Northern Ireland: building a socialist alternative

Across Western Europe there is a debate on the left as to the best way to create or recreate new mass parties of the working class. The sharp move to the right of the social democratic and labour parties over the last 10-15 years, has put this issue firmly on the agenda. Trade union and community activists opposed to the attacks on the working class and young people involved in the anti-war and anti-globalisation movements have no political party.

In recent years, left formations have had some electoral success in a number of European countries. The Scottish Socialist Party won six seats in the last elections. In France, the "Trotskyist" parties LO and LCR, and in Italy the RC split off from the Italian Communist Party, win millions of votes. Left activists in other countries now hope to emulate these successes.

There have been echoes of this debate in the North in recent months. During the brief periods that the Assembly Executive existed the sectarian parties exposed their true role to a minority of the working class. Also the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements have had an effect in Northern Ireland. Of key importance is the developing break between the trade unions in Britain and New Labour, which will undoubtedly impact on the consciousness of trade union activists locally.

Left Unity

The Socialist Party believes that new mass parties of the working class can be built but small left forces making an unprincipled agreement to unite are incapable of willing and wishing these parties into existence. New working class political formations will come into existence as a result of working class struggles.

A debate on the way forward is certainly needed. In particular, we need to weigh up the mood in working class areas, the consciousness of the best activists and where and when it is possible to break through the seemingly unremitting sectarian gloom.

For some on the left, however, the debate is already over. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), rabidly hostile to the idea of socialists standing in elections for years, is now an enthusiastic proponent of the electoral approach. Where once the SWP were proud of their glorious isolation, they now preach the benefits of left unity to all. To the SWP, the key to the future is the unity of the left, or whoever on the left it can convince of its perspective.

It is this thinking that recently led the Derry Socialist Environmental Alliance (SEA) to decide to stand Eamon McCann in the forthcoming European elections. This decision was taken at a so-called "Convention of the Left" in Derry on 14 February. This meeting involved very little of the left and attracted almost nothing in the way of new people – it was in truth some of the "same old faces".

Fewer than 80 attended, and two-thirds of these were from Derry. Perhaps a dozen members of the IRSP walked out before the meeting ended. The organisers themselves described the turnout as "disappointing". There was no proper agenda available before the meeting and of course the decision to stand McCann had already effectively been taken by the SWP, the main component of the SEA. It appears there was little real debate. The meeting had more of the character of a rally, designed to coalesce a support team for McCann, and increase the credibility of any campaign outside Derry.

The conduct of the Convention of the Left is illustrative of a number of points. The method and approach of the SWP alienates rather than attracts. Grand sounding conventions are called with little reference to anyone else. Declarations of the need for left unity go hand in hand with underhand manoeuvring for position. Politics are effectively buried under an avalanche of appeals for unity at all costs. This approach is not the way forward for greater unity on the left let alone a signpost towards a future mass socialist party.

Time for Change

Whilst the SWP have been publicly and loudly demanding left unity, they have also been busily splitting from arguably the most successful manifestation of left unity in the North, the Time for Change grouping in the largest trade union NIPSA. The question of leadership in NIPSA is of vital importance, not just industrially, but also politically, if the trade union movement is to be roused from its slumber. A left majority in the biggest union in the North would have the potential to raise in a real way the need for political representation for the working class.

Previously, the SWP were involved in Time for Change but it chose the middle of the civil service dispute to announce the formation of a "rank and file network" (in typical SWP fashion without any explanation whatsoever). Whilst it will undoubtedly argue that the split is to the left of Time for Change, in fact it is a split to the right. During the dispute, the rank and file group’s material has been at best vague and at worst conservative.

They have offered no coherent alternative to the strategy of the right wing controlled Civil Service Executive, beyond occasionally repeating the old mantras about the need to "fight" and to "escalate". One result of this split was to cost the left a majority in the recent elections to the NIPSA executive council. Nine Time for Change candidates were elected, along with one independent left. Right wing candidates won 14 seats and an independent right candidate one. The SWP rank and file group stood four candidates but got none elected.

If the SWP had not split the left vote, then Time For Change would have won a majority. Two hundred more votes would have seen four more Time for Change candidates elected and, ironically, one of the SWP rank and file candidates would also have gained a seat. Such a victory would have been a genuine step forward for the working class at this crucial time.

Divisions on the left

A current, well rehearsed argument internationally is that the left agrees on 80% of most things, and only disagrees on 20%. The argument goes: "And if this is the case then there is little justification for division on the left. Can we not just agree to differ on the 20% and move forward united on the basis of the 80% all agree on? And once we all come together, our unity will propel the left forward and our base of support will expand and grow". Is this a credible argument?

