Saturday, May 31, 2008

Man bites dog

Irish trade unionism – the home of the young conservative fogey

Aficionados of Irish trade unionism may well have missed a recent gem by Sean Fryers, member of Unite executive and a youth member of the Irish Congress of Irish Congress of Trade Unions. In the Irish News on 28th May he bemoans the plight of local business facing inflation, increased energy costs, a climate change levy and water charges. His members face all these to a much greater extent than their bosses, but Sean chooses to write about the plight of the capitalists.

He worries about all these “as local companies will be unable to increase the pay of the working class people”.

The solution is for the local capitalist administration to lobby the Brown government to obtain a reduction in energy costs “for local employers”.

This is one of these “Man bites dog” stories, where the trade union representative demonstrates on behalf of the bosses, ignores the needs of the workers and gives a green light for a pay freeze before negotiations even begin.

It provoked no comment, but perhaps that’s hardly surprising in a week where the Trade union leadership are involved in yet another partnership sellout, one group of workers were on hunger strike outside ‘Unite’ offices because of alleged union collusion in their sacking and another group had split completely from Unite, alleging that their officers were in collusion with the employers.

Reading Sean Fryers offering, they may well have a point.

Days Like These No6

‘When are filmmakers going to make unionism ‘sexy’?’

by Guest Blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

The above question was the large print headline to a news feature that appeared in the Irish News 27.05.08 prompted by a complaint by the playwright Garry Mitchell ‘It has been said to me’, the playwright told the paper, ‘that Catholics are ‘sexier’, that they’re far more interesting and far more entertaining and that the leads [main actors] are more interesting if they’re Catholic’.

This response was solicited from the playwright as part of the papers reaction to the news that a film Hunger by the black director Alexander McQueen depicting the last days of the hunger striker Bobby Sands, had just won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes film festival. ‘Is the success of Hunger’, the paper asked, ‘evidence that ‘the troubles movie’ had turned the corner?’ In the two articles what followed the answer ‘no’ was given by those opposed to the film.

Now it may well be expecting too much of the a Belfast based newspaper to try and answer their own question by asking the director Alexander McQueen why he would even want to direct a film about Bobby Sands. The article only reported hostile unionist reaction. Publishing comment that ranged from anti-Agreement unionist James Dixon who accused the film of ‘glorifying some of the worst criminals in hell’ to the DUP’s Robin Newton who said that Alexander McQueen didn’t understand the truth about ‘the fanatical nature of terrorists’ – who along with other unionist members of Belfast City Council had opposed the making of the film in Belfast. These were the only people quoted. The balance of the article -if one could call it that - didn’t appear to be an issue.

Some may think it a rather glib point to make but it is important –given the nature of the subject – that it is now considered a cliché to refer to a serious matter as interesting (or not) due to the fact of it being ‘sexy’ or not. The English novelist A.S Byatt made that point rather poignantly over ten years ago when she said that one of most offensive traits of the 1980s was the intrusion of city yuppie jargon into common speech. So it was not uncommon to hear things like mortgages being referred to as ‘sexy’ deals when it had, as she said, ‘got nothing to do with sex’ or sex appeal. The above quoted headline ‘When are filmmakers going to make unionism’ sexy’’ not only does the paper a disservice, it does Gary Mitchell a disservice also. For he was reporting the speech of film industry people, he has never seen it as his job to make unionism or Loyalism sexy and he has had a good deal of success in portraying it as anything but!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Where are They and What Do They Believe In Now? - Part 2 the BBC & The SWP

Days like these Part. 5

Guest blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

First, an update on previous entries: The Labour revolt over the abolition of 10p lower tax band lead by back bencher Frank Field is now at an end, as he announced in the House of Commons. After having secured a pledge that its negative effects will be removed, Mr Field said that his war with the government ‘is now over’ (the Labour Lefts’ mini is now safely back in neutral mode). Unfortunately it will be of little help to the poor as the price of oil, wheat and rice sky rocket. Labour after the May council elections and the Crewe by-election will not be able to remain in power by seeking more advice from the free market Gurus. A parliamentary researcher friend tells me that those government ministers, who have managed to give up the gurus, have given up being Labour politicians as well.

I see that Mr Brendan Barber and the TUC have managed at last to kick their way into the headlines (well into the London Independent at least). He has promised a Summer of Discontent for the government – interesting that the Independent put it like that - weren’t the workers of the Winter of Discontent defeated? The question now is, can Mr Barber become the new Frank Field? Watch this space!


