Martin Ferris, Sinn Fein TD (member of the Dublin-based parliament, the Dail) for Kerry, visited Australia at the end of July.
Ferris spoke to hundreds of people at public meetings in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne on the economic crisis in Ireland. He also spoke on the struggle to reunify the six counties in Ireland's north still controlled by Britain with the 26 counties that make up the southern state.
The Irish government responded to Ireland’s severe economic problems linked to the global financial crisis by imposing brutal anti-worker austerity in return for loans from the European Central Bank (ECB) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Elected to the Dail in 2002, Ferris has been the Sinn Fein spokesperson on workers’ rights for several years.
Ferris told Green Left Weekly the economic crisis that struck the southern Irish state in 2008 has had a huge impact on working people across Ireland, “especially in terms of job losses, and in particular job losses in the construction sector”.
He said: “For around 10-12 years, construction was the fastest growing sector in the economy and thousands of young people left education in order to take up a trade in the industry.
“The growth was based on an unsustainable speculative boom in the property sector, in league with the main banks and politicians.
“With the collapse of the industry, all of these young people have been laid off. Unemployment and emigration have soared to levels not seen since the 1980s.
“There are now more than 450,000 people looking for work in a state of about five million people. Almost 150,000 people have emigrated from Ireland since 2008.
“There is an enormous level of anger among the Irish people at the bankers and politicians who caused this crisis.”
Ferris said this anger grew as the then Fianna Fail-Green coalition government’s response to the crisis was to accept the terms of the €85 billion ECB-IMF bailout.
Ferris said none of these funds were to be used to support ordinary people, communities or services.
He said the interest rate on the loan was unaffordable and punitive.
The loan was conditional on the government implementing drastic cuts to public spending that would have disastrous social consequences.
“The bailout was not aimed at addressing the state's deficit problem but at shoring up a corrupt banking system and protecting international financial gamblers,” Ferris said.
“Sinn Fein, together with a majority of people in Ireland, believe these debts should not be paid by the people.
“Investors invest at their own risk. The bondholders should have been told they would not be paid.”
Popular anger was demonstrated dramatically at the February general election, in which the ruling Fianna Fail party lost three-quarters of its seats, dropping from 78 seats to 20. The Greens, which had ruled in a coalition with Fianna Fail, failed to hold a single seat.
Sinn Fein increased its representation from four TDs to 14, and has since won three seats in the Seanad (Senate) in elections in April. The United Left Alliance also won five seats in February.
Ferris said: “Voters viewed Fianna Fail as being responsible in large part for bringing about the economic crisis.
“But people were also angered by the government’s response of turning the bankers’ debt into ‘sovereign debt’ and implementing a savage austerity program.
But despite voters rejecting Fianna Fail, the new government — a Fine Gael-Labour Party coalition — has continued to implement the previous government's budget.
“This includes cutting the minimum wage by about one euro per hour,” Ferris said.
“They have since reversed that cut, after provoking a lot of anger and resistance among people in low-paid industries such as hospitality and retail.”
Ferris said there were ongoing attacks on workers’ rights across the state.
“In July, the High Court made a ruling that a fast-food operator was not under a legal obligation to pay workers higher rates for working Sundays and public holidays, or overtime.”
The High Court ruled that laws that allow minimum pay and conditions are set under Employment Regulation Orders proposed by joint labour committees to be approved by the Labour Court were “unconstitutional”.
The court ruled such laws were an “unlawful interference in the property rights” of the fast-food operator.
“This ruling has serious implications for around 200,000 people working in low-paid industries,” Ferris said.
“It essentially paves the way for the minimum statutory rights and conditions to become the maximum in these industries.
“It shows that there is an urgent need to introduce laws to protect workers’ rights.
“In the absence of any functioning social partnership, it has become abundantly clear that the lowest paid workers and their families have been left in a very vulnerable situation by the Fine Gael-Labour government’s failure to bring forward legislation protecting their rights.”
Ferris said the job creation package unveiled by the Fine Gael-Labour government “cannot possibly address the unemployment crisis adequately”.
“The trade union movement faces a number of challenges in these circumstances,” he said.
“The trade union leadership has traditionally been aligned with the Labour Party, which is in power with Fine Gael.
“For the past two decades they have also been a part of a 'social partnership' agreement between the unions, employers and government.
“Many working people viewed the social partnership as beneficial, or at least not opposed to their interests, during the boom years. But the relationship is now being viewed as detrimental to their interests, rights and entitlements.”
In 2009, the social partnership process largely fell apart, Ferris said
“Yet despite the decline in union membership and increase in inequality that the social partnership process has contributed to, the approach of trade union leaders appears to be to try to rehabilitate the principle and practices of social partnership.
“Many trade union activists are actively opposing this approach.
“In such a crisis for working people, political leadership is sorely needed.
“But the trade union leadership is affiliated with the Labour Party, which is implementing anti-worker policies.
“So this poses a big political challenge to the organised labour movement.”
Ferris outlined an alternative approach to the economic crisis that Sinn Fein and other progressive forces are campaigning for.
“Sinn Fein has consistently argued that the banking debt should not have become sovereign debt.
“We outlined a plan at the beginning of the crisis for the National Pensions Reserve funds to be used to stimulate the economy — including by setting up a state bank that could lend to small businesses and ensure they remained viable and that jobs were protected.
“However, no government has been willing to challenge the bondholders.
“The state debt is approaching €200 billion. It is inevitable that there is going to be a default — likely be disguised as the ‘reconstruction’ of the loans — in Ireland and in other countries in similar situations in the EU.
Ferris said the demands being made on working people in Ireland as part of paying the debt were “unreasonable”.
“They cannot be met, and nor should the people be forced to bear the debt of the bankers.
“This is a banking crisis, a result of greed by bankers and developers and cronyism and corruption in government.
“The Irish people are crying out for honest leadership, for profound change in the political system that has failed them so badly, for a new direction — a new republic.”
Ferris said the new republic that Sinn Fein envisages would be based on “the still-relevant vision of the leaders of the 1916 Rising — that is, to ‘cherish all of the children of the nation equally’, and to use the resources of the country to benefit all of the people, not just the self-appointed elite”.
He said a new republic would need to deal with the negative impact of partition, which leaves six counties under British rule.
“It would need to be an agreed Ireland between all shades of opinion on the island.”
Ferris is a former Irish Republican Army volunteer and political prisoner who was part of the Sinn Fein's negotiating team in talks that lead to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to end armed conflict in the north.
“For centuries Britain's involvement in Ireland has been the source of conflict; partition, discord and division,” he said.
“The Irish peace process has delivered an end to conflict and that is to be welcomed.
“But the underlying cause of conflict persists — the British government's claim of jurisdiction over a part of Ireland.
“The denial of the Irish people's right to self-determination, freedom and independence is the core issue that must be resolved.”
Sinn Fein is organising a series of large public meetings in Ireland on the topic of a new republic. The meetings involve a broad range of people from different backgrounds — with a particular emphasis on involving “unionists” (supporters of the six counties “union” with Britain).
“The Irish diaspora has a major role to play in this campaign,” he said.
“Sinn Fein has organised a series of successful events over the past two years around the issue of a new republic in the US, Canada and Britain — and now Australia — on how supporters can help create the international environment for the success of this vision.
“There is a long history of Irish activism here in Australia — from republican activism aimed at building support for Irish unity, to Irish involvement in the struggle for workers’ rights and social justice here in Australia, particularly in the trade union movement,” Ferris said.
“We hope to continue working together with the Irish community and supporters here in Australia to organise a series of conferences on Irish unity next year.”