Thursday 29 September 2016

You can shout at Ruairi all ye like – it's just comic relief

There's no point inviting bosses to conferences because we already know who's really in charge.

Published 27/04/2014 | 02:30

It's conference time, and some trade unionists are displaying their anger
It's conference time, and some trade unionists are displaying their anger

IT is, of course, bad manners to speak loudly and interrupt the Minister for Education when he's seeking to improve his image. That's what happened last week. Some teachers became excited about the state of education and spoke in a somewhat agitated way.

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It's conference time, and some trade unionists are displaying their anger; and other trade unionists are seeking conscientiously to find the exact spot on the minister's backside they believe he would most like them to kiss.

On the whole, some of us aren't in favour of shouting – it's bad for the blood pressure. But beyond all that, if you're a teacher it's tremendously foolish of you to invite Ruairi Quinn to speak at your trade union conference.

Ruairi is your employer. His interests are different from yours. The nurses invite the Minister for Health. The gardai invite the Minister for Justice and the Commissioner. It's a mixture of naivete and sucking up.

Imagine if the staff of Ryanair managed to become unionised. And at their annual conference the keynote speaker was Michael O'Leary. He would quite rightly smile inwardly, thank them for the invitation, and act in accordance with his own interests, which is what employers tend to do.

There are reasons for the tradition of inviting ministers to union conferences. We're teachers (or nurses, or guards) goes the thinking, and we share a common responsibility with the minister towards our pupils (or patients, or public). There's a laudable motive behind that. And an erroneous belief that the teacher and the minister are somehow partners.

There's also an unfortunate human tendency towards power worship. People like to be in the room with the celebrity, the billionaire, the royal personage, the minister.

Whatever justification people might have imagined there was for inviting ministers to trade union conferences, that's the past. We're in an historic period of economic, social and political change. We're in a post-democratic phase, and where we go from here is anyone's guess.

Politicians used to feel the need to at least pretend there was a connection between an election manifesto and the government it produced. A party used to feel embarrassed if a minister was caught blatantly breaking promises. Now, it's all about deals and numbers. Parties know they get to take turns implementing the same policies – and feel free to say whatever will get them votes, knowing there will be little or no pressure to live up to promises.

When Enda Kenny made promises and broke them, and denied making them and a recording of the promises was produced – what happened? Bugger all. His party gave him a free pass. The Dail shrugged. The credibility of the Taoiseach doesn't matter.

When evidence emerged of Eamon Gilmore confiding that it was "politically necessary" to say one thing in public and another in private, what happened? His party turned a blind eye, the Dail shrugged. The credibility of the Tanaiste doesn't matter.

In February 2011, Ruairi Quinn publicly signed a pledge to fight any student fee rise. Some months later, as minister, he was asked to promise to keep that pledge. His answer was one that connoisseurs of political seediness have placed on a high altar in the Cathedral of Bullshit: "We're not in that space anymore," he said.

There is, in those few words, a wonderful sense of in-your-face contempt for his party and the electorate. And, if you look at it a certain way, pretty much the entire human race.

Students boo Ruairi because he personally raised fees, having personally promised the opposite. But Gilmore pledged the same. As did Fine Gael. These were "red line issues". Just like not cutting child benefit was a red line issue.

The point is not that promises are broken, but that the party and parliamentary mechanisms that might once have tried to make ministers accountable – which ministers had to at least try to placate – no longer function.

There was a time when the trade unions would hold politicians to account. That was long ago, when trade unions were grassroots outfits, with real clout. We've had decades of centralisation, a weakening of the democratic sinews that make unions useful.

Gradually, the strength of shop stewards and the rank and file was siphoned away. In its place, people like David Begg got the right to sit at polished tables, alongside ministers and Ibec. When the biggest economic crisis in the history of the State hit us, the price of the recklessness was shifted to us – through a blitz of cuts and an array of charges. Our response has been weak.

The union bosses were sidelined, flapping their gums ineffectually. And the democratic mechanisms that would allow pressure to be applied from the ground up had been allowed to wither.

Shouting at Ruairi Quinn is no substitute. But it probably helps ease the frustration.

To appease the bond markets, worried about the future of the euro, the Troika took over the running of this country. The bond markets are made up of wealthy individuals and institutions, and the array of financial chancers who make fortunes doing the bidding of the bondholders.

They screw countries until they get what they want – in this case the summer 2012 commitment from Mario Draghi that the ECB would underwrite the euro, whatever happened.

"Exiting the bailout" and all the rest of that stuff is theatrics, useful for impressing the electoral rabble – it was Draghi's commitment that brought the interest rates down.

We saw in 2010 that the bond market exercises more power than most governments. This remains so even after the spectacular revelations of the past four years – international bankers laundering money for terrorist groups and drug gangs with billions to hide. The Libor scandal, in which international interest rates were crookedly fixed on a daily basis. The frauds and the scams, the realisation that the international banking system operates according to the ethics of Tony Soprano.

The economic parameters within which a national government like Ireland operates have been approved at the ECB, in Frankfurt. These policies are transmitted to national governments via the Minister for Finance. Within the Cabinet, broadly speaking, ministers have power to do only that which is approved by the Department of Finance.

Power has been sucked up from the bottom, leaving electorates a choice of parties that will implement broadly the same policies.

This constitutes a post-democratic phase.

It's impossible to tell where things will go from here. There's only so much you can get from demonstrating, throwing eggs and chanting demands in rhyming couplets.

Social democracy has reached an accommodation with all this. For politicians – well, a job's a job. Even when they're out of office they're very well paid.

A hundred years ago, the colonial states fought a turf war that severely undermined the previously rigid social structures. Twenty years later, social democracy and authoritarian communism together fought an existential battle against fascism.

There followed, in the west, 35 years of liberal capitalism, in which equality increased and economies boomed. Twenty-five years ago, authoritarian communism went bankrupt.

Neoliberal capitalism continued to roll back the improvements in equality. It bankrupted itself in 2007. Great historical movements intertwine, collide, go into decline. There are no guarantees.

In the face of the epic shifts under way, the posters currently advertising the charms of various minor politicians are quaint souvenirs of the past. And shouting at Ruairi – well, that's comic relief.

Sunday Independent

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