Monday 22 July 2019

Martina Devlin: Scargill will pour petrol on flames of union unrest

Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Intransigence is his middle name. Blinkered ideology is his credo. Social injustice is his fig leaf. We need this man like we need a swine flu pandemic.

Yet former miners' leader Arthur Scargill has been imported by the huge trade union Unite to make free with his advice on how members should oppose public service cuts.

Dishearteningly predictable, Scargill's game plan to workers can be summarised as follows: engage in all-out war, go down fighting. There is honour in defeat.

And to union leaders: reject compromise, ignore reality. Never be afraid to cut off your nose to spite your face. (But remember to strap on a parachute before guiding your troops over the precipice).

The decision to invite Scargill to Ireland at this critical juncture in our economic fortunes, with industrial tensions simmering, does not bode well.

It smacks of a major public sector union trying to put fire in its members' bellies, using a speaker known for his inflammatory eloquence. Unfortunately history shows us how appealing such oratory, however unhinged, can prove in times of economic difficulty.

At least Scargill's presence this week, with talks in Dublin, Waterford and Belfast, is temporary. Imagine if he spent his retirement writing books instead of growing rhododendrons. He might decide to relocate here and apply for the artist's exemption -- we could have him muddying industrial relations indefinitely.

Already he has urged public sector unions to emulate the miners' union which he led to near-annihilation. Never let the facts get in the way of the rhetoric: cuts should be resisted -- come hell, high water or the International Monetary Fund.

"You either accept it (cutbacks) and the horrific consequences that follow in its wake -- or you can stand up and fight back. My advice would be to stand up and fight back," he told RTE's 'Morning Ireland' yesterday.

Stirring words. No doubt banners were unfurled as he uttered them. That "fight back" battle cry conjures up the little man defying the forces of oppression. He even threw in a reference to "James Connolly and the heroes of the resistance in Ireland" to set pulses racing.

But Scargill is a narcissist who hasn't learned from his mistakes -- he was a disastrous president of the National Union of Mineworkers and lacks the humility to accept it. His conflict with Margaret Thatcher was an epic clash of the egos; former Labour leader Neil Kinnock has referred to his "suicidal vanity". And his members suffered from it. Thatcher was bent on breaking the unions during that bitter strike of 1984-5, while he thought he could topple her government. Incapable of compromise, he made a number of costly errors including failing to ballot for strike action. This led to a split in the union as well as costing him public support and giving other unions a reason not to support the miners.

Even now he refuses to concede they were defeated, although those lions led by donkeys -- many of them loyal to the last, despite surely deserving a better leader -- were starved back to work after a year of suffering. The mining industry subsequently collapsed.

And this is the industrial relations guru invited by Unite to address its members in advance of next Friday's National Day of Action across Ireland.

Scargill's embedded prejudice misrepresents the situation here as class war, just as he did with the miners. In fact, we're a country struggling for economic survival. Class warfare should not be on the agenda because we need to co-operate across all sectors of society.

Consequently, it is disturbing to see Unite ship in a union figurehead associated with inflexibility rather than negotiation; and with picket-line intimidation and violence, which he never condemned, rather than a spirit of collaboration during exceptional times. We have enough dogmatic, ego-driven people of our own here, thanks all the same.

Arthur Scargill does not symbolise courage against overwhelming odds, as his apologists suggest. They like to present him as a champion: a latter day Leonidas at the head of a tiny band of warriors, defending the Thermopylae Pass against certain death from a Persian army.

Those 300 Spartans offered an inspirational example of doomed valour in 480 BC, driving back wave after wave of Persians until they were overwhelmed and perished to the last man.

But for unions in 2009 to imagine they can resist the tide of Colm McCarthy's recommendations is not heroic but ludicrous. What's happening here cannot and should not be reduced to the caricature of public sector worker against the boss class. We are all drowning together. Yes, bailouts are unfair and it galls that nobody has been held to account for our problems. But we don't have the luxury of time to dwell on injustice -- we must simply put our shoulders to the wheel.

Our finances are in tatters and the crippling public pay bill has to be reduced. This needs to be done with cuts in pay and services because it will take too long to hammer out efficiency savings. Only Scargill economics would dispute that.

Yet union leaders are clearly gearing up for strike action, as Scargill's presence here signals. However, striking during recession is a high-risk strategy. Furthermore, strikes involving essential services are never popular and public anger will be directed at the leaders.

Finally, do we really want to follow the lead of a posturing man who led Britain's miners on a doomed mission -- and who remains convinced he did the right thing?

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss