7 October 2004 Edition
Dublin's bankrupt economic policies
In the first of a two-part series, FINIAN CUNNINGHAM argues that Sinn Féin has the potential to make even more dramatic electoral gains because of the widespread disillusionment among voters with bankrupt government economic policies. The second part will sketch out, with an international perspective, what alternative policies could replace the present bankrupt partitionist scenario and galvanise a growing number of disillusioned voters on both sides of the border for a unified approach. A viable alternative put forward by Sinn Féin could strengthen its mandate in surprising ways for a radical transformation of Ireland.
BERTIE Ahern's shoe-shine reshuffle is another clear sign of the Fianna Fáil-PD Government's desperation to reconnect with voters.
The gains made by Sinn Féin at the local and European elections have evidently rattled the ruling coalition to its core.
But such is the squandering of economic resources by this government that no amount of reshuffling can hide the fact that the majority of people have been dealt a lousy hand. Health, housing, education, cost of living, total tax burden, farming — our biggest industry — have been deliberately hit with policy decisions that have resulted in a minority doing well while the majority of working people struggle by.
Statistics can be bandied about until the cows come home to prove one thing or the other. But it is hard to ignore the United Nations Development Report on relatively advanced countries, which puts the 26-County state second worst behind the United States for the gap between rich and poor. This gap is increasingly recognised as being the main factor in determining a nation's wellbeing.
The disturbing thing is that the parlous state of the South's jobs market, social conditions, public services and infrastructure comes after 15 years of so-called boom time. In other words, this is as good as it gets.
In this situation, the political party that can put its finger on the problem and point a convincing way forward stands to make landslide electoral gains. To not avail of the opportunity is to be resigned to being just another one of the opposition parties.
Defining the problem requires taking the hallowed Celtic Tiger by the scruff of the neck. What are we to make of the proclaimed jobs and wealth the Celtic Tiger is supposed to have created? There is no doubt that some kind of economic phenomenon did happen over the last 15 years which involved the country being awash with money. But this must be seen in the context of the real nature of many of the jobs that came with it. This government crows about 'creating' 400,000 jobs. But the bulk of these are part-time, low paid, involving long hours, and to top it all insecure. Alongside these jobs, levels of personal debt have also soared which suggests workers are having to mortgage their livelihoods to make ends meet, and it puts a big question mark over the quality of jobs and wealth supposedly created.
Also, the limited information of conventional economic indicators must be pointed out. The 'phenomenal growth' of the Celtic Tiger is expressed by the indicator, Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In its heyday, double-digit GDP figures suggested abundant wealth for the country. But several respected economists are beginning to point out that GDP is an unreliable indicator because it includes the profits made by foreign corporations which have relocated here. When these corporations deduct the profits they repatriate to their base country — thanks to the low corporate tax this government sets — the fabled roar of the Celtic Tiger is then seen to shrink to a miaow. In other worlds, what we have to distinguish between is apparent wealth and real wealth.
One of these critical economists is Clive Hamilton, author of Growth Fetish (Pluto Press, 2004), who says: "Governments of all persuasions are now mesmerised by economic growth and find it awkward to think of think national progress more broadly. The decline of social life and the environment must be placed at the core of the problem, growth fetishism."
Hamilton points out that the founders of the system of national accounts based on GDP, like British economist John Maynard Keynes, were clear in their warning to governments about using these statistics as indicators of national prosperity. Their warnings have gone unheeded and now we live under the tyranny of statistics, which are used to steer an economic system that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.
So the seemingly prodigious growth/wealth per capita figures — which are often quoted to show how rich and happy we have become — are based on dodgy ground. Furthermore, the per capita expression is only a statistical average. It does not reflect the real earnings of most people. If, for example, a millionaire somehow shared a lift with four homeless people it could be statistically reported that there was an average income rise of €200,000 per capita. The figure has no bearing on the real state of the majority of people.
Conventional economic indicators often conceal more than they reveal and therefore, we are right to treat them sceptically when they are quoted to 'prove' the state's 'success in wealth creation'.
Nevertheless, the electorate has been bombarded with the claim that 'we' are so much better off. But these statistics and bombastic claims are contradicted by people's gut feelings and everyday experiences of crowded A&E hospital units, housing waiting lists, rundown schools, chaotic public transport and increasingly stressful jobs.
Gut instincts are much more telling than technocratic figures and this government will find that as far as the hard-pressed electorate goes, cabinet musical chairs is as about as impressive as reshuffling chairs on the Titanic.
There are two implications from this:
Firstly, there is a massive electoral gain to be made from the growing number of people disillusioned and disenfranchised by the policies of this government. Sinn Féin has already made dramatic gains in voters over recent elections. But it is a fair assumption that that even more dramatic gains can be made as Fianna Fail alienate more of their traditional supporters and, just as important, votes are taken by Sinn Féin from the other opposition parties.
This is a fair assumption because it follows from an analysis of the root malaise in Irish society — the nexus of policies that underpin the Celtic Tiger type economy. It is the mantra of late capitalism, also known as neo-liberal globalisation. These policies demand a flexible labour force that competes in a global marketplace, opening the country up to transnational retail business, from food to mobile phones, enticing transnational manufacturers, and privatising publicly-owned assets.
The government's reshuffle and recent rhetorical tack to the 'left' is fooling no one because it is the purveyor of these core policy prescriptions that are making the country sick.
But the government's self-imposed alienation from the people will have limited gains for Fine Gael and Labour. Neither of these parties seem willing or able to put forward an analysis of what's really wrong with modern Irish society. Their argument is not with the basic policies of the Celtic Tiger but rather with its micro-management. Indeed, both Fine Gael and Labour continue to claim that they laid the foundations for the state's 'economic success'.
This brings us to the second implication of all this. If Sinn Féin is to reap the abundant harvest of votes, then it must take courage to be honest with voters and tell them exactly what it is that is crushing their livelihoods and well-being. The kind of courage it takes to say: "The emperor has no clothes!"
The terrible beauty about this is that it is the very same neo-liberal economic policies ravaging the South that have, under Conservative and New Labour Westminster Governments, also hit voters hard in the North.
This gives an exciting new impetus to the importance of achieving an independent united Ireland. Sinn Féin is in the unique position of being able to articulate a radical and real alternative vision to the misgovernment that has afflicted the whole island — and to reap the votes accordingly.