By Colm Bryce
In May 2004, Bertie Ahern swept into town to deliver the annual Tip O’Neill peace lecture at Magee. The usual flim flam was expected. But this was after a full year’s worth of US troops and military equipment had been ferried to Iraq through Shannon airport and a decent crowd of us gathered outside the Great Hall to remind Ahern to his face of his hypocrisy.
Derry being what it is, we were on nodding terms with many of the local celebrities and political flunkies who rarely miss a chance to be in the presence of cunning and guile. ‘Yes John, how’s it going? Lovely morning’ tends to moderate the stridency of the chants. But the prize for disarming genius went to Martin McGuinness who, just before Ahern was about to make good his escape, nipped round to our side of the police lines to shake hands and exchange jokes about being on the right side of the barricades. Cute or what?
I was reminded of this when Martin boasted of his visit to Wall Street executives, as an answer to claims that if elected President he would discourage multinational investment.
'The day I was nominated to run for the presidency,’ said Martin, ‘I was with Peter Robinson in Wall Street talking to senior officials of the New York Stock Exchange ... I can walk into any boardroom in the United States and what we have already achieved in the North of Ireland makes it very easy to convince investors of the importance and value of investment here.’ Unemployment in Northern Ireland is now back to the level it was at in 1998, but I’m assuming Martin and Peter didn’t claim the credit for that.
In case you haven’t heard, tens of thousands of New Yorkers, inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, are taking part in marches and thousands are occupying a park on Wall Street to protest the austerity policies demanded by the bankers. Perhaps Martin popped down afterwards to the occupation and shook hands and shot the breeze about demonstrations and police violence. Who knows? He didn’t make a statement to the press about it. The really important business, as far as he was concerned, was conducted in the boardrooms.
The writer Naomi Klein has called the Occupy Wall Street movement the ‘most important thing in the world right now’. Anyone with any decent friends on Facebook or Twitter will have been inundated with reports from the occupation these last couple of weeks, the mass arrest of 700 people on Brooklyn Bridge, the support of trade unions (not always a given in the US), the spread of the movement to other US cities. There are countless moving, handwritten testimonies of poor students crippled with debt, families evicted from homes, the staggering medical bills that destroy all hope, and this in the richest city on the face of the earth, the Rome of the American Empire.
The visit to Wall Street (and it’s not the first) is a very deliberate signal that Martin, and indeed Sinn Fein in the future, can be entrusted with the care of the wounded and bewildered capitalist system in Ireland. That’s the real significance of Martin’s campaign for the Presidency.
Of course, Martin wouldn’t be alone in this. This is as it ever was with reformist and populist politicians, tapping the mood of resentment against the rich and powerful in public, while coming over all respectful and understanding in the privacy of the boardroom or the offices of state. Tony Blair’s nauseating fawning over the shysters of the City of London and press barons like Rupert Murdoch was a disgrace to the labour movement, but it was nothing new in the history of the British Labour Party. Obama is travelling the same well-worn path and disillusioning those whose hopes he’d raised. Added to this, the last 25 years of rampant free-market capitalism and stock market towers in the sky has bred a generation of politicians who see their only role as brushing the red carpet for multinational corporations. If you didn’t know any better, you’d almost be convinced that the single purpose of global capitalism was to bestow jobs on the grateful inhabitants of run down towns.
And it is this adaption that is the more significant factor in the recurring drama and tragedy of Irish republicanism, that Sinn Fein now use to claim legitimacy for Martin’s Presidential bid. Michael Collins, Eamonn De Valera, Sean Mc Bride, Eamonn Gilmore and the rest gave up armed struggle in order to make their peace with the establishment.
What is different now is that the clash of interests between the establishment and the rest of us – the 1% versus the 99% as the Wall Street Occupiers put it - is sharpening. The seemingly uncontrollable debt crisis affecting Europe and the West has at its heart a scandalous transfer of public wealth into the vaults of private banks in Frankfurt, Paris, London and New York. We all know it and sense it. The public spending cuts are the price we’re expected to pay to reassure the bankers and stockbrokers who were bailed out with our money. The movement in New York, for all its initial incoherence, is a reflection that large numbers of people are seeing through it and pointing the finger at the system itself.
If the movement keeps growing, as it looks likely to, it will be the most serious challenge to the neo-liberal consensus in the US since the Seattle rebellion in 1999. The tsunami of debt that submerged the developing countries – and sparked off the movement against the IMF and World Bank back then – has now reached the shores of the rich nations. The movement is now spreading to cities across Europe and around the world. If it connects with the determination fuelling the wave of public sector strikes in Europe this autumn it could well destroy the bankers well-laid plans.
Where does the solution lie? In the board rooms favoured by the Sinn Fein leadership these days? Or outside their windows, with those protesters on Wall Street and now Dame Street in Dublin, which since the weekend boasts its own occupation at the heart Ireland’s banking system? Things are stirring. Martin is making his peace with the establishment at precisely the moment when we need to be taking them on.
So don’t be surprised to see Sinn Fein MLAs and TDs on protests against austerity in the coming months. Just rest assured that the real business is being conducted elsewhere.