Friday, August 30, 2013

Leaving Dublin with a sense of despair

One hundred years ago this month, an inspiring revolt kicked off in Dublin.

After tram workers in the city centre demanded a pay rise, the dominant industrialist William Martin Murphy locked out trade union members from their jobs. The bitter dispute which ensued caught the attention of socialists in many countries. Vladimir Lenin praised the "seething Irish energy" of union leader Jim Larkin.

On a recent trip home (I'm a Dubliner, living in Belgium), I heard several radio interviews with representatives of Ireland's Labour Party. Though Larkin was a founder of that party, its present-day grandees dance to Murphy's tune. One of them, Ruairi Quinn, is now the country's education minister; he has been boasting lately about how the school curriculum has been revamped at the behest of major companies.

The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) wants science and mathematics to be given greater priority at secondary level and more courses with an "explicit focus on enterprise" at third level. IBEC's key objective is to achieve a "well-skilled and flexible labour force". Part of the "flexibility" being championed is that companies don't have to recognise unions. The industrialists of 2013 insist they should still be able to lock out recalcitrant workers.

Labour is the junior partner in a coalition government with the centre-right Fine Gael. Known colloquially as the Blueshirts - because of the party's historical ties to fascists who aided Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War - Fine Gael fought a February 2011 election on a pledge to "burn the bondholders".

Lenders to Anglo Irish Bank, a feckless institution that almost capsized the economy, would not be repaid, according to the party's manifesto. The promised incineration has not materialised. Ireland's real masters - officials in the European Commission - told Fine Gael and Labour before the election that satisfying such creditors as Deutsche Asset Management and BNP Paribas was non-negotiable.

Making hospitals pay

Hospitals have been forced to pay Anglo's gambling debts. Ireland is second only to Greece in terms of the scale and rapidity of health cutbacks undertaken by "developed" countries. The Health Service Executive (HSE) - which runs the Ireland's medical services - has seen its budget shrink by €3 billion since 2008. Citing an unpublished HSE document, The Irish Times has reported that the reductions are making it difficult to comply with rules and standards applying to childcare and to attain targets for treating cancer patients swiftly.

A bizarre twist to this sorry saga is that the Dublin government is committed to introducing a universal health insurance scheme. How on earth can this be achieved during a time of austerity? The details at this stage are fuzzy but the overriding goal is clear: the private insurance industry will be put in charge of the scheme. A "consultative forum" tasked with planning how it should operate is mainly comprised of insurance lobbyists. In other words, those who stand to benefit from the scheme are setting it up.

James Reilly, the country's health minister, has few, if any qualms, about handing over medical services to for-profit firms. Himself a GP, Reilly has personally invested in private nursing homes.

His predecessor Mary Harney once claimed that Ireland was "closer to Boston than Berlin". Reilly's "reforms" appear to reflect that spirit. It is instructive that Alain Enthoven, an American "free market" economist, is also an advocate of "universal health insurance", with private firms in the driving seat.

Enthoven influenced Margaret Thatcher's tentative efforts to destroy the NHS: a 1989 policy paper from the then Tory government echoed Enthoven's complaints about how British patients lacked the "competition" and "consumer choice" enjoyed by their US counterparts. In Enthoven's view, medical care is "a kind of luxury good".

So there we have it. The Irish government is toying with ideas from a man who compares life-saving operations to Fabergé eggs.

I love going home to Ireland. But when I think about the regressive measures being implemented in my country, it is impossible not to leave with a sense of despair.

•First published by New Statesman, 28 August 2013.

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