Shut the revolving door on the way out: the politics of negative internationalisation

Of the many fulsome initiatives intended to normalise the trauma of forced emigration, an ad campaign for a soft drink goes in at number one with a bullet. By purchasing the product of this global corporation, you enter a draw for the prize of bringing back a group of your recently emigrated friends. They will, if you are successful, be back in Ireland on Saint Patrick's Day for 'the craic'. Recession-busting pizza might give you heartburn, but as Hugh Green examines, there's nothing like an emigration-busting soft drink to ease the heart ache.

Is there not a lurid enjoyment offered up here, and in many other instances, that while we are invited to lament the departure of our compatriots, we are also invited to warm the cockles of our heart with the idea of warm and friendly country they are leaving behind? It is as though we are being tickled by the same reflex that afflicts broadcaster Joe Duffy, who, after hearing a caller's heartfelt testimony about the misery inflicted upon them by a venal and corrupt society, cannot help but respond with the dread words "but sure it's a great country?"

The devastating effects of emigration go way beyond rotting teeth, and yet, the current wave of emigration from Ireland has still failed to produce any instances of concentrated popular anger. Instead, it has provided an opportunity for gloopy sentimentality that drowns any questions about the root causes of emigration, its function, and its effects, in a sugary goo. The best response, when bombarded with this depoliticised rubbish, is to recall its similarity to the advice issued by American firm Northwest Airlines to workers it intended to lay off: “don't be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash”.

There is an urgent need to confront emigration as a political question, and not, as is so often the case, as though it were a matter of the country being shaken by some mystical rhythmic movement that makes itself felt from deep within the island's core. The failure to address the traumatic effects of emigration in political terms beyond anything but neo-liberal I-feel-your-pain emoting provides a vital starting point for the formation of a broader movement. This movement ought to seek to challenge, and overthrow, the concentrations of capitalist power for which emigration, and the threat of emigration, is a tool for disciplining the population.

On the face of it, the conditions for such a movement seem ripe enough. The crippling EU-IMF ‘bailout’ conditions are intended to force the broad mass of working people in Ireland to shoulder the enormous losses incurred by European banks. While the new government will include political parties that have promised to ‘renegotiate’ the imposition, the basic parameters, which entail the deepening entrenchment of neo-liberal capitalist policies in Irish society will remain unchanged

However, a major stumbling block for the formation of any such movement will be the representation of the ‘bailout’ deal as the product of the will of the people, once the elections have ended. Whoever ends up in power, the election results will be presented, by political parties, bosses, and civil society institutions aligned with ruling class interests, as a gold-plated endorsement that this – the dismantling of the welfare state, the decline in living standards, the destruction of public services - is truly what the people want, having given the matter sustained and rational deliberation.

From the perspective of those institutions most closely aligned with European capital, the responsibility of the Irish population for shouldering the burden of the debt of private speculators is self-evident. As Brigid Laffan writes, in an article for the Institute of International and European Affairs, a think-tank funded by, among others, Bank of Ireland, Goldman Sachs, State Street, IBEC, Depfa Bank and Shell:

Ireland’s dependence on the EU and the terms of the bailout could well have long lasting effects on Ireland’s relationships with European institutions and the other member states. Although there is no public opinion data yet available, the discourse and narrative on the bailout in the Irish print and electronic media is replete with references to what was done to Ireland, to Ireland as victim. In popular lore, the other member states, particularly Germany, were motivated by saving their own banks rather than assisting Ireland.

The mere idea, then, that the working population of Ireland is somehow the victim of the German state being influenced by the interests of German banks, from the standpoint of elite opinion, is up there with Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge as extracts from the Bumper Irish Book of Likely Stories. Laffan continues:

Given the economic and financial interdependence in the EU and the democratic foundations of the member states, all Governments must be attentive to their domestic electorates. The German Government and other governments in the EU were concerned about their banks and financial systems but it was Ireland that put itself in a position whereby help would have to be sought from the EU/IMF.

