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Ireland: What’s left after the ULA?
Happier days before the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party abandoned the ULA.
By Henry Silke, Dublin
April 29, 2013 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- This brief report intends to outline the situation within the Irish left following the slow implosion of the United Left Alliance (ULA).
The ULA was an alliance made up of the Socialist Party (affiliated to the Committee for a Workers’ International, CWI), the Socialist Workers Party (the International Socialist Tendency, IST), the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG, a locally based group with public representation including a member of Ireland’s parliament [TD] and numerous municipal councillors). It also included smaller groups such as the Irish Socialist Network and Socialist Democracy.
The ULA was initially very successful by Irish left standards and won five TDs. Though, it should be understood most, if not all, of these victories did not come only from the unity project itself but from literally decades of work by the various groups.
However, seeing the left under a single banner with a serious electoral challenge did initially attract many activists to its banner.
The ULA unfortunately lasted less than two years and today exists in name only.
Slow death of the ULA
The initial excitement began to fade as activists found that they had little role in decision making, especially in the lack of voting rights in ULA conferences. This was improved quite quickly with the inclusion of independent seats on the steering committee, which allowed a so-called non-aligned group to organise (this included the smaller groups). Following this, a branch council was developed which offered a model for some democratic discourse and decision making. Unfortunately, the ULA was to disintegrate long before there was a chance to develop.
The disintegration of the ULA is quite a complex story, but in short the Socialist Party (SP) seemed to give up on the alliance quite early when they believed it was not attracting enough working-class people. The SP gave little importance to the non-affiliated activists it attracted nor to the benefits of unity in itself. Instead it turned its attention primarily to the anti-household tax campaign that had attracted a wider base, though on a less political level.
The SWP for its part gave up not long after and began to concentrate on building the People Before Profit Alliance as a preferred electoral front. Both parties seemed to be happy enough to keep the ULA as a loose electoral alliance for now, but their members ceased taking part in ULA activities and continued their normal competitive practice, organising separate campaigns, meetings and recruitment strategies.
The ULA therefore was in an extremely weak place when a scandal erupted around Mick Wallace, a left-leaning (on anti-war and social issues) property developer who was close to the Socialist Party’s Clare Daly and active in the anti-housing tax campaign. Wallace became embroiled in a major tax evasion scandal. The scandal eventually led to an acrimonious and personalised split between Daly and the Socialist Party (though Daly maintains the reasons for the split precede the Wallace scandal). This split then led on to the Socialist Party officially leaving the ULA.
The WUAG had previously left on the grounds of a leaked SWP document (which was a study in sectarianism) and the Wallace issue.
Independents had initially called on the ULA to call for Wallace’s resignation (this was vetoed by the SP) but also chose not to go public in deference to relations with the Socialist Party. This in retrospect was a mistake, as months later after the split with Daly the SP would cite softness on the issue by independents for its withdrawal.
Today the ULA exists in name only with no functioning structures at any level.
Coming out of the ULA there are a number of different projects. This is by no means an entire picture of the Irish left which, also includes the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement and numerous campaigns. But for the purpose of this article I will concentrate on the ex-ULA left.
Workers and Unemployed Action
The South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group has registered as a national party under the name Workers and Unemployed Action (WUA). In its opening statement it states:
The WUA like its local predecessor is firmly based in the trade union movement, in the unemployed, and in community organisations and has always opposed coalition with conservative parties in principle and will continue to do so. WUAG has always taken responsibility for the immediate and long-term interests of working people and has refused to involve itself in any way with political representatives who are self-declared tax defaulters or who have admitted participation in compromising activities.
Other left-wing organisations give priority to recruitment of individuals to ideologically based international political tendencies.
The WUA has quite strict rules for membership, it will be centrally organised and thus far will not allow tendencies. It was launched in April 2013 and thus far has not begun organising nationally.
Socialist Workers’ Party
The Socialist Workers Party will continue to act under the People Before Profit Alliance umbrella, although the PBPA has already lost its independent TD and many of the independents within the organisation which means it will be seen by most on the left as an SWP front organisation (see below). The People Before Profit Alliance has been preparing the ground well for the local elections in 2014. The Irish SWP seems not to have been badly affected by the UK SWP’s split.
The Socialist Party has been mainly focused around the anti-household tax campaign. This campaign was very successful last year in organising a major boycott of the tax and its registration. As a voluntary registration process, it allowed for mass passive (as well as active) disobedience. Unfortunately the campaign’s plan to continue the boycott strategy by clogging up the states courts was outmanoeuvred when the state gave powers to the revenue commissioners to collect the tax directly from people’s pay.
The campaign is persisting with the boycott but it has been less than convincing on how that it can be achieved. The first payment is due this northern summer so the situation will become acute for the campaign in a short time. In its latest the campaign conference held on April 27, it decided to offer an electoral alternative in the 2014 municipal elections. It is yet too early to tell whether the slate will entail new forces or the already existing left. (The conference was controversial with some local groups boycotting and others unhappy with the procedures.)
From within the ULA two of the TDs: Joan Collins and Clare Daly, along with the remaining independent activists, have established the United Left. The UL will launch on May 10 with the stated aim of campaigning for a new workers’ party as soon as possible. Again it is too early to see how this project will develop, if it will new attract layers of activists and workers and indeed what its political direction may be.
Another initiative, entitled the Left Forum, involving ULA independents and some others from outside the ULA is intended as a process to begin to bring the left together. It is somewhat different in that it has no set blueprint in advance but intends to develop the process through participation. It also hopes to involve both electoralist and non-electoralist activists. The first meeting will be on May 18. The Left Forum callout states:
We have had five years of crisis, five years where no alternative has been able to win support despite the obvious failures of the current political and economic regime, with serious human and environmental consequences.
Can we do better? Can the Left win widespread support for our ideas and build an alternative society? Can we make socialism more than a nice idea? The Left Forum invites you to contribute your views on the state of progressive politics and to discuss how we can do better. The forum will be participatory and exploratory, and will aim to ask and answer key questions about what levels of political agreement are possible, what forms of organisation are useful and what tactics and strategies will be effective.
The Left Forum does not see itself as a rival organisation to any other but hopes to help facilitate left unity. It is of interest as it is a conference that has been organised by independents rather than any of the political parties or groups. Again, of course, it is far too early to see where this process will go.
An article on the Left Forum can be found here: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2013/04/22/left-forum/
1913 Unfinished Business
Another interesting non-party project is 1913 Unfinished Business, which relates to the great lockout of 1913. The campaign is made up of predominately young workers (some ex-ULA) and is campaigning on trade union issues such as precarious working conditions and economic emigration. See http://www.irishleftreview.org/2013/04/23/unfinished-business-1913-youth-bloc-leaving-public-meeting-monday-april-29th-7pm-wynns-hotel/
As can been seen above much of what is coming out of the old ULA is very, very new, some groups have yet to be publically launched or even hold their first meetings. Therefore it cannot be said how things will pan out; the only thing that can be said is that there is a left re-alignment taking place whose outcome is far from certain.
On the objective or material side of the equation, the trade union membership in large numbers have rejected the latest pay and work conditions deal and unions are balloting for strike action. Already the three major teacher unions are balloting together with more set to follow.
At the same time the unemployment, emigration and mortgage crises are unresolved and cracks are beginning to appear in the state’s ideological edifice. The state will face many crises in the future and we can only hope that we are beginning to see a redevelopment of the left rather than simply evidence of further fragmentation.
Socialist Party: http://www.socialistparty.net/
Left Forum: http://leftforum.net/
Socialist Workers Party: http://www.swp.ie/