Opportunism in Irish conditions

Socialist Workers Party (Ireland) held its Marxism 2007 event in Dublin over the weekend of March 10-11. The event reflects, as it does in Britain, the current political and organisational state of the SWP. Anne Mc Shane reports

The Irish organisation is much smaller than its British counterpart, and has endured rapid membership loss since the 1990s, when it had a small but militant trade union base. Figures vary, depending on who you talk to. Members claim 400 nationally but a more accurate figure of those active would be about 100. There were certainly no more than that present at this event, along with about 40 others who turned up for the debate.

And in welcome comparison to the British event, there was actually some real debate. The organisation is not so heavily policed by the leadership and members are a lot more open. It has also up to recently presented a more leftwing image of itself than its British counterpart. Its candidates in the 2002 general election stood on an openly socialist manifesto (of the economistic variety, of course).

But all that is changing fast. The new vehicle for election work is an organisation called the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA). Like Respect, PBPA is almost entirely made up of SWP members and supporters. Again like Respect, it seeks to hide this and describes itself as "a new alliance of community activists, grassroots campaigners, trade unionists and socialists". It stands on "grassroots" localist politics, decent public services, fairer taxes and environmentalism.

The influence of London in determining this rightism is obvious. Clearly the Irish organisation was expected to make a Respect turn. But there is one problem - where are the "muslim activists"? In fact where are the anti-war militants? At least the SWP has Respect councillors and a degree of influence to show for its opportunism in Britain.

Three out of the four PBPA candidates selected for the May general election are SWP members, but this is also kept very quiet. Leading member Richard Boyd-Barrett also stood in 2002. But then he promised to link grassroots struggles "into a challenge to capitalism itself". Now he does not mention socialism, the working class and definitely not his political affiliation. Instead he calls for votes on the basis of his activism, particularly in his own constituency (see www.richardboydbarrett.org).

One of the main speakers of the Marxism weekend was John Rees. He was clearly there to ensure the proper line was adhered to on important issues. This naturally reflected itself in the discussion on elections. In a session titled 'Rise of the new left', he spoke on behalf of 'Respect UK' and argued that the Irish SWP needed to be part of a broader electoral formation. In an effort to reassure his audience he asserted "We can really grow if we have this approach".

Rory Hearne, leading member and election candidate in Dublin South East, said it was vital that somebody was actually elected. He was confident that this could be achieved. Perhaps comrade Boyd-Barrett would be the one to make the breakthrough. He could bring "people power into the Dáil" and join the Socialist Party's Joe Higgins there.

In the discussion, I put forward the need for a united Marxist party rather than yet another reformist 'broad left formation'. Revolutionary ideas are the only practical ones to stand on, as the Bolsheviks had. Why were comrades hiding their politics just to get elected? This raised the hackles of the leadership and their loyalists. Sean Mitchell, who stood as a PBPA candidate in West Belfast in last week's assembly elections and got 774 votes (2.3%), dismissed this "abstract stuff about needing a Marxist party". He certainly would not have made such a good impact if he had stood on revolutionary politics.

Marnie Holborrow argued that the policies of PBPA were "central working class demands". In today's circumstances "putting yourself forward as a Marxist would not fit the bill at all". Richard Boyd Barrett then informed us that the programme of the revolutionary movement in Russia under the Bolsheviks was "land, peace and bread"! The revolutionary organisation needed to "be part of that broad alliance and not be about raising the banner to those who do not use the term 'Marxist'"

According to another comrade, "getting Richard elected" would be "a watershed". We "need the greatest breakthrough possible". Comrade Boyd-Barrett got 1.6% of the vote in 2002, with 876 votes. His was the top vote of the seven SWP members who stood. Obviously the realisation that socialist politics (SWP version) have so little appeal has led to the new turn. No wonder John Rees challenged "those who want to put up a Marxist flag in elections to try it themselves and see how they get on".

So, despite continual assertions from the top table that "there never has been a better time to be a socialist", the SWP are not very confident at all in the strength of their professed ideas. This is also the case on the women's question, about which they have previously been vocal.

In a session on women and politics, comrade Holborrow complained about the fact that "abortion rights have dropped right off the agenda". No political party was prepared to mention the issue in the election despite the "continuing crisis for women". With abortion illegal, more than 6,000 women travel from the south of Ireland to Britain each year to get help. But, when I asked what PBPA had to say on the subject, she fudged the issue. PBPA was "a broader campaign and it might not be right for support for abortion to be a condition to people joining". So it does not have a policy? When I pursued the subject after the meeting, she agreed that this was the case, but said it might change.

Abortion is not a side issue, especially in Ireland. It is controversial and any candidate who supports it - as the SWP did in 2002 - has to be prepared to get some flak. But the influence of the catholic church has thankfully diminished, greatly assisted by exposure of its own sex scandals and abuse. And attitudes have changed. In a recent poll, 64% of those questioned said they believed that abortion should be allowed in at least some circumstances (http://safeandlegal.blogspot.com).

Marnie Holborrow and others were at pains to point out that there has been a revolution in the thinking on the women's question in Ireland. Obviously one that has not found reflection in abortion rights. And with the SWP silent on the issue for fear of losing their largely phantom rightwing allies, they themselves become the right wing. Women in Ireland cannot depend on these so-called revolutionaries to defend their rights. There is here more than one similarity to Respect unfortunately.