Ireland: United left debates way forward

July 23, 2011

Ireland’s seven-month-old United Left Alliance (ULA) is the “new kid on the block” of European anti-capitalist parties.

Launched in November last year, it won five TDs (members of the Irish parliament, the Dail) in February elections, despite its name not appearing on the ballot paper.

To date the ULA has also won 20 positions in local councils and one seat in the European parliament.

In the Dail, the ULA TDs have already had successes, such as stopping the abolition of the Joint Labour Committees that set wages and conditions in some industries.

However, the party still has many challenges ahead of it in program, party structures and decision-making processes, and in communication with potential supporters.

For now, the ULA is led by a committee representing the founding organisations — the Socialist Party (SP), Socialist Workers Party (SWP), People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) and the Tipperary-based Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) — and decisions there are taken by consensus.

The challenges facing the ULA were discussed at its first national public forum, held on June 25 in Liberty Hall, Dublin.

The forum, which did not make formal decisions, attracted attendance from well beyond the established left. Up to 400 people took part from across Ireland.

The electoral success of the ULA has grown straight from the rage at the Interational Monetary Fund-European Union “bailout package”, negotiated last year by the former Fianna Fail and Greens government.

Workers, the unemployed and young people are being made to pay the huge gambling debts of the bankers, financial engineers and real estate speculators who ruled the Irish economic roost before the 2008 property and banking crash.

By 2014, total public and private debt of Irish institutions will reach €200 billion, threatening state bankruptcy.

Under the EU-IMF program, the Irish state will fork out €13.6 billion in interest payments alone to the EU, European member states and the IMF.

It has the potential to cause the break-up of the two-party system that arose out of the independence struggles of the 1920s.

In the February poll, Fianna Fail — which had been in government for 61 of the last 79 years — lost 58 of its 78 seats.

Its traditional rival, Fine Gael, now in government with the Labour Party as junior partner, is dutifully implementing the IMF-EU package.

This flip-flop opens the way for Fine Gael to repeat Fianna Fail’s fate.

The Fine Gael-Labour government presides over a depressed, shrunken economy choking on debt.

In real terms, Irish income per capita (gross national product) was 14.7% lower in 2010 than in 2007 and personal consumption 8.6% lower.

Investment was down a massive 51.9%, yet public spending, which would normally have been boosted to offset the capitalists’ aversion to invest, also fell by 7.7%.

The Irish state “couldn’t afford” to fund an anti-recession program because it had taken over the debts of the financial sector and wasn’t willing to fill its yawning budget deficit by taxing the rich.

As a result, since 2007 official unemployment has climbed from 4.5% to 14.2%. Up to 50,000 families are thought to be in danger of losing their homes.

The forum confronted the challenges created by this crisis and the political radicalisation it is creating. This was also reflected in a sharply increased vote at the February election for Sinn Fein — for years a marginal force in the Irish Republic).

Workshop sessions covered various struggles, ULA policy and strategy, such as how to relate to the left in Northern Ireland and the retreating Irish union movement.

In “The left response to the crisis” plenary, radical economist Terrence McDonough outlined a five-point strategy to kick-start the economy.

His points were: default on Irish public debt; regain control over monetary policy by leaving the euro and creating a new Irish currency; launch a public bank to reorganise the banking system; provide a jobs guarantee; and nationalise the Corrib gas project (off the north-west coast).

People asked: wouldn’t a new currency rapidly devalue against others, simultaneously devaluing workers' savings? Wouldn’t the bondholders and the international financial institutions look to punish Ireland for defaulting?

McDonough answered that once a national currency had been restored, Ireland could pursue polices to inflate the economy.

As for holders of Irish debt, defaulting would strengthen Ireland’s hand in any subsequent negotiations — would holders of Irish bonds want something back or nothing?

The creation of a public bank would, when combined with a deposit guarantee, allow costly state support for private banks to be withdrawn and deposits transferred out of them.

Some private banks might go broke, but people’s savings would be safe. Nationalising Corrib would make Ireland energy self-sufficient.

McDonough agreed his proposals were “far from socialism”, but would allow unemployment to be tackled, break with austerity and allow Irish people to take their fate into their own hands.

