Hain pushing New Labour interests in Ireland

IN 1986, Peter Hain, then a left-wing intellectual and Labour Party activist, writing in Political Strikes: the state and trade unionism in Britain, warned profusely against the trade union movement being co-opted and made ineffectual. Specifically, he cautioned:

"Another barrier to a more progressive and political trade unionism is the extent to which unions have been absorbed into capitalist modes of production so that they perform functions compatible, rather than in conflict with it."

Hain's address to the 2005 Irish Congress of Trade Unions biennial conference in Belfast on 21 June, as secretary of state for Northern Ireland, was anything but a call for independent and effective trade unions.

The designated role of trade unions in the north was as ' social partners' performing a perfunctory role, acquiescing in the process of neo-liberalisation, rationalisation of our economy and supporting whatever position the government takes in the tattered peace process. "You helped pave the path towards a more peaceful society...you are now being called upon to consolidate this process by playing your part in building a world class economy," he told delgates.

While the majority of journalists focused on Hain's comments on the then pending IRA statement and the need for verification, the British government strategy of normalisation in the six counties was defined with tremendous clarity and hardly rated a mention.

It is an indication of the current ideological hegemony exercised by the neo-liberals over the political parties in the north that not even republicans, usually quite au fait on economic issues, questioned this element of Hain' s address. It was left to Kevin Doherty, secretary of the Belfast and Districts Trades Council, to challenged Hain's position, while incidentally, the minister's seat lay empty, vacated immediately after his lecture.

Mr Doherty raised pertinent questions that were never heard by the one who's "door was always open". Where is the "peace dividend" we were supposed to receive which could begin to address years of underinvestment in our public services? How can New Labour square the pledge to improve public services by bleeding them dry and forcing them to seek private funding which diminishes the quality of the service benefiting private profiteers and not the public? How can the New Labour government promote education as a means of developing our economy while they introduce tuition fees as a disincentive to potential students from working and middle class families?

And many on the floor wondered how can New Labour reduce economic inactivity while denying the community sector core funding aimed at addressing inequality? They were questions that were never answered by Tony's unaccountable crony.

Mr Doherty put it most succinctly when he advised delegates:

"We need to campaign again to have accountable government restored as soon as possible so that we can press more effectively for the opposition to New Labour policies..."

This must now be a priority for the trade union movement, involving more than rhetoric about ' peace' and ' bridge-building'.

It must form alliances with those who are pro-agreement and pursue an equality and human rights agenda which brings real benefit to people in communities that were most affected by the war. It must involve the movement working outside its comfort zone, refusing to be patronised as ' champions of peace'by the secretary of state, who is seeking its complicity in decimating public services.

We need locally elected politicians whom we can exert power over in order to influence decisions which effect working people and their families. But we also need to go beyond this. Many people accept the narrative of Hain's neo-liberal model as basic common sense. While we may argue about the amount of money available for various public sector services, we still find ourselves operating within the same ideological parameters as Hain's new labour agenda.

Citizens and trade union members across the globe are currently constructing alternative projects to the neo-liberal model, which enhance democratic control over the economic realm, whether they be participatory budgets in Brazil, the workers' co-operatives in Venezuela, or social economy projects in north Belfast.

The trade union movement in Ireland needs direction. It needs an offensive strategy, transcending the present one which stumbles from one crisis to another in reaction to government and corporate decisions. We need to open up a debate on what we should propose as alternatives to the neo-liberalism model.

Trade unionists must go united into negotiations, disputes, and strikes with this alternative in mind. Also, if we are about empowering people, as workers, consumers and members of communities, we need to devise strategies which place them in positions of power and control over decisions which affect their lives.

Concluding his 1986 leftist critique, Hain posed a similar challenge to trade unionism in Britain. They must, he said,

"try to overcome their historic limitations by constructively politicising their activities, broadening their sectional interests into community wide ones, mobilizing public support, revitalizing and democratising their structures to involve their members more effectively, and, most important, campaigning for industrial democracy as a step towards real workers'control."

Let's make his words come back to haunt him.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2005-08-20 16:44:19.
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