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Freedom Now: Towards A New Revolution in Ireland

Eight hundred years and counting, but still there appears to be no end in sight to British rule in Ireland. After a further quarter century of relative class peace in the Six Counties, marked by the April 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there is no significant force advocating, far less promising, an end to this saga within the foreseeable future.

The partition of Ireland was a body blow to the struggle for Irish sovereignty. It remains a festering wound and a constant reminder of the brutal and artificial division of its people and natural territory, an affront to its independence as well as to the basic dignity of human and social solidarity.

This division shows no sign of withering away of its own accord or being dismantled any time soon. Indeed, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, with the collapse of the so-called Celtic Tiger and the subsequent UK withdrawal from the European Union, the convergence of class interests over the border issue has stalled, making the prospect of Irish unification on a capitalist basis even more remote.

If anyone was ever in doubt or harboured illusions about British intentions in this regard, the recent Windsor Framework agreement signed with the European Union made them abundantly clear. The fact that the meeting between Sunak and EU leader von der Leyden, took place in Windsor Castle was more than symbolic; as the longest-surviving home of the British monarchy, it provided the perfect setting for establishing the imperial credentials of the agreement.

Today’s agreement is written in the language of laws and treaties. But really, it’s about much more than that,” declared Rishi Sunak, following the agreement on February 27. “It’s about stability in Northern Ireland. It’s about real people and real businesses. It’s about showing that our union that has lasted for centuries can and will endure." [emphasis added - BD]

The Windsor agreement’s legal framework underscores this:

The proposed measures are fully aligned with and advance the UK’s commitments and responsibilities under the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and the Act of Union....."

Referring to the DUP’s ongoing refusal to sign up to the new agreement, Sunak also commented: “That will not bolster the cause of unionism, I believe that deeply.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein - which has long since abandoned the struggle for unity and independence - is also doing its utmost to convince the Unionists that the Windsor Framework and power-sharing with a Sinn Fein first minister represents no threat to the Union.

In the April 1 (2023) edition of An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein’s National Chairperson, Declan Kearney, railed against “megaphone politics” and sought to allay Unionist fears:

So, to be clear, the Protocol does not challenge the constitutional status quo. These matters will be determined when a unity referendum under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), is secured and won.”

The GFA text stipulates that "it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland”.

In reality, both the terms and the timing of such a plebiscite are entirely at the disposition of Westminster. Currently, there are no set criteria for when a border poll would be triggered. Were the Labour Party to come into office, this would not change things by one iota. In a recent interview, the Shadow NI Secretary Peter Kyle said the conditions currently did not exist and declined to say what the criteria might be.

It is quite feasible that another 25 years will pass before the British government might accede to such a measure. Even then, the constitutional arrangement could provide for another lengthy period during which Northern Ireland retains its autonomy under a joint sovereignty arrangement.

Meanwhile, according to Declan Kearney, “Positive leadership, and finding new compromises and accommodations, will be the foundation stones for moving forward.“

As a further demonstration of this sea change in policy, Sinn Fein participated in the reactionary, pro-imperialist ceremonies marking the coronation of King Charles III, head of the self-same Church and State which persecuted Irish Catholics and remains today as the standard bearer for the Union.

The living legacy of partition

The Good Friday agreement was the outcome of a 30 year-long mass struggle against the institutions of partition and British military rule. Despite minor reforms and massive repression, Westminster proved unable to contain the nationalist struggle. At the same time, the IRA’s military campaign proved totally incapable of either dislodging British rule or advancing the mass struggle. From a purely military standpoint, the struggle was at a complete impasse.

Whilst dangling the carrot of an eventual and ephemeral unification, the essence of the agreement was the maintenance of the Union in return for ending the institutional and social supremacy of the Protestant caste system.

The Unionist monolith in Stormont had been shattered long before the agreement was signed. Since then, the main institutions of Loyalist domination have been dismantled and the Protestant caste has seen most of its privileges in education, housing and employment, whittled away. Although significantly weaker, the caste mentality, with its accompanying anti-Catholic prejudice and displays of supremacy linked to the Union with Britain, remains embedded in the continued segregation across several key sectors.

Along with entrenched political divisions between the nationalist and unionist populations, there remains an intrinsic social and cultural segregation. Today, around 93 per cent of Northern Ireland’s children are educated in schools with either a Catholic/Irish identity (maintained schools) or a British/Protestant identity (controlled schools), while only seven per cent attend integrated schools.

But perhaps the greatest monument to the endemic divisions of partition can be found in Belfast, where 94 per cent of the city’s public housing is segregated and entire communities are separated from each other by the so-called “peace walls”. These were initially set up by the British army during the 30-year long conflict and were scheduled for demolition in the aftermath of power-sharing.

However, there are actually more of these monstrosities now than there were before the Good Friday agreement, with over a hundred of them remaining in place across Northern Ireland as a whole and serving as flashpoints of Loyalist aggression on different occasions.

Even in the event of an agreement over Brexit trading arrangements and the return of a devolved power-sharing assembly at Stormont, there is little prospect, even in the medium term, of Westminster dismantling any of the borders that mark the essential boundaries of partition and British rule. For the ruling rich in Britain, His Majesty’s United Kingdom is as sacrosanct as the monarchy itself, all the more so given the looming threat of Scottish independence.

