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Ireland: Socialist Party leaves the United Left Alliance
By Henry Silke
January 30, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- On January 26, the Socialist Party (affiliated to the Committee for a Workers International, CWI) posted an article on its website announcing the end its membership of the United Left Alliance. This was one of the least surprising political developments on the Irish left as the Socialist Party (SP) had been steadily moving away from the alliance for more than a year.
The SP has given two reasons for leaving the alliance.
First, its unhappiness with ex-Socialist Party TD (member of Dáil, the lower house of the Irish parliament) Clare Daly’s continued political relationship with Mick Wallace, a left-leaning populist who became embroiled in a tax evasion scandal. Daly had been closely allied to Wallace in the promotion of an abortion rights bill and most recently in the exposure of a practice where privileged members of society were being cleared of driving charges, something brought to the TDs by whistleblowing members of the Irish police force.
Clare Daly herself had resigned from the Socialist Party (and re-designated herself as a ULA TD) some months ago citing the Socialist Party’s lack of enthusiasm towards building the ULA.
While both sides on Daly’s resignation were technically correct, the respective positions fall short of offering a clear picture as to her dramatic move away from the SP leadership, something neither side has elaborated on.
The highly personalised split was something the already weakened ULA was not ready for.
The SP cited a weakness on the part of the independents in the ULA and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in tackling Clare Daly on the issue of her alliance with Mick Wallace, quickly forgetting that it was the Socialist Party (while Clare Daly was still a party member) who prevented the ULA taking a clear position when the scandal first broke the previous April. Socialist Party representatives on the steering committee vetoed the motion for the ULA to call for Wallace’s resignation, which had been proposed by the independents and supported by all other the other factions.
Rightly or wrongly, independents in the ULA found the SP’s sudden obsession towards Daly and Wallace’s relationship many months after the initial scandal to be more about politically attacking the ex-SP TD than anything else.
A particularly ham-fisted “us or her” attempt by the SP to ambush Daly at a delegate council meeting before Christmas failed to win any support, and probably finished the SP’s participation. The fact that Clare Daly’s profile rose immeasurably over her (and Wallace’s) earlier stance on abortion, catapulting her into the headlines after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar (a woman living in Galway who was refused a termination and later died), didn’t help matters, leaving no time for things to settle between the parties.
The second reason given by the SP leadership for the failure of the ULA was the objective political and social conditions. Although Ireland is in the throes of a devastating recession political consciousness and struggle remains at relatively low ebb. Due to these factors, according to the SP, the ULA didn’t attract sufficient numbers to be a viable project.
There may be some basis to this claim, though there is an underlying assumption that uniting already existing left forces would not be a positive factor in itself.
For the independents in the ULA the objective conditions are not the only factor in this narrative, the subjective factor -- that is the leadership shown by the component parts -- is also of importance. While being applauded for the initial initiative the two major factions in the alliance, the SWP and SP, have come under some criticism. It is felt by many that the SP was conservative when it came to developing the alliance. The SP rank and file membership never really engaged with the ULA as individuals, nor took part in its activities; the SP was represented in the steering committee by leadership members with little or no involvement in political discussion by the rank and file SP membership. From early on only full-time party workers and party officers attended ULA-related activities or meetings. Even this low level was reduced well over a year ago (and long before the SP-Daly split) when the SP pulled back from any ULA activity outside of parliamentary work.
Around that time (January 2012) the SP’s general secretary Kevin McLoughlin wrote an article proclaiming that the ULA is not a workers’ party, “nor is it likely to just become the new party at some future date” (“What next for the United Left Alliance”, January 17, 2012), dealing a severe political blow to the project and indeed begging the question then, why would anyone join at all?
On the streets and in protests the ULA never had any profile as the two main components, the SWP and SP, continued to exclusively organise and recruit separately, on one occasion the two groups even managed to organise a meeting on education cuts (following a teachers’ protest) in the same hotel and at the same time where a single ULA meeting would have made sense.
In the Dail the TD’s never gelled and acted more as a number of independent politicians, sometimes collaborating but more often not. The lack of strategy by the TDs was apparent from early on, especially between the SP and SWP TDs.
