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The United Left Alliance in Ireland: Is this the left unity we were hoping for?

Richard Boyd Barrett from the People Before Profit Alliance and Joe Higgins MEP from the Socialist Party, during the launch of the new United Left Alliance, November 29, 2010.

By Des Derwin

December 13, 2010 – Irish Left Review – Jodie Ginsberg, Reuters’ woman in Dublin, said on TV3’s Vincent Browne Tonight program on November 25, when asked for her impression of the situation in Ireland, “people are shell shocked”.

They have been for some time, but in little more than two months a series of ever more powerful shells has burst among us:

  • the central bank revises the cost of the Anglo-Irish bailout at up to €34 billion bringing the overall banks’ bailout to €45-50 billion;
  • the deficit to be closed jumps from €7 billion to €15 billion, and this to be done by 2014;
  • the €15 billion to be frontloaded with €6 billion taken out in the December budget and mostly through cuts;
  • the markets push interest rates on Irish debt to over 9%;
  • the state is to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Union (EU) and some other countries, including £7 billion from Britain;
  • the four-year plan for the €15 billion includes a reduction in the national minimum wage and an 11% cut in social welfare;
  • default is widely spoken of;
  • the €85 billion bailout entails use of the national pension reserve fund and the cash reserves, these Irish funds going mainly to the banks;
  • a rate of up to 5.8% makes the bailout a rip-off;
  • the bondholders are let off.

The Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole has tracked this narrative thus: “Like the sorcerer’s incompetent apprentice, the Government ... turned a banking crisis into a sovereign debt crisis, which it then transformed into a crisis of Irish democracy...”[1]

In this litany of lashes the shock of an impending mortgage default crisis, greater than the bank crisis, has got lost along the way. Che Guevara said to Jean-Paul Sartre, probably in 1960, “I can't help it if reality is Marxist”.[2] An honest scholar like Morgan Kelly, professor of economics at University College Dublin, can read like a Marxist simply by telling it like it is. As he does in his Irish Times article of November 8.[3]

His apocalyptic political conclusion is as sonorously chilling as his economic examination. Were he as specialised in politics as economics his vision might have appeared on the other side of the spectrum. Sounding like the more alarmist, or lazy, persuaders of the far left he spoke of:

the first upwellings of an inchoate rage and despair that will transform Irish politics along the lines of the Tea Party in America. Within five years, both Civil War parties are likely to have been brushed aside by a hard right, anti-Europe, anti-Traveller party ...

It is possible; the black shoots of fascism are always possible in the fertile soil of a capitalist crisis. What are already there, though only in brittle buds, are some red shoots which are just as likely to grow to fill the trough of despond as any tea leaves hanging to the right. Actually it is more probable that the historic shift from Fianna Fáil will go to a moderate centre-left in the main, at least for a while. It is the seriousness of the crisis that leads Morgan Kelly to assert that “both Civil War parties” will be brushed aside and for something more radical than anything the Labour Party or Sinn Féin would be prepared to provide.

We’d better put aside cathatrophism, though it has never looked more respectable, and for the minute leave the Nazis in the bathroom, just below the stairs. But we should also remind ourselves it is now over 18 months since Vincent Browne first warned, at the launch of the People Before Profit Alliance’s since underused Alternative Economic Agenda[4], that if the left can’t get its act together and get itself together to present a viable alternative to the people in this crisis then it should just give up and go away.

United Left Alliance

So, for once it was not hyperbole when the first announcement of the United Left Alliance’s arrival proclaimed:

At a meeting held in Dublin last Sunday, 24th October, involving the People Before Profit Alliance, the Socialist Party, the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Group, and [municipal] Councillor Declan Bree and his local group in Sligo, a historic decision was taken to establish a left alliance to contest the next general election and to take the first steps towards a new, left, anti capitalist formation to represent working people.[5]

The Socialist Party made its announcement on, appropriately enough, Armistice Day, November 11.[6] For all its consideration, restraint and reservation, it significantly gave similar prominence as that in the People Before Profit Alliance’s announcement to an eventual higher political and organisational aspiration.

In pushing for the establishment of a slate/alliance, the Socialist Party argued that it was very important to try to get a fraction of genuinely left TDs [members of the Irish parliament, the Dáil] elected at the next opportunity. Given that this crisis will continue to wreck devastation for the foreseeable future and the likelihood that Labour will be in power putting the boot into working class people while ICTU [Irish Congress of Trade Unions] sit idly by, three or four left TDs could become a very important focal point for organising struggle against austerity and for the launching of a new party of the working class to fill the political vacuum.[7]

The United Left Alliance (ULA) was launched at a well attended rally in the Gresham Hotel, Dublin on November 29. There’s a good report giving a flavour of the meeting by Mark P on The Cedar Lounge Revolution blog site[8], some masterful stenographic minutes from Emmett Farrell on Indymedia[9] and a very visual report on the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) site.[10] For many reasons – not least its long delay in arriving – the ULA has arrived in the nick of time:

  • an imminent election;
  • a crisis two years in without a radical left alternative with any leverage;
  • a stunned and momentarily unresponsive populace complemented by a trade union leadership – the one force, in the absence of such an radical alternative, with the authority and means to coordinate a fight back – which has been all too successful in its two-decade crusade to remove struggle from the labour movement;
  • a mounting crisis reaching its EU/ECB/IMF climax that could conceivably lead to Morgan Kelly’s paradigm shift with only small warring clans of the left to meet it;
  • the beginning of new social explorations and formations all over;
  • the apparent dominance of the left field by a Labour Party which is so confidently bourgeois that it can announce the renunciation of even symbolic “labour movement” measures such as tax relief on union dues.

