting." Lambstongue later reported an "extraordinary" reaction from the public with hundreds contacting them to congratulate them on their stance.

For the consortium, the prospects of getting other contractors in for the main work must have started looking bleak.

Deputy City Planner Mary Conway pointedly demanded the company submit details of a strategy "which would promote local employment opportunities" both during and after the redevelopment of the landmark building on O'Connell Street. Councillors were among the 43 individuals who objected to the planned scheme for Clerys.

The Lord Mayor became involved. Brendan Carr conducted negotiations between the consortium and the former Clery's workers. Finally, it seems Natrium has relented. This week, we witnessed one of those small victories for the punters versus big capital with news of the payments to workers and the remarkable sight of director Deirdre Foley sitting before former workers to hear their grievances. Councillors and contractors played a stormer. But two years on and big Government has so far done nothing to change the laws responsible.

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