'The time may be coming when we will have to sit down and examine whether we would have to look at whether a work permit regime ought to be implemented in terms of some of this non-national labour, even for countries in the EU... There are 40 million or so Poles after all, so it is an issue we have to have a look at" (Pat Rabbitte, in interview with Stephen Collins in the Irish Times, 3 January 2006).
Several Labour TDs and Senators were aghast at what they saw as the playing of a race card by Pat Rabbitte in that Irish Times interview. Some were unhappy with the tone of the interview generally, which was designed to convey the impression that whatever radicalism there had been in Labour was now discarded.
But in the four weeks since he made those remarks, not a single Labour TD or senator has uttered a word of criticism in public. We contacted several members of the Labour Parliamentary Party in connection with this article and not one of them was prepared to go on the record expressing any disquiet with what Rabbitte said or the general direction in which he is taking the party in the run up to the 2007 general election.
Ivana Bacik, a professor of law at Trinity College, and a Labour Party candidate in the 2004 European elections, said on television that Rabbitte's remarks were "disappointing".
Seven members of the party wrote a letter to the Irish Times stating: "We believe the concept, introduced by Mr Rabbitte, that workers from other European Union countries would have their freedom of movement between member-states severely curtailed under any work permit regime is disgraceful and flies in the face of what Labour stands for". One of these, Brian Alyward of Newport, Co Tipperary, later characterised Pat Rabbitte's remarks as "racist".
While Proinsias de Rossa welcomed "Rabbitte's courage" in giving leadership on this issue of workers' pay and conditions, in the next breath, he condemned those who used immigrant workers as a scapegoat for the problems of displacement.
The Irish Times interview was raised at a meeting of the Parliamentary Party and disquiet was expressed there about the remarks about work permits for EU workers and the comment about the 40 million Poles. Pat Rabbitte conceded that the remark about the Poles was unfortunate but insisted his general comments had sparked a much needed debate about "the race to the bottom" in terms of work standards and the importation of foreign workers, especially in the context of the imminent EU services directive.
Comment at the Parliamentary Party was muted, according to one participant, by the realisation that Rabbitte's remark clearly had struck a chord with the electorate – the Irish Times TMS/MRBI poll published on 23 January showed that 78 per cent of the adult population believed that workers from the new EU accession states in eastern Europe should be required to obtain work permits before coming to work here.
In contrast to the official estimates that Ireland needs 500,000 foreign workers to come here if the economy is to continue to grow at present levels, nearly 30 per cent believed no more foreign workers should be allowed in and that efforts should be made to reduce the number of foreign workers here at present. Less than a quarter believed that more foreign workers should be allowed come here.
Pat Rabbitte's remarks converge with the views of those opposed to further immigration, even though the reality as stated by the ERSI, NESC and other official agencies is that we need many more such workers.
A "globalisation" expert, Prof Ronaldo Munck, at Dublin City University, has said that conjuring up images of millions of Polish people coming to take Irish workers' jobs was dangerous. "I don't stay awake at night wondering will the 40 million Polish sink the island of Ireland," he said. "Conjuring up images like that is a very dangerous thing." He said racism was no longer shown as a prejudice against colour. It was a much more complex issue and was evident when people "retreated into their cultural bunkers" and adopted an us-and-them attitude.
When Pat Rabbitte equivocated over Labour's position on the citizenship referendum in 2004 the Administrative Council of the party insisted that Labour oppose the referendum, despite Rabbitte's misgivings about getting out of step with majority public opinion then.
On Labour's left, Cork deputy Kathleen Lynch – who has a record of attacking the divisiveness of racism and the exploitation of foreign workers – defends Rabbitte's stance on the basis that his comments "drew attention" to the issue. She welcomes, as do all Labour activists, the strong stance on employment protection since articulated in Labour's policy document.
Rabbitte's comments have posed challenges for both Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil who are fighting either to expand or to maintain a base in the industrial working class – the very people whose economic security is most at risk from displacement by foreign workers.
Sinn Féin condemned Rabbitte's initial comments in a strong statement from Louth deputy, Arthur Morgan, subsequently endorsed by further critical comment from party president Gerry Adams and in An Phoblacht.
But Sinn Féin activists in Dublin acknowledge they are finding it a "hard sell" to counteract Rabbitte's stance, and their efforts to limit the issue to job protection and better enforcement are matched by Rabbitte's own clear positions on the same points.
Fianna Fáil is more cautious. When Noel O'Flynn made similar comments before the last election, Fianna Fáil effectively dissociated themselves from the remarks, much to Labour's derision. But now there is a growing sense that Fianna Fáil will not allow Labour to monopolise the anti-immigrant card, a position that is distasteful to the party's own liberal wing and to Employment Minister Mícheál Martin.
Martin Mansergh, the newly nominated Fianna Fáil candidate for South Tipperary and the candidate most likely to succeed the retiring TD for that constituency, Noel Davern, said Rabbitte was "pandering to people's fears". He said: "If any reasonable senior person in Fianna Fáil had put forward this issue they would have been accused, in no uncertain terms, of engaging in a political race to the bottom". He said that as someone who had been involved in putting together the Fianna Fáil-Labour government of 1992-1994, he would not be attracted to another such liaison if what Pat Rabbitte said represented Labour policies.
Rabbitte's remarks arose in the wake of the Irish Ferries dispute, which, along with the GAMA issue of earlier in 2005, raised anxieties about an erosion of workers' pay and conditions with the engagement of foreign labour. There is also a heightened anxiety about the EU services directive, which Ireland's EU commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, is seeking to have passed later this year (see accompanying article).
The SIPTU researcher Manus O'Riordan has argued that "unregulated immigration and unscrupulous hiring practices are driving down real wages and conditions" in the building industry,
But Pat Rabbitte's Irish Times interview of 3 January also raised questions about Labour's policy position generally. In the interview he claimed credit for getting Labour off the hook of the commitment in its 2002 manifesto to restore capital gains tax to 40 per cent from its current 20 per cent level. He also gave categorical commitments on no increase in income tax or corporation profits tax. In the course of that interview, in reference to the Frank Connolly/Michael McDowell controversy, he sided clearly with Michael McDowell, in the face of widespread Labour opposition to the use by Michael McDowell of Garda files and what was perceived as a vendetta against the Centre for Public Inquiry.
Labour is now further to the right than perhaps at any time in its history, including the periods under the leadership of such people as Michael O'Leary and William Norton. This is perceived by some as ironic given that Rabbitte, along with Eamon Gilmore, Liz McManus and Joe Sherlock, were members of the far left Workers Party, favouring the nationalisation of financial institutions, high taxes on wealth and radical redistribution.
A consequence of Pat Rabbitte's recent remarks and the disillusionment they have caused among Labour ranks is that the likelihood of Labour going into government with Fianna Fáil after the next election, under another leader, almost certainly Brendan Howlin, is enhanced. Rabbitte's capacity to persuade Labour to remain in opposition in preference to going into government with Fianna Fáil will have been diminished and the prospect of removing him as leader and going into office may prove a combination too alluring.
Eoin Ó Murchú is the Eagraí Polaitíochta of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. He is writing here in a personal capacity.p