Time to reassess
The Irish left is still attempting to justify its support for Brexit, notes Anne McShane.
To say that Ireland is facing a crisis is a gross understatement. As a no-deal Brexit looms, it is clear that the working class, north and south, will pay a very heavy price. At least 100,000 job losses are predicted in the republic and 40,000 in the Six Counties. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The Irish government has gone all out to reassure business interests. A fund has been set up in the 2020 ‘Boris budget’ announced on October 8. €1.2 billion has been set aside to protect the economy, with nearly €1 billion for the department of business. Meanwhile there have been paltry or no increases for those on low incomes, social welfare, the homeless, the health service and pensioners. And there is already enormous pressure on those in work.
House prices have soared once again since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger in 2008. In Dublin they have risen by a staggering 93.8% since 2012. Average prices in September were €269,000 nationally and €376,000 in Dublin. Rents have also risen dramatically, assisted by the dire shortage of social housing and governmental support for the landlord class. The average rent stood at €321 per week in August, while the gross minimum wage is only €392 and the average €513 per week - and Job Seekers Allowance’s maximum rate for an unemployed person is only €203 per week. It is not difficult to see that significant job losses in the current situation will plunge many tens of thousands into abject poverty and homelessness.
The two main leftwing groups in Ireland - the People before Profit Alliance (PBPA), the electoral front of the Socialist Worker’s Network (formerly Socialist Workers Party); and Solidarity, the Socialist Party front - held a ‘think-in’ on Brexit in September. Following that event they announced their commitment to defend the working class from the painful consequences of a no-deal. Solidarity TD Mick Barry said that workers should not be the “whipping boy” and called on the trade unions to take a stand, while Richard Boyd Barrett, his fellow parliamentarian from the PBPA, said that his group would not allow Brexit to become the “new austerity excuse”.
Fine words indeed from the representatives of organisations with no small responsibility for the debacle facing the working class. Both groups organise on an all-Ireland basis and both campaigned for a ‘leave’ vote in the 2016 British referendum in Northern Ireland. Both claimed a leftwing exit from the EU was possible, and could embolden the masses to challenge the establishment in the EU, Ireland and UK. They appeared - wilfully or otherwise - blind to the fact that a leave vote was certain to entrench existing divisions within the working class, stir up hostility towards migrants, intensify nationalism and lead to economic austerity. One Socialist Party journalist, Kevin Henry, writing in April 2016, dismissed warnings from Sinn Féin and others of the dangers of Brexit as a cynical ploy by the establishment, a “project fear” aimed at undermining the Lexit campaign. He was adamant that “A ‘Brexit’ will not mean a ‘hard border’ between the north and the south”; nor would “leaving the EU automatically mean the scrapping of the Human Rights Act”. There was apparently nothing to fear for the working class and progressive politics.
The PBPA was even more asinine. On May 5 2016 it had two leading members elected to the Stormont assembly - a major breakthrough for the left in two core republican working class areas, West Belfast and Foyle (Derry). Their election promised the possibility of independent working class politics in Northern Ireland. But then its two MLAs, Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann, went out and campaigned for a leave vote a month later. This must have been a huge disappointment for their supporters, as 74.1% of Carroll’s Belfast West constituency voted remain, as did 78.3% in McCann’s Foyle constituency (the latter being the highest remain vote in the UK).