Sometimes the first paragraph on the front page of the Irish Times really does record in summary (and translation) the days that are upon us:

The Government will battle to prevent any increase in the €6 billion adjustment proposed for the 2011 budget and the €15 billion target in the four-year plan as EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) negotiators arrive in Dublin today to intensify talks on a rescue plan for Ireland.[11]

The apocalypse foreseen by Morgan Kelly and the apocalypse generally anticipated for the arrival of the IMF faded before the real apocalypse: the actual details of the four-year plan,[12] the bailout[13] and the memorandum of understanding,[14] which outsavaged An Bórd Snip Nua. Then the budget which activated all this.[15] That the radical left, or the chief chunk of it, commenced a cautious portion of cooperation within days of these developments is more accident than alacrity on the left. Yet for all that it’s a cause for celebration (or sighs of relief!) and, to be fair to all concerned, some recognition of the unitary need Vincent Browne gave voice to in April 2009.

No doubt the formation of the United Left Alliance has had its messy side and things could have been done better. For a start the name contains a superfluous adjective (a double knot perhaps, to anxiously stress the good intentions?). It almost started on the wrong foot by launching in a non-union hotel (since rectified when the launch was postponed). But these are relatively minor considerations. Councillor Declan Bree dematerialising from the list of declared ULA runners between the middle and end of November was not so minor. The airbrush applied by the ULA to this and the reason for it is not a good start either. One ULA negotiating source said the last-minute withdrawal was about Bree’s desire to bring Galway councillor Catherine Connolly & co along with him. He was also said to have asked the ULA to speak with [Communist Party-aligned] the People’s Movement.

The same messiness can be ascribed to the whole decade-long process of unity and regroupment that has led us here and that has involved, to one degree or another, different permutations and combinations of most of the radical left.

One of the imperfections of the current phase is that some additional currents might perhaps have been included – though there is a genuine desire to be open and inclusive within reason. Another imperfection is that there was too much of a “top-down” character to the negotiation and disclosure of the ULA.

“Building a Real Political Alternative”[16], a seven-point program of the ULA was agreed during the negotiations, and a pledge[17], which all ULA candidates must sign, was distributed at the launch. There was some talk of a protocol between the groups to prevent “competitive recruitment” and the gauntlet of paper sellers at meetings, but these don’t seem to have made the final cut so far. There were plenty of sellers and leafleteers at the launch and the Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the PBPA had a literature stall each.

Left unity processes since 1990s

There is a history to this process of alliance that colours its outcome so far. Since 2000 there has been a stop-start stumble of conferencing, alliances, separations, negotiations, groupments and regroupments, involving at one time or another almost all of the organised groups on the radical left, including Labour Youth and individual Labour Party members.

In the 1990s an electoral alliance emerged briefly from the water and bin charges campaigns to link the Socialist Party and Seamus Healy’s South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, in a harbinger of the ULA.

Since the turn of the millennium some of the world wave of left liaison has lapped these shores. There have been several political alliances of varying life spans: the Socialist Alliance briefly brought together the SWP, Socialist Democracy and independents. Some of these independents (recently described on the blogosphere as “the usual left unity suspects”) are a common denominator along this many-leagued road of leagues. The Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA) comprised the SWP, environmentalists and some others in Derry. The People Before Profit Alliance consists of the SWP plus various and varying activists, groupings and independents. The Campaign for an Independent Left (CIL) enfolded at one time the Dublin South Central-based Community and Workers Action Group (now in the PBPA), the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the Irish Socialist Network and some independents. The rump of the CIL is now in the PBPA and still meets occasionally. Last year the SEA in Derry joined the PBPA.

The People’s Movement is a broad formation of activists close to the Communist Party, dissident Greens and anti-EU-superstate activists (with, interestingly enough, Declan Bree among its patrons). The Grassroot Gathering(s) and the Social Solidarity Network are link-ups of the libertarian left. That end of the left, which works well and works well together, is associated now in the 1% Network, which brings together the Workers Solidarity Movement and Seomra Spraoí with the Irish Socialist Network and éirígí in imaginative and original activities.

As mentioned, almost all and more besides of the above groups and groupings have been engaged in the slow, shaky but secular shift from separation, be it just to send delegates to a conference or all the way to participation in one of the projects. Some came to preach the proper program; some copied the regroupment model of their parent organisations abroad with the hope of control as well as cooperation. Some have stood away when they should have come on board a decade earlier; some have not been invited when perhaps they should have been.

In relation to the, in my view fair, complaint that the talks to form the ULA could have been more open to others, those in glasshouses should admit to common practice on the left even in unitary initiatives. The organisers of the most recent round of all-left general discussions on unity neglected to invite any of the “the usual left unity suspects” who had been hammering on about it to a fault all along. Actually, the ULA proceedings, or the general explorations preceding them, did involve more than the present participants, without final success. (Councillor Chris O’Leary, for instance, actually attended a PBPA steering group meeting before the PBPA learned in the newspapers that he had joined Sinn Féin.)

Besides, after so many false starts and bust ups there is something to be said for a businesslike and thorough transaction between the key players, even if that has been done inter apparti. Getting to the ULA itself has been a survival, as a glance at Indymedia’s archives will show. No, better not!

International influences

There is of course a wider, international history to the current movement towards radical left unity, regroupment and alliances; a zeitgeist that has glided through the European and South American left with bases – and pioneering ifproblematic ones – in the English-speaking world. On the European continent there have been costly collapses like Rifondazione Comunista in Italy, but also abiding broad formations like Die Linke in Germany, the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) in France, the Left Bloc in Portugal[18] and the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark.

Yet the story in Britain (from where much of Ireland’s radical left gets its culture and current line) is a sorry one with the disintegration of Respect and the implosion of the Scottish Socialist Party (the latter once a model of pluralism across Europe and for some of those professing left unity here).

This endeavour was part of a thrust to build a new left and a new movement which arose with the “anti-capitalist” mobilisations of the 1990s. Within this again there was an urge to build a new left that would be an alternative to a social democracy that had adapted to, or adopted, neoliberalism; an alternative to a Stalinism, which had fallen along with its material walls, and to a splintered sectarianism that had arisen from and reproduced the isolation of the far left. There was a desire to reconnect radical socialist ideas with the very class and forces that the left professed to express politically. Within the radical and Marxist left there has been a consequent international debate over organisation and program, between the immediate perspectives of a broad left party or a revolutionary organisation. This has amassed a copious literature, some of which is referenced and linked to in the Appendix below.