The failure of the peace agreement to deliver significant progress extends well beyond the purely geographical boundaries of partition. At a social level, the neo-liberal capitalist polices of the power-sharing assembly have left large sections of the working class, both Unionist and Nationalist, facing the highest levels of deprivation compared to anywhere else in the UK. Assessing the impact of the “peace”, an article in The Guardian of April 13, 2021, summarised it this way:

A Northern Irish generation was supposed to inherit peace and prosperity – instead they got second hand trauma.....The conflict may have ended”, it continued, “but the fighting didn’t. The fight for jobs, education, mental health and addiction support, for housing and investment continued on and on, with the political establishment across these islands simply equating the absence of violence with success of the peace process.”

Employment rates among Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are now level, with both communities evenly matched in most types of jobs. Unemployment, which had been higher among Catholics from 1992 to 2015, has now converged for both at around 6% across both sectors.

As of 2020, over 300,000 people (16%) in Northern Ireland were living in absolute poverty with a further 350,000 (19%) of people in Northern Ireland considered to be living in relative poverty.

According to a 2023 NISRA (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency) report:

NI had the joint lowest increase in earnings across the 12 UK regions over the year and now ranks third lowest of the regions, with weekly earnings £48 below the UK average in 2022.

Real weekly earnings in NI,” continued the report, “decreased by 4.5% over the year to April 2022, which is the largest annual decrease in real earnings on record."

The plunder of modern Ireland

Ireland today is an oppressed nation whose sovereignty has been trampled upon by every single British government from Cromwell and Lloyd George, on to Churchill and Atlee, and through to Blair and Sunak. It is virtually guaranteed that this will continue should the Labour Party win the next election.

Partition and the Union have just celebrated their centenary and remain cornerstones of colonial rule, From its inception in 1921, the six county statelet served as a beachhead for British economic rule and, with one of the largest deepwater ports in Europe, it has stood as a vital outpost for British imperialism in the Atlantic and the North Sea.

From the outset, the development of British industry in the Six Counties was encouraged to shore up the union and, as Tory leader Lord Randolph Churchill put it, as a “base for the maintenance of British interests and British power in the island”.

The war of Independence from 1919 to 1921 shook British rule at its core and made partition even more crucial. The political counter-revolution initiated by Collins and followed through by Éamon de Valera, ensured that the economy of the Free State, as it was then called, remained dependent on and subservient to British capital. The pattern of agricultural exports and industrial imports continued unchanged from the colonial period, the principal beneficiaries being the commercial farmers of the east and south, and the Dublin-based merchants.

From 1922 to 1992, mass unemployment and emigration were near constant features of its dependency, reflecting an underlying inability of the southern bourgeoisie to develop the economy. It was during this period that Irish emigration to the mainland actually increased, particularly in the aftermath of World War II when vast profits were to be made in British construction, textiles, shipbuilding and car manufacturing industries. Between 1950 and 1961, 399,987 people left the Irish Republic and by the time of the 1961 census their numbers in Britain had reached 950,978, exceeding even the post-Famine peak of 1861.

Following Éamon de Valera ‘s election in 1932, there was a brief attempt to stimulate indigenous capital accumulation and investment in manufacturing via a series of trade tariffs. Although this led to some short-term success in sectors such as clothing and confectionery, it did not begin to touch key sectors which were dominated by British capital.

The extent of British capital’s penetration of the 26 Counties was demonstrated by an OECD study which estimated that between a third and a half of all manufacturing concerns were either controlled or owned outright by British firms. With some 70 per cent of the 100 largest companies in the Twenty-six counties in 1971 being British-controlled, in part or entirely, it was calculated that some 60 per cent of total profits of all publicly quoted companies were pocketed by British investors.

In the preceding ten years, around 500 new industrial concerns, with assets totalling about £150 millions were established in the south of Ireland. Of these more than a third were directly sponsored by British companies. The profitability of these investments could be gleaned by a look at the average rate of profit on foreign capital in Ireland during 1970. This was a little over 20 per cent – compared with 13.4 per cent in Britain itself. Just how dependent the Irish economy was on decisions taken outside the country could be gauged from the fact that some 70 per cent of investment in manufacturing was decided on or sanctioned by head offices abroad – mostly in Britain.

Despite “the white heat of the technological revolution” trumpeted by Harold Wilson’s Labour government between 1966-70, British imperialism’s economic domination was giving way to its US, Japanese and German competitors. With the entry of both parts of Ireland into the EEC, and later the European Union, Ireland was primed to become a major target of US capital.

The new wave of conquest

This was part of a major shift by the southern bourgeoisie, to further enrich itself on the backs of working people and at the expense of the Irish nation. It entailed prostrating itself before international capital and surrendering any hope of development in return for what was essentially a handful of glittering trinkets. The new conquistadores were modern multinational corporations and high on their list of potential plunder was Ireland’s vast reserve of mineral resources, with the treasure of zinc in particular set to replace Aztec gold.

