Press Release

Speech by SIPTU President, Jack O’Connor, at the centenary commemoration of the founding of the Irish Neutrality League

Date Released: 21 October 2014

I want to compliment the Peace and Neutrality Alliance for its initiative in launching two publications and arranging this meeting to mark the centenary of the founding of the Irish Neutrality League in October 1914 by James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Eamon Ceannt, Sean McDiarmada, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Padraig Pearse and Thomas McDonagh, all future signatories of the 1916 proclamation.

It is of course important in itself for its pure historical value that we would remember the event and promote awareness of it and its significance in the context of the decade of revolution. However, it is more important given our unfolding contemporary history. Humanity in Ireland, in Europe and globally is now treading in territory which has been uncharted since the 1930s and the historical process which resulted in the great conflagration that the Second World War was to become.

The global economy is struggling through what is now acknowledged by all as the slowest economic recovery since the Wall Street crash of 1929. Again this month, the IMF downgraded its projections for global growth, for the eleventh time since 2009. Their pessimistic outlook is in no small part attributable to the conditions in the EU – the largest single market in the world and up to last year its largest economy.

Wolfgang Munchau, a Financial Times columnist, encapsulated the situation in a short article yesterday. He has been describing the situation as being one of “secular stagnation” brought about by a chronic shortfall of investment producing a long period of weak demand resulting in the prospect of a Eurozone wide economic depression with very low inflation over the next ten or twenty years. This projection set against the background of a rapidly ageing population and consequent lowering of productivity is a frightening prospect.

Munchau captures it thus: “The implications for those who live in such an economic snake pit are already visible: high unemployment; rising poverty; real and nominal wage stagnation; a debt burden that will not come down in real terms; a decline in public sector services, and in public investment.”

This is not just some pessimistic and depressing projection. We are already in the throes of it. Levels of unemployment in many European countries now are equal to those of the immediate post-war 1950s and, in many cases, youth unemployment is even worse.

As things stand, there is no prospect of relief other than the laboured efforts of Mario Draghi and the limited monetary initiatives he has been able to get past his German opponents on the board of the European Central Bank. For all their inadequacies they have at least thus far staved off the complete collapse of the European Monetary System with all of its immense implications for society.

Those in control of the levers of power in Berlin are still indelibly wedded to the ordo-liberal economic model with its attendant ruthless strategy of internal deflation which it is imposing across the Continent. In many respects, it replicates the policy approach of German chancellor, Heinrich Bruning, in 1932 who, fearful of a repetition of the runaway inflation experienced in the 1920s, insisted on a tight fiscal policy in response to the dramatic ripple effect of the Wall Street crash. It was a policy, as humanity was to learn to its cost, which ushered the Nazis into power and all that followed.

I have always argued that the only prospect of any alleviation of that policy approach would present when the pigeons came flocking home to roost on the order books of German manufacturers. That may be happening now but one cannot be confident that it will evoke the necessary fiscal response to re-ignite the economies of Europe.

Indeed, we may well have arrived at the critical moment when capitalism and democracy, which we’ve always been led to believe are synonymous, are parting company.

German sociologist, Wolfgang Streech, in his recent book Buying Time – the Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism has said:

“What I feel sure about is that the clock is ticking for democracy as we have come to know it as it is about to be sterilised as redistributive mass democracy and reduced to a combination of the rule of law and public entertainment. This splitting of democracy from Capitalism through the splitting of the economy from democracy – a process of de-democratisation of Capitalism through the de-economisation of democracy – has come a long way since the crisis of 2008, in Europe just as elsewhere.”

Indeed, in Europe the most important ingredient of that process well pre-dated the crash of 2008 with the establishment of the ECB as the mirror reflection of the Bundesbank. It is unquestionably the most undemocratic institution in the advanced world, being accountable to no-one other than bankers and with a remit, unlike the US Federal Reserve, limited only to preserving the value of money with an absolute prohibition on any scintilla of regard for the immense societal implications of such a narrow and restricted project.