The United Left Alliance is not in the “broad party” camp as such, and (let us not get ahead of ourselves) is just (what’s with the “just”?) an electoral alliance on its first nervous outing. But it is a kind of compromise between those who at least formally take the “broad” approach and those who insist on the need for a tightly knit and explicitly Marxist “revolutionary organisation”.


As such it is an achievement in itself . The ULA is also a means of facilitating that other new-found aspect of attempting to reconnect with the wider word: contesting elections. Unity is always better, but in elections, when the only rationale is to present general politics to an average electorate, standing obscurely opposing organisations separately is absurd. The practice has even been, and for some remains, to stand candidates of radical left parties against each other in the same constituency. Pure madness and scandal-giving to the working people we are hoping to persuade.

On the other hand, the presentation of an electoral alliance or slate of candidates represents at least the beginning of a real alternative. There’s no shortage of radical left groups, as you know, but the numerous atoms have been too diffuse to make an impression on the space where an alternative should be. On the one side the cartel parties are all on course for cutting the public finances deficit to 3% by 2014 and, on the other side, an increasingly disillusioned electorate is looking for some actual and authoritative alternate option to austerity.

The truth of the cliché oft-mouthed by “the usual suspects”, that the sum of left unity is greater than its parts, can already be seen in the splash created by the media launch of the ULA on November 25 and the second ULA press conference on December 2. And in the faint but hopeful murmuring of non-aligned individuals, who could have joined one of the constituent parts long ago if they wanted to, expressing tentative support for the new venture.

For all its failure to spread its cloak far beyond its original owners,[19] the People Before Profit Alliance put some flesh on the concept of an organisation with a radical and active policy but without the need for complete internal agreement: indeed allowing those who disagree on inessentials to argue and organise. The attraction of a formation that genuinely facilitates democracy and pluralism cannot be overestimated.

The significance of the United Left Alliance in responding to the crisis and to the opportunity of shifting allegiances in the electorate, in “presenting an alternative”, is not in standing a mass of candidates spread like thin butter across a large slice of bread. It is in the breakthrough offered by getting a half a dozen radical left TDs elected and forming a critical platform from which to reach out and build something far bigger. The Socialist Party statement on November 11, already cited above, recognised this (my emphasis below):

In pushing for the establishment of a slate/alliance, the Socialist Party argued that it was very important to try to get a fraction of genuinely left TDs elected at the next opportunity. Given that this crisis will continue to wreck devastation for the foreseeable future and the likelihood that Labour will be in power putting the boot into working class people while ICTU sit idly by, three or four left TDs could become a very important focal point for organising struggle against austerity and for the launching of a new party of the working class to fill the political vacuum.[20]

The Socialist Party’s member of the European Parliament Joe Higgins echoed this at the ULA press launch:

The presence of a number of genuine left TDs in the Dáil offering a visible political alternative will be a massive pole of attraction to workers, unemployed and young people, and can become a real factor in the unfolding crisis.[21]

This is a strategy. It is not being strictly honoured in the actual selection of candidates. The prospect of “three or four” left TDs would indeed be a “pole of attraction” and this is actually less than the six or seven very possible-to-probable ULA TDs. This tantalising possibility is a stepped strategy over time rather than a pretence that an elected radical alternative can arrive nationwide in one fell swoop. 2011 will not be 1918 (Joe Higgins and Fintan O’Toole thankfully have not been shot), and if it was like 1918 the radical left does not have the movement already in place that the radical nationalists had in 1918. The ULA has talked of 20 candidates, which could arguably include some who won’t win but would get a good vote.

Yet there is some “utterly butterly” thinking going on. Both the Socialist Party and the PBPA have been selecting some candidates with no roots or record, and where the relevant vote up to now has been tiny. The ULA press conference on December 6[22] was told that the ULA intends to run candidates in, as the Irish Times reported it, “at least” 14 constituencies. If the 14 names released[23] are the limit, and this is not clear, it would be possible to shrug and get on with it even though only half that number have a real chance of being elected.

The lessons of the 2009 local elections, when hyped hopes sometimes resulted in “also ran” results, haven’t been learned. Quite apart from this public confirmation of weakness and dismissability, some amount of funds and a fair amount of footwear were spent for very little return. A degree of “have a go” élan is a risky luxury when some of the “banker” (oops!) candidates are not guaranteed (oops again!) election at all and will need all hands on deck, and not running the flag up various masts, to make it.

You can pour candidates into the ring if you have bulging war chests. The PBPA for instance has little or no money. There must still however be room for adding really good candidates that might suddenly come forward. The surprise addition of the admirable Conor MacLiam to the slate, campaigning husband of the late and great Susie Long, was a minor sensation.

This is a conservative position and I may be proved wrong. There is an argument for “raising the standard” in a constituency so distant from a target seat that no campaigners would travel to it anyway. But what about diverted funds? Though the SP candidate Cian Prendiville would on paper seem a candidate with too few roots in Limerick, yet it is clear from his performance at the ULA launch that he is charismatic enough to make a mark in the right circumstances.