The multinationals like Tara Mines, and the giant tech companies that followed, had no need to embark on a voyage of discovery. For the much shorter transatlantic journey, this time in the opposite direction, they were openly hailed and lured by the promise of untold fortunes in a low tax, low wage and deregulated export environment. This process of abject, voluntary surrender was summed up in the following account of the period:

First, capital grants and tax concessions were provided to encourage export-oriented manufacturing. Second, the Industrial Development Authority was given the task of attracting foreign firms to Ireland, again aimed at exports. And third, protection was gradually dismantled in return for greater access to markets abroad, culminating in an Anglo-Irish Free Trade Area Agreement in 1965 and accession to the European Community in 1973.”

Despite this, there was no convergence with European living standards, with the average level of GNP per capita in the South remaining within the range of 60 to 65 percent of the EU average for the period 1960 to 1990.

Following the recession of 1991, the Irish economy was opened up almost entirely to unregulated investment. Inward FDI flows increased from the equivalent of 2.2% of GDP in 1990 to 49.2% by 2000. By far the biggest source of FDI came from US multinationals and, at one stage, it was estimated that Ireland was the home of one in every four greenfield sites (new FDI ventures) being developed by US multinationals in the EU.

By 1995 multinationals in Ireland accounted for one quarter of total output, and almost three quarters of economic growth. The economic relationship underpinning this was a classical feature of almost every semi-colonial capitalist economy, hamstrung and beholden to the big hitters in the imperialist metropoli.

This formed part of a near-universal shift in the tendency of modern imperialism towards outsourcing of production. Whereas previously, Western imperialist powers imported the raw materials from the Third World for manufacture and consumption at home, cheap labour in dependent countries such as Ireland was now being used to assemble and manufacture goods for export.

Klondike capitalism and the mining bonanza

By the 1970s, Ireland was developing into the largest producer of Zinc in Europe. In fact, at one point, Irish zinc production exceeded total European output and was amongst the top ten producers in the world. On paper, this offered the opportunity for real development and investment in both mining and related metal manufacturing industries. In what can only be described as an act of wanton industrial profligacy, it was an opportunity squandered for the sake of the immediate, narrow interests of Irish capital.

The fact that not one of the zinc mines was Irish owned was bad enough in itself. However, even that is just one part of a sorry tale of economic surrender and subservience.

The first significant zinc-lead discovery was made by Northgate Exploration, (an American based multi-national now thriving on gold mining), when it discovered the Tynagh lead-zinc-silver-copper deposit in County Galway. Then, in 1970, Tara Exploration and Development Company Ltd, (a subsidiary of the Swedish multinational Boliden), discovered the Navan deposit. Exploitation of the site was leased to Tara, with production forecast to exceed 300,000 tons annually, enough to feed four smelters to refine the zinc.

Besides the enormous value added – smelting alone is estimated to double the value of the ore - smelters would have contributed directly to the manufacture of car-parts, domestic appliances, and a host of other products based on zinc. The conditions of the contract given to Tara did not require them to build a smelter and, to this day, with dozens of new smelters having already been built in India, China and Brazil, not one exists in Ireland.

Boliden, who acquired the mine in 2004, have their own zinc and copper smelters,including the Kokkola zinc smelter in Finland which is the second largest in Europe.

Instead, the Tara company sold its ore to no less than seven different foreign smelters, some of whom had to expand just to accommodate the huge Navan output. As with other multinational enterprises, Ireland would only share in the least profitable part of the process, in this case the mining stage.

One of the most damming examples of this plunder of Irish mineral resources, is provided by the Tynagh mine, a giant, polymetallic deposit near Loughrea that produced nearly a million tonnes of lead, zinc, and copper before it closed in 1982.

Tynagh was brought into production in 1965 with the prospect of a 4-year tax holiday. It was so successful in its first 2 years that the president of the operating company, P.J. Hughes, was able to boast to his shareholders' AGM that all the initial capital debt would be cleared in 2 years. This did not prevent the then Finance Minister, Charles Haughey, from granting the extraordinary 20-year freedom from tax in his 1967 budget, a measure which would have guaranteed tax free profits until 1985, years after the end of the mine's production lifetime

There was no doubting the consensual relationship, but it was a classic wham-bang-thank you-maam operation, one which left Ireland to clear up the mess afterwards. The nature of this was revealed by Brian Nolan in his blog, Gold in Them There Hills, posted on September 25, 2014:

Northgate Exploration, a Canadian mining company, and their international shareholders, made multi-millions of pounds, tax free, from this massive hole in the ground in Tynagh, and when they left, all we inherited was an environmental disaster, with little or no lasting benefits to the community. No swimming pools, community centres, industries, social services, university scholarships, endowments, philanthropic enterprises, nothing, just a few nice houses, some better roads, bigger pubs, a rotting jetty on Loughrea Lake, and lots and lots of arsenic and old slag.

This was confirmed by The Environmental Protection Agency which labelled Tynagh Mines as the most hazardous mine site in the country, with arsenic levels 1,600 times higher than safety limits, posing a potential risk to thousands of people across East Galway.

