Dressing the 'no' vote in red colours
Anne McShane examines Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party claims to internationalism
The two main leftwing organisations in Ireland lost no time in declaring the ‘no’ vote against Lisbon on June 12 as some kind of proletarian victory.
The both launched a series of separate meetings after the referendum to build on the apparent success. Richard Boyd-Barrett for the SWP and Joe Higgins for the SP went on the road to explain to all who would listen why the time had come to build a new alternative.
In the case of the SP, this was simply about adding to its own ranks. At one meeting I attended in Cork, councillor Mick Barry focused a great deal on explaining the organisation’s high profile and central role during the campaign. This was the claim spelled out in an article by SP member Kevin McLoughlin, who writes that it “is not an exaggeration to say that the Socialist Party representative, Joe Higgins, played an absolutely critical role in the course of the campaign about being the most capable representative of the ‘no’ side”. This is followed by other self-congratulatory phraseology about the importance of the SP (www.socialistparty.net).
On a different day at a different meeting, Richard Boyd-Barrett from the SWP was making similar boasts. He applauded his comrades for their activism and the impact their organisation had made on the referendum. In its post-referendum leaflet the SWP talked proudly about the “scores of meetings on the subject, an “impressive website”, thousands of posters, hundreds of thousands of leaflets (www.swp.ie). It wants now to “build a larger, bigger, more radical left” - which, of course, does not have to be restricted to socialists. Sound familiar?
While both try to outdo each other in terms of their significance in the ‘no’ campaign, it must be said in all honesty that neither played a leading role. The working class is weak politically and so is the subjective factor. The meetings called by both groups to build on the success of their campaigns were small and consisted of their existing membership and periphery. There has been no leap forward.
Linked with this was the relevance of the working class in the referendum. Again both groups insisted that the ‘no’ was overwhelmingly a working class vote. The proof for this was shown in the fact that the majority of ‘no’ votes came from working class - and rural - areas. The SWP says that “the ‘no’ vote was a vote that gave voice to the working class” (www.swp.ie). But the working class as what? Certainly many were resentful of being pushed into voting for something they did not understand and had no enthusiasm for. But this can be said of any protest vote. It is an indication that people are not happy, but it is not necessarily a sign of confidence. The ‘no’ vote was a very mixed bag. Although there was a sense of rebellion against the political establishment, the vote also represented the rejection of immigration, abortion and other ‘social evils’ from Europe. And Sinn Féin, well able to gain a popular vote on all of these issues, was in reality the party which gained most in terms of its profile.
Both the SP and the SWP state that the role of national chauvinism was greatly exaggerated by the media. But they both also have to admit that Derek Ganley, a wealthy businessman with links to the US arms industry, ran a very effective campaign with Libertas. It was generously funded, with €1.3 million spent on posters and banners. Ganley was also one of the main media spokespeople against the EU superstate, the loss of the veto to qualified voting and threats to democracy.
The difficulty for the left was how to properly distinguish itself from the politics of Ganley, Sinn Féin and other brands of petty nationalism. And in my view it did not do so. Crucially it failed to put forward anything other than simple opposition to the treaty. There was no vision, no sense of it being anything other than a campaign of refusal.
I have criticised previously the SWP’s defence of Irish neutrality against the EU. This is clearly something that struck a chord during the referendum - a populist slogan it is not about to drop. Comrade Boyd-Barrett responded to my criticism of such opportunism with a firm commitment to continue to campaign in defence of “our neutrality”. It is a sad indication of how far the SWP leadership is prepared to go to curry favour.
Anybody with the slightest political awareness will tell you that Irish neutrality is a myth which hides the real participation of the state in all sorts of imperialist invasions and occupations - never mind the fact that Shannon airport is used regularly for the transport of US troops to the Middle East. I have in fact heard Boyd-Barrett and others previously make such points themselves. But, as their leadership in London has shown, principles cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the search for popularity. The SWP now chooses to hide the truth.
When I pointed to the objective reality of the EU and raised the necessity for the Irish left to lead a campaign for working class unity across Europe, I got a lukewarm response. Boyd-Barrett stated that it was “all very well” calling for a European-wide anti-war movement and trade unions, but it is “simply not there right now”. We must “work with reality as it is, not as we want it to be”. This means campaigning to try and prevent the threatened second referendum taking place, with the aim of “giving the establishment another bloody nose”.
The SP states that it is already involved in building international working class unity, but it is really talking about its own organisation, the Committee for a Workers’ International, and its activities. There were no demands for European-wide working class unity in any of the literature I saw produced by the SP. Including a call for a socialist Europe - or social Europe in the case of the SWP - is meaningless if there are no immediate programmatic demands to take you there.
The SWP has announced that it will be attending a meeting of European leftwing groups in September to discuss the referendum. This could be used to begin some common campaigning work. But if it merely agrees a few platitudes and all the participants then go back to their own narrow nationalism, it will be another lost opportunity.
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