The expected “historic shift” in the electorate could be a two-edged sword. The leftward edge of the charge for change could see a rush to the Labour Party, as the nearest available alternative place on the port side, which might pitch some of the radical left contenders out of the boat. In an analysis of the Donegal South West by-election results Paddy Healy questions this prospect:

The dog that didn't bark in the night-- Left Independent Thomas Pringle was not squeezed by Sinn Fein or by Labour. In the Spring-tide election Labour squeezed all other lefts. In the coming election the defection from Fianna Fail will be so great that left independents and Sinn Fein will be lifted as well as Labour. This augurs well for the prospects of the recently launched Unite Left Alliance in the next election.[24]

Trade unions

It is by no means just in the electoral field that cooperation must replace competition on the left. In the trade unions the scattered forces of the left – as well of course as the general weakness of organised labour – have allowed a pathetic and pampered peerage to prostrate the unions and propose in perpetuity, as the only “alternative” they perceive, a depreciated partnership that has been passed over by patrons and politicians. In the face of impending catastrophe – not my words[25] – the trade union leadership, or sections of it, has begun to stir into life. It could be only another false beginning like February, March, November and December 2009.[26] Yet the preparatory machine, authoritative call and turn out for the November 27 demonstration contrasted clearly with the meagre mobilisations wrought by the left throughout the year. So clearly that we surely must be open to some lessons in intra-left pooling and modesty, and extra-left orientation to trade union and community structures, however professionalised they are at present.

And during the very birth of the new alliance the same old crap repeats itself even among the allies, reminding us how far we have yet to travel.

One organisation, a ULA participant, through a closely associated campaign, organised a march for budget day. Another organisation in the ULA, along with almost all the rest of the radical left, wished to organise a joint left march for the same time. This might have been sorted out in the spirit of the new departure. But after some diplomatic efforts the original organisers refused to convert the march to a joint one and “the rest of the left”, in those circumstances, declined to row in behind the original march. The march therefore proceeded with the weight of just one section of the left, while the “rest of the left”, rather than gritting their teeth, raising their eyes to heaven and joining the march anyway, held a separate rally at the Dáil before the march arrived there. ULA? Ooh alors! The ULA will either merge the train sets or derail.[27]

Left out?

The disembarkation of Declan Bree before the ULA even left the station reduced it not just quantitatively, from four allies to a less impressive three, but qualitatively. Not in the quality of decisiveness, obviously, but of political genesis. The alliance is consequently open to the unfair and inaccurate jibe of being a Trotskyist mother and child reunion and loses one avenue into other areas of the left. Nevertheless people from some currents have actually and understandably muttered about being left out. There is no objective reason why at this time redundant wrangles cannot be closed or relevant ones discussed with other groups with a view to inclusion.

The Irish Socialist Network has already left an alliance (the old Campaign for an Independent Left) with the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, the Community and Workers Action Group (now a branch or two of the PBPA) and the rump Campaign for an Independent Left independents now in the PBPA. But moods mellow in five years. The Irish Socialist Network is formally for left regroupment, has supported the pluralist Scottish Socialist Party and produces intelligent and attractive literature. Its usual candidate in Finglas began in 2004 with a decent 6% but that has fallen dramatically since. There is no reason I can see why the Irish Socialist Network cannot be part of the ULA.

The Workers’ Party are not the kettle of fish they were. It is not clear how strongly it still adheres to social partnership (an issue for the ULA) or even to coalition with conservative parties. The Workers’ Party have an abiding interest in elections; a rather enthusiastic one – often standing against components of the ULA and often gleaning low votes. It has a seat on Cork and Waterford city councils. In places, personal relations between the Workers’ Party and the “far left” have greatly improved. Its new magazine, Look Left, has been nothing short of astonishing in its outreach even to the “Trotskyist” left. In some ways Look Left is in appearance, content and intent a little reminiscent of Gralton and Z magazines in the 1980s. It carried a short but positive report of the arrival of the ULA.

The Communist Party of Ireland doesn't stand in elections these days but it continues to punch above its numbers with a consistent flow of events and communications (not least their alternative economic document An Economy for the Common Good) and a well-tended periphery. It had an interesting-looking post-budget public meeting in Liberty Hall on December 14. The Communist Party would probably look to the People’s Movement, which itself would have umbrella aspirations to rival the ULA. The Communist Party’s Socialist Voice[28] carried an unusually scathing criticism of the ICTU’s pathetic down-playing preparation for its photo-shoot on September 29. Maybe it was felt that this needed to be balanced with an unusually explicit go at the far left because the report also castigates the “infantilism of the ultra-left”, naming the Socialist Party and the SWP.

Now some of this was as fair comment as that on the ICTU, but some of it was inaccurate and contrived. The penny has not dropped everywhere that the days are long gone when – talking about exclusions from joint initiatives – the 1970s May Day organising committee could blithely refuse the application for membership of the SWM. (The SWM was the Socialist Workers Movement. It changed its name in the 1980s, while remaining the same organisation, to the Socialist Workers Party.) The “the ultra left” these days has trade union positions, local authority councillors, media celebrities and an MEP! Nevertheless I don’t see why – apart from realpolitik – the Communist Party cannot be seen as a potential part of an even bigger amalgam with the ULA and others.

Eirígí is new enough and post-dates much of the unitary saga. It is probably the most “revolutionary socialist” grouping to come out of mainstream Irish republicanism since the Independent Socialist Party in the 1970s (excepting the small-scale magazine Fourthwrite) but it is not clear how far it has come from republican methods. Eirígí is refreshingly rebellious and their grá for direct action seems to have been taken up recently, under the rubric of civil disobedience, in far wider circles including some hitherto opposed ULA components. Eirígí also have a Dublin city councillor who has recently painted herself into history. I see no insuperable difficulty for Eirígí or the ULA in being on a common slate.

There are other individuals and groups that can and should be invited into the ULA (as opposed to waiting for them to call). The ULA may as yet seem a little narrow for them to consider, but as the Labour Party takes office and puts on John Gormley’s straitjacket there must be a breaking point for some of those in the party who have campaigned up to now for action against austerity. (John Gormley is the leader of Ireland's Green Party, which is in coalition government at the moment with Fianna Fail. Gormley is minister for the environment. While in government the Greens have so far been unable to implement most of the progressive policies contained in its manifesto, and the expected election in March 2011 is likely to virtually wipe them out.)