According to the Connacht Tribune of May, 2013, an EU Commission established that 420 tons of cyanide was used in silver ore processing on the site – equivalent to the total amount of lethal gas used by the Nazis during World War II.

Energy dependency

Amongst the many features of Ireland’s underdevelopment is the absence of any substantial indigenous energy supply industry. All oil, which accounts for 45 percent of its energy needs, is imported, making it one of the highest oil dependencies in the European Union. A similar picture exists with gas, 75% of which is imported, primarily from the UK via a gas pipeline that starts in Scotland.

The remaining 25 percent comes from the Corrib gas field, off the coast of Mayo.

The Corrib gas field is operated by a combination of three multinationals: Shell, Vermillion and Statoil.   Production is forecast to decline over the next seven years, accounting for less than 20% of demand by 2025, with supply ceasing around 2030.

As of 2022, about 13 percent of Ireland’s energy derived from renewables, consisting mainly of onshore windfarms. However, even these are provided and maintained by the UK multinational SSE PLC, with minimal benefits for the Irish economy as a whole. This is reflected in the huge disparity between the economic contributions which the company makes towards each country, reported in 2022 to be £5.8bn towards the UK and just €438m towards the Republic of Ireland. The disparity cannot be accounted for by the differential in power output which, at 567mw, is approximately one third of the 1.45gw generated in the UK.

This is further evidence of Ireland’s status as a semi-colonial country, a condition temporarily obscured during the 1995-2007 boom when Ireland was suddenly compared with the so-called tiger economies in Asia. As events would soon demonstrate, the rise and decline of the Irish version of this seemingly rampant creature was in fact just a more extreme expression of its capitalist underdevelopment.

Emergence of the Celtic Tiger

Not long before it gained the reputation for being a Celtic tiger, Ireland’s economy was labelled with an entirely different animal classification. In the beginning of the 1990s, it counted as one of the poorest countries in Western Europe and, as such, it was grouped insultingly by economists as one of the PIGS – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – due to its high levels of poverty, unemployment, mass emigration and low economic growth.

Appearances changed when the maiden capitalist economy prostrated itself before its masters in Europe and America. The staggering increase in FDI during the last decade of the 20th century was marked by the dominance of US capital. First impressions were of a perfect marriage. Offering unparalleled concessions to big capital, the Irish economy expanded at an average rate of 9.4% between 1995 and 2000, and continued to grow at an average rate of 5.9% during the following decade until 2008.

In effect, Ireland, or at least a sizeable part of it, had been converted into a giant US aircraft carrier off the coast of the EU. Materials (e.g., for computers, or chemicals for pharmaceuticals) were flown in, altered slightly, and then flown out to their final markets in Europe, with very little corporation tax taken from the profits. The eagle had well and truly landed.

This shallowness of multinational-led development was marked by the ease with which they could withdraw and move elsewhere, a trend illustrated when Dell pulled the plug on its Irish operations in 2001.

Describing Ireland as the "Wild West of European finance", an article in The New York Times in 2005 described the underlying underdevelopment as follows:

One of the major challenges facing Ireland is the successful promotion of indigenous industry. Although Ireland boasted a few large international companies, such as AIB, CRH, Élan, Kerry Group, Ryanair, and Smurfit Kappa, there are few companies with over one billion euros in annual revenue.”

Even in those cases where high tech FDI spawned the formation of many Irish companies, they were still mainly riding the coat tails of multinationals. So, for instance, in the software industry, which was deemed to be the most spectacular success story of the 90’s boom, Irish companies accounted for a mere €1bn of the €16bn worth of products and services produced there, even though they represented some 85% of all companies in the industry. The other €15bn was produced by a small group of large multinationals based in Ireland.

A clearing house for international capital

In its near-Faustian exchange to get rich quick, the Irish ruling class sold itself body and soul to the merchants of international finance capital. If ever a nation could be compared to an up-market bordello, then it was Ireland in the 90s.

In addition to all the tax breaks on profits and imports for FDI, Ireland became the location of choice for finance capitalists to play their tricks and get their kicks. As the Irish Stock Exchange developed into the largest global exchange medium for investment fund listings, it serviced “alternative investment assets” representing approximately 40% and 63% respectively of global and European hedge fund assets.

This was hardly surprising as they were not subject to income tax, subscription tax, redemption tax or corporation tax. All in all, these so-called “Irish” funds remain exempt from Irish tax on their income or gains, irrespective of where investors are located.

How the mighty fall

The Celtic Tiger went from boom to bust with breathtaking speed. In the wake of four austerity budgets - seen as the toughest in Europe - Ireland became locked in depression with ten successive quarters of economic contraction.

At the time, an Irish Times editorial in 2009 declared:

“We have gone from the Celtic Tiger to an era of financial fear with the suddenness of a Titanic-style shipwreck, thrown from comfort, even luxury, into a cold sea of uncertainty."

Of course, the “we” who enjoyed the luxury of this woeful surrender to international capital, were to be found almost exclusive amongst the native capitalist elite and, to a very limited extent, within sections of an educated middle class servicing the technical and administrative needs of the multinationals. As for the rest, particularly for working people, the boom contained no great benefit. For those workers who bought into it, it turned out to be an absolute disaster, being left to sink or swim without a lifeboat in sight.

