Time for self-criticism

The left missed out on a big opportunity during the fiscal treaty campaign, writes Anne Mc Shane

The result of the Irish referendum on the European Union’s fiscal treaty is hardly a shock. What is surprising is that as many as 40% of those who voted were prepared to brazen out state bullying and coercion and vote ‘no’.

The Fine Gael/Labour government threw everything into winning acceptance. We were browbeaten for weeks with promises, intimidation and exhortations. In alliance with Fianna Fáil, the main opposition party, the government toured the length and breadth of the country for weeks drumming up support. They were joined by the Employers Federation and well-known economists who advised us confidently that it would be suicidal to vote ‘no’. Placards and posters demanded that we ‘Vote yes for jobs’, ‘Vote yes for economic security’. The only way ‘we’ can survive apparently is through access to more bail-outs. The imposition of stringent conditions on these bail-outs, which have already impoverished the Irish working class, was conveniently omitted from establishment press releases. In the words of Joan Burton, Labour minister for social protection, “I cannot understand why anyone would urge voters to say no to a €700 billion safety net at a time of such extraordinary tumult in Europe”.[1]

The involvement of Fianna Fáil was decisive in securing victory, with its campaign manager meeting daily with his opposite number in Fine Gael to plan tactics and issue sound bites. New FF leader Michael Martin used the campaign to good effect to rebuild his party’s battered reputation. He was prominent in TV debates, delighting media hacks with his combativeness and well-rehearsed attacks on Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance. This was in stark contrast to taoiseach Enda Kenny, who shrank away from any media confrontations. Members of the three parties went door to door to bring out their own constituency. This was a battle they were not prepared to lose.

Unrestrained use of fear tactics was another weapon in the arsenal of a united capitalist class. Joan Burton, erstwhile defender of the poor (before she was elected to the Dáil, of course), led the bullying. She warned repeatedly in media interviews that rejection of the treaty would mean no money for social welfare. In one article she argued: “Ireland needed to ensure the government had money to pay” for “this humane social welfare system” (sic). She appealed to women as wives and mothers, “because at the end of the day they have to make the best decisions for themselves, their families and their communities”.[2] Pensioners, the unemployed, students - all were told that they would be left to starve if they voted ‘no’. In the face of such blatant coercion it is astounding that so many still voted against the treaty.

The turnout was low, at just over 50% nationally. National surveys found that, while many refused to vote ‘yes’, the arguments of the ‘no’ campaign just did not convince them. However, there were solid ‘no’ votes in some working class areas. In Donegal - a county with huge unemployment and poverty - there was a margin of 11% for ‘no’, but a turnout of only just over 40%. In Dublin three constituencies rejected the treaty. Brid Smith, Socialist Workers Party member and People before Profit/ULA councillor, was pleased that this included Dublin South Central, which is “the biggest working class constituency in the country”. She went on to argue in the online edition of Socialist Worker that, “the poorer the area, the higher the ‘no’ vote. Cherry Orchard in Ballyfermot is a notoriously disadvantaged area with over 40% unemployment among young men. It has a large young population, no services, no jobs, no hope. That area returned a 90% ‘no’ vote.”[3]

This point is taken up also by the Socialist Party in Ireland. Joe Higgins argues in a statement on behalf of the ULA that “across the country those most affected by austerity have said no and sent a message, particularly to Labour, that they have had enough of austerity”.[4]

Left campaigns

However, we need to take a very critical look at the campaigns of the left in this referendum. Although ULA TDs both from the SP and SWP performed well despite their political limitations, the ULA was deeply undermined by its main constituent organisations. At its April 28 conference, ULA MEP and SP member Paul Murphy argued for a strong, united ULA campaign against the fiscal treaty and received solid support from conference. Yet three days later the SP launched its own anti-treaty campaign,[5] and the SWP’s People Before Profit Alliance followed suit the next day.[6] Reading the media reports, I saw no mention of the ULA at either press conference. The alliance itself finally launched its own poster campaign on May 3.

It was very hard to get the ULA campaign or branch activity off the ground, especially when the SP and SWP had, to put it mildly, divided loyalties. The existence of three campaigns caused confusion and demoralisation. Understandably many non-aligned members of the ULA felt cheated by the disingenuousness of the SP and the SWP and their hypocrisy in pretending to be for a united ULA campaign at conference. Interestingly, however, it was the ULA itself that attracted interest when it came to media coverage.

