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Ireland: United Left Alliance confronts big challenges

[For more coverage of the United Left Alliance and its discussions at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, click HERE.]

By Dick Nichols, Dublin

July 16, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- Ireland’s seven-month-old United Left Alliance is the “new kid on the block” of European anti-capitalist parties. Launched on November 27 last year, it emerged from the February Irish national elections—where its name didn’t even appear on the ballot paper—with five TDs (Teachta Dála, members of the Irish parliament, the Dail). To date the ULA has also won 20 positions in local councils and one seat in the European parliament.

In the Dail, the ULA TDs have already had successes, like forcing the government to back off from abolishing the Joint Labour Committees that set wages and conditions in some industries.

However, the party still has a great deal of building ahead of it—in program, party structures and decision-making processes, and in communication with its potential public and its own members.

At present the ULA is led by a committee representing the founding organisations—the Socialist Party (SP), Socialist Workers Party (SWP), People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and the Tipperary-based Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG)—and decisions there are taken by consensus.

The challenges facing the ULA were discussed at its first national public forum, held on June 25, 2011, in Liberty Hall, Dublin.

The forum, which was not decision making, attracted attendance from well beyond the established Dublin left. At least 320 (the official registration figure) and probably 400 took part, including many young people and activists from the more distant counties—like Cork, Tipperary, Sligo and Donegal—as well as from Northern Ireland.


The electoral success of the ULA has grown straight from the rage in Ireland at the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-European Union (EU) “bailout package”, negotiated last year by the former government of Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

That “rescue” has lined up workers, unemployed and young people to pay the gargantuan gambling debts of the cabal of bankers, financial engineers and real estate speculators who ruled the Irish economic roost before the 2008 property and banking crash.

By 2014, total public and private debt of Irish institutions will reach €200 billion, threatening massive business and even state bankruptcy. Under the EU-IMF program the Irish state will fork out €13.6 billion in interest payments alone to the EU, European member states and the IMF.

The potential impact on Irish politics is massive—the definitive break-up of the two-party system that arose out of the independence struggles of the 1920s.

In the February poll, Fianna Fail—the mainstream nationalist party which had been in government for 61 of the last 79 years—lost 58 of its 78 seats. Its traditional rival, Fine Gael, now in government with the Labour Party as junior partner, dutifully implements the IMF-EU package it rubbished while in opposition.

As many speakers at the ULA forum commented, this flip-flop opens the way for Fine Gael to repeat Fianna Fail’s fate.

It is also highly unlikely that economic revival will come to the Fine Gael-Labour government’s rescue. It presides over a depressed, shrunken economy choking on debt. In real terms, Irish income per capita (gross national product) was 14.7% lower in 2010 than in 2007 and personal consumption 8.6% lower. Investment (gross fixed capital formation) was down a massive 51.9%, yet public spending, which would normally have been boosted to offset the capitalists’ aversion to invest, also fell by 7.7%.

Why? The Irish state “couldn’t afford” to fund even a token anti-recession program because it had taken over the debts of the financial desperados and wasn’t going to fill its yawning budget deficit by taxing the rich. As a result, since 2007 official unemployment has climbed from 4.5% to 14.2%, and up to 50,000 families are reckoned to be in danger of losing their homes.

In the medium term, assuming some recovery from depression, the chances of repeating the “Celtic tiger” model of the 1990s and 2000s are evaporating, as multinational operators and a handful of Irish counterparts seek out lower-wage and -tax regimes in Eastern Europe and North Africa.

Orienting to mass outrage

At the forum two plenary sessions confronted the main challenges created by this crisis and the political radicalisation it is creating (also reflected in a sharply increased vote at the February election for Sinn Fein—for years a marginal force in the Irish Republic).

Workshop sessions covered areas of struggle (women’s rights, racism and against proposed water charges and home taxes), alternative policy (education, health, jobs, global warming) and strategic issues (how to relate to the left in Northern Ireland and how to make the retreating Irish union movement stand and fight). Other workshops covered lessons from the experience of new workers’ parties in Europe and the nature of socialism.

In the first plenary, “The left recsponse to the risis”, radical economist Terrence McDonough (National University of Ireland, Galway) outlined a five-point “big bang” strategy to kick-start the economy out of depression. His points, each leading to the next, were: to default on Irish public debt; to regain control over monetary policy by leaving the euro and creating a new Irish currency (punt); to launch a public bank to allow reorganisation of the banking system; to provide a jobs guarantee; and to nationalise the Corrib gas project (off the north-west coast).

People asked: wouldn’t a new Irish punt rapidly devalue against other currencies, simultaneously devaluing workers' savings? Wouldn’t the bondholders and the international financial institutions look to punish Ireland for daring to default?

McDonough answered that once a national currency had been restored the Irish state could pursue polices to inflate the economy, with the likely fall in the value of the punt making it more competitive. As for holders of Irish debt, defaulting would strengthen Ireland’s hand in any subsequent negotiations—would holders of Irish bonds like something back or nothing?

The creation of a public bank would, when combined with a deposit guarantee, allow costly state support for private banks to be withdrawn and deposits to be transferred out of them. Some private banks might well go broke, but people’s savings would be safe. Nationalising Corrib would make Ireland energy self-sufficient and reduce its energy bill. 