The enormous scale of this titanic crash was explained in simple but graphic terms by the news station Al Jazeera:

Following a government guarantee to underwrite the country’s six major banks shortly after the crisis broke, Ireland’s population of 4.5 million was shouldered with an enormous debt of €400bn, proportionately the highest per capita commitment in the world.”

From 2008 to 2011, Ireland saw its national income plummet by over 17%, the deepest and most rapid collapse of any Western country since the Great Depression. As unemployment lurched to in excess of 20%, emigration to Britain spiked with a 25 percent increase in 2010 and an overall emigration figure of 385,000 between 2008-2012. Of course, this twin scourge of unemployment and emigration was not without precedent, but the scale of it was.

As of February 2013, 30.8 per cent of the country’s under-25s were unemployed, and those in chronic long-term unemployment accounted for close to 62 per cent of the total number of those out of work. At the same time, state support has been halved for those aged 20 to 21, with unemployment benefit (known as Jobseeker’s Allowance) cut from €204.30 to €100 per week and to €144 per week for those between 22 and 24 years of age. As a result, many of Ireland’s young adults are planning to emigrate. In the last four years, more than 300,000 people have emigrated from Ireland, with four out of ten aged between 15 and 24.

For a decade, the "Celtic tiger" was the poster child of free-market globalisation. Suddenly, this bedraggled alley cat of an economy was converted into a model of neo-liberal austerity.

In 2010, this crippled beast of Irish capitalism became the recipient of a joint IMF-EU bailout amounting to €85bn, of which €35bn went directly into the coffers of the ailing banking system. The loans were subject to an average interest rate of 5.8%, above the 5.2% paid by Greece for its bail-out.

It was a seismic shift unforeseen by any of the champions of a free-market economy. Public-sector spending proceeded to be reduced by 7.5% of gross domestic product with a series of swingeing cuts:

  • public sector pay cut by 15%,

  • child benefit cut by 10%,

  • unemployment benefit cut by 4.1%.

With a further €3bn being cut in the following year, it amounted to a total of 10% of GDP over three years.

Of course, the Titanic nature of the collapse, was part of the global crisis of capitalism. However, it was a global crisis which exposed Ireland’s utter dependency on foreign capital and the historical failure of a feeble Irish bourgeoisie to undertake any substantial, indigenous industrial development.

The only real ‘success’ story of indigenous industry in the Celtic Tiger was in construction. However, this was largely driven by debt-financed domestic demand and a boom-and-bust property bubble kept afloat by hugely inflated prices. The crisis precipitated a rapid collapse, as the housing market bottomed out. Construction employment fell from 273,000 to less than 100,000, with knock on debt crises; for developers who were unable to pay back their debts, banks who weren’t getting paid, and increasing numbers of homeowners struggling to pay mortgages.

The social consequences of imperialist rule today

Ireland today, North and South, is marked by an underlying structural defect, one that offers no future for as long as the country remains a divided nation subject to direct and indirect imperialist rule. The historical task of unity and independence is as vital today as it ever has been, even more so due to a deepening social crisis. This is not something which is simply aggravated by the vagaries of the capitalist system, but has been conditioned by it from the outset.

By 2019, it seemed like the good times had returned for Irish capitalists, with the economy registering a growth rate of 4.9%. Commenting on this, the Sunday Observer of 16 February, 2020, noted:

The Irish economy is overflowing again, this time on a wave of outside investment. In 2018 alone, foreign direct investment into Ireland rose by 52%.”

Despite this apparent recovery, Irish living standards are currently 15 percent below the EU-28 average and are closer to Greek and Portuguese levels than to most other countries in the EU-28. The long term effect of this was already noted in a 2016 report entitled, The Truth About Irish Wages, produced by the trades union UNITE;

Most of all, it means that the men and women who produce the wealth of this country – workers on the factory line, in the offices and shops, on the building sites – are forced to live on depressed incomes with all the consequences that has for their life-chances.”

The extent of this was revealed in a later, 2021 report by the same union;

Key indicators of Ireland’s high levels of economic inequality include, but are not limited to:

  • Figures in 2019 – the most recent year for which data is available – showed an increase in the proportion of our population experiencing three or more types of deprivation

  • Median rents are at between 48% and 68% of the median wage

  • Over a third of those living in rental accommodation experience deprivation

  • In 2019, well before Covid struck, nearly a million people, or one in five of the population, were on waiting lists to see a consultant

  • Ireland has the highest level of inequality in earned income before tax in the EU28 ."

In contrast, it was reported at the time that Ireland had the fifth-largest number of billionaires per capita in the world

Whereas profits in wholesale/retail, transport and hospitality sectors - where multinationals comprise roughly a third of all companies - rose by 50 percent from 2007 to 2015, the salaries of workers in those same sectors rose by just 5 percent during the same period.

The social consequences of imperialist rule in Ireland are perhaps most acutely revealed by the near total collapse of the house building industry. Compared with the 431,763 dwellings built between 2001 and 2011, just 33,436 housing units were constructed between 2011 and 2016.

