Ireland: a socialist in parliament

Wednesday, July 30, 1997

intro = Ireland's first Socialist Party TD [MP], Joe Higgins, took his seat in the Dail [parliament] at the end of June. The following interview with Higgins is reprinted from the British Socialist.

Question: What is your own political background?

I've been an active socialist for almost 25 years. I was a member of the Militant group within the Irish Labour Party and battled throughout most of the 1970s and '80s to bring Labour back to its socialist roots — it was founded by James Connolly and James Larkin. Now it's nothing more than a career machine for right-wing politicians.

I was expelled from the Labour Party in 1989. Since then I've been involved with Militant Labour, which last autumn was relaunched as the Socialist Party. I've also been involved in a whole series of community-based campaigns.

Question: Can you describe some of these campaigns?

They included campaigns against the threatened closure of a local hospital and the destruction of the green belt in Dublin West.

I've also been involved in campaigns on heroin abuse — supporting the mobilisation of communities to stop hard drug dealing in their areas, and demanding recovery and after-care programs to help rehabilitate heroin addicts.

The Socialist Party was also heavily involved in the campaign against water charges. I was the chair of the Dublin Federation of Anti-Water Charge Campaigners.

Question: Were water charges a major election issue?

It has been an explosive political issue in Dublin since the charges were introduced in 1994. Just before the water charges were introduced, the government had granted an amnesty to super-rich individuals and companies who had been caught fiddling taxes. £500 million in unpaid tax was simply written off. This inflamed the sense of injustice against water charges.

This led to one of the biggest community movements seen in Dublin for decades, which the federation coordinated. It included a boycott of the water bills, protests and pickets as well as a legal strategy.

Faced with this mass movement, the government backed down last December and announced the abolition of the charges. But people recognised the role that the Socialist Party had played in defeating the charges.

Question: Most people won't have heard of the Socialist Party in Ireland. Tell us a little bit about it.

The Socialist Party was only founded last autumn, mainly by members of Militant Labour in Ireland. It was formed to promote a genuine socialist alternative to free-market capitalism.

In the general election we stood five candidates in Dublin. As well as my own success, we came very close to winning a seat in Dublin North, where our candidate Clare Daly took 3000 first preference votes. And in Dublin South West our candidate took over 2000 first preference votes. In the other two seats, we achieved respectable results, even though these areas were not affected by the water charges.

Question: The press here refer to Southern Ireland as the new miracle economy of Europe — the so-called Celtic Tiger. How come then that a socialist party dedicated to the dismantling of free-market capitalism can make such an impact?

Certainly, there has been a real growth in the economy in the past few years based partly on inward investment by the multinationals. But the idea of a Celtic Tiger is an exaggeration.

In a recent opinion poll, nearly 70% of people surveyed said that they felt no personal benefit from this boom.

There are 250,000 people on the dole, 12-13% of the work force. Large areas in the cities are neglected and suffer serious deprivation. The boom has benefited some people but many more have been left behind.

In any case, the economic growth has largely been fuelled by big transfers of money from the European Union. This will end in two years' time.

Question: So what are you going to do now as a TD?

My first act will be to vote against all the nominees from the right-wing parties for the post of taoiseach [prime minister]. I will be saying that working-class people should have no confidence in these people.

One of my election pledges was to live on an average worker's wage, so we need to work out what we are going to do with the surplus.

And of course, I'll be attempting to use this position to extend and deepen the influence of socialism across Dublin and throughout Ireland as a whole, north and south.

We also see this victory as an opportunity for the left to make a new beginning. The Labour Party lost half its seats. The other ex-left party, Democratic Left, also took a pounding because of its involvement in the coalition government. It went down from six seats to four.

We have the aim of constructing a new left in Ireland. We will of course continue to build our own organisation, the Socialist Party.

But we are building links with other socialists and community and trade union activists.

In the general election we worked closely with two other anti-water charge activists — one in Cork, who got just under 1000 votes, and Seamus Healey in Tipperary, who took 4000 first preference votes and came within 150 votes of being elected.

The basis is certainly there for cooperation with other forces; how it develops in the long term, we'll have to wait and see.