Rather than debate the value if this publicly owned institution, an evaluation of its effectiveness in aftermath of the disaster of the Hutton Report would be more in order. For it is clear that the Hutton Report was the largest political defeat for the corporation in its history. It was also the most obvious political white-wash of a government since the Bloody Sunday Widgery Tribunal into the Derry killings in 1972 (Hutton, as is widely known, played a controversial role in condemning the coroner after the bloody Sunday Killings for expressing a view that the victims were unlawfully killed). When his report on the death of the government scientist Dr David Kelly was published, it avoided the question of what may have caused his death - such as the government leaking the scientists’ name to the press - and condemning the BBC for helping the scientist express his views anonymously. However, BBC unions missed their chance when it would have been very easy to get public support for a political strike against Hutton and the Government and to protest against one of the most blatant political whitewashes in recent history.

Since then, post the Hutton report, the BBC has tried to recover some of its political influence. To a certain extent it has regained that influence, mostly as a consequence of the UK public moving to oppose and protest against the New Labour disaster. However, the BBC has also retained the right to run the usual immigrant scare stories – thus maintaining the Corporation dubious sense of ‘balance.’


The Socialist Workers Party, or the International Socialists as the organisation was before 1976, have managed to become what they used to campaign against – an organisation devoted to identity politics. If anyone was in any doubt as to the change or what it means for socialist campaigns, they should listen to the SWP mayoral candidate Lindsey German speaking at the last Stop the War Conference. Rather than emphasize the collective action of all groups and the international role of the War and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, the anti war leader repeatedly infers that the war is also a Muslim issue. It is only a Muslim issue in so far as the minority of Muslims say that it is. The wars and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan are not a Muslim issue - in the same way the occupation of the North of Ireland is a not catholic (or a protestant) issue.

It is anti-imperialist issue and the socialist aim in any anti-imperialist campaign is the forging of links between all those who oppose the imperial project. As a consequence of the SWP line the involvement of millions was thrown away in the hope that appealing to one group –the Muslim community (no matter how important) would help expand the group’s political influence. That strategy has failed, but the SWP like New Labour and the New Labour leadership, will continue to pile up disaster on disaster - thoroughly convinced that it is everyone else ‘who doesn’t get it’. And that’s one thing the SWP and New Labour are right about.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Bankrolling bigotry – another example

Another example of the official promotion of sectarian (one of the key elements of the peace process) came to light this week when it was revealed that public bodies were helping to finance loyalist marching bands.

In response to a freedom of information request, Stormont’s Department of Culture revealed that sixty five bands received funds totally more than £166,100 last year. The Arts Council gave about £102,500 to 24 bands; the Ulster Scots Agency gave £56,000 to 38 bands; and the Big Lottery Fund gave £6,980 to three bands (this was under its Awards for All scheme).

Among the bands receiving support (£4,600 from the Lottery) was the Pride of the Ardoyne. It takes part in the flashpoint parade past the Ardoyne shops every year displaying a banner bearing emblem of the Young Citizen Volunteers – the UVF’s youth wing - and the names of two deceased UVF members. The Mourne Young Defenders Flute Band received £1,800 from the Ulster Scots Agency for musical tuition and a further £1,219 for an ‘Ulster Scots summer school’ run by its members. In 2006 it took part in the Love Ulster parade in Dublin that provoked a riot.

That loyalist bands should be involved in sectarian intimidation is hardly a surprise – this is the very reason for their existence. The most sinister element is that they are being legitimised by the state; their coat trailing antics repackaged as cultural expression.

In justifying this the funding bodies corrupt the very principles they are supposedly there to promote. For example, on its support for loyalist bands, a spokesman of Arts Council claimed that it “monitors the artistic quality of applicants and is aware of its obligations under ‘Good Relations’ and Section 75 legislation.” He also claimed that the Council was “actively encouraging applicants to develop and expand their audiences and to break down barriers in society, in line with the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement”. A spokeswoman for National Lottery said that it helped “organisations to run projects which will bring people together and increase community activity”. Of course the whole ethos and activity of loyalists stands in direct opposition to breaking down barriers and bringing people together. They are there to fan sectarian sentiment and maintain divisions.

The reason for this apparent contradiction is revealed by the Arts Council spokesperson when he said that it was acting “in line with the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement”. The official bankrolling of bigotry is an inevitable consequence of the politics that underpin the peace process - that the struggle in the north is not about self determination or imperialism but the competing aspirations of two communities. Once this has been accepted, as it has by Sinn Fein and the SDLP, how can the demands of loyalists, such as the right to march anywhere they please, be denied? Sure isn’t part of their culture?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Where are They And What Do They Believe In Now?

