Sectarian stumbling block

Anne McShane reports on the future of the Irish ULA

The April 28 United Left Alliance conference in Dublin was dominated by a debate on the future of the project and the huge hurdles we need to overcome if we are to move forward were well and truly illustrated.

It was particularly frustrating to hear Socialist Party comrades still justifying their refusal to consider anything like a democratic structure on ever more spurious grounds. Although, as leading SP member Kevin McLoughlin admitted, objective circumstances have changed, his organisation has not. It refuses to budge on the current organisational arrangements, which consist of a mainly unelected national steering committee, and a membership which has no say.

Two representatives from each of the founding groups - along now with two elected non-aligned delegates - run the project. An organisational proposal which appears to have been approved by the steering committee will see the setting up of a national delegate body with representatives from branches. But this delegate body has no power to make decisions and all matters will have to be referred to the steering committee.

Again, as in 2011, no voting was allowed at conference. No resolutions could be submitted from branches. The members present could only speak, time permitting, to an agenda over which they had no say. They then returned home with all decisions left in the hands of a small group. It is no wonder that so many non-aligned members have resigned or drifted away in the last year. Frustrated and demoralised by the democratic deficit and lack of branch activity, they have voted with their feet.

In contrast to the SP’s stubborn intransigence, the Socialist Workers Party appeared to have been converted to the need for democracy. SWP leader Kieran Allen argued that the ULA needs to become a membership organisation. He called for a voting conference and pledged that his group would accept being in a minority if it lost the vote on a given question. This was all positive. However, unfortunately but predictably, the organisation he wants to build is one where “we create a space for people who don’t agree with us yet”. A mass social democratic, as opposed to revolutionary, organisation.

Many are not convinced of the SWP’s new-found democratic credentials. The group is not known for its tolerance of differences and willingness to compromise. In fact the opposite is typically true. So, while comrade Allen’s arguments for a democratic culture are formally correct, they must be put to the test. Putting off that moment will not make things easier for the SP. Its leaders declared that the recruitment of thousands of workers would make all the difference. Only then would they be prepared to consider the party project - or indeed basic democratic norms. They seemed blind to the fact that in the meantime those “ordinary workers” are leaving by the dozen.

As one such member argued at conference, “We are sick of the main groups jockeying for position at the expense of the ULA. We need to move to a party, where groups have platform rights.” Working class people will want to join an open organisation where members have a voice. The narrow interests of the groups are squandering our opportunity to build such a party.

The morning session began with a lead-off by councillor Brid Smith (SWP) and MEP Paul Murphy (SP). Comrade Smith stressed the necessity of struggle from below and pointed to the self-organisation of the Greek working class as an example of what we need to fight for. She believed that things are changing and that the ULA had outflanked Sinn Féin in the fight against the household tax. Greece showed how working class people could organise their own alternative organisations to serve their communities in the absence of government provision of healthcare and other services. She believed that we need to generalise the struggles and focus on building an alternative to Labour. Trade union members should end their financial support for Labour through the political fund.

Comrade Murphy criticised the slavish attitude of the Irish government towards the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and European Central Bank and how government ministers were patted on the back by the troika for their submission. He said that austerity policies have not worked and not provided any stimulus for the economy. This idea of stimulus is something that the SP keeps returning to. Its leadership appears to have illusions in the ability of the present capitalist system to reinvigorate itself for the good of “ordinary working people”. As a number of opposing speakers argued, in fact austerity has worked for some sections of capitalism. For us the issue can only be what is in the interests of the working class.

Comrade Murphy asserted the importance for the ULA of the Fiscal Treaty referendum on May 31. He quite rightly argued and that we need to build unity with workers across Europe and that the ULA should take the lead on this. But since the conference both the SP and the SWP have launched their own separate ‘no’ campaigns. There is virtually no difference between them politically, the only problem being unwillingness to unite even on this issue. Sadly the ULA looks likely to be sidelined for the duration of the referendum campaign. There are now at least five separate leftwing ‘no’ campaigns (set up by the Communist Party of Ireland, the Workers Party, the SWP-backed People before Profit Alliance, the SP and Sinn Féin). It looks as though they will all come together in an umbrella group under the hegemony of Sinn Féin. Sadly this just about says it all. These organisations can only stand to be together when the right wing is in the majority. Rather than distinguishing itself sharply from Sinn Féin’s nationalism, the left looks set to bow down to it.

There were a number of positive aspects to the conference. The most important was the establishment of a non-aligned group, which agreed to work together to build the ULA as a party. There are 130 non-aligned members out of a total membership of approximately 370. Our two elected representatives, Therese Caherty and Joseph Loughnane, will keep us informed of all discussions and decisions of the steering committee. This is something badly overdue. We will have a national meeting of all non-aligned comrades on June 9. It was stressed that we do not want to set up yet another group within the ULA. Instead we will use all our efforts to steer the organisation in the direction of a party formation. There are different views on how we should relate to that task, but all are agreed that the ULA needs its own publication as soon as possible.

Six policy groups were set up at conference, to involve members in developing programmatic questions. One of them was on equality and will hopefully focus on abortion rights. The conference seemed to be in agreement that we should challenge the ‘right to life of the unborn’ under the Irish constitution. The ULA has already made an important impact on this central question and TDs like Joan Collins and Clare Daly are playing a very valuable role.

At least this year, unlike in 2011, the SP and SWP were to some extent prepared to air their differences. Let us hope that the struggles to come will force them to rethink and overcome decades of sectarianism. Old habits die hard.