Éilis Ryan assesses how the Programme for Government protects ‘business as usual’ in a shaky Irish economy.
On Sunday, 14th June, negotiators from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party announced they had succeeded in agreeing a 126-page Programme for Government, “Our Shared Future.” The document came just over 120 days after the 2020 General Election, by far the longest stretch without a government this country has had.
The Green Party received a bump of four and a half percentage points in that election, increasing its number of TDs from 3 to 12. Post-election commentary centred around whether the success was down to traditionally right-wing voters veering green, or the Green Party veering towards young, left voters.
Certainly, the spin from the Green Party leadership around the Programme for Government has attempted to paint it as evidence of that second view. In his first interview defending the Programme for Government, party leader Éamon Ryan placed particular emphasis on the fiscal strategy agreed in order to implement the Programme for Government. The new government, according to Ryan, will borrow significant up-front capital to facilitate “very specific investment in projects that can help get people back to work and help make this [green] transition”, until such time as economic recovery leads to increased tax revenues and “[the Irish] economy is able to get back to a balanced budget.”
“Borrow and Invest.” On the face of it, this seems like a 180 degree turn away from the politics of austerity and so-called “fiscal discipline” which have driven the country since the 2008 global recession. An overt commitment to up-front expenditure through borrowing, to growing the economy through public investment rather than blind reliance on private sector recovery and ‘trickle down.’
This is compounded by a mission which sets out to “achieving social solidarity and equality of opportunity, reaching ecological harmony and economic equity, securing good livelihoods from our land and housing for all, and embracing our cultural diversity,” to be measured by “wellbeing indicators,” not just GDP.
The Green Party have achieved a rhetorical transformation; one that suits the modern image of our young Taoiseach. But what else?
Far from transformational, the reality of the negotiated Programme for Government is ‘Business as Usual.’ Beyond the glossy language of “mission” and “wellbeing” the economic proposals in the document are starkly neoliberal.
The main economic tool the Green Party wishes to sell as progressive is the Programme’s emphasis on investment. But investment in what? The Programme proposes a ‘Recovery Fund,’ to be spent over three years up to 2022, on capital infrastructure projects, reskilling for unemployed workers, and a credit guarantee for businesses, to increase their borrowing potential, and calls for the “warehousing of [business] tax liabilities.”
The “jobs-led recovery,” reads as a series of handouts for SMEs, ranging from straight subsidies and loans to support for SMEs to compete for public contracts – many of which will have resulted from the privatisation of public services.
The emphasis remains on ensuring Ireland remains ‘a great little country to do business in;’ “Backing entrepreneurs and pro-enterprise initiatives … maintaining a supportive environment for Foreign Direct Investment.
Mention of workers in all of this is sparse, and where retraining and reskilling programmes are mentioned, there is no detail as to what sectors or industries laid off workers might be deployed to. Wages and job security are entirely absent concepts. There is, naturally, space given to detail “strong and varied labour-market activation programmes.”
The programme is heavy on ensuring the State uses its wallet to guarantee the finances of private companies. SMEs will receive credit guarantees to enable them to borrow – i.e. the State will pick up the bill if they fail to repay their loans. NewERA is to be given a new mission to “leverage the balance sheets of state companies to drive new economic opportunities,” with leveraging always meaning using state funding guarantees to de-risk private sector finance. The Programme’s commitment to retrofitting investment leans heavily on a promise to “leverage smart finance,” from the EIB and via loan guarantees – more finance-speak for using public money to subsidise, de-risk and crowd in private finance.
“Beyond the glossy language of “mission” and “wellbeing” the economic proposals in the document are starkly neoliberal.”
The document, at 126 pages, manages the extraordinary feat of failing to mention the words ‘trade union’ a single time. There is a mention of “public service unions,” once, and then only to note that the incoming Government’s willingness to negotiate with these workers “will be guided by the State’s financial position and outlook, challenges in relation to recruitment and retention, and conditions within the broader labour market.” Hardly a resounding endorsement for trade unionism. “Business,” meanwhile, gets 41 separate mentions in the document.
Put plainly, the document pays lip service to the fact that large parts of the electorate fully understand that private business is incapable of moving this country forward.
