Beyond the window-dressing at the G8

Shaun Harkin looks behind the rhetoric and decorative displays at the real conditions and conflicts that working people face in Ireland, both North and South.

Thousands rally against world hunger ahead of the G8 summit (Wilde Fry)Thousands rally against world hunger ahead of the G8 summit (Wilde Fry)

THE GROUP of Eight (G8) is holding its 39th summit at a luxurious golf course in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh, in the North of Ireland.

Heads of state from the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Russia and Canada were formally welcomed by the two heads of the Northern Ireland Executive established under the Good Friday Agreement: First Minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein and a former leader of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The G8 states account for some 15 percent of the world's population but half of global economic output. The European Union (EU), described as the G8's ninth member, participates in deliberations, but has no formal voting rights. It will be represented by the Republic of Ireland, which currently holds the EU presidency.

The G8 was formed amid the world economic crisis of the mid-1970s and since then has been at the forefront in promoting neoliberal policies that have increased inequality, militarization and ecological degradation, and undermined labor rights and social safety net programs across the globe. Central to the summit's negotiations this week is the creation of a new "free deal" agreement between the U.S. and EU that they promise will create thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic.

For these and many other reasons, people in Ireland are protesting the G8. "They represent the 1 Percent against the 99 Percent," said Irish socialist and G8 protest organizer Eamonn McCann.

Unemployment for both Catholics and Protestants in the North is the highest it has been in 15 years, but millions of pounds have been spent on a massive security operation--dubbed "Fortress Ulster"--to make it safe for the world's most powerful leaders to meet. The security operation includes a 6-meter-high and 4-mile-long security fence, patrols by drone aircraft, and the mobilization of 8,000 Northern Irish police, 3,500 from Britain and 900 from the Gardai, the Republic of Ireland's police force.

To justify this security spending and discourage protest, the media spent weeks whipping up fears of "violent" anti-capitalist protesters coming to Northern Ireland from across Europe, of "dissident" Irish Republicans planning to stage an attack, and of sectarian violence organized by Protestant Loyalists. No doubt, the security forces will seek to build on the precedent this sets in future mobilizations against union actions, protests and struggle.

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HOLDING THE summit in Enniskillen, near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic to the South, demonstrates the bizarre logic of G8 leaders and the hollowness of their claims that their policies help ordinary people.

On the heels of fresh reports that the policies of his coalition government has driven an additional 1 million people into poverty in Britain, Prime Minister and G8 summit host David Cameron triumphantly declared: "Next week in Fermanagh, we will show the world an increasingly outward-looking Northern Ireland that is open for business and focusing on the steps it needs to take to succeed in the global race."

But the prosperity of open-for-business Northern Ireland is only "outward-looking, according to the Irish Times:

Just a few weeks ago, Flanagan's--a former butcher's and vegetable shop in the neat village--was cleaned and repainted with bespoke images of a thriving business placed in the windows. Any G8 delegate passing on the way to discuss global capitalism would easily be fooled into thinking that all is well with the free-market system in Fermanagh. But the facts are different.

Jim Sheridan, director of Belcoo Enterprises Limited, welcomes any attempt to tidy the area, but laments the wrecking effects recession and the demise of the Celtic Tiger have had locally. "That work happened just a few weeks ago," he said. "The council got that place painted but it went under sometime last year. A lot of people round here worked in construction and that work has gone now."

The butcher's business has been replaced by a picture of a butcher's business. Across the road is a similar tale. A small business premises has been made to look like an office supplies store. It used to be a pharmacy, now relocated on the village main street.

Elsewhere in Fermanagh, billboard-sized pictures of the gorgeous scenery have been located to mask the occasional stark and abandoned building site or other eyesore.

Absolutely farcical--fake businesses to generate fake optimism.

The G8 leaders can't hide from the fact their only solution to the economic difficulties faced by working people around the world is policies that will deepen inequality, poverty and social tension. Partitioned Ireland has been a test case for the neoliberal disaster.

The North of Ireland was convulsed for decades by violence stemming from the legacy of British rule and discrimination against the Catholic minority. It continues to have higher unemployment and higher poverty than any other region of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, the fragility of the "peace process" formally established in 1998 was visible when sectarian protests organized by Loyalists erupted in December 2012. Sectarianism, the bitter fruit of British rule, continues to run through every aspect of Northern Irish society.