This type of left unity does not mean open debate and honest disagreement. More often differences are buried and forgotten. Forgotten, that is, until events in the real world force these issues back on to the agenda. The Socialist Party is opposed to this political method which is dishonest and unprincipled.

In Northern Ireland the political differences between the various left organisations are of a fundamental character, and are usually associated with the national question in its various manifestations. In recent years differences on the national question have been most clearly expressed in attitudes to contentious Orange Order parades and conflict at sectarian interfaces and the so-called peace lines.

These issues cannot be buried and forgotten about – since the beginning of the so-called peace process issues like Drumcree have resulted in a major upsurge in sectarian conflict, even pointing in the direction of all out conflict.

What would happen to a left alliance that had no agreed position on contentious Orange Order parades during the course of a new Drumcree type crisis? Would it hold together or fall apart? Would it be capable of developing a credible, independent, class based position? Or would this be impossible because of the deep lines of division within the left? The reality is at such a time the differences would be unbridgeable and any such alliance which was based on hiding divisions hoping that they would just go away would be torn asunder.

The Socialist Party are in favour of the maximum unity of the left. However many of the differences between us are very real and cannot and should not be hidden. We cannot pass blithely over decades of division, pretending that fundamental political disagreements do not matter. The sectarian and left republican positions of the majority of the left (which tail-end Sinn Fein on these questions) on issues like Orange parades mean they are incapable of winning support amongst the working class. It would be impossible for the Socialist Party to form an alliance with the majority of the left in the North because of their current positions on these issues.

At times of increased sectarian tension the differences are stark. At other times there are also points of sharp disagreement that should not be glossed over. Our attitude to socialist democracy is a case in point. This is not simply an historical issue. The Workers Party for example have received support, and presumably funding, from the Stalinist dictatorship in North Korea until recent times (and perhaps still do).

There are also different views on the left as to the nature of the Cuban regime. In the view of the Socialist Party, Cuba is not a genuine workers’ democracy and a political revolution is necessary to establish such a democracy. We support the people of Cuba in their struggle against imperialism, but point out that the only way to ultimately safeguard the gains of the revolution is through a political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy which controls the country.

Several parties which claim to be socialist, and even Marxist, have armed wings, engage in criminal activities and carry out brutal punishment beatings and knee cappings in working class areas. Some have even been linked in recent years to murders of their own members or ex-members.

The Socialist Party has historically rejected the tactic of individual terrorism (or "armed struggle" in the parlance of those who prosecuted such campaigns in the North over the last 30 years). Individual terrorism is an elitist form of struggle, which sidelines the working class, reducing it to the role of passive spectator of those "leading" the "struggle". It is a false method of struggle which cannot hope to prevail over a modern capitalist state.

In the context of Northern Ireland, individual terrorism was based on support in one community only and completely alienated the other, and thus deepened the division of the working class. Individual terrorist organisations, even those who claimed and still claim to be Marxists, carried out sectarian murders of Protestants. These methods, which are counter-productive, and widen and deepened sectarianism cannot just be glossed over, hidden and forgotten about. Could any socialist alliance type formation which included those who carried out "armed struggle" campaigns, and who haven’t rejected this method of struggle seriously expect to win support or even get the "ear" of Protestant workers? No – they would literally be driven from the doorsteps.

The armed wings of these parties may be on ceasefire but they haven’t abandoned the tactic of "armed struggle". They still engage in illegal fundraising and carry out armed, and brutal, policing of the working class areas. So called punishment attacks do not empower working class people and in effect lays the blame for social problems and anti-social behaviour on to young people.

A left alliance would have to be based on open democratic debate and decision making. Some of those on the "left" use gangster methods, not just in relation to funding and punishment beatings, but also when it comes to political debate. Political disagreements are "settled" through violence. These methods are alien to the workers movement and can have no place in a broad based working class party.

Left Republicanism or Workers’ Unity?

There is a danger that, if the new alliance which the SWP are trying to create around Eamonn McCann did develop at all, it would do so as a left republican formation. This would not be a step towards the emergence of a genuine party of the working class. Rather, because it could hold no attraction for Protestant workers, it would reinforce the political division among the working class and make the task of building a political organisation capable of attracting support among both Catholic and Protestant workers more difficult.

The whole history of the left in Northern Ireland shows that any organisation which abandons, postpones, or relegates socialist ideas and a socialist programme invariably tends to bend into one or other sectarian camp. The SWP have turned to the right and have opportunistically abandoned socialism in order to achieve "broad" unity with non-socialist forces.

Instead of socialist ideas McCann’s literature says he is standing as a "left" and defines this as "anti-capitalist" and "anti -imperialist", but not socialist. The notion that "broad" unity can be achieved behind these general terms is nothing new in Northern Ireland.