What Ryan attempts to sell as a revolution in public investment, is in reality a large, state-funded subsidy – either direct, or via loan guarantees – for private actors to do the investing. And, of course, to reap the rewards.
Does this matter? Absolutely. Borrowing enormous upfront capital makes good sense if we invest it ourselves; democratically deciding what projects it goes into, controlling the quality of the jobs it creates, and reaping the financial dividends when investments pay off. Without this, ‘public investment’ quickly shifts into ‘public drain,’ and when the time comes for repaying the borrowing, austerity will be the only option for doing so.
There is an Alternative
There is, without a doubt, an alternative. Indeed at this point in our planets’ ever-increasing destruction, it is not so much an alternative as the only – or, at least, the least painful – option for human survival.
Instead of listing out the nice things we want, that alternative involves recognising why these things have not happened before, and tackling that fact. Why did we not solve the housing crisis? Why have wages stagnated since the financial crisis in spite of economic growth? Why has Ireland’s provision of as critical an infrastructure as broadband failed so completely? Why are so many Irish families drowning in the cost of childcare, just so they can participate in the workforce?
The answer is not a mystery. Ireland has not delivered on these things because our economy remains dependent on low-value service industries, on rent-seeking in its modern forms (build-to-rent property development being the latest example), and on tax breaks for business. We remain one of the few developed countries in the world without a real industrial base – let alone one which is publicly-owned.
If the State is going to be the investor and guarantor of economic development – as proposed in the Programme for Government, and as is always the case when the economy hits hard times – we must ensure that we retain control of industries as we emerge from the crisis – and ensure they are developed in a way which increases the quality of jobs, the value of our economy, and the country’s environmental sustainability.
In a number of European companies, state-owned, productive enterprises operate at a large scale. In Finland, for example, a 100% state-owned company provides IT support and modelling, computing and information services for academia, research institutes and companies in Finland.
“Socialists believe that politics is not about calling for, wanting, or fighting for nice things. It is about fighting for the economic transformation which can, in fact, actually achieve those nice things”
By contrast, Ireland has the lowest amount of state enterprise of any country in the EU. The development of new, state-owned commercial companies in areas such as construction, pharmaceutical development and medical supplies or home retrofitting would mean that, instead of giving handouts to private companies, we will see a return on our investment.
The absence of any real public banking system in Ireland is a major impediment to growing the public economy. AIB should be retained as a publicly-owned bank, to be used to drive investment in and lending to the public economy.
These projects should be accompanied by a new Workers’ Charter, including the introduction of full collective bargaining protections, the replacement of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, and the introduction of a 30 hour maximum working week, at current pay.
The alternative to Business as Usual is not ‘trying harder,’ – it is fundamentally altering the fabric our economy, from one which in which short-term private profit opportunities drive where investment goes, to one where investment is decided democratically, in the public good, and with the public reaping the rewards of that investment.
Lines in the sand
There is always much wringing of hands about the ‘fractured’ left at election time in Ireland – why won’t the tiny socialist groupings throw their support behind the fashionable Greens or Social Democrats? Can compromises not be made in the interest of keeping the right out of power – surely we have more in common than not?
And certainly, if you listed all the nice things the Green Party were in favour of, you would find my own party, the Workers’ Party, in favour of a great number of them too. Equality in education, decarbonisation of our economy, reproductive rights, increased overseas aid, etc.
However, the belief that our political similarities or differences come down to how many policies we have in common is misleading.
While the Green Party, led by Éamon Ryan, achieved a rhetorical transformation in the Programme for Government, the economics which underpins it means that little or none of that rhetoric will ever be achieved.
Fundamentally, there is a line in the sand between socialists and others on the Left. Socialists believe that politics is not about calling for, wanting, or fighting for nice things. It is about fighting for the economic transformation which can, in fact, actually achieve those nice things. Capitalism is incompatible with sustainability, equality and workers’ rights. A commitment to ‘human rights’ is meaningless without a commitment to ending capitalism.
This is what the Green Party must be measured on; its choice to side with an economic system which remains fundamentally incompatible with workers’ wellbeing, or, indeed, with the future of our planet.