Pantomime season is upon us, where actors go through well rehearsed and sometimes laughable theatrics to keep us distracted in the chilly season, performing roles we have seen so many times we could write the script ourselves. Familiarity creates half the fun for the adults and innocent gullibility the mirth for the children. Or at least for some.
A number of years ago a work colleague reported a conversation between two young boys sitting behind him while he was watching a panto with his kids. “He’s behind you”, roared the children in the audience, only for the object of their warnings to turn round and miss the actions of the dastardly villain about to carry out the nefarious deed. “Oh no he’s not” exclaimed the gormless actor. “Oh yes he is!” screamed the children in the audience. “He’s behind you!” they would roar again and so again would the witless actor turn round to see nothing amiss. This obviously went on at some length until my friend heard one very well-spoken boy behind him tell his companion to shut up about the “he’s behind you” stuff – “be quiet Roger, the man’s obviously a fool.”
This story came into my head when I read the latest statement from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) about the “Fresh Start” agreement between the British Government, Irish Government and Northern Ireland parties. The agreement was a stunning exposure of the hollowness of Sinn Fein’s opposition to austerity as it agreed and subsequently praised its agreement to Tory austerity, with less mitigation of the cuts than they had previously denounced as harmful to the most vulnerable. The rest and larger part of austerity, including job losses, it had simply ignored as it happily implemented the cuts without a murmur of protest. Shame and embarrassment are fundamentally important human emotions but there is something that Sinn Fein and the Tories share – they don’t have any such feelings.
The ICTU statement is a staged event which acts out opposition that is without even the merit of being funny and which could only be bought as serious if one was a small child, or rather the vast majority of small children. It sets out ICTU’s support for the agreement even though this agreement is an agreement to implement austerity. How then do ICTU hope to oppose austerity while supporting the agreement that implements it?
Why, you may as well shout “he’s behind you”, because austerity lies inside, behind, beside and in front of the ‘Fresh Start’ but ICTU will pretend not to see it – “Oh no it’s not! – it’s over there”. “It’s inside, behind, beside and in front of you!” you might cry, to no avail. And so it might go on.
As you can see, not half as funny as your regular panto.
The ICTU statement is full of lies and pathetic, vapid declarations of opposition that are a tiny leaf protecting its extremely modest pretence at opposition. Not so much the naked emperor as the emperor’s naked servant.
So we can’t get past the first line of the statement before we get untruthful nonsense – “Given the critical role of the NI trade union movement in promoting and securing a peace process, Congress views it as essential that our devolved institutions remain intact.”
As a matter of fact it was not the trade unions and their large rallies that created the peace process but the secret negotiations between the British Government and republicans plus the unionists. Everyone knows this. All the rallies organised by ICTU did was reinforce support for the view that peace lay with those responsible for the violence. It is only in the sense that ICTU continues to support the same sectarian politicians that can it claim to continue to “secure” the peace.
As I pointed out before, the demand for local sectarian institutions was justified by the erroneous claim that this was required to end the violence, while now acceptance of violence is justified by needing to do so to save the institutions. Now ICTU claim that the existence of the sectarian institution is necessary to oppose austerity – “The imposition of Direct Rule would have unimagined consequences for the most marginalised in our society, as well as for trade unionists”, when in fact it has just been demonstrated to all but gullible children that austerity is necessary for the survival of the sectarian institutions.
In order to avoid reality ICTU is required to peddle the same nonsense as Sinn Fein but because it cannot be seen to be politically partisan it has to go further and cover up for all the political parties, including those whose policies are to the right even of the evil Tories and who make little pretence about their support for austerity: “Congress accepts the validity of the statements made by political parties that they pressed the UK Government for additional financial resources for NI to no avail . . . Congress in this context recognises that our political parties are facing up to their responsibilities to ameliorate the negative impact of welfare reform.”
Other embarrassing aspects of the agreement are hard to just ignore so instead they are ‘noted’ –“Congress, while noting the insertion of a clause in the Fresh Start Agreement which specifies that the cut in Corporation Tax can only occur if the NI Executive’s finances are on a ‘sustainable footing’, will continue to oppose the cutting of CT in the unconditional method as advocated in the Agreement.”
I don’t know what this means. Is cutting corporation tax ok if finances are on a ‘sustainable footing’; does ICTU oppose “unconditional” cuts only but support cuts with conditions; what would these be? Does the agreement not already state conditionality – finances on a ‘sustainable footing’ – so does this not therefore mean it supports the agreement on this issue as well?
ICTU claims it will oppose the terrible austerity but only in so far as it is the responsibility of the Tories in London, without accepting the responsibility of the local reactionary parties for agreeing to it and implementing it. All so that ICTU can pretend that the face of austerity is not in front of them when they go to lobby the local parties but is “behind them”.
ICTU pledges that it will “continue a vibrant opposition to austerity” but this opposition rests on a platform of “actions” that read not as solutions to austerity but as a list of “actions” that provide jobs for trade union bureaucrats. Their alternative policies consist of economic strategies, models, policies and quangos that culminate in a plea for the notorious patronage in existence not to pass them by – “That the membership of the trade union movement, as the largest civil society organisation in NI, be reflected in the composition of public bodies proposed under the Fresh Start Agreement.” So while thousands of public sector jobs disappear ICTU wants jobs for their head boys and girls.
The duplicity of the drafting of this rotten statement is exposed by the first lines of the statement being contradicted by the last – “Congress advises all of its members to note that the Fresh Start Agreement is not a trade union agreement but one reached by democratically elected political parties and both governments.” Having claimed credit for the process at the beginning they deny responsibility for its results at the end, from embracing it they state it’s nothing to do with them.
Which of course implies that one of their claims is actually true. And since I’ve just said that the opening lines were a lie, this means their concluding lines are correct. But only in the literal sense that the deal was made by the local parties and British Government, and the Irish government were in attendance as well.
The political purpose of the statement however is clear – don’t blame us for the consequences of the deal we’re supporting, we didn’t negotiate it, the “democratically elected” politicians did. More bluntly – you elected these people so you’re getting what you voted for.
This is also true and explains the ability of the two main parties to come out of negotiations confident they will still be the two biggest parties after the next election. But this does not excuse ICTU or its rotten statement. It simply means they lack the courage of their declared convictions. Most crucially it means they provide no alternative to austerity but are unable and unwilling to admit it.
But doesn’t the fact that the majority has voted, and repeatedly voted, for these sectarian parties that are imposing austerity mean that there really is no alternative?
Well, yes and no. Yes, because there is no political alternative at present to the collective plans of the British and Irish governments and the sectarian parties – no one can credibly claim that there is even a semi-coherent practical alternative being debated, or even ignored.
No, because these agreements always erupt into crises because the parties just don‘t agree on what their agreements are. ICTU backs every rotten deal that comes along and then they fail; so there will at some point be an alternative. The problem is that there is no progressive, working class one on the horizon.
No again, because the statement not only fails to oppose the agreement and the austerity that necessarily goes with it but endorses it. Exposing the austerity that resides in the heart of the agreement would begin to weaken it on grounds that are minimally progressive. When the leaders of ICTU can’t even oppose austerity then what we need is to oppose the ICTU leaders.