As even the BBC pointed out, Irish capitalists still found a way to fatten their wallets:

“The shortage of accommodation has seen Dublin rents rise - meaning investors are now buying up property, driving the mini-boom.”

As homeownership nosedived, rents skyrocketed and, by 2021, Dublin had become the most expensive city in the European Union. Rents for a small house or one-bedroom apartment were higher than in Amsterdam, Berlin or Paris. Since then, rents in Ireland have increased by a further 8.2 percent.

As a result, homelessness became rampant, with the number of homeless families spiralling by 280 percent since 2014. More than one in three people in emergency accommodation today is a child. This was also illustrated by the BBC which reported the following case:

"Another young woman at the table says soaring rents made her family of four recently homeless for the first time, despite being able to offer 950 euros (£760) a month for rent."

According to a 2022 report by the state’s Central Statistics Office, 43 percent of renters were thinking of leaving Ireland to find better and cheaper housing abroad. The same report indicated that around two thirds of people believed they were financially worse off compared to the previous year.

Agriculture and the land question

The struggle for land has always been at the heart of the national question in Ireland. It continued to be so after the 1903 Land Acts effectively ended English landlordism and facilitated the emergence of a new class of native Irish capitalist farmers. Far from ceasing, class divisions within the countryside have accelerated, thereby demonstrating that resolution of the land question remains at the core of a new revolution in Ireland.

Not all of the English aristocracy lost their vast tracts of plundered land. To take but one contemporary example, the current Duke of Devonshire, the one and only Peregrine Andrew Mornay Cavendish, is the proud owner of an 8,000 acre estate in the south-east, based around Lismore Castle in Co Waterford.

The castle was built in 1185 by the Lord of Ireland, Prince John of England. In addition to his castle estate, the noble Duke holds the deeds to a 20-mile stretch of the river Blackwater, as well as another 200 acre estate in Cork.

Today,100 years after the end of the second land war in1923, the Duke’s castle - alongside the grand mansions of several other Anglo-Irish peers - surveys a rural landscape in which class divisions have become deeper than ever. Since Ireland joined the European Common Market (EEC) and was subject to its Common Agricultural Policy, large scale intensive farming, both for export and to meet the needs of a burgeoning food processing industry, has driven small farmers to the wall.

This is reflected in the increased marginalisation of large numbers of small family farmers in increasingly impoverished areas. Amongst the 135,037 farms registered in 2020, almost 43 percent (57,500) were less than 49 acres in size, the majority of which were to be found in the Border and West regions. A previous survey conducted by Teagasc (Agriculture and Food Development Authority), showed that these regions also comprised the highest proportion (44%) of vulnerable i.e., not viable, farm households.

In the case of farms across the whole of the Republic, there was an estimated 36 percent classified as vulnerable and a further 29 percent of farm households being classified as sustainable solely due to an off-farm income, i.e., a wage from another job.

Their precarious position deteriorated further following the crash and the surge in unemployment, especially in the construction industry where most farmers worked their second job.

By 2016 the situation on sheep farms worsened considerably, with the viability figure falling from 26 to 23 percent. Even then, the average annual farm income was just €15,708. For beef farmers in particular, the crisis has become even more acute. According to the 2018 Teagasc National Farm Survey, the average farm income of beef farmers in 2018 fell by 21% to €8,318 - 80% below Ireland’s average industrial wage.

With prices freefalling by around 80 percent to an all time low of €7 per ewe, the Irish Farmers Association has been compelled to organise a series of protests, arguing that the minimum price per head should be at least €25/ewe just to survive.

The contrast with big capitalist agri-business could not be starker, with the likes of the Glen Keen Farm, an agri-tourism business in Co Mayo, exploiting over 1,700 acres for sheep farming. In the case of beef farming, this is matched by the Good Herdsmen company which farms 1,000 acres, complemented by its own food processing business producing a variety of organic meat products.

Based in Tipperary, Good Herdsmen has now been taken over by the UK based multinational ABP, whose offshore accounting operations have assisted in huge tax avoidance schemes.

This type of agri-industrial system is part of an increasing concentration of capital in fewer and larger agriculture units, with greater degrees of specialisation in dairy and meat products. With billions of Euros in turnover, companies such as Omua Co-operative Ltd, Dawn Meats and the Kerry Group are making vast fortunes which, in the latter case, amounted to a declared 2021 pre-tax profit of €816.3 million.

A similar process is evidenced in Northern Ireland where Moy Park Ltd, has become one of Europe’s largest poultry producers, employing almost 10,000 workers and enjoying a 2020 pre-tax profit of €91.4 million

These class divisions are not unique to Irish agriculture but they are accentuated by Ireland’s status as a semi-colonial country.

The Winds of Change

When Irish beef farmers launched a week long protest in 2019 against the low prices they received for their product, it was part of a gathering wind of change which was then registered in the following year’s elections.

