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Sunday, February 5, 2012

A century of progress?

Yesterday we marked the end of the period commemorating the 1911 Wexford Lock Out. We hosted a seminar which put the events of a century ago in context. After Mayor Hynes officially got proceedings under way local historian Nicky Rossiter brought us back 100 years to a different and fascinating Wexford yet one which is still broadly recognisable today. Census 1911 listed a range of nationalities in Wexford including Poles, Germans and French. The Wexford Light Opera Society had their Gilbert & Sullivan offering while local papers carried adverts for distressed property sales. Almost 8,000 people lived in the town about half under the age of 24 and 10% in total worked in foundries.

Kieran Roche gave us an insight into Dick Corish, while Francis Devine put the lock out in its international context at the time. Ian Hearn is the grandson of the owner of Star Foundry who explained where the employers were coming from. SIPTU President Jack O’Connor and UNITE Secretary for Ireland jimmy Kelly are the lead officials in unions that evolved from these times and both spoke at the end.

Later on at Wexford Arts Centre we were treated to a performance that marked the key moments of the era by Wexford’s next generation of actors along with some of the present stalwarts. A hugely thought provoking week end in Wexford.

Often the comparison is made between a century ago and the present day. Often I believe such comparisons to be invalid. A century ago most workers had neither social welfare, bank accounts nor Health and safety legislation in the work place. Most works earned just small amounts and as a consequence were unlikely to pay the new income tax. Local authority houses were few and far between, women and those men under 21 couldn’t vote., while life expectancy was 50 for men and 54 for women. Infant mortality was significant and the poorer you were the more likely it was that you would die earlier. The quality of housing was much worse with rack renting landlords profiteering at the expense of large size families in tiny dwellings with neither running water nor toilets. That was the reality of life and expectations for many in the early 20th century. Clear distinctions existed between the rights of skilled and unskilled workers.

The reality for anyone drawing lessons to apply today based on past experience is that it is easier to understand the social realities of yesterday and identify solutions to their problems. A century ago people could see their living standards improve when Mayor Corish built more and better local authority houses. It is more difficult to point to tangible social progress from a reduction in interest rates for Troika loans. with what can you compare the progress. Given the complex realities of how right wing economics has destroyed many assumptions since the time of Thatcher and McCreevy the question that needs to be asked is how do you re-construct a new society with lasting values that will ensure that the international shambles of the last 15 years will never be repeated?

Jack O’Connor quoted Lenin “you live through a decade waiting for a day and then you live a day with the events of a decade packed in.” As David Begg pointed out when he spoke at the re-launch of “Men of Iron” the laissez faire dream of globalisation was based on a new post cold war supply of cheap labour, low interest rates and a booming middle class in China. China is not immune from recession, the supply of cheap labour is itself being sub planted by cheaper labour in the far east while we still enjoy interest rates at historically low levels. Cheap money set against insecurity. As opposed to 100 years ago when there was a banker’s panic in the middle of a slump although with admittedly high interest rates. The key difference between then and now was the fatal Irish decision to nationalise the debt with the bank guarantee scheme which neutered the state’s ability to respond. Jimmy Kelly of UNITE also spoke of how global changes have impacted on the states ability to respond.

As a country we are constrained by the Troika deal but even beyond that the fiscal compact will reduce all government’s leeway for the foreseeable future. My worry about a constitutional referendum is that writing economic requirements into our constitution will mean that they can only be undone by referendum too with all the risks of time loss that may go with that and the impact of that on our society. As Mao used to say; “In waking a tiger, use a long stick”.

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