Dublin North Central is a left-congested area. Councillor Ciaran Perry's organisation has votes, a record and a presence in the constituency though it nurtures little affection for those in the ULA. Nevertheless, since the local elections there has been cooperation on Dublin City Council and respect between Ciaran Perry and the two PBPA councillors, Joan Collins and Bríd Smith. It is not clear if Maureen O’Sullivan TD of the Gregory group identifies ideologically with the left but the legacy she represents is still strongly associated with grassroots opposition. It may be too much of an “ask” to see these strands link up, and there may be real differences of principle in the way, but at a time when even children’s allowance is on the block there’s a big fence, you’re on one side or another, and funny things can happen.

Thomas Pringle stated firmly to the PBPA in May that he had given a pledge to his supporters that he would not be joining any organisation or party. But look how things can change, even the in short time since May. And the ULA is at present but a mere electoral alliance (though there was a little more to the feeling in the Gresham Hotel on November 29 than that).

The ULA is timely too because it is just one of a blossoming array of new coordinations, coalescences and potential centres of leadership responding to a crisis in which more and more are realising that “a totally new approach is needed.”[29]

From the extraordinary Claiming Our Future event to the “Budgetjam” collective of journalists and media activists, from Fintan O’Toole hitting the campaign trail as a very effective rallying public figure to The Second Republic group, from student marches to “pots and pans” protests[30], from school student walk outs to the comedians’ demo, a hundred flowers are blooming. Many of them are genuinely spontaneous, a sure sign of a real movement.

On December 6, the Irish Times carried a roundup of the many and varied protests planned for budget day at the Dáil[31] and the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog outlined the several newborn political parties.[32] There are now as many corresponding X-point alternatives as there are such initiatives and all to the good; all to make up a big answer to the interminable “there is no alternative” talk.

All-left alliance?

The Dublin Council of Trade Unions has temporarily stood down its particular brave attempt to provide such a coordinating centre, “There Is An Alternative”, crushed between “the upper and nether millstone” of the ICTU’s focus on Claiming Our Future and the formation by some on the left of their own alliance, the ULA. The DCTU sought to encourage a coalition of trade unions, community organisations, campaigns and parties against the cuts. Some of this work is already covered by the union-based “Defend Ireland's Communities” campaign.

But the DCTU also sought to add a political dimension in its own seven-point alternative, which aimed at the possibility of an all-left alliance to present an alternative electable, even majority, bloc including the Labour Party and Sinn Féin. This welcome ecumenism extended a new embrace to the far left just as the far left was finally coalescing on the premise of an alternative to the left of Labour.

A left alliance of the Labour Party and all to its left may be a non-runner, with the right of that spectrum[33] as much as the left. It is a diminishing prospect the more the sharpening crisis blunts the edge of the Labour response and the more the narrowing options for capitalism squeezes all parties committed to capitalism into the same basic policies (a 3% deficit in a four/five-year timespan; public sector “reform”, and so on). But it gives rise to a question for the left of how to relate to those along the line of this spectrum who put forward an all-left alliance in all sincerity.

It seems to me that if some senior trade union activists, for instance, are moving into a newly open criticism of the ICTU’s passivity, and also displaying a new willingness to work with the far left , that to simply reject an alliance with Labour – an alliance that has an ever receding likelihood of actually happening – is counterproductive. It is not just “left bureaucrats” who contemplate an all-left alliance. In the above mentioned Donegal analysis Paddy Healy says, “A Labour/Sinn Fein/Left majority may yet be possible on the numbers.”[34] This is put as an implication not a prescription.

However Seamus Healy has spoken in the past of such an alliance as an aim, even during the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group’s participation in the Campaign for an Independent Left. For sure, time and a tide since then have floated Labour way outside the 12-mile limit, as discussed below.

Whatever the experience of social democracy elsewhere we have not had a right social-democratic or social-liberal government here. The issue of coalition is still one of coalition with an avowedly conservative party. In France, for instance, the coalition debate on the left has been about alliance and government with the Socialist Party and not Chirac or Sarkozy. It seems to me that a similar debate here, about participation in a Labour-led, all-left alliance, can be expressed through our traditional debate on coalition with Fine Gael (or Fianna Fáil) and, now, on support for austerity. Rather than saying a curt “no” to the notion of an all-left alliance, we could say “OK, if Labour (and Sinn Féin) give a pledge that they will not go into coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil and oppose the cuts, the bailouts, the privatisations, etc., they will thereby have a place in a left alliance and be colleagues in a basic resistance program.” There is not a chance they (Labour anyway) would give such a pledge. But that raises a question for leftwingers in the Labour Party (and Sinn Féin too) who are critical of the ICTU for not fighting austerity but are members of a political party that will administer austerity.

Labour Party austerity

Of course people will live with all kinds of political contradictions if it suits them. And Labour is looking at times like the alternative, even challenging Fine Gael, and the only show in town to be part of. Time moves on though. As the crisis deepens and the state is sown into the IMF/EU “deal'” the Labour Party throws off with stunning candour any pretence of being an alternative. On November 27, the day the ICTU rallied thousands to its slogan (the weakest of the day), “There is a Better, Fairer Way”, Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore addressed a pre-budget seminar of Labour Party activists. He told them, “If Labour comes into government in the spring we will not be able to press a button and rewind the 2011 budget. No more than we can reverse any of the past 13 Fianna Fáil budgets or the blanket bank guarantee or Nama.” He said Labour had opposed such government decisions “not only because they were wrong, but also because they were irreversible” (my emphasis).

“The politics of promises is over”, he said, and Labour would set out its budget proposals the following week based on an adjustment of €4.5 billion. “We know that there will be decisions that we have to take that will be deeply unpalatable.” Labour’s finance spokesperson Joan Burton told the forum her party had never advocated “burning bondholders” or “sovereign default”[35]. In the following week Labour sought to move away from this consensus and into a clash of rival budgets with Fine Gael: a clash of “adjustments” of €4.5 billion versus €6 billion!

