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Locating Ireland in South America

By Mary Murphy

We need a new politics in Ireland but do we have the motivation for and capacity to mobilise? Professor Eduardo Silva from Tulane University has analysed the left politics that emerged in responses to crisis in some Latin American states in his study ‘Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America’. With some caveats, there are useful lessons to be found for Ireland. He emphasises motivation and capacity.

Conditions will trigger motivation. There is clear evidence of neo-liberalism causing economic volatility in Ireland. However, despite unresolved high levels of individual and collective indebtedness, unemployment, emigration and increased deprivation,  the crisis simply has not been grave enough to cause a reaction with sufficient force to provoke a change of course. The conditions do not compare to other European countries in crisis, and especially to Latin America. However, crisis is still alive in Irish society and the potential for conflict remains. This is evident in the Anti-Water-Charges Protest movement which echoes some of the approaches found in Latin America, both in terms of the coalitions and the issues.

Motivation is stimulated by political exclusion. The  2011 general election in Ireland represented a ‘pencil revolution’. However, there remains a crisis of representation, where citizens mistrust political institutions. Opinion polls highlight the turbulence and volatility in Irish politics. However, the same opinion polls can show a potential for recovery for mainstream national politics committed to meeting fiscal-deficit targets.

Silva emphasises the importance of associational power: the formation of groups; and collective power: the formation of new coalitions or alliances, in achieving change. He argues that Latin American elite leaders sought to ensure a fragmentation across the different parts of civil society. This echoes in Ireland.

Many trade unions and non-government organisations are sectoral, and organised around specific campaigns to puncture individual austerity measures. They are also conditioned by a tendency to consensus with the state. Government has implemented cutbacks that, while not significant in terms of the percentage of GDP,  are politically significant in encouraging groups to persist in sectoral campaigns while if anything generating resistance to harder and riskier work such as coalition building. There is, however, some evidence of the type of collective mobilisation that happened in Latin Amercia. Linkages across sectors can be found in various grassroots gatherings, Claiming Our Future, We’re Not Leaving, campaigns against precarity, and Right2Water.

As to capacity: there is evidence in Ireland of major protest and some very conscious attempts to build collective action. These efforts did not, however, demonstrate the necessary capacity or alliance-building to create the conditions for a significant ‘new politics’. Only the Right2Water campaign, from among various oppositional movements, has achieved critical mass. The emergence of this has been spawned by wider dissatisfaction with austerity and the political elite, according to Rory Hearne.

The reasons for this failure include the decline in trade unions and their adoption of a largely defensive position during the crisis, and the degree to which a historically strong civil society now appears dominated by state and market, perhaps a legacy of two decades of social partnership. Meanwhile the power of indigenous Irish pro-neoliberal forces has been augmented by international allies, particularly in the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the ECB and the IMF; and has bared teeth.

Silva emphasises the importance of ideological power and the need to frame messages and narratives consciously to broker new linkages of issues and people. There has not been such an effective framing in Irish protests. The issues have not been framed to focus on what might unite a critical mass around a positive vision of life, or to stimulate united action to create a world without the social, democratic, cultural and economic rupture associated with neo-liberalism. Silva advises that such a framing is crucial to brokering the linkages necessary to achieve change.

A new politics requires a ‘new policy consensus’. In Latin America this reaffirmed: the legitimacy of state involvement in the economy and society; an ecologically driven model of development; less reliance on and greater regulation of markets; less reliance on foreign investment; and more social investment in welfare, health, education, and pensions as well as a focus on inclusion and equality of status for all, including women. Such an Irish narrative could create new solidarities based on an understanding of our collective interdependence. This new politics could drive more, and more effective, protest, and vision. •