But, rather than review their approach to the referendum in its aftermath, Carroll and McCann defended their positions. In the October issue of International Socialist Journal, Carroll is quoted as saying:
There are ‘reasons to be cheerful’ about the outcome … David Cameron - one of Europe’s biggest austerity-mongers - is gone. The British establishment, from top to bottom, is in turmoil and Britain may well be facing its biggest constitutional crisis for a century or more. The Tory Party, who seemed to be in a position of unquestionable strength just months ago, is split. And the neoliberal project of the EU … is in a deep crisis.1
Eamonn McCann similarly claimed: “There is no need for the pessimism and near panic which seems to have descended on many. There is no inevitable outcome here. It’s all to be fought for”.2
These words were to come back to haunt them. The 2017 assembly election saw Carroll’s vote plummet from 22.9% to 12.2% and McCann lost his seat. But, in an interview with The Journal in February 2017, Carroll continued to defend their support for leave, despite expressing doubt about the need for the referendum at all - it had resulted from a power struggle within the Conservative Party that had gone too far. But, faced with the calling of the referendum, a decision was made by the PBPA to say that “the EU does not operate in the interests of working people anywhere, and the strongest example of that is Greece” The “priority now is to make sure Brexit works for working people”. He continued to argue that there could be a leftwing exit:
What we need is a Brexit that is not shaped by Theresa May. We need one that is shaped by working class people in Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. And one that is shaped by the trade union movement.3
Sinn Féin did not lose the opportunity to go on the attack against the PBPA. In October 2016 Alex Maskey MP criticised Carroll and McCann for refusing to vote for a motion in Stormont to “support special EU status for the north of Ireland, causing the motion to be defeated by one vote”. He argued that they “have effectively aligned themselves on the same pro-Brexit side as Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage”. He particularly berated Carroll for his “reasons to be cheerful” quote and argued that the opposite was true:
We are already seeing higher living costs and increased hardship and we are only in the early stages of the aftermath of this decision. The spectre of a hard border, a return to border checkpoints and immigration controls is now right back on the agenda of the British Tory government.4
In 2018 the PBPA reported that Sinn Féin had “illegally erected posters slandering the socialist politics of People Before Profit”. The posters - which announced, “Brexit hard border brought to you by the Tories, DUP, UUP and People before Profit” - were erected all over Belfast, including outside Carroll’s constituency office. He angrily argued that the PBPA was opposed to a hard border and should not be included with the rightwing advocates of Brexit.
In an effort to square the circle and provide some cover for its disastrous leave campaign, PBPA produced a Brexit policy in February 2018. This policy includes in its demands a rejection of all moves to recreate a hard border, customs or immigration checks. It calls for a referendum in both the north and south of Ireland on any negotiated deal between Britain and the EU and for the Irish government to use its veto to ensure that this referendum takes place. It pledges to conduct a campaign of civil disobedience against the imposition of a hard border by Britain or the EU.5 The policy states that “working people have very different interests to employers and bankers, which must figure in any discussion of Brexit”. It also declares:
For us, what matters is the lives of working people in Ireland and in Europe. Neither London nor Brussels share this objective, as they both want to push neoliberalism in their respective areas and to make working people pay the costs.
This, of course, is in clear contradiction with the organisation’s call for a leave vote in 2016, and its optimism about the possibilities for the Irish working class in a Brexit scenario. In 2016 PBPA TD Brid Smith said of the UK referendum result:
This vote should be seen as an opportunity for an alternative Europe. I welcome this blow to the EU project. The EU has never been about a workers’ Europe and its recent treatment of Greece and Ireland shows its primary concern is not the welfare of citizens or refugees, but the welfare of the banks and the bond-holders.6
At a press conference to launch the PBPA European election campaign in April of this year, Richard Boyd Barrett was challenged over such statements and it was put to him that his group bore some responsibility for the mess. He argued:
We did not get a Lexit, we got a rightwing Tory Brexit, which is trying to bring England on a race to the bottom. If they weren’t doing that, it would be relatively easy to solve the issues of the border and so on. It is immigration and issues like that where we don’t have a problem.
In other words, he has washed his hands of it and refuses to accept his organisation’s support for an idiotic and dangerous left-nationalist fantasy.
But have lessons been learned? I am minded to think that if the leave vote had carried the day in Northern Ireland then the PBPA and Solidarity would still be peddling this line. The reason for their retreat seems to be the unpopularity of the ‘leave’ slogan in Ireland rather than principle. A proper and honest reassessment is needed.