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:
central bank revises the cost of the Anglo-Irish bailout at up to €34
billion bringing the overall banks’ bailout to €45-50 billion;
deficit to be closed jumps from €7 billion to €15 billion, and this to be
done by 2014;
€15 billion to be frontloaded with €6 billion taken out in the December
budget and mostly through cuts;
markets push interest rates on Irish debt to over 9%;
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;
four-year plan for the €15 billion includes a reduction in the national
minimum wage and an 11% cut in social welfare;
is widely spoken of;
€85 billion bailout entails use of the national pension reserve fund and
the cash reserves, these Irish funds going mainly to the banks;
rate of up to 5.8% makes the bailout a rip-off;
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...”
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”. 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.
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, 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
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
The Socialist Party made its announcement on, appropriately
enough, Armistice Day, November 11. 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.
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, some
masterful stenographic minutes from Emmett Farrell on Indymedia and a
very visual report on the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) site. For
many reasons – not least its long delay in arriving – the ULA has arrived in
the nick of time:
- an imminent
- 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
- 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
- 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
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, the
bailout and the
memorandum of understanding, which
outsavaged An Bórd Snip Nua. Then the budget which activated all this. 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”, a
seven-point program of the ULA was agreed during the negotiations, and a pledge, 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,
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
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, 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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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
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
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
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.
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 –
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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).
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
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,
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
On December 6, the Irish Times carried a roundup of the many and varied protests
planned for budget day at the Dáil
and the Cedar Lounge Revolution blog outlined
the several newborn political parties.
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.
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
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.”
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
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
“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”.
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
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
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.
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
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,
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”
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.
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.
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
[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), http://marxsite.com/leninismdebates.htm.
Pamphlet: Alex Callinicos, The Anti-Capitalist
Movement and the Revolutionary Left (SWP, March 2001) http://www.marxists.de/intsoctend/callinicos/isodoc.htm.
Journal: Links International
Journal of Socialist Renewal
(Australia, no. 23, January-April 2003), http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/8.
Contains a compilation of then recent articles debating left unity.
Socialism (issue 97, December 2002). Contains some of the articles
in Links 23 above,
Socialism (issue 100, September 2003), http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=5&issue=100.
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) http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/6.
Blog posting: “Phalanxes Are Bad”, by Phil Hearse (November
Blog posting: Murray Smith, “The Radical Left in Europe”, Socialist Unity blog http://socialistunity.blogspot.com/,
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, http://liammacuaid.wordpress.com/2008/12/18/what-kind-of-new-organisation-do-we-need/,
December 18, 2008.
Blog posting: Louis Proyect ,“Putting the ‘Russian questions’ on the back burner”, The
Unrepentant Marxist blog, http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/,
November 21, 2009.
Journal and internet article: David
organisation and its relationship to building a broad left party” International
Viewpoint, January 2008, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1416&var_recherche=David%20packer.
An example of the case from the other side would be the following piece from
Louis Proyect: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/from-the-lcr-to-the-npa/.
Journal debate: International
Socialism, no. 120, October 2008, Alex Callinicos, “Where is the radical left going?” http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=484&issue=1202.
International Socialism, no. 121, January 2009, François
Sabado, “Building the New Anti-capitalist Party”, http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=512&issue=121.
Alternative versions of these two articles can be found in International Viewpoint, November
Article: Daniel Bensaid, “Notes on recent developments in the European
radical left”, International Viewpoint, December 2009, http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article1785.
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, http://links.org.au/node/1407.
Article: One of Chris Harman's last short pieces, on
the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France: http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/2009/09/npa.htm.
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,
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, http://www.tusc.org.uk/. Largely a
Socialist Party initiative, Bob Crowe is a supporter, but no trade unions as
such are involved. The SWP has joined.
 Contat, M. & Rybalka, M.A., The Writings of Jean-Paul Sartre,
Northwestern University Press, 1974.
 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.
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.
 Hey, this is a reference to peace, not a dig at the SP's
hostility to republicanism!
 Irish Times, Thursday,
November 18, 2010.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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
 The editor of the
Left Bloc newspaper, Mariana Carneiro, is speaking at a PBPA public meeting on
Europe and the
economic crisis on December 15 in the Unite Hall, Abbey Street, Dublin.
 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.
 Joe Higgins, ULA press launch, November 25; Irish Times, November 26, 2010.
 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
 “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, http://www.siptu.ie/PressRoom/NewsReleases/2010/Name,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, http://www.siptu.ie/PressRoom/NewsReleases/2010/Name,11960,en.html.
 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.
 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: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/1206/1224284847867.html.
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: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xg0fr9_united-left-alliance-rally-dublin-budget-day-protest_news.
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.
 http://paddyhealy.wordpress.com/ 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.” http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/the-polls-volatile%E2%80%A6-too-volatile/#comments
See also Helena Sheehan, http://www.facebook.com/hsheehan.
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
The prospect of a “left” government had reached the Sunday Independent by December 5, as a
portent of ruin of course:
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.”
 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.” http://debates.oireachtas.ie/dail/2010/11/30/00019.asp#N96
 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.” http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2010/1208/1224285024338.html
 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