ULA: opportunity to lead

The United Left Alliance conference this weekend comes at an important juncture in Irish politics. Anne Mc Shane takes a look.

The political climate is once again shifting to the left. The referendum on the European Stability Treaty on May 31 is likely to be the site of significant struggle, with opposition building rapidly. Prominent unions Unite, Mandate and the Technical Engineering and Electrical Union have called for their members to vote ‘no’. Even the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has refused to back the treaty - in contrast to 2009, when it campaigned for a ‘yes’ vote. General secretary David Begg has said that he is against the treaty personally, but he will not stick his neck out with a call for a ‘no’ vote.

Such lack of support from reliable friends in the trade union bureaucracy has been a bitter blow to the Labour Party, junior partner in the coalition government. Its leader, Eamonn Gilmore, this week in desperation appealed directly to workers to ignore their unions. He issued dire warnings of the consequences of not signing up to the treaty: Ireland will no longer have the right to apply for help from the European Stability Mechanism permanent bailout fund. It will be left to fend for itself. His admonitions echo those of Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny, and many other bourgeois politicians both in Ireland and Europe. And the Washington-based Institute of International Finance has stated that a ‘no’ vote would provoke instability in the euro zone and cause investors to take fright and go elsewhere.

Sinn Féin, campaigning for a nationalist ‘no’ vote, is determined to prove otherwise. At its press conference on April 25, Gerry Adams declared that suggestions that Ireland would be cut off from ESM funding were “complete and utter rubbish”. The treaty clause stipulating that funding will only be granted to signatory states does not have legal standing, according to Adams, as it is in the preamble and not the articles. He has confidently predicted that Ireland will have to be given more money, as no country could be denied such help if the security of the euro zone itself was under threat. However, this wishful thinking ignores reality - and the motivations of European capitalism. There is in fact every risk that if Ireland refuses to toe the line it will be seen as too much of a nuisance - especially given its financial instability and continual demands for bailouts. Irish capitalism has sunk deep in the mire since the halcyon days of the Celtic tiger. It is no longer an example of small-nation dynamism, but an unwelcome drain on the resources of European capitalism.

Clearly a ‘yes’ vote cannot be considered. The European Stability Treaty is replete with plans to crack down on public spending within cash-strapped member-states and threatens punitive measures for non-compliance. It promises nothing but deep hardship for the working class of Ireland and Europe. We have already had a taste of this hardship with the ‘Programme for Ireland’ drawn up by the International Monetary Fund and European Union. This four-year austerity deal was agreed with the Fianna Fáil/Green government in November 2010 in exchange for an €85 billion bailout for Ireland’s financial sector. A “fiscal sustainability corrective” to raise €50 billion by 2015 was to be imposed over four years, with new taxes aimed at squeezing yet more money out of the working class.

Household charge

The softest option, the €100 household charge would be introduced in March 2012 and a register of homeowners set up. It was thought this would be easy to push through. Then with all homeowners on the register, a draconian property tax of on average €800 per year and a water tax of €400 would be imposed. But the plan, adopted in 2011 by the incoming Fine Gael/Labour government, has backfired dramatically. Tactics designed to dupe people into registering have instead resulted in half of those eligible refusing to sign up.

The struggle around the household charge has exposed the Labour leaders as liars and hypocrites. Their electoral promises to protect the poor in 2011 have been shown to be a farce. There was never any intention of backing down on the IMF-EU austerity package. Instead once their bums were on their Dáil seats, the coalition loyally awaited orders from Europe, eager for as much cash as possible to fill the coffers of national banks. It is no wonder that recent surveys indicate deep disgust with the government. The latest Irish Times polls reveal that satisfaction with the Kenny-Gilmore partnership has dropped 14 points to 23% since last October. As the Times notes with concern, “this is an ominous development, given the difficult decisions it will have to implement over the next three years” (April 20). It has been the Labour Party, which doubled its seats in the general election just over a year ago, that has been hit hardest. Now profound anger at its leadership has cost it support, which has gone to Sinn Féin, the ULA and independents.

As the ferocious austerity of the EU/IMF programme drives many to desperation, the working class is beginning to regain a sense of defiance. Frustration, anxiety and depression are giving way to anger, as people feel they cannot take any more. The mass boycott of the household charge is an indication of the depth of this rebellion, despite a government campaign and warnings of criminal prosecution. The Campaign against the Household and Water Tax now has branches throughout the country. It has expanded rapidly over the last few weeks and with the March 31 deadline for registration now past, the determination not to pay appears to be unwavering. Working class people, including many pensioners, have declared their absolute refusal to submit to yet another tax. Militant demonstrations up and down the country have seen people declare their willingness to face jail rather than pay up.

