The Irish State in 1990

This article was written between the collapse of Leninism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and its collapse in the Soviet Union in 1991.

Irish Political Review Volume 5, No. 10, October 1 990

State And Society

For The State

It is fashionable in the era of Gorbachev to see the State as the enemy of the people. But the reason why the Soviet State has been experienced as an oppressive force is that politics in that country has been filtered exclusively through the Communist Party. The State has been merely an instrument of th Communist Party, the means through which the Party exerts its control over the society.

Far from weakening the State, Gorbachev has in a certain sense strengthened it. He has attempted to make state institutions more independent of the Party and therefore more accountable to other influences within the society.

In general, the State is the means by which a society modernises itself and the means by which the working class participates in the running of the society. The capitalist class only needs the rudiments of the state, such as the army and the police force, to protect its property, which is the basis of its power. But the working class has only the state as a means of advancing its interests. It was for this reason that Marx described the working class as the most political class in history.

The State In Ireland

The struggle for Irish independence was not fought for the benefit of the Irish working class. It was essentially an alliance between the farming class and the Catholic Church.

The Irish farming class having won absolute ownership of the land under a Conservative Government did not want to pay taxes in order to finance Lloyd George’s incipient welfare state. The Irish Church, having spearheaded the revival of Ultramontanist Catholicism throughout Europe, did not want to have any restrictions put on it by a liberal British government.

The dominant ideology of the nationalist movement was property-owning and Catholic. The ideology was later made explicit in the 1937 Constitution.

Both the farming class and the Catholic Church had an interest in ensuring that the state was weak and ineffective so as to give each the maximum room for manoeuvre. The state’s sole function was to support their initiatives.

The farming class has also been successful in preventing state interference in its affairs. This can be seen in the area of taxation. Also, the failure of the rod license showed that this class was unwilling to relinquish control of the lakes and rivers of Ireland to the state. What was striking about this dispute was the rhetoric of the farmers. The state was characterised by them as an alien force. This class, which had fought for independence, had no hesitation in comparing the state with the British absentee landlords of the last century.

But the state has been weakened by other factors besides the prevailing ideology of the dominant interest groups. The Courts’ power to interpret the constitution and strike down laws made by the Oireachtas also limits the effectiveness of the state. And it is restricted by the incoherent nature of our party system.

The political parties in this country did not arise out of any serious social dispute and therefore it is possible to find conservatives and progressives within the same party.

The political conflicts which generated the most passion in recent years, the anti-abortion and the divorce referenda, took place outside the party system. In the absence of coherence from the political parties, interest groups fill the vacuum.

The politician with the greatest political instinct in this country is Charles Haughey. He is the politician most interested in making the state effective and for that reason he is not liked by some elements within the political establishment. He realises that in order to achieve his objectives a politician must enlist the support of powerful interest groups. Haughey is pinning most of his hopes on the Programme for National Recovery. It is doubtful whether the debt crisis would have been averted if it had not been for the PNR.

During the World Cup it was said that the exploits of Jack’s Green Army were more relevant to ordinary people than the deliberations of the Oireachtas. Well, that isn’t saying very much. The real question is, whether the World Cup is more relevant to ordinary people than the PNR. Certainly, if the trade union movement were to opt out of the PNR, it would be opting out of politics. At present, the PNR is the only means of advancing the working class interest.

There are many objectives which the trade union movement could pursue through a successor to the PNR. And there are two criteria which the trade union movement should consider when deciding on the objectives to be pursued:

  1. are the objectives in the working class interest?
  2. is the state capable of delivering on these objectives?

The most serious problem facing Irish society is unemployment and its effects, which include poverty and emigration.

One of the reasons for the failure of this country to solve the problem of unemployment is the dominant position of the farming class in the society. In most industrialised countries, an agricultural revolution preceded the industrial revolution. A surplus is created from the land which is then invested in industrial production.

In southern Ireland this did not occur because of the relations of production on the land.

In the nineteenth century, the peasant in the south lived at a subsistence level. Any surplus he created was appropriated by the landlord and was either invested in England or spent in order to keep the latter in the manner to which he was accustomed.

The Tory Government helped the peasantry to buy out the land it worked in 1903. This meant that the new landowners became absolute owners of the land. These farmers, who formed the backbone of the independence struggle, have never been compelled to be productive.

