Now the left has TDs
Anne Mc Shane urges principled unity in a new party
The situation in Ireland following the election of the 31st Dáil has produced conditions in which the left can potentially make real progress. With the voting in of five United Left Alliance TDs on February 25, the possibility now exists to create a strong working class voice. Change is in the air.
Fianna Fáil, which had dominated Irish politics for 80 years, was reduced to a miserable rump of just 20 TDs (going from 13 to only one in Dublin, for example). Its canvassers had been run from the doors throughout the campaign, even in the party’s traditional strongholds. But now we are faced with a different enemy.
Fine Gael, having assumed power with the Labour Party, has a massive majority. The new coalition has signalled that we need to prepare for even greater pain. Its ‘Programme for government’ pledges savage cuts in spending on top of the previous attacks. Government and health workers in particular are bracing themselves, as Fine Gael has a history of antagonism towards public service employees. New taoiseach (prime minister) Enda Kenny promises to slim down the public service by 20,000 workers - a huge number in a country of just 4.5 million people. Redundancies and ‘natural wastage’ will decimate the workforce. The health service is to be ‘reformed’ by shedding 8,000 jobs immediately. This when we already have a major crisis for patients, with wards closed and people left for days on trolleys and on the floors of accident and emergency waiting rooms. The Irish health service is now like that of a third world country.
It is no wonder that Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party and now tánaiste (deputy prime minister), warned his members at a conference last week that they would have to “walk through forests of placards in the months and years ahead”. He is aware that the working class will react to the programme of austerity. Labour will have to face down unions and others who are now preparing for the struggles to come. Gilmore had been particularly deceitful in the election - arguing that Labour needed to be voted in so as to protect against the worst excesses of the rightwing Fine Gael. With this message it did very well in working class areas. Now in power Labour is showing itself just as willing as Fine Gael to put the boot in.
Another promise made both by Fine Gael and Labour was that they would renegotiate the terms of the European Central Bank bailout to alleviate the pressure on the economy. Kenny claimed to have the ear of Angela Merkel in Europe. He hot-footed if off to Brussels immediately the election result became known, only to return days later with his tail between his legs. Sarkozy and Merkel told him in no uncertain terms that Ireland’s low rate of corporation tax would have to increase in exchange for any renegotiation of the bailout. This is a problem for a government dependent on US transnationals which base themselves in Ireland because of the preferential treatment they are afforded, including low tax on profits and non-unionised workforces. To raise the rate above the current 12.5% could see them quickly relocate to other, more attractive destinations.
When the EU four-year austerity plan was imposed last December, both Kenny and Gilmore cried crocodile tears and protested at its harshness. Now they have promised their masters in Europe to implement it for the next two years at least. By squeezing the working class the government believes it will regain competivity and repay its debts. But its chances are low. Even with the massaging of official jobless figures and the high numbers of young people leaving the country, unemployment is growing, and now stands at 15%. And a new banking bailout is planned which will almost certainly provoke fury. There is already deep anger at reports of huge bonuses being handed out to banking executives since the last one.
Fine Gael is keen to contrast itself favourably with the previous corrupt administration. It has cut ministerial pay by 6% and done away with some chauffeur-driven cars. There were even cutbacks in this year’s St Patricks Day trips abroad. Enda portrays himself as grey, sober and frugal - as a man who can identify with and lead the “plain people of Ireland” out of this mess. But recent revelations about the corruption of former minister Michael Lowry show that members of Fine Gael have had their snouts firmly in the trough in previous administrations.
The election of five ULA TDs in the face of such drabness and austerity brings hope that the balance of power can be shifted. It has also brought colour and spirit to an otherwise monotonous and tedious Dáil. The newcomers have taken every chance to put themselves forward as the only real alternative.
At the inaugural sitting on March 9, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party in Ireland was the first to rise to speak in opposition to Kenny and to denounce him as a feall uafásach - a horrible betrayal of ordinary people. Richard Boyd Barrett, elected for the People Before Profit Alliance and a leading Socialist Workers Party member, also gave a passionate speech. He and his fellow ULA TDs pledged to use their election to facilitate the growth of an opposition movement on the streets. The class war would be brought onto the floor of the Dáil. Members of the main parties shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and there were decidedly sour expressions on the faces of both Gilmore and Kenny.
The new TDs have also figured prominently in the media - and brought welcome controversy to political affairs programmes. There is a now an environment where the left have a say in debates. And the ULA representatives have done well on the whole. But what limits them in all their contributions is the narrow nature of the solutions they espouse. They focus far too much on the benefits of nationalisation and can sometimes sound remarkably similar to Sinn Féin.
The ULA itself does not even mention the word ‘socialism’ in its programme. When I broached this with comrade Boyd Barrett at a meeting during the election campaign he accused me of raising “abstract slogans”. Instead the alliance limits itself to acting as a “left coalition” against “the capitalist market” to “unite working people, whether public or private sector, Irish or migrant, with the unemployed, welfare recipients, pensioners and students in the struggle to change society”. There is not even mention of the working class in the programme - obviously also considered too “abstract” a concept.