This was no ordinary protest: it involved pickets lines which spread to 21 of the country's 29 largest meat-processing factories, including plants owned by Kepak and Dawn Meats, two of the major players in the industry. Up to 3,500 beef farmers staffed 24-hour pickets in Cork, Tipperary, Clare, Cavan, Meath, Limerick, Westmeath and Donegal and brought the industry to a standstill.

The Irish Farmers’ Association was pushed to one side as the movement grew from its humble beginnings as a WhatsApp group into a national organisation – the Beef Plan movement – comprising over 21,000 members. The new organisation’s co-founder, Hugh Doyle, was quick to explain the causes of the upsurge:

“There is loads of money in the beef industry,” said Doyle. “It’s just that the poor farmer isn’t getting any of it. The main processors in this country are some of the richest men in Ireland.”

The beef protest was symptomatic of a general change in consciousness and discontent that was sweeping the country resulting from high rents, homelessness and increased levels of poverty and low wages.

This was highlighted in the 2014 protests against water charges which attracted an estimated 130,000 across the Republic. It was also reflected in the results of the 2018 referendum on abortion which registered an overwhelming majority in favour of repealing the Irish state’s Eighth (constitutional) Amendment outlawing abortion under any circumstances.

For whom the bell tolls

In response to this, Sinn Fein pivoted to the left, posing as a party representing the interests of working people. Its 2020 election manifesto stated:

“In that time we have had Governments for the wealthy, Governments for the privileged, Governments for the property developers, Governments for the banks. Sinn Féin believes that it’s time that we had a government for the people. A government that puts the welfare of its citizens above vested interests. A United Ireland in which the economy serves the needs of our people and not the other way around.”

Included in this populist manifesto was the promise to tax big tech, banks and the rich. It also committed to invest heavily in public services and engage in a mass, public house building programme.

The electoral success of Sinn Fein – it gained a majority of first preference votes – came as a complete surprise, even to Sinn Fein who had only bothered to field 42 candidates. Polls since then have predicted Sinn Fein’s electoral support rising to around 36% of first preference votes which would almost certainly guarantee an outright majority in future elections to the Dáil (parliament).

Combined with the subsequent electoral victory in Northern Ireland, giving Sinn Fein a majority in Stormont, and with the more recent (2023) local elections - establishing Sinn Fein as the largest party in local government - there is clearly an objective dynamic towards Sinn Fein governing both parts of the island, a situation unparalleled since the pre-partition electoral landslide of Sinn Fein in 1919.

These results indicate that there is already a mandate for unity and independence across the length and breadth of the island. Although the deepening social inequalities and deprivation are fundamental drivers of these results, they also provide indisputable evidence of an increase in support for Irish unity across the island as a whole.

Within Northern Ireland in particular, the historic fragmentation of the Orange monolith and the inability of the Union to meet the needs of working people and youth, is opening the door for Irish unity to gain leverage within sections of the Protestant working class. Of course, the DUP has retained its core base, which suggests that a sizeable section of the Protestant working class still clings to the coat tails of its masters. However, the recent local election results demonstrated that Unionism as a whole – with a combined total of 38% of the popular vote - is now a minority tendency.

Besides the election statistics, there is further anecdotal evidence of this trend: in the cultural sphere, there are growing numbers of Protestants participating in the St Patrick Day festivities and usage of the Irish language has reached an all-time high, including amongst the Unionist population of east Belfast. Currently, the Irish language centre on Newtonards Road, Turas, has around 200 people from the Protestant community, making up almost half of the centre's students.

On the other hand, the numbers participating in the July 12 Orange parades have dwindled significantly.

With rising incidences of joint strike action by public sector workers in particular, the decline in Unionism and the elimination of the material benefits previously associated with it, has opened the door to a broader working class unity, including on the national question. Such unity will have to be fought for and won in struggle, not by petitioning the establishment.

Sinn Fein in retreat

Despite these historic changes, Sinn Fein itself has ceased, in any meaningful sense, to advance its historic demand for a united Ireland. It’s acceptance of the Windsor Framework – proclaimed by Westminster as a vital element in the long term protection of its “precious union” – marked a further step in its retreat.

The rightist evolution of Sinn Fein was summed up by a December 2021 article in The Economist magazine:

"Its Marxism has gone the same way as its defence of violence. In 1979 Mr Adams, the pre-eminent leader of Republicanism for almost half a century until he stepped down from the party leadership in 2018, declared that Sinn Fein was “opposed to big business, to multi nationalism…to all forms and all manifestations of imperialism and capitalism”. Now Pearse Doherty, its finance spokesman in Dublin, says multinationals “know that Sinn Fein isn’t going to go after them”. Its ministers in the north have signed off on private companies building and managing schools, and called for a big cut to corporation tax."

In its latest manifesto for the local government elections, it not only lauded the benefits of the Brexit Protocol for capitalist trade but insisted on taking credit for it, saying that:

Huge opportunities continue to exist for our local companies due to our access to both the EU and British markets.”

This has been accompanied by a cross-class, populist demagogy, expressed most clearly in a speech by Michelle O’Neill at the 2022 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis:

My commitment is to make politics work for everyone and to lead an agenda for change through partnership, not division.......I want to co-operate across party lines and deliver in government by working with others who want progress.”

