Socialist Appeal recently spoke to Paul Murphy, Irish TD (MP) for Dublin South-West, who discussed the need to fight back against the bosses and big businesses that are attempting to profit from the COVID-19 crisis.

Socialist Appeal recently spoke to Paul Murphy, Irish TD (MP) for Dublin South-West, who discussed the need to fight back against the bosses and big businesses that are attempting to profit from the COVID-19 crisis.

Paul Murphy is the recently reelected TD (MP) to the Irish Dáil (parliament) representing Dublin South-West and he is a member of the socialist political group, RISE.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, he and his comrades have exposed the way big business has put its profits before human life in Ireland, and the complicity of the right-wing parties.

Earlier this month, on 17 April, Socialist Appeal had the chance to discuss the implications of February’s election and what the coronavirus crisis means for Ireland with Paul.

Socialist Appeal: Shortly before the current coronavirus crisis broke out, the establishment parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, suffered a very damaging election as Sinn Fein topped the polls. Nevertheless, these parties now seem to be closing in on a deal to form a coalition government. What is the historic significance of such a deal?

Paul Murphy: Historically, unlike a lot of European countries, Ireland didn’t have a two-party system with one clear right-wing party of the bosses and another, in an imperfect way, representing the interests of workers, albeit with a pro-capitalist leadership. Instead, we had two right-wing parties that emerged from the civil war; Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Both very clearly represent the interests of capitalism, although it is true Fianna Fáil was more populist and had more of a mass base. The Labour Party was at best a ‘half-party’ within that framework.

You have had a long-term decline of the combined vote of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, going back to the late 1970’s. That decline has been accelerated massively by the crisis of 2007-2008.

In the general election of 2007 Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael got almost 70% of the vote. Fianna Fáil was initially in power at the time of the crisis but they were almost smashed in an election in 2011. They were replaced by a government of Fine Gael and Labour. During the local elections of 2014, Labour was smashed and almost disappeared as a result of its role in another government that continued austerity. Fine Gael was also hurt.

Fine Gael were then returned to power in a historic new situation whereby they could only enjoy power with the agreement of Fianna Fáil who were supposedly in ‘opposition’. This was what they called the ‘confidence-and-supply’ arrangement. This really exposed their weakness as they still pretended they were two fundamentally different parties with different sets of ideas. They were trying to keep up an illusion of choice, even though they represent the same policies.

As of the last election, that process has gone even further with the two having a combined vote of less than 45% and it looks like they will enter coalition together. Even together though, they don’t have enough votes. They will need to entice a third party like the Green party, the Social Democrats or Labour also to give themselves some sort of ‘progressive’ colouration.

Working-class people are rightly outraged. They feel like it is an attempt to undo the election results. These people had the worst election ever: it was Fianna Fáil’s second worst election ever and Fine Gael’s third worst election in history. Usually one party would do badly and the other would do ok but this time both have had terrible results.

This represents a crisis of political representation for the capitalist class in Ireland. They have been forced to put both their parties together in government in the context of an almighty economic crisis. The IMF is calling it the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

Furthermore, the agreement document they have put together is a blatant lie. They are trying to say, ‘we have learnt the lessons of the general election,’ and put on a ‘left-ish’ face, talking about the role of the state, a one-tier health system, etc. They are doing this to entice the smaller parties. But it won’t be difficult for them to get someone from the Ministry of Finance down the line to say, ‘oh by the way, we don’t actually have any money, there’s a massive crisis and we need more austerity.’

As for Sinn Fein, there is probably some division among the strategists of capitalism about how to deal with them. They face two bad options. The first is to bring Sinn Fein into government. This could lead to instability though. Ordinary people will have high expectations in such a government and could mobilise to deliver on issues of health, housing, climate, etc. On the other hand, if they leave Sinn Fein out it means it's very likely that the next election could produce a government led by Sinn Fein. At this stage they have opted to keep them out by storing up big problems for themselves in the future.

Sinn Fein is not a ‘left’ or ‘socialist’ party but the overlap between their votes and the votes for the socialist left is astonishing. About 50% of voters who voted for Sinn Fein as their first preference and who had the chance to vote for Solidarity-People Before Profit (of which RISE is a part) as their second preference did so.

It demonstrates quite clearly that this is a left-looking vote. People are attracted to their criticism of austerity and the establishment. Sinn Fein however are more open than they have ever been to governing with Fianna Fáil. We all know that that is a government that will manage capitalism and will disappoint people. But that in turn could be an important staging post in the building of a mass socialist left in Ireland that can actually fight for a left government with socialist policies.

SA: In one country after another the coronavirus crisis is exposing the inequalities of capitalism. Can you give us a bit of background to the coronavirus crisis in Ireland?

PM: One of the main things that this crisis has exposed is the underfunding of our health service over the course of decades. Substantial cuts were made in the 1980’s by a Fianna Fáil government and those cuts have never been recovered from. Hand in hand with that, we have moved towards a privatised health service, where you have a very clear two-tier health service with private health insurance, private hospitals etc.

To illustrate where this has left us, the Irish government has claimed its model for dealing with the coronavirus is South Korea. But South Korea has 12 beds per 1,000 people in their hospital system, whilst in Ireland we have 3 beds per 1,000 people. We are substantially down even compared to the EU average.

