27 October 2005 Edition

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Fighting back - lessons from home and abroad

BY ROISIN DE ROSA

Bairbre de Brún at the anti-poverty conference

Bairbre de Brún at the anti-poverty conference

Anti-Poverty Conference - New directions for global struggle

Last week marked UN Day for the Eradication of Poverty, in a year which has been marked as one of Making Poverty History.

On Thursday 20 October, Sinn Féin, as part of its Céad Bliain events, held an all-Ireland conference on Ending Poverty, North and South, local and global.

The conference marked Sinn Féin's commitment to the Millennium goals, and to developing local campaigns through which people here can effect change.

Kathy Stanton MLA outlined the purpose of the conference: "We didn't come here to wring our hands in despair at poverty in Ireland or world-wide. We came to look at examples, at home and abroad of campaigning. Campaigns against the privatisation of people's services and resources, campaigns against the power of multinational corporations. Or even using the mechanisms of state, such at the Good Friday Agreement, the Common chapter, to combat inequality, social exclusion and poverty."

Growing poverty in Ireland

Gerry Kelly MLA opened the conference, the first session of which heard from Queen's University Professor Paddy Hillyard who discussed on Poverty in Ireland. Then Gabriele Zimmer, MEP, member of GUE/NGL told how the EU is under pressure from Commissioners Mandelson and McCreevy, to adopt privatisation strategies, emanating from the Lisbon Agenda, and sacrifice social values in favour of growth based on the low-wage economy and withdrawal of social services.

Mark Curtis took up these themes to talk of the EU/US agenda of trade and services liberalisation. Curtis was director of the World Development Movement and worked with Christian Aid and Action Aid.

He outlined how the World Trade organisation (WTO) is rewriting the rules of international trade to promote liberalisation and privatisation, empowering corporations to make further inroads through business and financial service markets, impoverishing less developed countries and negating even the window dressing of G8 summit debt cancellation earlier this year.

Latin America

Professor Denis O'Hearn and Mick McCaughan, spoke of experiences in Latin America, in Chiapas and in Venezuela, particularly the Bolivarian Movement, as presenting radically different models for combating poverty and imperialism, through people's engagement in autonomous movements and direct action campaigns. These offered a fight back against global and national poverty. O'Hearn is currently writing a biography of Bobby Sands and he drew attention to Bobby Sands' commitment to studying movements abroad.

O'Hearn spoke of the strong parallels between aspects of the struggle of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, where, US policy has been to impose the neo-liberal agenda and open up all areas for free trade and the fightback that has followed against privatisation.

The first thing the Zapatistas did was to create education and health programmes. He compared this to the fact that Ireland has the lowest levels of per capita expenditure within the EU on education and on health.

He talked also of the Tuparamos, the landless movement in Brazil, the development of people's movements based on autonomous self-government and identified the common thread across these struggles as one of putting the needs of people before economic growth.

McCaughan, who has lived in Latin America over the last 18 years, as an independent journalist, and who has just published Battle of Venezuela, began from what he described as the changed era of the '80s and '90s. The enemy has become "not the soldier in the corner of the room who threatens your life, but the TV". This persistently delivered a message that those in power - are viewed as ordained by God to rule.

Counterposed to this approach was one where wealth and revenue based on oil in Venezuela is there to satisfy the basic needs of the people. He spoke of the exchange programme with Cuba, of 30,000 doctors for 90,000 barrels of oil, of the SARAQ project amongst rural communities, where credit provision to local communities allows survival and rural development. He also talked of the role of the army in driving forward community social programmes organised by the people themselves, and of the Venezuelan oil company in the States, SIPCO, providing bases for refugees left destitute by the recent devastating hurricane in New Orleans.

These developments were made possible by establishing the building blocks for change in the new constitution of Venezuela.

A Framework for Constitutional Change

Catríona Ruane MLA spoke of the fightback made possible within the Good Friday Agreement, and section 75 of the equality legislation, which is a tool of struggle to progress human rights in Ireland.

Sam Porter discussed how, through the development of the Common Chapter and the All-Ireland Implementation Bodies of the Agreement, planned all-Ireland economic development North and South can be progressed.

The Six-County economy had been isolated by partition from the growth and development experienced in the 26 Counties. The economies, North and South complement each other in the pharmaceutical and IT sectors to enable all-Ireland growth to mutual advantage.

Porter described how fostering the social economy, government planned growth may enable the fightback against privatisation and the empowerment of communities.

Rossport fightback

Máire Ní Sheighin, activist with the Shell-to-Sea campaign, spoke of how Shell was aided and abetted by the Irish Government, which changed the law to allow Shell onto CPO land. She condemned the huge government of trampling over land rights and the right to live in safety, which is comparable to the treatment of the Ogoni in Nigeria, also by Shell.

Shell's action has implied the privatisation of people's very lives and culture in Rossport, where lands down the centuries have been held communally.

Privatisation

Mick O'Reilly, Regional Secretary of the ATGWU and ICTU executive member spoke of the huge mistakes in the privatisation of Eircom, the consequent lack of investment which followed, the privatisation of Aer Rianta and Irish Ferries.

The use of private contractors at the ESB and the clear intent of the government to raise electricity prices was designed to fatten the calf for privatisation.

The VHI, encouraged to raise its prices to facilitate privatisation, further contributed to poverty in Ireland.

O'Reilly also spoke of the need for childcare to be organised through self-managed co-operatives, with local authority involvement. He finished with the call that there should be no engagement in partnership until a stop is put to privatisation.

Campaigns

Six separate conference workshops discussed areas which caused poverty and how to develop campaigns to address the worst injustices.

There were workshops on anti-poverty strategies, health, housing, education and childcare, poverty and ethic communities, and water, energy, and basic necessities.

The conference was brought to a close by Conor Murphy MP who listed proposals from each workshop for campaigns against poverty in Ireland, North and South.


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