Doubtless there are those who would reassuringly point to the stability of the densely populated and similarly demographically challenged Japan, through twenty years of economic stagnation, attended by recurring periods of deflation. But Japan is not Europe. It is a not multiplicity of countries, economies and societies artificially harnessed together to comply with the requirements of maintaining a hard currency without a mechanism for fiscal redistribution.

The problem will present dramatically when the politics catches up with the economics. This is already underway manifesting itself in the increasing popularity of the xenophobic right across Europe from the populist 5 Star Movement in Italy to UKIP in the UK, through the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the already obviously more oppressive forces exercising dominance in Hungary and Romania and emerging virtually everywhere.

Unless there is a change of policy, the impact of ongoing stagnation, hopelessness and alienation which fuels the growth and proliferation of these dangerous and profoundly anti-democratic movements will precipitate the unstructured breakup of the Eurozone with cataclysmic implications for everyone. 

Meanwhile, the threat of war lurks menacingly on the eastern border in Ukraine where the nakedly fascist right is engaged in a life or death confrontation with an increasingly anxious Russian government, itself threatened by the disastrous consequences of low oil prices for the medium to longer term. This is not to mention the implications for European stability of the broadening conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Palestine and the wider Arab world.

The coincidence of all these developments provides the potential, as is most often the case accidentally for things to tip over into a regional war, or wars in Europe, and all this is the context within which we commemorate James Connolly’s initiative of 12th October 1914.

In this regard it is worth noting that there were essentially two strands at play in the motivation for the initiative. The IRB men were motivated to defend their fellow Irish citizens from immersion in an awesome conflagration while simultaneously alert to the potential to build support for their national independence project. Connolly found himself in that place having travelled a different route. He would have seen himself as acting in a manner that was entirely in accord with the resolution of the Socialist International conference in Stuttgart in 1907 which following an intense debate on the issue of “Militarism and International Conflicts” beseeched socialists to “do all they can to prevent the breaking out of this war, using for the purpose the means which appear to them most efficacious.”

He would have seen himself as acting in accord with heroic figures of the international labour movement like Keir Hardie and George Lansbury in Britain, Jean Jaures in France (who had already forfeited his life in opposition to the war), Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and others in the minority in the German Social Democratic Party who had unsuccessfully moved might and main in an attempt to prevent the tragedy in which the workers of Europe slaughtered each other in their millions in the Great Imperialist War.

Connolly, already severely dejected by the crushing defeat of the Great Dublin Lockout, and appalled by the failure of the most powerful working class party in Europe at the time, the German Social Democrats, to prevent the war, was doing what he could and working with the advanced elements of the Republican Movement to this end.

The experience of the German Social Democrats in the run into August 1914 and the way in which this great party of the working class found itself manipulated into a situation where it was faced with a choice between supporting the war effort or surrendering to the butchery of Czarism deserves special attention given its salutary lessons for us all.

In this regard, I particularly compliment the editor of the publication entitled the “Irish Neutrality League and the Imperialist War of 1914-1918” for the inclusion of a short article by Horst Teubert summarising precisely what happened and which deserves much greater attention and I would recommend another short book entitled “To End All Wars: How the First World War Divided Britain” by Alan Hochschild.

So it behoves us all in these precarious times to reflect on the consequences of a narrowly focused policy approach and to work instead to recommit ourselves to actively promoting neutrality in accordance with the traditional stand of our own trade union and, indeed, until now at least our own society.

This entails more than simple inactivity but an emphatic commitment to the promotion of an economic strategy and commensurate institutions designed to underpin peace, security and prosperity and to provide hope in place of despair.

I believe that for those of us on the broad left it means immediately drawing a line on sectarian squabbling and addressing the challenge of developing as much unity as possible around an economic and social policy approach which recognises the realities of globalisation and the need to have a strategy to generate wealth as distinct from simply redistributing it.

In this latter regard, I urge all who see themselves as being on the Left to reflect on the lessons of Germany in the 1930s a period during which bitter sectarian antagonism between the social democrats and the communists opened the way to the ascendancy of the Nazis - and all the more tragic because it was all avoidable.

The centenary commemoration of the founding of the Irish Neutrality League was organised by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance and held in Liberty Hall, Dublin on Tuesday 21st October.

 


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