McDonough’s presentation opened the lid on the dominant debate of the forum — should the ULA's program be explicitly socialist?

Driven by the different perspectives of the SWP and SP, this discussion ran through the whole day.

For SP leader Kevin McLoughlin, the ULA had to propose public ownership as the alternative.

Its program should have workers' control of the economy at its centre and be explicitly socialist.

Kieran Allen, from the SWP, analysed the “investment strike” of Irish capitalism, placed the possibilities for resistance in the context of the Arab revolutions and the mass anti-austerity protests in southern Europe, and ended by saying that the ULA had to look to anti-capitalism for its program.

Its socialism didn’t have to be explicit — it could be explained as the vision behind immediate demands.

One SP member argued, however, that “we have to talk about socialism to break people away from commitment to capitalism”.

For SWPer Mary Smith, putting “socialism” on the ULA banner meant limiting its potential appeal to those who already identify as socialists. Yet, Smith said, the ULA’s main job is to get people of very different affiliations into action around the concrete issues that affect them.

McLoughlin, however, said the SP’s election campaigns had successfully linked concrete proposals to the need to change society.

This had been no impediment to getting two TDs elected as part of the ULA election campaign.

In the afternoon plenary on “What kind of party do we need?”, long-standing Sligo councillor Declan Bree, who left the Labour Party in 2007 over its pre-election alliance with Fine Gael, argued that the ULA had a huge opportunity to grow as the party of “industrial, social and community action”.

He called for an explicitly socialist party, stressing that “a democratic, participatory structure is vital”.

Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins said: “Yes to reformist demands, but these demands, to be consistent, must be led into the need for a socialist alternative.”

Higgins also called for clear opposition to entering coalition governments with capitalist parties and for a “rigorous and honest appraisal” of their role.

He contrasted Sinn Fein’s anti-austerity stance in the Irish Republic to its role in implementing austerity as part of the Northern Ireland government.

In the same vein, he critcised the SWP’s call for the ULA to invite Labour Party representatives onto campaign platforms: this should only happen if they have clearly shown they have broken with the government’s attacks.

TD Richard Boyd Barrett (SWP and PBPA) argued for stressing the “90-95% that unites us” rather than differences.

He agreed with the aim of socialist transformation of society, but disagreed with using the term “socialism”, calling for a “war on jargon”.

Barrett’s said the ULA was not big enough and needed to win over people who wanted to resist, but “who are not used to the same tradition and language as we on the left are”.

TD Seamus Healy (WUAG) spoke about his group’s campaigns in defence of working people. He emphasised the need to create the ULA as a truly national organisation, including the six counties of Northern Ireland.

Declan Bree’s arguments for building the ULA as a campaigning organisation got strong support in discussion.

PBPA leader Eddie Conlon emphasised building ULA branches and said the steering committee should develop a proposal for democratic structures.

He also posed “the parties” the challenging question as to how much energy and resources they were prepared to channel into building up the ULA. Did they now see their main job as building the ULA?

Dermot Connolly (PBPA) stressed the need to build a ULA culture and trust between organisations. This could only develop on the basis of agreed campaign priorities, one of which had to be the next local elections.

Connolly said the ULA should aim to double its number of councillors, build 40-50 branches, establish a communications network and hold regular forums and establish rank-and-file control.

In their summaries, all speakers agreed on the need to build the ULA’s leadership structures and improve accountability.

Barrett spoke in favour of a leadership body made up of branch delegates. Higgins suggested that non-aligned members be given representation on the steering committee.

The forum ended on a note of optimism. Many differences exist and some entrenched competition between the SWP and SP will not be overcome overnight.

The hope must be that a growing ULA and some successful joint campaigning in the struggle against austerity will put such differences in a new perspective; that the vital discussion over whether and how to pose a socialist objective for the ULA takes place among a growing activist membership; and that this and other issues are decided at a representative founding conference.

A successful and growing ULA would be an important boost for the anti-capitalist struggle across all Europe.

[Dick Nichols is  from the Green Left Weekly Europe bureau. A longer version of this article, and articles on the forum and its debates by the SWP and SP, can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal,]

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