‘We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpieces filled with straw.’ So opens the famous poem by TS Eliot and closes with the lines, ‘This is the way the world ends/not with a bang but a whimper.’
Critics may fight over the meaning of the poem but those opening lines would he highly appropriate to describe Fine Gael and Labour leaders and backbenchers as they assembled for the reopening of Dail Eireann yesterday, a meeting that began the Autumn session with a whimper when a mighty bang was called for.
Is there any other parliament where the government can return after an absence of seven weeks and sets the agenda as if nothing significant had happened in the break? Surely the very first day should have been given over to major developments that did occur and have major repercussion for the wellbeing of our people?
Surely the government should be forced to give a significant account of how its policies have affected the people they supposedly serve in the course of the summer interval and give its response to developments.? It was mostly hollowness however as the government parties ‘leaned together’ in avoiding a major accountability session.
There were indeed momentous developments while the national parliament was in recess. In the European financial markets, the speculators lined up to pile on the pressure to try and safeguard their gigantic gambles on the economies of Greece, Ireland, Spain and Italy. In doing so they are prepared to drive the Eurozone into partial meltdown.
In Ireland we had the dispiriting announcement that the total number of people unemployed had continued to increase. Mass unemployment and the financial markets are closely linked of course, since our government has chosen, like its predecessor, to capitulate to the sharks in the markets and repay their bad debts rather than put the billions into urgent programmes of job creation.
The shock announcement last week that the TalkTalk corporation in Waterford would close abruptly with 575 workers thrown on the human scrap heap, underlined the tragedy of lives being wrecked by the crisis. The mechanism that was devised to deal with this dreadful situation in the Dail was really frustrating. Under a new parliamentary device known as Topical Issues, three Waterford deputies were offered a total of six minutes to speak on the catastrophe while the Minister for Enterprise and Jobs had six minutes to respond. It is little wonder that the independent deputy, John Halligan, protested loudly until suspended from the Chamber.
United Left Alliance deputies did raise the crucial issues of the proposed privatisation of ESB and other crucial State assets as well as the revelation by the National Treatment Purchase Fund that the number of public patients waiting more than three months for a colonoscopy had more than doubled in the last year.
In relation to this latter issue, the fact that one of the hospitals with the longest waiting list was St Luke’s in Kilkenny will struck a particular chord since it was here that a long wait on a list in 2005/06 caused the premature death from cancer of the brave Susie Long. The solemn promise made after her death by the then Minister for Health that all those needing tests would be seen in a month has been shamefully breached.
It was appropriate to raise these issues matters of urgency but there should have been a general State of the Nation review whereby the government would have been forced to explain the disastrous economic consequences of its austerity programme. Austerity is simply crushing economic development, causing immense suffering ranging from the misery of mass unemployment to people dying while waiting to get treatment in our Health Service.
In the Dail this Autumn the Left will hammer home this message above all else. We will point to the fact that not just socialists but even capitalist institutions and economists are pointing to the failure of the austerity juggernaut. The United Nations Conference of Trade and Development(UNCTAD) last week published a document that is coruscating in its criticism of the policies being adopted by governments like Ireland’s and the leadership of the European Union and its institutions. UNCTAD’s General Secretary was former head of the World Trade Organisation.
The report states, ‘Although it is universally recognised that the crisis was the result of financial market failure, little has been learned about placing too much confidence in the judgement of financial market actors, including rating agencies.’ Yet it is to these very same actors that the economic and political establishment in Europe has been bending the knee.
What is certain is that as the Autumn progresses, the victims of austerity – ordinary working people, the unemployed, pensioners and students – will begin to see that they themselves must openly challenge and mobilise in opposition.