ULA must take itself seriously
Anne McShane argues that the United Left Alliance must take a lead
On November 26 4,000 demonstrators marched in Dublin against the December 5-6 budget. This budget marks year two of a four-year plan to slash public spending and raise taxes - all part of stringency measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund/European Central Bank 2010 bailout.
The numbers on this year’s demonstration were tiny compared to last November. Then a mass demonstration was organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. An estimated 150,000 braved snow and ice to show their opposition to the strategy of draconian austerity. Militant speeches were given by the president of ICTU, Jack O’Connor, and its secretary, David Begg. Both pledged their active and wholehearted resistance to the IMF/ECB deal and vowed to defeat it.
Now things are very different as far as the union bureaucrats are concerned. Last year a Fianna Fáil/Green government was in power. Deeply unpopular because of the banking bailouts and political corruption, it was teetering on the verge of collapse and an election was imminent. Labour Party leaders were promising to stand up for the ordinary people and to resist all cuts if they were elected. It was clear that they would enter government with the rightwing Fine Gael, but Eamonn Gilmore, the Labour leader, promised that his party would protect the poor. ICTU leaders urged the working class to vote Labour.
The February 25 election saw Fianna Fáil, the dominant party since the creation of the state, reduced to a miserable rump. They were punished by an electorate wanting change. But the Fine Gael/Labour coalition has simply taken over where FF left off. Its budget will cut lone parent allowance completely for many mothers as well as slash child benefits. Financial support to organisations for the elderly, disabled and other vulnerable groups is to be axed. Hospital funding, now at dangerously low levels, is to be slashed still further. At the same time VAT will increase by 2%, meaning another hike in prices. A household tax is to be introduced which will affect homeowners and tenants alike. In other words, the lives of the majority will become even more difficult than they already are. There is deep unease and dread among the population at the moment. Media reports and radio phone-ins give a sense of a despairing working class. Suicide figures are soaring in this current crisis - with reports of approximately 150 suicides or attempted suicides every day.
In the midst of this period of working class suffering, overseen by Labour and Fine Gael, the ICTU still supports Gilmore and co. Eugene McGlone, the new ICTU president, speaking at Saturday’s demonstration, bemoaned the government’s short-sightedness and its failure to appreciate that austerity policies do not work. He appealed to their sense of fairness and decency and proposed the adoption of the ICTU’s pre-budget submission which is “based on reality, not pie-eyes schemes”. This document proposes various measures for economic growth with very modest suggestions for an increase in corporation tax. It aims to rehabilitate Irish capitalism in the middle of an unprecedented world depression. Not that the government will take much notice of the ICTU’s appeal. The demonstration on Saturday was originally to be a United Left Alliance event. But, worried at the lack of union support, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party created yet another campaign - the Alliance Against Austerity - and pulled in Dublin Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) and some sections of Sinn Féin. This was all done without any involvement or input from the ordinary membership. We were left in the dark for weeks as to whether a demonstration would even take place and there was very little work done to build it.
This decision to go for a broader campaign did not leave the ULA in a better situation politically, as the rally was dominated by the likes of McGlone. The DCTU did not mobilise significant forces and the march was made up mainly of the left, particularly the ULA and its constituent parts. But the ULA had no speaker in the main rally. And, to add insult to injury, when the speeches were finally over, DCTU vice-chair Mick O’Reilly announced that the main event was now over and would be followed by a ULA assembly. Anybody who wanted to stay for that could. He and his comrades folded up their banners and left, making it clear that they wanted no further part of this gathering. This caused confusion and a lot of the crowd understandably thought it was all over and left.
There followed what was meant to be an open mike session. The chair announced people should contact the organisers and give their names to take part - everybody would have their say. In fact it was almost completely orchestrated and dominated by the SWP. Although a couple of Socialist Party members spoke, including MEP Paul Murphy, the other contributors were in the main SWP - or any ‘Joe Soaps’ they thought would not say anything controversial. Names were carefully filtered under the supervision of SWP leader Kieran Allen.
Needless to say, although one of the first to put my name forward, I did not get to speak. I waited and asked and asked and asked, but, alas, there was always an excuse. But what was particularly significant was the lack of any real political contributions, let alone debate. It was agreed that there would be a message of solidarity sent to workers in the north on November 30. It was also agreed that a protest would be held outside the Dáil on the day of the budget. But no discussion, just vox pops from selected contributors.
The ULA stands at a crossroads. It needs to become a real organisation as soon as possible or die. This means it has to open up democratically and begin to function as a political party. At the moment there is still complete control from the top and most branches are not meeting. People will not join an organisation that hardly meets and has little or no democracy. Measures to create transparency and accountability voted through at the national assembly in June have never been implemented. Most people I spoke to on the demo were agreed that something needs to be done to save the project. We have seen plenty of unity projects come and go. This time we have made a huge step forward with five TDs. We have an opportunity that must not be wasted.
Supporters of Joan Collins TD and others are pushing for the implementation of the assembly decisions on democracy and there are rumours that there will be a conference in January. It seems to me that the SWP in particular needs to curb its enthusiasm for creating campaigns from which it hopes to recruit to itself. Instead its members need to take themselves seriously as revolutionaries. We have hundreds of campaigns, but no united working class party. We need politics, not lowest-common-denominator slogans. The only answers for today’s crisis are revolutionary ones.
The demonstration last Saturday was small because of lack of confidence and leadership among our class. Rather than creating yet another ‘anti-cuts’ campaign the ULA must take the lead.
1. Irish Times May 6.