ULA blow-up: Legacy of sectarianism
As the ULA stares into the abyss, Anne Mc Shane looks back at two years of cynical betrayal
Just as the working class faces yet another onslaught on its living standards, the left in Ireland drops all pretence of seeking left unity and a single working class party.
It was the Socialist Party which finally pulled the plug on the United Left Alliance on January 26, with the announcement that it “had ended its membership”.1 It claimed its decision was due to the fact that “some in the ULA, including TDs, have moved away from a principled left position and have ditched the collaborative spirit”. This refers to the fact that other ULA parliamentarians had refused to caucus with SP TD Joe Higgins and instead had moved a bill to legislate for limited abortion rights with Mick Wallace, an independent TD. The announcement went on to bemoan as equally bad the failure of other groups in the alliance to oppose the “approach of supposedly being committed to a left project, but in practice contradicting that by organising a political alliance with others in the Dáil technical group who couldn’t at all be characterised as on the left”.
The SP tries to create the impression that it was in the forefront of the fight for united action and democracy within the ULA. This is very far from the truth. From the very outset the SP made clear that, as far as it was concerned, the ULA was to be a very limited project. I reported from the first public meeting in Cork how even after the breakthrough election of five ULA TDs in February 2011, comrade Higgins had “downplayed the support the ULA had attracted in terms of new forces” and its potential to become a working class party. Although his organisation was willing to enter into discussion, “we are not going to rush” into forming a party and certainly “we are not going to disperse our body of ideas” within the ULA.2
A couple of months later, we had an announcement from the ULA interim steering committee - made up of the SP, the People Before Profit Alliance (a largely Socialist Workers Party front), and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) - that a convention was to be held in June 2011, 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 That event went from being a ‘convention’ to a ‘forum’ - featuring a large number of top-table speakers, limited debate and workshops - which left the steering committee firmly in control. Although there were calls for proper democracy and accountability from a large number of non-aligned members, both the SP and the SWP at that point made clear that they were not interested. I argued afterwards that it was “criminal” in circumstances where the working class was crying out for leadership that “neither of the two left groups wants to take the project forward to its next logical step”: the formation of a party.4
At the end of the year there had still been no progress. I noted that pledges to “create transparency and accountability” had “never been implemented” and urged immediate action.5 A conference due in January 2012 was put off by the steering committee to April. In the run-up to that event, continued sectarian divisions between the alliance’s two main components continued to dog the project. It appeared that the conference would be another talking shop, and many non-aligned members were leaving in disgust at the lack of democracy and the inactivity of branches.
When it came, the conference did not bring any changes. I reported that 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”. The SP refused “to budge on the current organisational arrangements, which consist of a mainly unelected national steering committee, and a membership which has no say”.6 No resolutions were allowed from branches, no votes taken and many members went away even more deeply demoralised. In contrast to the SP, it appeared that the SWP had shifted on the issue of democracy and called for the ULA to transform itself into a “membership organisation”, with leader Kieran Allen pledging that “his group would accept being in a minority if it lost the vote on a given question”. It was hard to know if this was just a manoeuvre to put pressure on the SP.
The events of the next few days would show that both groups were ditching the ULA. SP MEP Paul Murphy had made a call at the conference for a strong, united ULA campaign against the fiscal treaty in the coming referendum. But his organisation then launched its own campaign three days later, which did not even mention the ULA. The SWP’s People Before Profit Alliance followed suit the day after, again with no mention of the ULA. Finally there was a ULA poster campaign launch on May 3 2012, but it was a lukewarm event, with priority evidently given to the SP’s and SWP’s separate activities. The ULA was being undermined by its two main components just over a year after its formation.
Meanwhile there were growing tensions between the SP and Clare Daly TD, one of its long-time members, over her connections with Mick Wallace, an ex-property developer and maverick independent TD. There was intense media controversy over Wallace’s non-payment of taxes and pension contributions. This storm caused waves in the ULA, leading to the withdrawal of the WUAG and its TD, Seamus Healy, over the refusal of the SP to call for Wallace’s resignation (Healy was also upset over the sectarian membership drives of the SWP). Having refused to bend on this issue, the SP then turned the heat on Daly and demanded that she refuse to work with Wallace around abortion rights and the anti-household tax campaign. Further she was told not to sit next to him in the Dáil or be in any way associated with him. Daly refused and resigned from the SP in September. This signalled an even greater intensification of the SP’s campaign against her. It succeeded in having the ULA steering committee adopt a motion committing all TDs to disavow any political connection with Wallace. Again Daly rebelled and went on to share platforms with Wallace.
