Aiming for a party

Anne Mc Shane demands that revolutionaries must put forward ideas that deal with what is really happening in the world

The United Left Alliance, which won five TDs in last month’s general election, has called a convention with the aim of setting up a party. The ULA’s two main components, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party, made the announcement through the organisation’s interim steering committee on March 28.

This comes against the backdrop of yet another bailout to Irish banks. On April 1 the new Fine Gael-Labour government declared that a further €24 billion is to be pumped into one more banking restructuring attempt - all to be paid for by cuts and tax increases. This news was linked to the announcement that bondholders would not suffer any losses. In an effort to secure continuing credit, finance minister Michael Noonan was at pains to emphasise that there would be no default. In other words, the Irish working class would continue to shoulder the main burden.

Even the likes of Martin Wolf, chief financial commentator at the Financial Times, remarked, in connection to the problems for peripheral countries such as Ireland, that “the idea that taxpayers should bail out senior creditors of massively insolvent banks at such risk to the solvency of their state is both unfair and unreasonable”. As argued in a recent article on the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement website, “During the bubble years from 2000 to 2007, UK, German, US and other banks fell over themselves to invest a truly stupendous five times the annual GDP of the country into the reckless property game being played by the Irish banks and developers. When the bubble burst, the then government decided that the losses of these greedy but guileless investors should be guaranteed by the population as a whole.”[1]

This reality has not escaped anyone. But the problem continues to be the lack of confidence within the working class and the absence of a united revolutionary organisation. In its absence, other solutions vie for the political space. For example, Sinn Féin, having done very well in the election, has positioned itself to the left. It has adopted a Keynesian approach (not dissimilar in this respect to the ULA) and argues for more investment, etc. It is a vision that is dangerously utopian in the present circumstances. The implication that Ireland can go it alone is absurd - this country is completely bound up with the world capitalist economy. It cannot avoid the current crisis by withdrawing and relying on local investment. Any such ‘go it alone’ project also encourages nationalism and antipathy to ‘outsiders’.

The fact that Sinn Féin espouses such ideas is no surprise. The ULA’s main components, the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, point quite rightly to the fact that Sinn Féin manages capitalism in the north of Ireland and implements the Westminster government cuts. Sinn Féin responds that it is doing its best in the circumstances. It is not promising socialism, after all, but a fairer capitalism. As the ULA points out in its programme, “There can be no just or sustainable solution to the crisis based on the capitalist market.” But, rather than clearly advocating the revolutionary supersession of capitalism, the ULA then goes on to state: “... instead we favour democratic and public control over resources, so that social need is prioritised over profit.”[2] A deliberate fudge.

In reality the ULA proposes a Keynesian resolution to the crisis - a leftwing government presiding over a tamed Irish capitalism. Keynesian economists have at times argued for elements of nationalisation - ie, state control over some resources and essential services. Similarly the ULA’s “democratic and public control” is not linked to the working class taking power into its own hands in order to bring about a revolutionary transformation of society - a necessarily international task, in any case. The working class is not even mentioned in its programme. It is no wonder that at ULA meetings audience members often ask what a ULA government would do about unemployment, taxation, etc. Their understanding of the programme is precisely that it aims to reform the present system.

Hopefully there will soon be opportunities to thrash out these issues. The ULA convention is to be held in late June, where “a broad range of policy areas will be discussed, as well as the steps necessary to launch the United Left Alliance as a party”.[3] The interim steering committee has also decided to begin setting up branches and recruiting members. Good news, and I for one hope for an open and full debate with the opportunity to put written proposals on programme and organisation. The convention must not be a rally.

Meanwhile, I have received a number of comments on my last article,[4] in particular from SP members - some supportive, some quite the opposite. The latter have argued that I was mischievously trying to stir up trouble. Apparently I had deliberately given the impression that the ULA does not support gay rights. It does and I did not intend to give that impression. But the main points I made about the opportunism of the programme and the shameful omission of a policy on abortion rights have not been dealt with by my critics. Certainly these issues will not go away and I am not the only member raising them. These too need to be tackled in members’ meetings and at the convention.

A point which was made by Philip Ferguson last week was that the ULA programme contains no policy on the north of Ireland.[5] He is absolutely right that there is a silence on the border. Not only is there no mention of it in the ULA programme, but the SWP and the SP in the north only ever mention republicanism in the negative - as part and parcel of the ‘green-orange’ sectarianism that they want to defeat through unity around anti-cuts campaigns.

Unlike in the south the two organisations are contesting separately in the forthcoming local and assembly elections. The Socialist Party is standing four candidates and is calling on people to vote socialist to defeat the cuts. It argues for “a new, mass working class party that can provide a genuine socialist alternative to the sectarian parties in elections”.[6] As is to be expected, the SP avoids the question of the British state presence and the division of Ireland. The Socialist Party has always been known for its dreadful position on the occupation.

The SWP, however, has historically had a better stance on the national question, but its comrades in the north do not want it mentioned in election contests under the People Before Profit banner. In fact the SWP’s campaign in the north is, if anything, to the right of the SP. It has three candidates, including veteran SWP member Eamonn McCann. One of the three, Dympna McGlade, is standing for the assembly in North Belfast. For her the main issue is cuts. She rejects the “tribalism” of Stormont and “if elected she will reject the labels, ‘orange’ and ‘green’, and will describe herself as ‘other’”.[7] This relates to the fact that current assembly rules stipulate that you have to use one of three labels: ‘nationalist’, ‘unionist’ or ‘other’.

For his part, comrade McCann argues for investment to be paid for by taxing the rich. He describes himself as an active trade unionist, but does not refer to his history in the civil rights movement, as an SWP member or socialist. He too says, if elected, “I would designate myself not as nationalist or unionist, but as ‘other’”.[8] While the comrades are right to reject the ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ tags, the problem is the lack of a socialist identity. And the absence of any mention of the role of the British state is a huge problem. Everything is reduced to being anti-cuts, as the SWP tries to ignore the deep political divisions, as though they were just dreamed up by Stormont politicians and have nothing to do with the working class.

In the middle of this global crisis those who call themselves revolutionaries must put forward ideas that deal with what is really happening in the world - and democratic solutions to the problems of nationalism and sectarianism that put the working class at the helm. It is a delusion to pretend that all the working class has to do is fight the cuts and it will spontaneously be drawn towards socialism - despite those cleverly worded leaflets that do not even mention the word. Getting elected is a step forward - but not at the price of watering down your politics for a few extra votes. We must use elections to make propaganda for socialism and to educate and win the working class to that programme - it is, after all, the only solution


  1. www.wsm.ie/c/ireland-bank-billion-bailout-april-fool
  2. www.unitedleftalliance.com
  3. Ibid.
  4. ‘Now the left has TDs’, March 24.
  5. Letters, March 31.
  6. www.socialistpartyni.net/elections/120-news-front/579-vote-against-cuts-vote-socialist-on-5-may
  7. www.peoplebeforeprofit.ie/taxonomy/term/29
  8. www.eamonnmccann.com/1/archives/04-2011/1.html