The protest has been compared to the anti-poll tax movement which brought down Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1990. With government ratings falling rapidly, there is a deep sense of unease in the corridors of power. Protests at recent government party conferences have been significant in number, with an estimated 15,000 protestors outside each of the Fine Gael and Labour Party ard fheises, angry and militant. The media horror at the jostling of a conference delegate who was mistaken for Phil Hogan (environment minister) at the Fine Gael ard fheis was nothing compared to the outcry when over a thousand protestors charged police lines outside the Labour Party conference. We were told that the militancy was orchestrated by shadowy forces within the crowd. However, a glance at photographs will leave you in no doubt that these were ordinary working class people, incensed beyond belief by the treatment being doled out to them by the Labour Party.

But the government is determined to press on. Eamonn Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party, said he would not be deterred in the task of implementing the EU-IMF austerity package. The unpopularity did not worry him and he declared that this is “a time for courage” and “we have to have the courage to stick to the task”.

The ULA has played a leading role in the boycott of the household charge. Its five TDs, along with some independents, have announced they will not pay and called for others to join them. Unlike Sinn Féin TDs, who refuse to support the boycott, the ULA has been at the forefront of the campaign. Joe Higgins, Richard Boyd-Barrett, Joan Collins and Clare Daly have shown the enormous possibilities that exist for the working class to make advances. They have to their credit been determined fighters. With the struggle continuing and a national conference of the campaign on May 19, there is a great deal to fight for - this is a key struggle which the government is determined not to lose.

Abortion rights

Another issue over which the ULA has made a breakthrough is abortion rights. Clare Daly introduced a private members bill, the Medical Treatment (Termination of Pregnancy in Case of Risk to Life of Pregnant Woman) Bill 2012 for debate in the Dáil on April 18-19. This was to legislate for abortion in extremely limited circumstances, when the life of a woman is at risk, including from suicide. The state has recently been ordered to implement such legislation by the European Court of Human Rights, but is dragging its feet. It has set up a committee of doctors and lawyers - ‘experts’ who will make recommendations in July. Clare Daly’s bill was fiercely debated and voted down - including by the Labour Party. But the debate has continued in the media, with a number of women courageously speaking out about their own abortions and joining the call for the right to choose. Because, although the bill was set out in very narrow terms, the discussion itself has been about precisely that - the right to choose.

In a public debate in Cork on April 24, Clare Daly agreed that a clearer pro-choice position now needed to be taken up, in order to win this struggle. She said the response had been overwhelmingly positive and that the working class is far in advance of the political establishment on this issue. Irish women in their thousands have abortions every year - in Britain or Holland, or using pills ordered over the internet. Everybody knows it goes on - and women are more likely to have an abortion than have their appendix removed. But Irish women have to face huge stress and financial difficulties to travel abroad. The web of silence and shame affects women deeply, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.

Now we have a chance to put the question on the political agenda. The Cork branch of the ULA recently voted unanimously to call for free abortion as a right, with facilities put in place to enforce that right. The ULA nationally does not have a position on the question. We were told previously by Richard Boyd Barrett and others that it would be too divisive. Now thankfully Clare Daly, along with Joan Collins and independent Mick Wallace, have actually taken a stand on it. The conference this coming Saturday, April 28, must adopt the position of the Cork branch.

The question of the Irish constitution is central. The eighth amendment “acknowledges the right to life of the unborn with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother”. Irish politicians and religious leaders have always been determined to control women. They claim to represent the ‘right of the unborn’ and argue that a foetus has as much right as the woman who carries it. We must call immediately for the removal of the eighth amendment and the provision of abortion facilities in Ireland free at the point of need - as early as possible, as late as necessary. Clare Daly agreed with this position at the Cork meeting. That will, I believe, find an echo with the masses of people who are heartily sick of the dominance of the discredited church over their lives and the hypocrisy of successive governments.

So the ULA has an opportunity to make great strides forward in this period. However, the continued sectarian divisions between the alliance’s two main components, the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party, continue to dog the project. The conference itself looks likely to be another talking shop, with no provision for votes. Many non-aligned members have left in disgust at the lack of democracy - and the inactivity of the branches. After continued calls for representation, non-aligned members will be able to vote for their representatives on the steering committee on Saturday. Also proposals from a working committee recommend that the organisation moves forward with delegate-based structures, but put the stress on ‘consensus’ rather than democracy. This is in opposition to the practice in branches like Galway and Cork, which are making decisions on the basis of majority voting. The centre of the organisation in Dublin is where the leadership of the SWP and SP are based. It is dragging its heels and the in-fighting between the two main organisations is holding the project back.

But the opportunity is there now to create a party. It must be built on principles of socialism. There cannot be any Irish Keynesian solution to the current crisis. The ULA can provide leadership to the Irish working class in a way that the SP and the SWP themselves can never do. It presents a united alternative, rather than a sect mentality. All those who support such a call need to put their efforts into fighting for their view at conference and overcoming the bureaucracy and sectarianism that currently stymies us.