Land is a scarce resource and therefore ownership of land by one individual is preventing the utilisation of that land by another individual. For this reason, most countries impose a cost on the ownership of this resource so as to ensure that only efficient farmers can work the land. But, just as Fianna Fail failed to develop the potential of the lakes and rivers through a rod license, the Coalition Government failed to develop the potential of the land by means of a land tax. The best that could be done was to encourage inefficient farmers, by means of tax incentives, to lease their land to other farmers willing to have a go at the land.

An agricultural sector which is not subordinate to the needs of industry is definitely a handicap in formulating an industrial development strategy, especially since agriculture is potentially a more significant sector in this country than in other countries.

However, other countries, such as Japan, have developed industrially with an inefficient agriculture. But these countries have a coherent and effective state, something this country has not.

An example of the ineffectiveness of the state was shown when Albert Reynolds commissioned a study of industry’s readiness for 1992. Frank Roche wrote a magnificent report on the failure of industrial policy. Reynolds has since gone to Finance, and the report has been left to rot.

Essentially the report argues for the state supporting winners in the private sector, rather than propping up failed companies and merely delaying their inevitable closure. It identifies the top Irish company as Waterford Glass, which last received a Government grant in 1978.

However, the present writer doubts the ability of the state to implement the Roche Report, even if it had tried.

Another objective which the trade union movement could pursue is a redistribution of resources in favour of the working class, or to be more precise, a redistribution of control of resources.

In other regions, such as Scandinavia and the Basque country, workers have more control over their working environment. This control is guaranteed by their ownership of shares. The financing of these shares is borne by the state through direct purchase of the shares on behalf of the workers, and by tax incentives to companies to issue shares for the workers.

Karl Marx believed that the capitalist system was moribund because the interests of capital and labour were irreconcilable. The Waterford Glass dispute showed that management wanted workers to bear an increasing responsibility for the future of the company without gaining any power.

Marx was brilliant in his analysis of the capitalist system, but his solution to the contradictions of capitalism was awry. The Soviet experiment has shown the disastrous consequences of attempting to abolish property.

It seems that property will continue to exist, even after capitalism as we know it is consigned to the dustbin of history. Advancing the interests of the working class means more property for the working class. Workers’ control over the means of production means workers’ ownership of shares.

Unfortunately, although there is a great need for workers’ share ownership, as the Waterford Glass strike illustrates, the social need is not matched by a demand by the workers for such innovation. Like the Roche Report on industrial development, workers’ ownership is something for future Programmes for National Recovery.

If there is little demand for workers’ share-ownership, the same cannot be said for reform of our health services. There is both a need and a demand for such reform. The health service was probably the main issue in the 1989 general election.

As a result of 1992, the position of the VHI as a monopoly health insurance company is becoming untenable. For this reason, the Irish health service is at a crossroads. In the next few years, the provision of the service will be either financed from private individuals or the state will assume a greater role.

The present half-private, half-socialised, service will be no longer possible. It is this point that the Commission on Health Funding addressed. Their Report comes out firmly in favour of a socialised health service.

But the Report recognises that, if the State is going to assume a greater role in financing the service, it will have to have greater control over the money it spends.

Up until the present, both the health and education systems here have largely been provided by the churches. The state has seen its role as supporting their initiatives. But, with the increasing costs of health and education, the state has been forced to underwrite a greater proportion of their expenditure.

It is time for the state to assert itself in these areas. At the very least there should be an Education Act to bring education policies under public scrutiny, but above all the Trade Union movement should push for the full implementation of the Commission on Health Funding. It should argue its case in public. A free health service for all with state control to ensure value for money for the taxpayer is bound to have popular appeal. An end to the jumping of hospital queues by private patients is also likely to appeal to the public’s sense of fair play.

Following the Dunne case, the health establishment is not in a particularly strong position to resist such a demand.

As has already been said, the Irish state has not proved effective as a reforming force. But experience has shown that, if one issue is taken at a time, progress is possible. In the past few years the Trade Unions helped to create a consensus in favour of a better deal for welfare recipients and, by and large, they were successful in this. If the trade union movement concentrates on winning over the public to the recommendations of the Commission on Health Funding, the other social partners will find it difficult to resist.

The successful implementation of the Report of the Commission will more than justify the Trade Union participation in the PNR. It will also place the state in a stronger position to take up the other challenges which need to be tackled in the interests of the working class.

John Martin


This article appeared in 2010, in Issue 5 of Problems magazine.  It republishes articles that appeared in Irish Political Review in 1990.

You can find more at the Problems page[1] on the Labour Affairs website.[2]