With regard to unification, after extolling the virtues of “a peaceful, smooth transition to a new and united Ireland – one that belongs to us all”, their election manifesto concludes simply with the benign affirmation that,

Now is the time to talk about the future.”, it concluded, and one designed “to maximise the potential of the all-Ireland economy.”

At the same time as its 2022 election manifesto promised to alleviate the suffering of Irish workers, farmers and youth, it also declared its pro-business agenda, including a thumbs up for “the many benefits and jobs FDI has brought”.

“Sinn Féin has listened to businesses across Ireland,” it stated. “We want to meet these challenges head on, providing businesses with the support they need to weather the Brexit effects and address the other persistent problems hampering their growth.”

As part of its appeal to big business, Sinn Fein also projects itself as the party of law and order. Following decades of being hounded, harassed and persecuted by the southern state, it now promises to return cop numbers to record levels and to “ensure that sentences match the seriousness of the crime.”

This conservative vision of united capitalist Ireland, is coupled with support for the Irish army’s overseas operations, “allowing our Defence Forces to continue its [sic] important role as peacekeepers across the globe”.

This would include continued collaboration with NATO forces, a collaboration which first began with Irish armed personnel being deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo in 1997. Or, worse still, a repeat of the shameful Irish participation in defence of Belgian colonialism in the Congo in 1960.

A new revolution

The objective conditions in Ireland today point towards a new revolution, one which will tackle the fundamental obstacles to social emancipation and national freedom. The novelty of such a revolution is not predicated upon any particular historical uniqueness. Whilst it inevitably involves a fresh break from the Republican movement, this new revolution will borrow from the very best ideas of James Connolly and, more especially, from the social revolution which unfolded in Ireland between 1920-23. [See Part 2 of this series:]

Whilst Connolly failed to put into practice his fundamental idea that only the working class could liberate Ireland from imperialist tyranny, this central notion remains at the heart of any revolution worthy of the name. It can be summed up in the tandem proclamation that just as there will be no national liberation without socialism, there can be no socialism without national liberation. The two are inextricably bound together.

As demonstrated previously, capitalism in Ireland has been a disaster for its people. Not only has it proven itself utterly incapable of liberating the island from its seemingly eternal dependency, it has been the central prop of maintaining its underdevelopment since it emerged as the dominant mode of production in England during the 18th century.

As yet, no party involved in Ireland's centuries-old struggle for freedom has grasped this and put it at the centre of its thinking.

At the very time when the sea-change in Irish politics indicates the potential for a new revolution, the working class needs its own, all-Ireland labour party to grasp this historical challenge. Such a party will need to be all-Irish in character, with national demands that address the needs of working people on both sides of the border, and which will fearlessly tackle the issue of unification, not as a side issue but as an indispensable precondition for genuine working class unity overall.

Almost from its inception, the Irish Labour Party stood aside from the national struggle, taking no part in the 1916 Rising, refusing to stand candidates in the 1919 elections and abstaining from any attempt to lead the war of independence.

It came as no surprise then that it was embroiled in “the carnival of reaction” which Connolly correctly predicted would result from partition. Its rump in Northern Ireland became avidly pro-Unionist, suffering eventual elimination as it became torn between Unionist and Nationalist forces.

Opposition to the partition of Ireland and the demand for a single republic now, will be the touchstone for the development of a new revolution. This has nothing to do whatsoever with either reviving an IRA style military campaign or beckoning the southern government to begin a top-down campaign of citizens’ assemblies to prepare for a new constitutional order. Above all else, Freedom Now is the centrepiece of a new party, a new programme and a new revolution based upon a mass working class movement independent of the capitalist parties which have sold Ireland down the river.

In contradistinction to reliance upon either Dublin or Westminster initiating a split referendum, it seems quite reasonable to call for an all-Ireland constituent assembly with fresh elections on both sides of the border. It is highly unlikely that this demand would be granted given the current balance of forces. However, this is not an appeal to the good will of the establishment. Rather, it is aimed at organising and mobilising the broad masses of Irish people to take their destiny into their own hands against all those who seek to defer Irish unity to some distant and uncertain future.

Such a mass movement will be drawn from working people’s struggles to meet their everyday needs, in a similar fashion to the 1919-23 revolution when three general strikes were accompanied by a new land war and the widespread development of Irish soviets. As the Galway soviet declared at the time:

“Well, the Workers’ Council is formed in Galway, and it’s here to stay. God speed the day when such Councils shall be established all over Erin and the world, control the natural resources of the country, the means of production and distribution, run them as the worker knows how to run them, for the good and welfare of the whole community and not for the profits of a few bloated parasites.!”

The mass strikes, agrarian revolt and soviets of that time bore testimony to Connolly’s view that the working masses would be the heart and soul of the struggle for Irish freedom. The great tragedy was that Connolly never built or even tried to build a mass revolutionary party which could lead the struggle for power in the way indicated by the Galway declaration.

That is the challenge which lies ahead as working people in Ireland continue to break the mould. Along that path, the fight for a new, all-Ireland labour party would surely offer the opportunity to provide the leadership which has been lacking, despite centuries of heroic struggle.


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