The ULA calls for “democratic and public control over resources so that social need is prioritised over profit”. The Corrib gas field off the coast should be taken into “public ownership” and state companies should be retained in order to create jobs, along with “a state programme of industrial development and innovation to build the productive capacity of the economy”. All of this - with no mention of the working class taking power into their own hands and certainly no reference to the revolutionary transformation of society - leads one to the conclusion that in practice the ULA is for some kind of left Keynesianism. An impossible non-solution. The failure to connect reforms with socialism and the tendency to see the resolution of problems within the current national borders is an unfortunate reminder of the doomed projects of the Scottish Socialist Party, Respect and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition in Britain. It is socialism in one country. A recipe for disaster.
Other problems have flowed from the ULA’s programmatic timidity. One of them is women’s rights. The fact that the ULA or its main components, the SP and PBPA, did not mention abortion rights in any of their election propaganda is shameful. Interestingly the SP did have a pro-choice platform in the 2007 election. One party activist I asked excused the omission by claiming that people were not that interested in abortion rights this time round!
In fact the issue is more relevant than ever, particularly in an economic climate where the majority of women simply cannot afford to travel abroad for terminations. In the recent ABC v Ireland case, the European Court of Human Rights found that Ireland had breached human rights by forcing ill women to go abroad for abortion and was mandated to legislate for change. Sinead Kennedy wrote recently in an article for Socialist Worker in Ireland that “we need to begin the fight today for immediate legislation and for free, safe and legal abortion. Political parties like the Labour Party who claim to support legislative change on abortion must be pressed to make good on their promises and make abortion legislation a core demand of any programme for government.” I agree with her - but why do her own comrades shy away from that fight?
Comrade Boyd Barrett was questioned about women’s and gay rights at a post-election rally. His response was that “the ULA does not yet have a policy on these issues, but we must discuss them and arrive at a principled position”. This is insultingly disingenuous. The ULA is essentially run by the SP and the SWP - with some input from the Workers and Unemployed Action Group. There were rumours that the reason abortion was not in the programme was because Seamus Healy of the WUAG was said to be ‘pro-life’. But comrade Healy made clear in a written reply to the Cork Right to Choose Group that he is committed to campaigning for abortion rights - and therefore definitely not ‘pro-life’. The lack of any policy on such a principled and important question can only be because the SWP and SP did not want to lose votes over what remains a deeply controversial issue in Ireland today.
This preoccupation with playing it safe is especially pronounced when it comes to the SWP. An interview with comrade Boyd Barrett on the way forward for the ULA in the same issue of Socialist Worker reveals that he believes an “important thing to stress is that any new organisation would have to be broad and has to embrace those who oppose the neoliberal and cuts agenda but aren’t necessarily familiar with socialist politics in the traditional sense”. This “new radical party” will have to be “broad and accessible”. Presumably he does not believe that a revolutionary party can be mass, accessible and attractive to those looking for change. No, instead of attempting to win over the masses to the truth - that the only genuine alternative is that of Marxism and international working class power - we have to restrict our politics to what we mistakenly believe the masses will accept: no-hope reformism. But, as we have seen on too many occasions to remember, the process of creating a ‘broad reformist’ party means that the self-avowed revolutionaries are forced to become reformists themselves and the project ends in a political cul-de-sac.
The SWP’s populism seems to be undermining unity with the SP. In the immediate aftermath of the election Joe Higgins, responding to questions from journalists, was clear that plans would be quickly put in place to launch a new party. A few weeks later he and his organisation are much more ambiguous. At an SP meeting in Cork on March 16 he was asked about the delay in taking such an initiative. He answered that, while a new mass party was needed, he did not consider the conditions to create one now existed. He downplayed the support the ULA had attracted in terms of new forces and said that, although “we are going to continue to discuss this, we are not going to rush into it”. Comrade Higgins was adamant that “we are not going to disperse our body of ideas” for the sake of the project. The SWP, for example, had refused to agree that the term ‘socialism’ could be included in the ULA election programme and this is obviously still a bone of contention between the two groups. But the SP itself has an extremely limited conception of socialism: ie, nationalisation plus public ownership within one country.
A convention is due to be held to discuss the future of the ULA. Comrade Higgins mentioned June, although I have heard that it will not take place until the autumn. There are also plans to have some ULA meetings, but there is no membership structure, so you cannot join. Both the SP and the SWP seem more interested in building their own group and hoping that a mass influx of new forces will change the dynamics in favour of their respective organisations. But these questions will not go away.
At the moment the ULA is run by a steering committee made up of unidentified members meeting behind closed doors. There are no reports of their discussions - we are just told about their pronouncements. People who are not members of the main groups do not know what is going on. And yet a significant number would join any new party if it were democratic and allowed genuine debate. The very reason why so many voted for the ULA is because its limited left unity seemed to promise a new beginning. That optimism could be sacrificed to narrow sectarianism and opportunist backwardness.
- Sunday Business Post March 13.