If a week is a long time in politics, a month under lockdown is an eternity. It seems forever since Sinn Féin secured the largest share of first preference votes in the Irish general election in February 2020, with a nominally progressive policy platform. This marked a major break from decades of intermittent rule between the parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The vast majority of voters were concerned about 2 things – healthcare and housing:
(Source: Irish Times)
On these issues Sinn Féin promised healthcare free at the point of use and a massive increase in public housing investment; political positions made pragmatic by years of grassroots activism and organising against the health and housing crises. These are promising reforms which could have had positive impacts on Irish society if progressive parties had the numbers to form a coalition to implement them. Instead it seemed we were set for political deadlock as parties scrambled to try and cobble together a government or polls would be reopened.
Yet, at the same time Sinn Féin swept the polls at the start of February, coronavirus was claiming its 805th recorded victim.
Contradictions Under Coronavirus
Within 20 days the first confirmed case of coronavirus was detected on Irish shores. As the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU Ireland) we launched our first local area branch in Mountjoy and Dorset Street the day after this. Non-essential workplaces have since closed or gone bankrupt, leaving over one million unemployed or furloughed workers claiming state income support. Meanwhile it is the nurses and other healthcare workers working in underfunded public healthcare that are praised by caretaker Fine Gael ministers who last year opposed their striking demands for better pay and conditions. Supermarket staff who were considered unskilled when fighting increased casualisation or deterioration of working conditions (see Tesco or Dunnes) are now essential workers.
Rent is also still being collected as usual when unemployment is predicted to hit a high of over 20%, and those forced into cramped hotel rooms, direct provision centres or overcrowded rented accommodation cannot effectively socially distance and bear the physical and mental burden of long-term close quarters living.
Crisis Responses from Above and Below
The shutdown carried out by the state has received broad public support however, as Fine Gael have shot up 13% in opinion polls. This was the result of a relatively rapid closing of schools after the first coronavirus death in Ireland, followed by a shutting of pubs and other large social spaces after a swell of public pressure. Compared to the herd immunity strategy carried out by the government of the United Kingdom both in the north of Ireland and the British mainland, the figures are telling: at the time of writing (23rd April) the UK has suffered at least 23 times as many deaths.
Yet for all the support for state action in this crisis, it is important to understand how many of the measures introduced are merely papering over the cracks. For instance, although emergency legislation banning evictions has been introduced, a lack of any rent amnesty means that tenants will continue to be pushed into debt or be forced to choose between rent and essential items such as food or medicine. State support for tenants mostly serves as another subsidy to private landlords which does little to address the root causes of inability to pay. Similarly, talk of public takeover of private healthcare facilities ignores the fact that the state is footing the bill for salaries of senior management, and offers few steps for creating a single tier healthcare system in the aftermath of the crisis.
Government Formation and the Coming Recession
We are only getting snippets of what a post coronavirus world might look like but the indications are grim. Fine Gael are taking advantage of their boost in the polls to secure public support for a coalition government with Fianna Fáil and smaller parties. Preliminary documents for a deal show intentions for a shift towards public provision of healthcare and housing – a positive move as a result of both political and pandemic pressures. However as Ireland is already entering a massive recession, we must ask what promises will be rolled back on. Will the ruling parties continue to subsidise the economy or resume austerity? A leaked memo has already given a timeline for the withdrawal of the coronavirus welfare scheme within 12 weeks of its introduction, leaving tens of thousands living on a paltry sum.
The enhanced powers of Gardaí also raises questions around police power in a future of resumed austerity. Recently we have seen how they have used social distancing legislation to break up a dispersed protest of former Debenhams workers. Gardaí have also facilitated illegal evictions in the past, such as the heavy handed removal of protestors from North Frederick Street:
(Source: Irish Times)
How do we build the power now to protect our communities in the future?
Time to Unionise
While measures around social distancing and containment of the virus have affected CATU’s traditional way of organising through knocking on doors and talking to people, our membership continues to grow and people are beginning to join from all corners of the island of Ireland. In the last two months we have doubled our membership, founded a new branch in Drimnagh and Crumlin in Dublin, and our Mountjoy and Dorset Street branch are launching their first campaign to resist evictions now and after the pandemic. We know that it is the time to unionise our communities in anticipation of what lies ahead to fight the crises of housing and healthcare in a post-pandemic world.