The pro-austerity Green Party’s John Gormley’s Dáil angst[36] about sleepless nights may have brought a bucket of ridicule on his head but I wonder how much of the laughter was a nervous response to the grim truth within his remarks. If Eamon Gilmore didn’t feel a chill from Gormley’s perfectly plausible lament for the straitjacket in which all those who accept the 3%-€15 billion IMF-EU-market parameters (including Gilmore’s Labour Party) find themselves, he must have been wearing an extra woolly jumper to keep out the meteorologically cold spell.

So the shift to Labour and the squeeze which that promises on left candidates, with local Labour newsletters already presenting former left independent activists as trophy recruits, crashes against this candid shift to the right by Labour, so visible to anyone who reads newspapers or looks at television news programs. Between Paddy Healy’s “enough votes to go around” collapse of Fianna Fáil and Labour making space by rushing to the starboard side, the ULA could have as fair a chance electorally as it does organisationally and agitationally.

Sinn Féin

To my knowledge, the words “Sinn Féin” weren't uttered once, from platform or floor, at the November 29 rally to launch the ULA. This could be because Sinn Féin is not easy to pin down at the moment. The radical left customarily speaks about a new left alternative to the left of Labour and Sinn Féin.

Let us put aside for a minute whether Sinn Féin would be interested in being in an alliance with what it would regard (for the time being) as much smaller forces, the “national question” and the difficulties that Sinn Féin's organisational culture might present (what about the organisational culture of the present participants, I hear you say). Sinn Féin is taking a far more combative oppositional stand than Labour, distancing itself from the cartel parties in the arc of austerity. Sinn Féin has made rebuffed calls for an alliance with Labour[37] and some members also see their natural allies on the far left .

It looks though that at this time the party wants to present Sinn Féin as the alternative or at least get back to when it could do so. The strange move of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams [from the six counties] to Louth can be interpreted (as it is actually presented) as a dramatic and audacious bid to capture the leadership of, or a leadership position in, the opposition to austerity. Again people can carry contradictions around with them all the time but it must begin to become apparent that this noble offer is too contradictory from someone who is transferring from actually (not aspirationally, as in Labour's case) administering austerity in Stormont [Belfast]. On the other hand Stormont is these days one of those faraway places for the Southern electorate and the prospect of a coalition this time with Fianna Fail is rather theoretical. Nevertheless it is all practical enough for the ULA to keep Sinn Féin at arm’s length and for Sinn Féin to disregard the ULA as in any way necessary.

Most of those voters opting for a left alternative in the coming election will not grasp the ULA’s criticism of Sinn Féin, and both will be straight rivals for votes on the same end of the field.

The December 2 Red C opinion poll could indicate something other than a solo run by Gerry Adams. Despite previous complaints that he is a liability down South and in RTE debates, he could be positioned to lead a Sinn Féin resurgence as it emerges after all as a left alternative to Labour separate to the ULA and other left candidates. With Sinn Féin rising to 16% in the Red C opinion poll, up from 7% in the 2007 general election, the Donegal South West by-election result (a massive 40%), while not repeatable nationally in scale is not merely a local aberration either. Support for Sinn Féin jumped by five points to 16% since the previous poll two weeks before and made Sinn Féin, for Red C, the third-largest party! Labour’s support dropped from 27% in the Red C poll carried out on November 21, to 24%.[38]Was Labour’s support reduced by its public and repeated tack to starboard during those 10 days? It’s still early and Labour may lose support to its left by its (even if less brazen) “no change” assurances[39]. Anyway “Independents/Others”, that’s ULA territory, saw a rise in support of three points since November 21, to 11%. This category got 9% in the 2007 general election. So a new united face on November 29 did no harm.

Benefits of unity

The November 29 rally to launch the ULA was a short interlude for celebration. The room stood to give Joe Higgins MEP an ovation. That evening Joe embodied what had been accomplished and the spirit to give it a real go.[40] Already we saw from the attendance in the Gresham ballroom what a prize is there once the left got (or began to get) together: that many people who would not join, or even work closely with, any one of the groups alone, will flock to a common front that sinks differences, pools resources, respects disagreement, cooperates and facilitates real participation.

Eddie Conlon, speaking as a member of CIL, as an independent supporter of the PBPA, said he viewed the ULA as about more than the main organised groups in it. He regarded the rally as a highlight of over 30 year’s political activity. He said he could testify as an independent that the two main groups had made a real effort to find agreement and set the alliance in motion. He spoke of the need to build the ULA as a real project; to develop structures.

All this can be lost, of course, but need not be. It is as sure as night follows day that disagreements, misunderstandings, strokes and irritations will come, and soon enough. But we must – unless they are about absolute essentials – swallow hard, get through them, keep our cool, accept losses and lost internal votes along the way.

This alliance must grow too, and deal with others fairly and squarely. It must be open and proactive about inviting other forces in. It must have structures and regular meetings that allow supporters to participate and it must have clear lines of communication and information to all supporters. If individual supporters, not members of a constituent group, cannot have a structured and influential role in the ULA, with meetings to attend where reports are given and their voice is heard, and if they are only offered auxiliary leafleting, postering and canvassing tasks, the project will ultimately fail.

Ann Marie Hourihane, writing whimsically in The Irish Times on December 6 about bad omens, remarked, “Irish history is rich in sunderings as well – look at republicanism, or left-wing movements, or Ronan and Yvonne [Keating].” That’s hard to deny! Why should it be different this time (he says, glancing guiltily back at the SLP*)? Well, maybe the seriousness of the situation will instil sufficient seriousness to keep the split off the agenda for a while. Sure, didn’t Ronan and Yvonne get back together again?

*The Socialist Labour Party was a most interesting formation in Ireland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It predated the broad pluralistic left parties of today. A breakaway from the Labour Party, it invited the revolutionary left to come in as tendencies, which they did, including the SWM.