Of course the SP was not the only component that has come under criticism. The SWP launched a front organisation, “Enough!”, within weeks of the 2011 election (in which the ULA had won five parliamentary seats). Early into 2012 the SWP then went on the re-launch the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) as a direct rival to the ULA .
Many cynics at the beginning of the process maintained that the SP and SWP would not be able to work together after decades of intense rivalry. Unfortunately, as the SP rank and file didn’t engage with the ULA, sectarian barriers were not broken down. A more nuanced view might be that the SWP viewed the alliance as a “popular front” to recruit from, while the SP viewed it as solely an electoral alliance, neither wanting the ULA as such to develop into a party as such.
Another view is that while the components were serious about the initiative, they were so at different times, while another is that the Irish left was not ready for the alliance, and that the ULA had won TD positions too early into the alliance and had no strategy of what to do with them. On social media there are arguments between SP members who said they never wanted the ULA to develop into a party, and independents who feel that the SP at best was ambiguous in the early recruitment drive and around elections. Certainly, Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins gave many speeches in the early days of the ULA which suggested very clearly the development towards a party.
The SP position may well be correct that the objective conditions were not available. On the other hand there is the prospect of a self-fulfilling prophecy of a leadership who was not quite ready to share political power.
On a more positive note, the SP leadership believes that the current campaign against the home and water tax (CAWHT) has the potential to become a mass radical campaign and could form the basis for a new working-class party. Critics have pointed to the obvious inconsistency in that while that the SP believes the objective conditions are impossible for the ULA, the same objective conditions are favourable to a new formation on a much lower political level. The SP thus far has not dealt with this critique.
There is also no guarantee that the kind of problems that beset the ULA will not reappear and that the SP and SWP will be able to overcome their decades of competition. Nor any guarantee that single-issue election candidates or indeed membership will favour the building of a mass left workers’ party. The campaign is further complicated by new laws which allow the Irish revenue to collect the tax payment directly from wages (replacing the voluntary tax, which was successfully boycotted by the campaign). However, at the moment, it is the only serious national resistance to austerity policies.
The future of the ULA is uncertain at best – the basic notion of even non-aggression has already collapsed as the SWP, in a highly sectarian manner, is targeting ULA TD Joan Collins’ seat, and the SP is also said to be planning to run a candidate against Clare Daly. While the SP challenge will probably have little effect on Daly, and it has made no formal decision, the SWP is running a serious candidate who could easily split the vote and lose the seat.
The remaining independent (ie non-SP/SWP) ULA members are due to meet with TDs Clare Daly and Joan Collins to discuss a way forward on February 2, but it is unlikely that Collins and the SWP could remain in any form of alliance with the SWP threat hanging over her. Whether ULA independents are ready to continue in the husk of the ULA is an open question.
One of the positives of the ULA experiment has been the coming together of a wide layer of left independents and every effort must be made to keep this network together in some form or other. If it is the case that the SP and SWP lack either the drive or the innate ability to build a new workers’ party it may be time that attempts are made in that direction by the independents.
[Henry Silke is an independent member of the United Left Alliance. He is the conveyor of the ULA Dublin Central branch and was a member of the SP from 1998-2012.]
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Statement of the remaining United Left Alliance TDs
United Left Alliance
January 27, 2013
The United Left Alliance regrets the decision taken by Joe Higgins TD and the Socialist Party to leave the Alliance. We believe that they have made a serious mistake. The need for a new, broad and inclusive left, which will not on principle enter right wing governments with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail is today more urgent than ever.
Faced with a massive attack on jobs, pay, pensions, working conditions, welfare payments and entitlements, health and education and other essential social services, working people need an independent and radical political movement which will seek to represent them, help organise them, and above all, fight on their behalf.
The ULA was formed with the intention to bring together existing left groups along with individual members to help lay the basis over time to enable a new party of the left to come into existence. It was inevitable that there would be difficulties in bringing together groups who have had a long period of independent activity and indeed rivalry.
We believe it is necessary to work to overcome such problems and to create the conditions in which the ULA can achieve its undoubted potential.
It is unfortunate that the Socialist Party feels it necessary to create or exaggerate political differences to justify their action in leaving the Alliance. In reality their decision reflects an inability to put the urgent task of building a broader movement to more effectively represent working people before the narrow interests of their own small grouping.
Richard Boyd Barrett TD. Clare Daly TD. Joan Collins TD.