“The representatives of the Irish ruling class stand weakened”

Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), talks about the political situation in Ireland and the government’s handling of COVID-19

September 06, 2020 by Muhammed Shabeer
Interview - Communist Party of Ireland

Peoples Dispatch talks to Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of Communist Party of Ireland (CPI), who discusses the party’s position towards the new government formed in Ireland and its policies, along with other issues including COVID-19. The CPI is an all-Ireland Marxist–Leninist party, founded in 1933. This is the first part of the conversation.

Peoples Dispatch (PD): What is your take on the new government in Ireland formed through a partnership between the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gáel and the Greens? Do you perceive this as an attempt by the establishment parties to defy the mandate of the 2020 general elections?

Eugene McCartan (EM): Like a game of fantasy football, the establishment media, along with other media pundits, fill the pages and airwaves with idle speculation on how long the current coalition government is likely to last. The coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gáel and the Green Party, while only in office since June 27, stumbles and staggers from one crisis to another. Only time will tell whether these are just teething problems or something more deeper. But what is clear is that the political representatives of the ruling class have been weakened following the results of the general elections.

If we look at the figures, just over 66% of the total voter turnout of 62.90% voted for parties you could describe as establishment parties like Fianna Fáil, Fine Gáel, Labour Party and the Social Democrats. A little over 27% voted for Sinn Féin and the ultra left, who could easily coalesce around a left social democratic program. If we add the Green Party, who won 7.13% votes, then the left of center vote comes to around 34% – a significant platform to build off.

The elections showed that a significant section of workers want change in their real material conditions: the endless struggle to keep a roof over their heads, get medical attention when they need it, sufficient wages/salaries to cover what they need to buy, and security in old age. Not a lot to ask for, but those who control our lives are determined to prevent us from having. Their priority is to make profits out of every aspect of human need. To do that, they need to keep costs down, pay workers less, and make them work harder. The workers’ existence is made as precarious as possible to keep them vulnerable to these pressures.

PD:  Do you perceive the improved performance of Sinn Féin in the general elections as the resurgence of left-wing republicanism in Ireland? In the backdrop of Sinn Féin’s rise and Brexit, what are your thoughts regarding the Irish reunification process?

EM: While Sinn Féin has been kept out of the governmental process, it is clear that the establishment was shaken by the election results in the early part of the year. However, it is not Sinn Féin’s policies that are a major threat to the establishment, but the social forces that have placed their trust in Sinn Féin, pushing it forward to get into governance.

At this time, Sinn Féin is the vehicle that working people believe is best placed to advance their interests. The Green Party also benefited from the anti-establishment vote. But as they have now gone into government and based on past experiences, they may lose heavily in the next elections.

There was a recent agreement between the EU member states on emergency funding to countries greatly impacted by the pandemic. However, there is clear correlation between countries worst affected by COVID-19 and those with a decade of austerity policies imposed by the EU which has led to poor and underfunded health services.

Even so, for a country to avail part of the €380 billion fund, it will have to come forward with a “structural reform” program – code words for more privatization and cuts in public services.

As for Irish unification, there is certainly much talk about it, but imperialism and its interests remain the decisive factors. The people of the north east corner of our country, still under British control, have been experiencing the impacts of cuts and underfunding.   They will continue to suffer as they are no longer of any real economic importance other than to the strategic needs of imperialism.

We continue to call for and work for the reunification of the country, and most importantly for the unity of the working people. We pursue a working class anti-imperialist strategy. Some forces who proclaim their continued opposition to partition have themselves fallen for the oldest ruse in relation to imperialism – failing to learn the lesson of history that imperialism doesn’t have friends, only interests.

PD: The nurses in Ireland have been protesting for more resources, staff, and support for the hospitals from the government. How is the country fighting the COVID-19 pandemic with a health system that is underfunded and under-prepared?

EM: The Irish state temporarily took all private hospitals and clinics under the state system so that they could avail of them if the public system could not cope. But in reality, it was to save the private medical system from collapse as patients were simply not attending hospitals, public or private, out of fear of catching COVID-19. 

The government’s move is costing Irish workers €115 million per month. The private facilities have not been used during the pandemic and the majority of consultants refused to assist the public hospitals. Many hundreds of nurses and doctors returned home to Ireland to help in the fight against COVID-19 but they have not yet been offered any permanent jobs. Many, no doubt, will once again leave the country because they can not find permanent work.

The COVID-19 pandemic, now sweeping the globe, has exposed the underlying weaknesses and inequalities in many societies, and also here in Ireland. Global debt stands at $250 trillion, corporate debt is already enormous, and trillions of dollars are swirling around in stock markets and in tax havens, stashed away by powerful individuals and corporations. Arising from the financial crisis of 2008–10, the Irish state took on 42% of all EU banking debt. We all know the price we have paid for that. 

Health and access to healthcare facilities on an equal basis is an absolute necessity and a basic human right. But we know that this has not been recognized in reality.  Waiting-lists continue to increase, while at the same time we witness the growth of private medicine and medical corporations. 

The outsourcing of health services is causing loss of jobs and further enriching private interests. It is a strategy which prioritizes the interests of private wealth over public good. Private medical facilities are now waiting in the wings to demand more from the public purse because of the COVID-19 threat. However, as the pandemic has revealed, public good is not compatible with private corporate profit.

Since 2011, the EU has made 63 individual demands on member-states to cut spending on health services and to privatize or outsource these services in order to meet the arbitrary debt and deficit budget requirements as per the terms of the Growth and Stability Pact, first entered into in 1997. After the global financial crash of 2008, this agreement was beefed up and further strengthened in 2011 and 2013, making the national budgets of member-states subject to the scrutiny of Brussels.

PD: What has been the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the country, particularly on the working class, and was the response from the government to tackle the crisis?

EM: While it is true that COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate against anyone and no one is safe from contracting the virus, some of us are decidedly more at risk than others due to the increased chances of exposure and the consequent health outcome. The report ‘Differences in Risk of Severe Outcomes from Covid-19 across Occupations in Ireland’, published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on July 28, highlights this fact.

Not surprisingly, the report found that the working class is most at risk of contracting, and dying from, COVID-19. Age and underlying health issues do have a role but being obliged to continue to work in a factory, a care home or a bus, when those in certain other professions continue to work from home, disproportionately impacts the working class. These workers have been at the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis – a frontline that spans both health workers and other essential workers. The report also shows that many of these essential jobs are insecure and poorly paid. 

At the same time, while many essential workers do provide socially necessary and essential work, many others are deemed essential only insofar as they ensure profit to a capitalist somewhere. These are workers placed at risk needlessly and often without even basic protections.

The workers who are most at risk, such as building workers, meat-packers, retail workers, and Deliveroo drivers, also tend to live in more socially deprived areas. This in itself is an additional risk factor. Many contact COVID-19 due to poor and overcrowded accommodation, forcing such practices as “Hot bedding”.