We should, of course, welcome the concession that governments should listen to what the people who elected them are saying. But it simply does not follow from this, I am afraid, that governments can be assumed, certainly not ex post facto, and certainly not in the Irish case, given the cronyist collusion between elite business circles and powerful politicians, to represent or serve the will of the people. It is precisely this assumption, however, that will be used as a means of laundering the EU/IMF “bailout” after the forthcoming elections. Against this, a popular movement must reject the proposition that the forthcoming government has any authority whatsoever to bring forth the austerity plan envisaged by the “bailout”.

Just as mass unemployment, and the dread of unemployment among workers, are tools used by bosses to force workers to accept lower wages and diminished wages, the trauma of emigration is being used, under the cover of phoney national sentimentality, to strengthen the power of capital over labour. Fine Gael, for instance, proposes to stem the “scourge” of emigration by “putting more than 20,000 people on one year public, private and voluntary sector work placements”. This, Leo Varadkar claimed, would be funded in large part by “welfare substitution”, which is to say, Fine Gael would regale employers with the labour power of unemployed graduates. No doubt the firms would be delighted: what better way of keeping worker wages depressed?

A popular movement will not get off the ground if emigration in Ireland is taken to be a weapon used solely against Irish citizens. The proposition that the Irish working population and the Irish government are one and the same, and therefore singularly responsible for shouldering whatever burden of European banking losses is determined by European Union institutions, as expressed by Brigid Laffan, excludes non-Irish citizens, roughly 10 per cent of the population, from the frame of vision. Whereas the departure of young Irish citizens is an opportunity for crocodile tears and sickly hand-wringing on the part of the rich, the departure of people of other nationalities is considered proper order. For instance, in an editorial from October 2009, the Irish Times described the slowing in the unemployment rate due to “immigrant workers returning home” as an “encouraging indicator”.

Now that the election doorsteps have spoken, elite discourse has moved a little bit beyond bandying about the idea, in public at least, that forced emigration for Irish people has upsides worth talking about. It is quite acceptable for ruling class parties to refer to it as a “scourge”, for Irish citizens at least, albeit a scourge applied by no-one in particular, and especially not a scourge applied by the same people who stand squarely behind the imposition of internal devaluation. However, in the rare occasions that they appear in the frame of vision, emigration is portrayed as a soothing sponge for those who are not Irish citizens. Sure aren’t they returning home?

But while non-Irish workers are often those who work in the most precarious and badly paid of jobs, and even though they are those for whom the threat of having to emigrate is foremost, they are not able to participate in national elections, in keeping with current European law. EU citizens do not have the right to vote in the national elections of another member state. Furthermore, Article 16 of the European Convention of Human Rights allows member states to impose “restrictions on the political activity of aliens”. The current political organisation of the European Union, then, allows for the creation of super-exploited and disenfranchised categories of workers in order to serve the interests of capital. Were this not the case, it is hard to envisage that the slashing of the minimum wage could be executed so easily.

The idea, then, that non-Irish workers ought to shoulder the burden of European banking losses because they somehow consented to it is patently false, and this exposes in broad daylight, as if more proof were needed, the phoney universalism and contempt for democracy among European elites and their Irish “partners”. In so far as a popular movement may wish to organise a referendum, it ought to include every single person who lives in this state, including, for instance, the Davenport Hotel workers who are expected to take a wage cut to “help the government”, but who will have no political vote when it comes to decisions on what happens to the minimum wage.

The full incorporation of non-Irish citizens to a popular movement to overturn the political lockdown imposed by EU-IMF bailout is an urgent matter, then, for anyone interested in democracy and universal justice. But what happens when technocracy confronts the question of including non-Irish citizens in the political franchise?

There isn’t a great deal of data available, but in its Which? Magazine-style survey on Political Reform,’s presentation of Sinn Féin as class dunces served to obscure an interesting datum. Sinn Féin was the only party to advocate votes for both non-resident citizens and long-term legally resident non-citizens, and got top marks among all the political parties for doing so., which includes researchers from the Institute of International and European Affairs, has smiled benignly on this extension of the democratic franchise. We should take them at their word on this point, demand full political rights for non-Irish citizens, take one small step toward bringing democracy back. Not least for the craic.

Image top via Fergal OP on Flickr