McDonough agreed that his proposal was “far from socialism” but insisted that its benefits easily outweighed costs: it would allow the curse of unemployment to be tackled and show that the Irish people were breaking with EU austerity and taking their fate into their own hands.

Socialist program?

McDonough’s presentation opened the lid, perhaps unintentionally, on the dominant debate of the forum—what program should the ULA have? Should it be explicitly socialist? Driven by the different perspectives of the SWP and SP, this discussion ran through the whole day, even surfacing in workshop sessions on other topics.

For SP leader Kevin McLoughlin, who analysed the “backward and incapable” state of the Irish capitalism and its failure to develop an indigenous manufacturing sector, the ULA had to propose public ownership as the alternative. Its program should have workers' control of the economy at its centre and be explicitly socialist.

Kieran Allen (SWP) analysed the “investment strike” of Irish capitalism, placed the possibilities for resistance in the context of the Arab revolutions and the mass anti-austerity protests in southern Europe, and ended by saying that the ULA had to look to anti-capitalism for its program. Its socialism didn’t have to be explicit—it could be explained as the vision behind immediate demands.

In discussion there was some engagement with McDonough’s “big bang” proposal—mainly questioning whether a purely Irish solution to Ireland’s crisis was possible—but many contributions were directed at whether the ULA should present itself as explicitly socialist.

For one SP member “we have to talk about socialism to break people away from commitment to capitalism”. For SWPer Mary Smith, putting “socialism” on the ULA banner meant limiting its potential appeal to those who already identify as socialists. Yet the ULA’s main job is to get people of very different affiliations into action around the concrete issues that affect them.

In his summary Kieran Allen polemicised against “abstract” propaganda for socialism, drawing the comment from Kevin McLoughlin that the SP’s own election campaigns had successfully linked concrete proposals to the need to change society. This approach had been no impediment to getting two TDs elected as part of the ULA election campaign. McLoughlin called retreat from identification with socialism “an unnecessary concession” which “complicates our task”.

What party?

In the afternoon plenary on “What kind of party do we need?” long-standing Sligo councillor Declan Bree, who left the Labour Party in 2007 over its pre-election alliance with Fine Gael, argued that the ULA had a huge opportunity to grow as the party of “industrial, social and community action”. He called for an explicitly socialist party to be created as soon as possible, stressing that “a democratic, participatory structure is vital”.

Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins stressed that the ULA message to Ireland should be that “capitalism is a diseased system that is wounding economy and society”. He stressed: “Yes to reformist demands, but these demands, to be consistent, must be led into the need for a socialist alternative.”

Higgins also called for clear opposition to entering coalition governments with capitalist parties and for a “rigorous and honest appraisal” of their role—specifically contrasting Sinn Fein’s anti-austerity stance in the Irish Republic to its role in assisting austerity as part of the Northern Ireland government.

In the same vein he critcised the SWP’s call for the ULA to invite Labour Party representatives onto campaign platforms: this should only happen if they have clearly shown they have broken with the government’s attacks.

TD Richard Boyd Barrett (SWP and PBPA) argued for stressing the “90-95% that unites us” rather than differences. He agreed with the aim of the socialist transformation of society but disagreed with using the term “socialism” as part of a “war on jargon” that the ULA needed to undertake.

Barrett’s argument was that the ULA was not big enough and needed to win over people “who are not used to the same tradition and language as we on the left are”. People want to resist and need leadership, but are “starting from a starting point that may not be close to us but they are on a trajectory toward us”.

TD Seamus Healy (WUAG) spoke about the history of the group’s campaigns in defence of working people. He also emphasised the need to create the ULA as a truly national organisation, including the Six Counties of Northern Ireland.

Building the ULA

Declan Bree’s stress on growing the ULA as a campaigning organisation got strong support in discussion. PBPA leader Eddie Conlon called for everyone to move ahead with building branches and for the steering committee to develop a proposal for democratic structures in order to get sympathetic people on board the ULA.

He also posed “the parties” the challenging question as to how much they were prepared to channel energies and resources into building up the ULA. Did they now see their main job as building the ULA?

Dermot Connolly (PBPA) stressed the need to build a ULA culture and trust between organisations. This could only develop on the basis of agreed campaign priorities, one of which had to be the next local elections.

Connolly’s goals for the ULA were to double the number of councillors, build 40-50 branches, establish a communications network, hold regular forums and establish rank-and-file control. He talked enthusiastically of 15 people present at the ULA launch in Mullingar (West Meath): “That’s a branch somewhere the left outside the Labour Party has never truly been active.”

In their summaries all speakers agreed on the need to build the ULA’s structures of leadership and accountability. Barrett spoke in favour of a leadership body made up of branch delegates, while Higgins suggested that non-aligned members be given representation on the steering committee.

The forum ended on a note of optimism. Many differences abide (attitude to Labour, whether to expand the ULA into Northern Ireland) and some entrenched competition between the SWP and SP will not be overcome overnight.

The hope must be that a growing ULA and some successful joint campaigning in the struggle against austerity will put such differences in a new perspective; that the vital discussion over whether and how to pose a socialist objective for the ULA takes place among a growing activist membership; and that this and other issues are decided at a representative founding conference.

A successful and growing ULA would be an important boost for the anti-capitalist struggle across all Europe.

[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal's correspondent in Europe.]

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