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Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 31November 1993

Class Struggle and National Liberation

Counter-revolution in Ireland


by Erna Bennett

XIX – Penalising the poor

Not only did deliberate encouragement of the cattle trade favour an already prosperous class of ranchers and large farmers but the government launched an austerity program which struck at the poor, cutting the pensions of the blind and halt. New measures restricted eligibility for unemployment assistance. Yielding to the pressure from the farmers’ lobby, which protested loudly that the extension of compulsory education would limit the supply of low-paid juvenile labour on the land the government blocked any increase in school building and resisted calls for obligatory schooling.

As school absenteeism oscillated around 40 per cent the government cut the already low salaries of National School teachers. Publicly and explicitly, it disclaimed any responsibility for providing work for the workless. The Minister of Finance was even considering “the possibility of doing away with the national health insurance and labour exchanges, neither of which seemed necessary in the Free State”.114

In short government policies penalised “the mass of people who had supported independence, as against middle and upper classes” who had stood aloof from the struggle. It consolidated the divisions of the civil war “by favouring the classes that had supported the Treaty at the expense of the poorer sections of the community from which the Republicans drew much of their strength”.115

Landlessness was still a chronic source of social tension, in spite of generations of Land Acts. The rural proletariat, numbering some 170,000 men, suffered a steady reduction in their already low wages through the 1920s, and worked long hours under appalling conditions of total neglect to provide a barely sufficient subsistence for their families. Scores of thousands of small farmers still remained mere tenants of the land they cultivated.

Marginally related to the rural proletariat, and in the majority of cases cultivating small plots of land, were the fishermen who, in the total absence of government policy or state investment in a sector of the economy that could have provided work for thousands and stimulated downstream economic activity, eked out an existence on the margin of society, battling daily against death to gather their harvests.

Even the peasant proprietors, a host of “petty landlords”, forming the backbone of the social system, survived only by the labour of the entire family, held in bondage to a burden of debt from which they could not escape, too poor to invest in the land which was the country’s most important single resource, ignored by a government whose economic policies were directed at winning over the country’s economically and socially privileged groups. As for the urban and rural proletariat, poverty remained their lot.

Next Section: XX – Labour’s last shots
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  1. Fanning. loc.cit. pp.64, 65.
  2. Daniel (1976) p.60.

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