Days Like These No4

Guest blogger Gerry Fitzpatrick

‘Policies not Personalities’ is still one of Tony Benn’s most memorable sayings which I would like to suspend for the duration of this and the next few columns. For it is time to take stock and provide a who’s who of the crisis in socialist ideas and ask who is operating in reverse gear?

For although thinks are moving slowly and some change is taking place I want to suggest why it isn’t happening faster.

The Labour Party

First an epiphany – not mine but watching someone have one. This was Frank Field MP on The Daily Politics programme talk about China and the Olympics. British athletes, he said, should not boycott the Beijing Olympics. They should go and protest at the opening ceremony by carrying Tibetan flags. When he was reminded by Andrew Neil that this would not be allowed, he got quite angry and said that it should done anyway and that Britain should encourage as many other countries to follow suit as doing nothing would give the Chinese Communist Party a propaganda triumph, similar to Hitler’s Olympics of 1936.

He is right of course; the international protests against the brutality in Tibet will be a focus for all the radical (anti-Stalinist) forces and may help rekindle the pro-democracy campaigners within the country. This time the Tibetan and pro-democracy campaigners will not receive official support from America or Britain as China now controls most of their debt.

The next I heard of F. Field was on Channel Four protesting at the abolition of the 10 pence tax rate for those on low incomes. He made a contribution as his former self – the Child Poverty Action campaigner and not as the ideological prisoner of neo‑liberal gurus who insisted that Social Security systems should be cut back to help employment and the economy grow.

Either he has been listening to others or has just told himself that he should never have believed Brown on helping ‘children out of poverty’ while his government bails out more failing banks. Say what you like, but if old FF has now a problem with Brown and his policies, how many will also ditch the gurus and oppose those policies? That depends on how badly New Labour losses are in the May elections. Then Mr Field will hold another meeting with his back bench colleagues about Mr Brown’s polices and decide if they will or will not move from a position of neutrality or into first gear. One to watch!

Brendan Barber and The Invisible TUC

How could you know that Brendan Barber is still the General Secretary of the TUC, other than by calling the TUC or wiking it? You wouldn’t know form the British media. I have never seen him interviewed in the way his predecessors were in the 1970s. In fact he and the TUC may just as well not exist. This is actually unfair as he is happy to work behind the scenes. After the hard work he put into betraying the Gateway and BAA unions he has earned the nickname ‘Brendan‑ Johnny‑Go‑Backwards -Barber’

Next Time: The BBC and the SWP

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Dr Varney’s prescription for the north – privatisation and wage cuts

The British Government’s grim vision for workers in the north took on some more detail this week with the publication of the second part of the Varney report. This report, the first part of which had dealt with taxation, was commissioned by the treasury in response to the pleading of local politicians for some type of economic peace dividend. Of course the expected economic package from Brown wasn’t forthcoming. As compensation Brown’s close advisor David Varney was tasked with drawing up proposals to boost the north’s economy.

Local politicians had all hung their hats on the call for a dramatic cut in corporation tax as the magical formula for economic growth. However, this was never likely to be conceded in the context of broader Treasury policy and was rejected by Varney in his first report. The second report, which sets out a broad economic prescription is therefore probably more significant, reflecting as it does British government thinking on how to reform the north’s economy.

For workers in the north Varney’s report makes grim reading. It is a programme for a complete shift towards neoliberalism. While this process has been ongoing for a number of years, under both devolution and direct rule, Varney’s proposals would mark a dramatic acceleration.

The main elements of Varney Two are privatisation and wage cuts. He calls for the Executive to increase the role of the private in the delivery of key public services while transferring other “non-core services” entirely into private ownership. The public assets he recommends selling off completely include Belfast Port, the NI Vehicle Testing Agency, car parks and the public housing stock. This last proposal is particularly harsh given the chronic housing crisis in the north and the growing waiting list for Housing Executive properties.

Alongside this privatisation programme Varney demands the lowering of wages in the north. His claim is that the marginally better pay and conditions in the public sector are hammering private sector growth. To counter this he proposes the introduction of regionalised pay for public servants, breaking the link with the rest of the UK. He also proposes a regionalised minimum wage and changes to the benefit system. The effect of all this would be to lower wages across the board, and to coerce people off benefits and into low paying jobs.

What Varney proposes would be a nightmare for workers. It would transfer massive wealth from labour to capital, and drive down the living standards of workers both in terms of their pay and conditions and the costs and quality of public services they use. Unsurprisingly Varney Two received a welcome from employers and criticism from trade union. However, the silence from local politicians was notable. While none of the parties endorsed Varney they didn’t reject it either. Their true position was probably summed up most accurately by a spokesperson for the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI) who when welcoming the proposals noted that “to a very large extent they already reflect the existing aims of the Executive”.