A crucial issue which needs to be subjected to serious criticism is the limited political nature of the leftwing campaigns. I have mentioned in a previous article the problems of being in an umbrella campaign dominated by Sinn Féin.[7] The Campaign Against the EU Constitution (CAEUC) also included the Communist Party, the Workers Party, SP and SWP, but it was dominated by Sinn Féin and, of course, dominated by nationalism. It was more an alliance of convenience than a real campaign.

Sinn Féin focused on getting a better deal in Europe. As TD Mary-Lou McDonald argued, a ‘no’ vote would “strengthen the hand of all those, at home and across Europe, who are arguing for investment in jobs and growth. It will send a strong signal to the government that austerity simply isn’t working and that a change of direction is needed”[8] She and her colleagues made it clear that they stand for capitalism, but of a Keynesian type. Gerry Adams argued that a ‘no’ vote would mean that Ireland could renegotiate the treaty. He was adamant that the EU leaders would never refuse to bail out Ireland.

Sinn Féin’s campaign was really about positioning itself as an alternative to the mainstream. It did manage successfully to become the leading voice of the ‘no’ campaign and has come out of the referendum as a stronger nationalist party. The leadership does not pretend to be socialist of any hue. In government in the north, it has shown itself willing to impose cuts and slash living standards. Sinn Féin might have leftwing members, but is a deeply nationalist, Catholic party, not a party of the left.

So why did the left join with Sinn Féin in the referendum campaign? With our own TDs, MEP and councillors, the ULA could have run our own campaign on the basis of working class demands. We could and should have distinguished ourselves sharply from Sinn Féin. Perhaps it says something about nationalist illusions within the left that we did not.

Because the ULA conference was a powerless talking shop, members were unable to discuss and agree policy on the fiscal treaty. The ULA programme repudiates the debt, calls for a wealth tax and for solidarity of workers across Europe. But, when questioned about what they would do if the EU pulled the plug on Ireland, our representatives floundered. Joe Higgins argued in the first television debate that a wealth tax and the nationalisation of natural resources were the answer. Paul Murphy in an SP pamphlet on the treaty argues for these policies as part of a Europe of workers’ governments. The SWP has a similar approach. In essence they all offer a left social democratic ‘solution’ to the present crisis. This involves trying to balance the books through a fairer method of accounting. It will not work. Relying on a wealth tax means relying on corporations and the wealthy to remain in Ireland and fund the new state. Why would they do so when they stand to make a lot less money and pay a huge amount of tax? Of course, it will never happen.

Instead of peddling such dangerous illusions, the left should have been agitating for an internationalist approach. We should have been explaining what our class needs in order to transform itself into a ruling class. The answer to the EU pulling the plug must be the self-organisation of the working class organised in a revolutionary party and in alliance with the working class across Europe. Ireland is a tiny country and could not survive on its own. We have learned from the last century that we cannot have socialism in one country. So we need to reach out to European workers not just to defend ourselves collectively, but to present our own vision in the face of deep, unforgiving capitalist austerity.

Of course, we could never have convinced the media. They would have been even more vitriolic in the face of such radical socialist ideas. But the section of the working class that is looking for answers will hear us.

ULA TD Richard Boyd-Barrett of the SWP has taken me to task in the past for raising such ‘abstract’ questions as socialism. No doubt he believes that he can achieve his programme without ever needing to raise difficult arguments. He took part in a TV debate on May 5, where the question of renegotiating the current bail-out was discussed once more. When he was asked by the presenter what he would do if the plug was pulled by the European Central Bank, he evaded the question. When asked again and again, he simply stated that he did not think it would happen.

While such evasion is characteristic of bourgeois politicians, we should not expect it from our own. Is it that comrade Boyd-Barrett has no solution or that he believes it is too radical to be mentioned at this time?



1. The Independent on Sunday May 27.

2. Irish Times June 6.

3. www.swp.ie/content/voters-bullied-accepting-eu-treaty-fight-continues-0.

4. www.joehiggins.ie/2012/06/ula-press-statement-ula-says-people-were-bullied-into-accepting-austerity-treaty-resistance-to-austerity-will-continue.

5. www.breakingnews.ie/ireland/socialist-party-launch-no-campaign-on-fiscal-compact-549755.html.

6. www.peoplebeforeprofit.ie/node/756.

7. ‘Sectarian stumbling block’, May 3.

8. www.sinnfein.ie/contents/23521.