[Des Derwin is a long-time socialist and trade union lay activist (in the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, SIPTU) in Ireland. He was president of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions in 2007-09. He is an independent supporter of the People Before Profit Alliance, one of the components of the newly formed United Left Alliance. This article first appeared in the Irish Left Review.It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]


A selected bibliography from the international debate and discussion on the Marxist left around unity, left regroupment, a new left, left alliances and organisation (in particular “broad parties” versus “revolutionary organisation”.

Website page: Socialist Perspectives (part of the Marxsite website),

Pamphlet: Alex Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist Movement and the Revolutionary Left (SWP, March 2001)

Journal: Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal (Australia, no. 23, January-April 2003), Contains a compilation of then recent articles debating left unity.

Journal: International Socialism (issue 97, December 2002). Contains some of the articles in Links 23 above,

Journal: International Socialism (issue 100, September 2003), Includes the full article “The broad party, the revolutionary party and the united front: a reply to John Rees”, by Murray Smith.

Journal: Murray Smith, “Some remarks on democracy and debate in the Bolshevik Party”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal (no.26, Australia, July 2004)

Blog posting: “Phalanxes Are Bad”, by Phil Hearse (November 2007),

Blog posting: Murray Smith, “The Radical Left in Europe”, Socialist Unity blog, April 27, 2007.

Blog posting: Alan Thornet, “What Kind of New Organisation Do We Need?” A contribution to the discussion on organisation between former members of the SWP, Socialist Resistance and others who were involved in a process of regroupment after the Respect split,, December 18, 2008.

Blog posting: Louis Proyect ,“Putting the ‘Russian questions’ on the back burner”, The Unrepentant Marxist blog,, November 21, 2009.

Journal and internet article: David Packer, “Revolutionary organisation and its relationship to building a broad left party” International Viewpoint, January 2008, An example of the case from the other side would be the following piece from Louis Proyect:

Journal debate: International Socialism, no. 120, October 2008, Alex Callinicos, “Where is the radical left going?” International Socialism, no. 121, January 2009, François Sabado,Building the New Anti-capitalist Party”, Alternative versions of these two articles can be found in International Viewpoint, November 2008,

Article: Daniel Bensaid, “Notes on recent developments in the European radical left”, International Viewpoint, December 2009,

Journal and internet article: Paul Kellogg, “Leninism: It’s not what you think”, Socialist Studies, 5(2), Fall 2009 and the Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal,

Article: One of Chris Harman's last short pieces, on the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France:

Document: “Building left unity out of the wreckage, January 10, 2010, a document from Socialist Resistance on the left after the various attempts to found a new left in Britain,

In Britain, following on from the No2EU alliance a new electoral alliance called the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was established which stood candidates in the British general election, Largely a Socialist Party initiative, Bob Crowe is a supporter, but no trade unions as such are involved. The SWP has joined.


[2] Contat, M. & Rybalka, M.A., The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Northwestern University Press, 1974.

[3] Kelly, M., “If you thought the bank bailout was bad, wait until the mortgage defaults hit home”, Irish Times, November 8, 2010,

For example he says,

“September marked Ireland’s point of no return in the banking crisis. During that month, €55 billion of bank bonds (held mainly by UK, German, and French banks) matured and were repaid, mostly by borrowing from the European Central Bank.

Until September, Ireland had the legal option of terminating the bank guarantee on the grounds that three of the guaranteed banks had withheld material information about their solvency, in direct breach of the 1971 Central Bank Act. The way would then have been open to pass legislation along the lines of the UK’s Bank Resolution Regime, to turn the roughly €75 billion of outstanding bank debt into shares in those banks, and so end the banking crisis at a stroke.

With the €55 billion repaid, the possibility of resolving the bank crisis by sharing costs with the bondholders is now water under the bridge. Instead of the unpleasant showdown with the European Central Bank that a bank resolution would have entailed, everyone is a winner. Or everyone who matters, at least.”

If this is not quite Marxism it is knowledgeable and radical analysis.

[5] PBP Newsletter, October 27, 2010,

[6] Hey, this is a reference to peace, not a dig at the SP's hostility to republicanism!

[10]; There’s also a report of Richard Boyd Barrett’s outline of the ULA after the launch on RTE television’s Frontline program at; also on Indymedia Diarmuid Breatnach has posted a personal account of the meeting and which has begun a discussion thread:

[11] Irish Times, Thursday, November 18, 2010.

[12] Irish Times, Thursday, November 25, 2010: minimum wage cut by €1; social welfare cuts of €2.8 billion over four years; 25,000 less in the public service by 2014; tax net begins at pay €3,000 lower; 10% cut in public service starting pay; water charges by 2014.

[13] Irish Times, Thursday, November 29, 2010: 5.8% interest charge on the bailout; €17.5 billion of the €485 billion to come from Irish funds, €10 billion of which is to go to the banks; no change in 12.5% corporation tax; revenues from sale of state companies must go to pay debt; EU involvement in review of registered employment agreements.

[14] Irish Times, Thursday, December 2, 2010: further cuts over €15 billion if targets not met; a total of €6 billion in social welfare and public sector cuts, including pensions, required; a Bill to increase the retirement age; detailed monthly, quarterly, and weekly financial, banking and fiscal reports and data be provided to the commission, the ECB and the IMF; targets for privatisation of ESB and Bórd Gáis.

[15] Irish Times, Wednesday, December 8, 2010: the lowest paid into the tax net; tax hikes for low-middle earners; €1 an hour off the minimum wage; €8 cut in weekly unemployment benefit; similar cuts in carer's and disability allowances; €10 cut in child benefit for first and second child; third level registration up to €2000; the health budget cut by a further €700 million; low-middle public sector pensions cut; €50 transport fee for primary pupils; total estimated ‘fiscal adjustment’ for 2008-2014 of €30.4 billion.

[18] The editor of the Left Bloc newspaper, Mariana Carneiro, is speaking at a PBPA public meeting on the IMF,

Europe and the economic crisis on December 15 in the Unite Hall, Abbey Street, Dublin.

