The left's general election campaign is beginning to make an impact, writes Anne Mc Shane
Crisis continues to grip Irish society, as the government struggles to hold onto power. With Fianna Fáil at a record low in the polls, even its own membership is turning away from it in disgust. The old power structures are feeling the strain following unparalleled shifts in political loyalties.
Fianna Fáil is locked in an internecine war, as TDs do battle to oust Brian Cowen, the taoiseach (prime minister). He may have survived the January 18 confidence vote - a vote he called himself to put his opponents on the back foot - but his problems are far from over. Party members and TDs are deeply disgruntled, and squabbles and back-stabbings are rife. And the rats are deserting the sinking ship, with several TDs, including ministers, announcing that they will not contest the general election expected to be held within weeks. They were not exactly looking forward to the intense anger they would have faced on the doorstep, followed by annihilation on voting day.
Fianna Fáil has up to now always been the largest party. Set up by Éamon de Valera in 1926, it has dominated the political landscape for over 80 years and been in office for 22 out of the last 24 years. The foremost party of church, state and the establishment, it has seemed untouchable. During the years of the ‘Celtic tiger’ its leaders’ appetite for influence and extravagance was breathtaking. Bertie Ahern and his cronies revelled in their apparent unassailability. Developers, bankers and a coterie of hangers-on found themselves richly rewarded for their allegiance. But now the party is over and Fianna Fáil has woken up with one hell of a hangover.
Today that era is despised by the majority of people as one of corruption, greed and lies - when politicians and their friends in high places lived it up and benefited from a constant exchange of money and favours. The thorough exposure of this sleaze and avarice has left the working class in no doubt as to the disposition of their rulers. Capitalism has been shown to be a society of gross inequality. As the economic system goes into tailspin, the working class are being made to pay.
Since 2008, when the banking crisis hit, there has been round after round of savage cuts. The latest budget saw the poorest in society subjected to still more attacks, while the wealthy actually gained under the Finance Bill. Our rulers have no shame about insisting that their privileges are preserved and we must suffer. Despite the deep anger and demands for the government to go, it is determined to hold on for as long as possible. In this it has received support from the European commission and IMF, which insisted that the austerity budget agreed as part of the most recent banking bail-out be passed before the government leaves office.
And even as the draconian cuts impoverish thousands, reports of corruption continue. Recent revelations show that Cowen and crew were up to their stinking necks in it. The latest is the ‘Golfgate’ scandal where the taoiseach was treated to a day out by disgraced banker Sean Fitzpatrick, then chairman of Anglo Irish, just days before the government announced a guarantee to protect his bank’s funds. Cowen has threatened defamation proceedings against Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin for suggesting improper conduct and insists that the banking problems were never even mentioned all day long. Funnily enough, nobody believes him. Fitzpatrick was later found to have helped himself to €155 million in secret loans from Anglo Irish - loans which will never be repaid.
Of course, Fine Gael, the second party, is no alternative - in fact leader Enda Kenny plans to force through even harsher attacks. The Labour Party’s Eamonn Gilmore has posed as the defender of ordinary folk, but has conceded that he will not reverse current cuts and promises to adhere to IMF/ECB stipulations. Labour is prepared to enter into government with Fine Gael - which tells us everything about what is in store under that coalition. As for the Greens, it seems they are finished - they have shown themselves to be a pitiful excuse for a ‘radical’ party as Fianna Fáil’s junior partner.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin is on the rise in the polls and is predicted to make vital gains, which could mean a position in government. Of course, its record in Stormont can leave no doubt as to which side it will take when actually wielding power. Despite a section of the membership considering itself working class and leftwing, the leadership under Gerry Adams is most definitely pro-capitalist.
At least voters will be able to support a working class candidate in a minimum of 18 out of the 43 constituencies (165 TDs will be elected using a form of proportional representation that favours the big parties). The United Left Alliance has announced its first batch of candidates - 16 are members of either the Socialist Party or People Before Profit, the Socialist Workers Party-dominated ‘united front’. The SWP has ‘disappeared itself’ into the PBP/ULA.
The ULA initiative is to be greatly welcomed and has enormous potential. It is definitely attracting an audience beyond the usual left. The launch meeting in Dublin in November was very large, while the meeting I attended in Cork earlier this month saw an impressive turnout of 250. A significant number of the audience were new to politics and were very keen to get involved in the debate about the way forward. People were passionate and articulate and in fact I would argue that the audience was to the left of the platform.
First up was Joe Higgins, Socialist Party MEP, who made the point that the most important part of the ULA programme was its assertion that there can be no just or sustainable solution under the capitalist market. What we needed was “a credible left representation in the Dáil”, linked with a mass movement of opposition outside. A 24-hour general strike would be the start of such a movement that should aim to link up with the working class across Europe. He pledged that the ULA would not enter any coalition and if it did well enough to be considered “viable” in the election it would “review” the possibility of forming a party.
PBP councillor (and leading SWP member) Richard Boyd Barrett spoke next and gave a fiery account of his fight against corruption in his local council, Dún Laoghaire. He said that ULA candidates had signed up to a pledge to be accountable and transparent, and to resist junketeering. All the other parties were committed to the austerity measures and did not deserve any support. However, after the meeting he did advise one audience member that he should vote Labour or Sinn Féin in the absence of a ULA candidate. Obviously a problem with consistency here.
Ann Foley, also PBP, reminded us of a famous Rosa Luxemburg quote: “Those who do not move do not notice their chains.” Luxemburg, of course, also famously said that the struggle for reforms must be linked openly with the fight for revolution. And it is here that the flaw at the heart of the ULA programme can be located. Despite being the creation of two organisations which say they are revolutionary, the programme does not even mention socialism. When this was raised by me, comrade Boyd Barrett retorted: “People are not interested in rhetoric, but in concrete proposals for real change.” So socialism for him is an empty phrase, compared to the reforms the ULA is promising. He also said that he did not want to put off those who did not see themselves as socialists.
But the job of revolutionaries is to win people to our political aims, not to draw up a platform we think will reflect workers’ current consciousness. And in fact many of those whose illusions in capitalism are being shattered will be open to the idea of a genuine alternative. What people so desperately want is a new society which is democratically run on the basis of need. So how can an open call for working class rule be considered rhetoric - unless you think it is impractical or utopian? Judging by the response of the audience and those who spoke to me afterwards, people were very interested in discussing socialism. There is a deep awareness that there are no easy answers and we must have a vision and a commitment to overthrowing the old. The Socialist Party had previously complained about the SWP refusal to include socialism in the platform, but its comrades did not repeat that criticism on the night.
The question of abortion was also raised from the floor, but it seems the ULA has no policy on a woman’s need to control her own body. Mick Barry, SP councillor and general election candidate, said that he has a pro-choice position - he believes in abortion as a right and this is also the position of the SWP. But the ULA has not had the opportunity to sort out all its policies. You would have thought that this vital question would not take much sorting out - they are all agreed anyway. And in the light of the recent European Court of Human Rights decision mandating the Irish government to legislate for abortion (in limited circumstances), it is very much on the agenda. I have been reading an SWP article which argues that it will be a central question for women in the general election. The right wing, backed by the church, is already campaigning to make it a voting issue and deny women their reproductive rights. Why then do our comrades keep quiet? It is shameful.
The meeting ended with the announcement that a local organising event would be held soon and there is to be a national convention in Dublin on February 19. At the moment there is no membership structure or branches, yet the ULA urgently needs to draw people in or risk losing momentum. It would be a tremendous advance to see a bloc of working class TDs elected, but if we are serious we need to set our sights now on establishing a party that openly states its aims, not wait to “review” the question until after the election.