Things reached crisis point in December, when all TDs adopted a position at variance with that of the steering committee on abortion. In November the committee had adopted a pro-choice position, following a delegate council which had passed resolutions to that effect. After that meeting Daly, together with fellow TDs Joan Collins and Richard Boyd-Barrett, continued to push for legislation on the restricted grounds of danger to the life of the mother. Joe Higgins was prepared to demand abortion on grounds of health, but did not succeed in convincing the others and relations broke down. No-one seemed to consider that none of these policies was in line with the clearly expressed views of the membership.
The SP was outraged at Daly’s behaviour and argued that there “had been a wilful undermining of democracy in the ULA” which was “unacceptable”.7 The same December 14 statement announced that “we will be diminishing our participation in the ULA”. Just a few weeks later, on January 26 2013, the SP announced “with regret” its departure from the ULA - while, of course, assuring everyone of its absolute sincerity and “preparedness to work with others on the left in a respectful, democratic and principled fashion”.8 A list of grievances was trotted out, along with claims that the SP had been the only genuinely democratic force in the ULA, but now sadly had no choice except to leave because of the actions of others.
So instead of trying to join with others in forging a political alternative, the SP called for the Campaign Against the Household and Water Tax (CAHWT) to stand candidates in the forthcoming local elections. The SP has since been pushing this in the CAHWT, as it attempts to reinvigorate the campaign and cement its own leadership through various stunts, such as occupations of local council meetings. It also split the recent demonstration against austerity organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in Cork by holding a separate rally at the end and pulling CAHWT away from the main event. The SP has now set up a new campaign for abortion, strictly on its own (SP)agenda - with limited rights on the grounds of health, not choice. It is on a very sectarian trajectory.
As for the SWP, it has not commented - although its TD, comrade Boyd-Barrett, issued a joint statement with Collins and Daly berating the SP for walking out. The SWP has been pushing the PBPA as an alternative to the ULA, while comrades Collins and Daly are about to launch a rival ‘unity’ initiative, to be called the United Left. Farcically, the one remaining full-timer in the ULA office continues to send out official announcements and press releases, but there is no mention of what is really going on.
Claims have been made that the United Left will be much better than what has gone before. But early indications give no room for optimism. Firstly the group will be based on ‘broad’, as opposed to revolutionary, politics (no surprise there). Indeed it seems that Collins and Daly want the new group’s platform to be even ‘broader’ than the minimalistic reformism of the ULA. And the structures do not appear to be very democratic, with TDs enjoying all the rights and little accountability. Some non-aligned members of the ULA have agreed to join, while others are far more dubious of its potential.
In the meantime, the economic crisis continues to impact on the working class. Over 100,000 marched in protest against austerity on February 9. Public sector workers are facing major cuts in wages, the removal of shift allowances and a longer working week, as the government seeks to slash another €1 billion from the public purse. Union members are discussing strike action and there is almost certainly going to be resistance.
But, thanks to the disgraceful sectarianism of the SP and SWP, there is no left to speak of. There is no organisation for our class to look to for leadership. Sinn Féin is making the most of the disarray by positioning itself on the soft left. This pro-Catholic party is portraying itself as a defender of women’s rights. Mary-Lou McDonald, one of its most prominent TDs, is using the Dáil as a platform to oppose government cuts, to demand justice for the Magdalene women and to call for limited abortion rights. Sinn Féin is the new ‘left’ opposition. This is a travesty. In the north of Ireland Sinn Féin has shown that it is committed to capitalism. In the south it has indicated willingness to enter into coalition with a revived Fianna Fáil, which is now riding high in the polls. A Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition government seems on the cards.
All of this is truly a ULA legacy to be proud of! Less than two years after the election of five working class TDs, and the promise that seemed to hold of a powerful and united workers’ party, even the limited cooperation between the sects has vanished into thin air. In reality, the SP never wanted the ULA to become a party and resisted all attempts to develop it in that direction. For its part, the SWP opportunistically tried to face both ways, sometimes pretending to want to see the alliance built, but in practice using it only as far as it could further the short-term aims of the SWP. Shame on these groups for wrecking an important opportunity to create something worthy of the working class.
2. ‘Now the left has TDs’, March 24 2011.
3. ‘Aiming for a party’, April 7 2011.
4. ‘Voodoo and left posturing’, June 30 2011.
5. ‘ULA must take itself seriously’, December 1 2011.
6. ‘Sectarian stumbling block’, May 3 2012.