Ireland’s massive housing crisis also impacts on the spread of the virus. There is a massive problem of overcrowding. For example, the low-paid agency staff working in nursing homes often live in cramped, shared accommodation with other agency staff, effectively acting as vectors for the virus between different nursing homes. Horrific stories are now emerging of some nursing homes in which over 15% of the elderly residents have succumbed to the virus.

SA: Some have compared the response of the Irish government favourably with the response of governments in Britain and the United States. What measures has the Irish government taken in the face of this crisis and does it deserve the praise it has received?

PM: Any praise for the Irish government suggesting that they have operated in some ‘progressive’ or ‘left’ way is completely undeserved. They have taken correct measures in terms of shutting down non-essential businesses and cancelling St Patrick's Day, while Cheltenham was still going ahead in Britain for instance. But they have taken such measures under pressure and in a delayed fashion. It was RISE and the socialist left in general who were calling for non-essential work to be shut down ten days or more before the government acted. Because it is a weak, caretaker government, they have been susceptible to pressure.

In terms of the income support measures that the government has taken, the baseline unemployment payment in Ireland is about €200 a week. They have introduced a new pandemic unemployment payment of €350 a week. This is a substantial increase. They are doing it partly because they are under pressure and partly to ensure continued demand to maintain their system.

In terms of private hospitals, they have announced that we now have a ‘one-tier health system’. The health minister has said it would be immoral to treat people differently for coronavirus whether they have private health insurance or not. We agree. But it is also immoral to treat people differently if they have had a heart attack, a stroke or cancer! It isn’t just immoral in the time of coronavirus.

Private hospitals have been incorporated into the public health system, reflecting the weakness of the public health system which doesn’t have enough ICU beds to deal with the crisis. They haven’t nationalised them however, but have done a deal with them. In the Dáil I managed to extract from the figure that is being paid to the private hospitals. The government is paying them €115 million a month. That is about €44,000 per bed. By comparison, the NHS is paying abou €10,000 a month for each bed. It clearly suggests that there is substantial profiteering going on by private hospital owners, many of whom are very close to Fine Gael, the governing party.

Even when taking the measures that are in the direction of what is necessary, the government is doing so in the framework of the capitalist system, giving the bosses every opportunity to profit from the crisis.

SA: An important question is who is going to pay for the measures taken by the government? How is this government likely to tackle this question and what will this mean for the class struggle in Ireland?

PM: All of this is storing up enormous problems for them. No one will accept that after 12 weeks the unemployment payment should go down again. If you need €350 to live, you need that money to live on whether or not there is a pandemic! If it is possible to have a one-tier health service that doesn’t discriminate on the basis of wealth during a pandemic then it is possible to have it outside a pandemic. This is the attitude of people: ‘you aren’t going to take these things off us.’

The other problem for the government is that the estimated bill is about €25 billion on top of the economic effect that will go on for years. It is clear there is an enormous bill to be paid and it’s clear that this government and the future government will not touch the wealth of the rich at all.

Two things have demonstrated this fact. They have changed the tax residency rule so that tax exiles who can’t leave the country because of the virus can continue being tax exiles even though they are in the country more days than they are allowed in a year. So tax exiles can continue pretending they live somewhere else and pay no tax. It is really blatant. They have also made clear they are not going to drop their appeal against the Apple tax judgement which says that Apple owes the Irish state €14.3 billion including interest.

Sooner or later, and they may engage in borrowing or capital investment to delay this, we will be back to 2007-2008 levels of austerity. It is quite likely that there won’t be such a long period of shock before the government faces struggles this time round.

If we look at the position of the establishment going into this crisis compared to the last crisis, purely in electoral terms they are down from 70% to 45%. This doesn’t tell us everything but it does show that they don’t have the authority to carry through these measures. They will try to rely on the trade union leaders as they did in the past to get these measures through, but the tendency from below will be towards struggle.

Likewise, at the time of the last crisis there were no socialist TDs in the Dáil. That was a factor because there was no articulation of left arguments against the policies of the government. Sinn Fein also voted for the bank bailout. This time you have five socialist TDs within Solidarity-People Before Profit and a number of other genuine left TDs, who will be a genuine voice of opposition and can hopefully give confidence to workers to fight back.

SA: Thank you, Paul. Finally, can you tell us a bit about how RISE and the rest of the socialist left are responding to this crisis.

PM: Obviously all political activity is unusually constrained into particular areas at this time. But we have had an impact, particularly through social media campaigns. We’ve run a campaign against price gouging and demanding the introduction of price controls.

We, together with Unite the union, have forced the closure of construction sites. Construction sites were remaining open whilst claiming to be essential. We forced them to be closed with a campaign of outrage and exposure. Likewise we forced the closure of car testing centres. RISE, and the socialist left generally, have been a voice for workers’ rights, fighting for workers’ health and safety at work.

In some areas we have also tried to establish a solidarity network. At this moment not many people have requested aid and so it has functioned to connect people but at a later point in the crisis it too could become a focal point for community organisation.

SA: Thank you for your time, Paul. Please send a message of solidarity to your comrades from the editorial board of Socialist Appeal.