This was the argument used by the right wing in the civil rights movement who attacked those, ironically like Eamon McCann, who argued for socialist and class ideas and rejected the general "broad" banner of "anti-unionist". Since then, the terms "anti-unionist" and "anti-imperialist" have been used by left groups as a cover for a broad Catholic alliance that has alienated Protestant workers.

The SWP have been part of this sorry history, supporting and advocating a vote for Sinn Fein up until the quite recent period, despite its sectarian nature and it‚s economic programme which, while it has become clearer, was fundamentally the same then as now.

The term "anti-imperialism", like "anti-unionist", if it is not put forward as part of a socialist programme, has a clear sectarian connotation in Northern Ireland. The "broad" unity this will attract will be unity of Catholic workers with Catholic sectarians who are not prepared to embrace socialist ideas.

This will particularly be the case if Eamon McCann uses arguments such as he used in an interview on The Blanket website during the Assembly elections: "All my political life I have wanted to see the Brits out as part of anti-imperialism. We no longer have a Brits-out party – it is now all down to an equality agenda and maximising representation within the existing constitutional arrangement."

The SWP’s motivation in dropping explicitly socialist demands is not necessarily to court the republican "left". It is to cosy up to non-socialists in the Moslem and immigrant communities, pandering to the ideas of Islam as they are doing in Britain. But the effect, in Northern Ireland, will most likely to drive them even more firmly into the camp of left republicanism. In so far as they create anything, it is unlikely to be a formation that the trade unions, genuine community organisations or community campaigns could have anything to do with.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party

There has been no mass independent working class political party in Northern Ireland since the demise of the NILP in the early 1970s. A generation has passed since then. There is thus little consciousness of the need for such a party.

The Socialist Party (and its predecessor Militant) have long campaigned for the creation of a new mass party to represent the independent interests of working people. In the early 1970s we worked to push the NILP to the left and in particular argued that it should take up issues of repression and discrimination in a resolute and class-based way. Furthermore we argued that the NILP could not deal with the national question by ignoring it but instead must pose a class based alternative to the sectarian parties on either side. Unfortunately the NILP moved to the right and collapsed within a few short years.

It is largely forgotten now just how successful the NILP was. In 1962, it gained 62,175 votes in Belfast compared to 67,350 for the Unionist candidates. This vote represented 26% of the votes cast. The total left vote was 32.8% if other small left parties are added. It won 105,759 votes in the 1970 general election, but by the 1973 Assembly elections this had all been squandered and the NILP gained only 18,675 votes.

Militant members and many others on the left at the time formed the Labour and Trade Union Coordinating Committee (later the Labour and Trade Union Group) to keep alive the idea of a mass party. In the late 1970’s and into the 1980s we campaigning vigorously for a Conference of Labour, involving trade unions, trade union branches, community groups and left groups in order to discuss the way forward for the working class.

These campaigns were not successful. The question is whether a new period is now opening up which will provide an opportunity to create a new mass party.

A new workers’ party in Britain

The question of a left alternative to New Labour in Britain is being hotly debated among wider and wider circles of activists. A number of years ago, the Socialist Party in England and Wales drew the conclusion that the Labour Party, by then re-christened New Labour, was no longer a party that represented working men and women, even in a distorted fashion. Moreover the opportunities to reclaim the Party were receding dramatically as the influence of the unions and the constituency parties was curtailed and the annual conference was neutered.

In the late 1990s the SP in England and Wales formed the Socialist Alliance (SA) with a number of other left groups, as a tentative first step in the direction of a new mass left party. Initially the SWP ignored the SA but they later steam-rolled their way into the Alliance, sought to dominate it by force of numbers and held that it was the alternative to New Labour. We argued that such an approach would ultimately destroy the Alliance and we have been proven correct. Political groupings and independents have peeled away one after the other and now the SWP is using its numbers to wind up the SA against the wishes of most of the non-SWP forces that are still there.

In England and Wales, the Socialist Party has had more electoral success than any other force on the left. It has five council seats, including three in Coventry, where the Socialist Party gained 15% of the vote across 40% of the city wards at the last council elections. A more favourable electoral system would deliver a parliamentary seat for the Socialist Party on a vote of this size. Despite the space that has opened up to the left of New Labour very few other left forces have shown any capability to make an electoral impact. The SA has won one council seat only, in Preston. This was partly through the intervention of a local mosque. This seat has not yet been successfully defended.

Scottish Socialist Party

Our sister organisation in Scotland currently works to build the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). It is important to note that the success of the SSP (six MSPs) was not an overnight phenomenon, and is certainly not based on the coming together of existing left wing parties alone. First and foremost it is based on solid campaigning work carried out over 15 years by Scottish Militant Labour (who led the anti-poll tax campaign) and the Scottish Socialist Alliance and is aided by an exceptionally favourable electoral system.