[19] Cf. Rory Hearne, “Why should we be paying for the mistakes of bankers, developers and politicians for the next 25 years?”, Irish Times, Tuesday, October 12, 2010.

[21] Joe Higgins, ULA press launch, November 25; Irish Times, November 26, 2010.

[22] Deaglán de Bréadún, “United Left Alliance to run in 14 constituencies”, Irish Times,Tuesday, December 7, 2010, ULA also said it strongly supported the call by the trade union Unite for a one-day general strike against the government’s austerity policy.

[23] Dublin West; Clare Daly (Dublin North), a councillor; Séamus Healy (Tipperary South), a councillor; Gino Kenny (Dublin Mid West), a councillor; Séamus O’Brien (Wexford); Mike Murphy (Dublin South West); Cian Prendiville (Limerick City); John Lyons (Dublin North Central); Annette Mooney (Dublin South East); Conor Mac Liam, husband of health services campaigner the late Susie Long (Carlow-Kilkenny), and Brian Greene (Dublin North-East).

[25] “Despite the collapse, those who brought it about ... are busily exploiting this devastating catastrophe to re-engineer our economy and society according to an even crueller blue print which more effectively reflects their interests”, Jack O'Connor SIPTU president, November 24, 2010,,11990,en.html; “There is no map to the future only a set of staging posts on the road to perdition. They will continue to extract ever increasing levels of interest on Irish Government Bonds as long as the current cycle of terror continues”, Jack O'Connor, September 29, 2010,,11960,en.html.

[26] Their follow-up to November 27, of a lobby of TDs (are they kidding?!!) on one issue, the minimum wage, is a classic ICTUside-tracking and demobilising tactic worthy of the petition that replaced and retired the tax marches and of the program of local and sectionalised non-cooperation (and lobbying of backbenchers!) that substituted last January for the resumption of the public sector strikes when ICTU's "unpaid leave" deal was rejected.

[27] This sorry state is set to continue it seems with two "broad anti-cuts campaigns, the Right to Work Campaign and the “rest of the left” christening their campaign ‘noto6billioncuts’. A third campaign, the 1% Network, overlaps with the latter. The algebra of left jostling would confuse anyone, and sometimes that confusion is not unintentional. It confuses even the paper of record, as you can see from this report: Each of the three mentioned left collections had semi-separate convergences on the Dáil on budget evening. The “rest of the left” rally (noto6billioncuts) has morphed through the wonders of modern technology into a United Left Alliance rally (it wasn't) in this film of it on Dailymotion:

I may be confused myself at this stage, but as I understand it the left managed to have an all-left rally at the O'Connell Monument after the ICTU march on November 27. This was not the ULA but a wider collection which had been meeting to organise for the ICTU and the budget day events. This collection, which I think is now being styled the “noto6billioncuts” campaign organised the budget night Dáil rally at 6 o'clock minus the Right to Work Campaign, which had its own march from Parnell Square to the Dáil at 7 o'clock. The 1% Network marched to the Dáil from their spot at the Wolfe Tone monument but to join the 6 o'clock “noto6billioncuts” rally which they helped organise. (How is the head? I am probably confusing you more at this stage and myself too maybe). It is not all black and in bits: though the 6 o'clock rally was formally wound up by the cathaoirleach, Joe Higgins, before the 7 o'clock march attained the Dáil, the march did share the same platform lorry and sound system and some overlap of speakers and speeches. Different cathaoirleach. This material base of cooperation was matched by the eventual mood of camaraderie in the cold as the regiments got all mixed together on the field of action.

[33] Alliance with the ULA is far from the mind of this Labour councillor, as is any notion of socialism:

[34] and Paddy says on The Cedar Lounge (December 2):

“Clearly, my earlier prediction that Labour +Sinn Fein +lefts could have a numerical majority is being borne out. And this is before the budget! After Jan 1, there will be reductions in the pay cheque, the welfare cheque and the occupational pension cheque. We haven’t seen the bottom of the Fianna Fail collapse yet.”

See also Helena Sheehan,

In an extrapolation of the Red C poll, Political Reform said on December 2, 2010:

“These figures would also raise the possibility of a left-leaning coalition government especially as ten of the seats in the Independents and Others category would be assigned to left wing candidates such as Seamus Healy, Catherine Murphy, Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd Barrett.”

The prospect of a “left” government had reached the Sunday Independent by December 5, as a portent of ruin of course:

“The spectre of a Labour and Sinn Fein-led government, with the support of independent socialist TDs, is now uncomfortably close to reality, according to the latest analysis of voting intentions...Now, detailed analysis of an opinion poll published during the week, and seen by the Sunday Independent, has highlighted the distinct possibility that Labour and Sinn Fein could form a new government with the support of a majority -- but not necessarily all -- of up to 15 independent TDs.”

[35] “Gilmore says ‘the politics of promises is over’”, Irish Times, Monday, November 29, 2010,

[36] John Gormley, Dáil Eireann, November 30, 2010:

“It has been stated by Deputies on the other side that the Opposition has been placed in a straightjacket. That is an apt analogy in more ways than one... I have no doubt Deputy Gilmore will sit in my place next year, looking up at the Sinn Féin Deputies who will be criticising him non-stop. All Deputy Gilmore will be able to say in reply, just as we have said, is that he has no choice but to act...Deputy Gilmore will be faced with that lack of choice which will eat him up inside. I wish him well but there is much awaiting him.”

[39] Vincent allows for this too (Irish Times, December 8, 2008):

“The diving and ducking over policy decisions, the frenetic determination to say nothing at all that will alienate any segment of voters, the driving opportunism, the cynicism of it all. It could do them damage, bring them back to about 15 per cent of the vote and reduce their seats to 30 or less, with Sinn Féin and the Left Alliance gaining at their expense.”

[40] Dermot Connolly was unable to attend the launch. He would have been gratified. His contacting, convening and conversation have been central at certain points along this path to coalescence.

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