Back in the 1990s, former President Bill Clinton seized on the opportunity to intervene in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. With the U.S. casting around for a new rationale for its foreign policy in the wake of the Cold War, Washington's participation in "solving" the seemingly intractable Irish issue provided an opportunity to showcase the new guise for the U.S. as a humanitarian missionary with tremendous "conflict resolution" capacity.

Meanwhile, across the border in the Republic, during the 1990s and 2000s economic boom, the "Celtic Tiger" became a poster child for neoliberal policies of low corporate tax rates, rolling back regulations, labor flexibility and privatization. The boom transformed Ireland's long-stagnant economy, creating tremendous wealth for a small minority, but an underbelly of inequality and poverty.

The Irish political and business elite were drawn into a closer relationship with the U.S.--symbolized by the Irish government's demonstration of loyalty, in defiance of the overwhelming opposition of the Irish population, by allowing the U.S. military to turn Shannon Airport into the hub of its European operations. As Kieran Allen wrote in The Corporate Takeover of Ireland, published in 2007:

Shannon is an important metaphor of Ireland's wider role in the global economy. Ireland provides not only a "lily pad" for the U.S. empire, but it is also a bridgehead for U.S. capital within Europe. Physically, it is the location for more than 600 U.S. companies, and the total stock of U.S. Foreign Direct Investment stood at $73 billion in 2004. Although only a tiny country, with only 1 percent of the EU population, it has attracted a quarter of U.S. investment in new or "greenfield" sites between 1993 and 2000.

Then came the 2008 Wall Street crash, and the reverberations sent Irish society into a tailspin. From neoliberal wonder child, the Republic has become a member of the PIIGS (standing for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain)--shorthand for Europe's most unstable economies. Unemployment, emigration, poverty and uncertainty have all returned with a vengeance.

Yet neoliberal austerity is being offered as the only solution to the crisis either side of the border.

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THERE IS no alternative put forward by the political leaders who claim to oppose oppression and defend working people. Deputy First Minister McGuinness, a former leader of the IRA's armed insurgency, "urged" those coming to protest the G8 summit to be "peaceful"--to which one activist asked: "Why doesn't he tell the war criminals to stay away?" Sinn Fein's endorsement of the G8 summit underscores how deeply entrenched adherence to neoliberal policies is among all the mainstream parties, be they republican, nationalist, loyalist or unionist.

As Brian Kelly, writing in the Irish Marxist Review, argues:

Pressed by the architects of the peace process in Washington and London, the Northern establishment has embraced the free market as a panacea for the region's woes, imagining that it has come up with a pragmatic and original solution to local problems. The reality is that the economic foundations of the Northern Ireland peace process come straight out of the Washington playbook, firmly rooted in neoliberal ideology and not some specially adapted plan carefully tailored to fit local history or conditions.

No matter what rhetoric Northern Ireland's political parties use, they are all fully complicit in implementing austerity and enriching the Northern corporate elite.

Meanwhile, because of the way sectarianism is embedded in the structures of the Northern Irish peace process, austerity--and the resentment and disillusion these measures stir--has the potential to fuel sectarian violence.

Barack Obama plans to make a speech demonstrating the U.S. commitment to the North's peace process. But like everywhere else on the planet, Uncle Sam never gives away anything for free. U.S. investors and corporations want governments, North and South, that bend over backwards to please them with low tax rates, weak regulation and a compliant and hamstrung labor movement--just as during the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, when U.S. companies viewed Ireland as a bridge for their products into the EU, with a population of 500 million.

As Belfast G8 summit protest organizer Gerry Carroll says: "Despite the difficulties, we have a real opportunity to build a movement which opposes wealth inequality and the war agenda of the G8. The task of the left is to build networks of people that can mobilize and organize for the battles ahead, when the G8 leave Fermanagh."

Unions, NGOs, community groups and abortion rights, climate change and antiwar activists, as well as socialist networks from across Ireland and the UK, overcame the media hysteria, G8 boosterism and the intimidation of the security operation to mobilize thousands to expose the real project of the G8 through a counter-summit, rallies and marches.

Deepening and expanding the connections among these forces will be crucial to the development of a broader movement capable of challenging sectarianism and austerity--and articulating the fight for a future based on the principle of people before profit.