Ireland: Call for new left force gathers steam

February 6, 2015
Protest against water charges. Dublin, December 2014.

Leading trade unionists, Irish republican party Sinn Fein and a range of other left voices have backed a call for a new anti-austerity force in Irish politics capable of winning government.

In the wake of SYRIZA’s historic win in the Greek elections on January 25, Sinn Fein national chairperson, Declan Kearney, called for formal discussions to begin on building an Irish left coalition to cohere an anti-austerity government in the South.

Writing in the February edition of republican newspaper An Phoblacht, Kearney called on the left to take advantage of widespread anger at crippling austerity measures to build a credible left-wing alternative in Ireland's southern state.

“[F]ormal political discussion should commence in Ireland on how to forge consensus between Sinn Fein, progressive independents, the trade union movement, grassroots communities, and the non-sectarian Left,” Kearney said.

“This is the time for serious political discussion among progressive Irish political, community and trade union activists on the ideas and strategies which will ensure the future election of a Left coalition in the South dedicated to establishing a new national Republic.

“It is the only way forward.”

Broad discussions

Kearney’s article was the latest in an ongoing discussion in An Phoblacht titled “Building an Alternative”. It has featured contributions from trade union leaders, the Communist Party of Ireland independent MEP Nessa Childers, the Left Forum and Sinn Fein.

The Left Forum emerged out of the collapse of the United Left Alliance, which was originally formed as a united electoral ticket of socialist groups and non-aligned left activists for the 2011 elections.

Writing in the same edition as Kearney, Left Forum chair Dr Helena Sheehan outlined her desire for a new party of the left “converging with forces stemming from the republican tradition in an alliance with Sinn Fein that might eventually form the basis of a Left government”.

Jack O’Connor, president of Ireland’s largest trade union, the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), backed calls for greater collaboration in his January 31 speech to the annual commemoration of Irish trade union leader and socialist James Larkin.

Arguing that SYRIZA’s victory in Greece signalled “the end of the nightmare of the one-sided austerity experiment” that threatens “the democratic system itself”, O’Connor said the Irish trade union movement was “back on the offensive”.

O’Connor called on social democrats, left-wing republicans and independent socialists to develop a common political platform with the aim of winning the next election and forming Ireland’s first left-of-centre government.

For his part, People Before Profit TD (member of Ireland's parliament, the Dail) and Socialist Workers Party member Richard Boyd Barrett said on February 4 that “potential in Ireland for a Syriza like movement” was “very strong”.

The Sunday Times reported on February 1 that negotiations between Sinn Fein, trade unions, left-wing parties and independent TDs on creating a common platform have been underway for at least two months.

Politics in turmoil

This new initiative for left regroupment comes as politics in the southern Ireland are in turmoil after years of austerity.

One of the countries hardest hit by the European banking crisis, the Irish economy was ruthlessly pillaged. The country was made to pay more than 40% of the European banking debt.

Ireland was then “bailed out” courtesy of loans from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. These loans, however, came on condition of imposing austerity measures on Irish workers and the poor.

As a result, public services have been cut across the board in Ireland and the official unemployment rate has soared into double figures. New taxes have been introduced that disproportionately target the poor, while tax loopholes for multinationals have largely been maintained.

One of the most hated new taxes is the Universal Social Charge, which was introduced by the previous Fianna Fail government in 2011 on incomes over just €4004 a year. The threshold has now been raised to €12,012, but the tax is still reviled as unjust and punitive.

Another hated tax is the Local Property Tax, applied to all residential properties since 2013.

Despite worsening social conditions, however, Ireland has not been hit by the scale of social unrest seen in other European countries, such as Spain or Greece.

This partly due to large-scale migration acting as a pressure valve, lowering demand for jobs and services. A staggering 10% of the population — mostly young families and skilled workers — have emigrated in search of work and a better lifestyle abroad.

Water charges

Over the past year, however, the situation has changed markedly. The introduction of new water charges has brought years of simmering discontent to a head.

The cost of water is already included in general tax revenue, so the new charge is widely seen as a case of being slugged twice for a basic human right. Also feeding popular anger is the fact there are still towns in Ireland without safe drinking water.

From the outset, the new state-run corporation set-up to administer the charge — Irish Water — was beset by claims of cronyism and financial waste. Its corporate structure is also viewed as paving the way for its future privatisation.

A grassroots campaign quickly grew calling for a boycott of the charges. Small local protests and pickets rapidly grew into a huge national movement, now largely coordinated by the Right2Water campaign.

In October, November and December, hundreds of thousands marched against the water charge, insisting: “can’t pay, won't pay”. Tens of thousands more took to the streets across Ireland on January 31 — including up to 30,000 in Dublin.

In the face of this huge social disobedience, the government was forced to put back the start date for the charges. It also capped the charges and offered a €100 “rebate” to bribe people into acquiescence.

Nonetheless, by February 2, the most recent “deadline” for registering with Irish Water, less than half the households in the country had been registered — and many had been registered against their will.

The waste of public funds on Irish Water came under further scrutiny on February 4, when it was revealed that up to €2 billion in public funds was being given to the corporation by the government. This included significant proportions of revenues from the Property Tax and the Road Tax.

Support grows for Sinn Fein, independents

Unsurprisingly, support for the ruling parties has slipped, with recent polls putting Fine Gael on around 24% support, while their partners the Labour Party have slumped to round 7%.

The main beneficiaries of the public’s anger and disillusionment have been Sinn Fein and a range independents whose politics fall across the spectrum.

In European elections last May, Sinn Fein ran on an anti-austerity program and had an MEP elected from every part of Ireland. It became the only party representing both northern and southern Ireland in the European parliament.

In October, Paul Murphy was elected to the Dail in a Dublin by-election running for the Socialist Party-aligned Anti-Austerity Alliance.

In November, Sinn Fein polled as high as 26%, making it the most popular party on both sides of the border. In the same poll, independents received about 30%.

However, 47% of those polled supported the idea of an entirely new political party, although it was unclear with what kind of politics.

Some independent TDs have begun the process of forming new political parties — mostly of the right and centre-right. But there still remains a large space unoccupied on the left in Irish politics.

Left unity

With the next general election due to be held by April 2016, the question is now what form of left unity is possible and who will be involved.

Attempts have been made in recent years to cohere parts of the Irish left into an effective political force, but have been largely unsuccessful.

The most recent attempt at uniting the far left — ULA — brought together the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance and the Workers and Unemployed Action Group, along with many non-aligned socialists.

Formed in late 2010, the ULA initially won five seats in the Dail in the 2011 elections, but it fell apart in less than three years.

One initiative to come out of the ULA's failure was the Left Forum, intended to facilitate the process bringing the left together.

Writing in the Irish Left Review last June, Sheehan called for a new party of the left in Ireland, to the left of Sinn Fein and explicitly along the lines of SYRIZA.

The broader initiative proposed by Sinn Fein, however, while not precluding a new party of the far left, has the potential to reach across a much wider layer of the Irish left. It has the potential to involve trade unions, the Communist Party, socialists, progressives and left republicans in a looser coalition built around a common platform.

The SYRIZA victory has presented the Irish left with a unique opportunity to take the initiative back after decades of retreats. It offers a chance to create a new political constellation able to not just fight neoliberal austerity from opposition, but form a left government that could start to actually reverse it.

[Abridged from]

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