Scottish Militant Labour had six councillors elected in Glasgow in the early 1990’s under a first past the post system. Today the SSP has only two councillors. This is not to play down the very real success of the SSP but to underline the point that its victories did not fall from the sky.

The Respect Coalition

Recently, a coalition of George Galloway, the SWP and various others has come together with the expressed intention of contesting the European and Greater London Assembly elections in June. It includes a number of prominent members of the Muslim community.

The Respect coalition is not standing on an expressly socialist platform, but is clearly opposed to the occupation of Iraq, globalisation and privatisation.

The Socialist Party was not invited to take part in the discussions which established Respect and has not joined but has offered to support it in the European and London Assembly elections, and asked it to support the Socialist Party when it contests elections. It is not clear at this time how Respect intends to respond to this approach.

It is doubtful whether Respect represents a step towards a new mass workers’ party. Its lack of internal democracy is worryingly reminiscent of both Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party and the SWP dominated Socialist Alliance. Prior to the founding conference of Respect there were no real attempts made to discusss with rank and file trade unionists, anti-war activists and community campaigns. Instead Respect held a series of rallies at which its founders declared its aims and policies, in some cases without debate from the floor. Respect is in reality an electoral alliance for the European elections. George Galloway MP and founder of Respect, has raised the prospect of Respect playing a part in the process of reclaiming the Labour Party and has called on the trade unions to play a central role in this process. This is a mistake. Instead people like Galloway should be campaigning for the trade unions to break from New Labour and to play a role in establishing a new mass workers party.

Respect have also rejected the idea that elected representatives would live on the average weekly income of a worker – a workers’ MP on a worker’s wage. Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins, and our members in Britain who were previously MPs all lived on a workers’ wage which we see as crucial in keeping elected representatives in touch with the working class communities they represent. Bizarrely the SWP argued against a proposal that Respect should stand for the abolition of the monarchy, the proposal was rejected!

Respect’s move away from explicit socialism, as compared to the Socialist Alliance, in an attempt to be all things to everyone, is not the way forward. The idea behind Respect comes from a belief amongst its founders that a very broad "left" political formation could win support of people involved in the anti-war movement. Respect involves non socialists and middle class "liberals" and is consciously trying to make a political appeal to the middle class as well as the working class. The founders of Respect will campaign in the European elections for a "Social Europe", not a socialist Europe.

Success in the elections is possible but is far from a foregone conclusion despite George Galloway’s predictions of one million votes. The European field is crowded with two more established "anti-war" parties, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, contesting the elections. Nevertheless Galloway may win a seat in the European Parliament.

The main forces for a new mass party in Britain will come from those who become involved in anti-cuts, anti-privatisation, hospital and other campaigns, from trade unionists in struggle, from the anti-globalisation and anti-war movements and to a much lesser extent, from existing socialist groupings. The Respect coalition it is not the new party that is needed.

A new party in the North

The Socialist Party has always taken the issues of putting down roots and of elections seriously. In the South, we have demonstrated how committed, campaigning work over many years can pay dividends on the electoral front. We have one TD in the Dáil, two council positions, and nearly won a second Dail seat at the last election in Dublin North. Our base in the communities in the North is very small, although we have demonstrated a real ability to attract the best trade union activists to our ranks.

The key to developing a new mass party is the moving into political struggle of new layers of workers and young people. The best recent example of how such a scenario might unfold in the North is the FBU (firefighters) dispute. As the strike developed the absolute contradiction between taking on the New Labour government industrially on the one hand whilst funding New Labour on the other was blindingly obvious. FBU candidates stood against New Labour in Scotland during the course of the dispute and there were tentative suggestions that the FBU in Northern Ireland should stand in elections here.

The question of standing candidates in elections has come up spontaneously in several recent struggles including those of the term time workers in the education sector and the airport workers.

Events in the unions are of vital importance. The RMT (railworkers union) has been expelled by New Labour because of its support for the SSP, although its leader Bob Crow has not called for disaffiliation from Labour and stated that he had sent the union’s affliation cheque and it was up to Labour to decide whether to cash it or not. It is not excluded that the RMT will now lend support to Respect and to left and independent campaigning candidates. The FBU may break its links with New Labour at its conference in May. Debates continue in a number of other unions over the Labour link though no others are likely to break in the short term. Indeed the 3:1 vote against disaffiliation in BECTU (the broadcasting union) demonstrates that this is a huge step for any union to take and will not be taken lightly.

However, a line has now clearly been crossed. The historic link between the unions and the Labour Party is frayed, if not yet broken. The idea of supporting candidates apart from Labour has been posed. This is of great significance for the North. If the unions can take these steps in Britain, then why not take similar steps here.

Of less significance but also important, is the decision of both New Labour and the southern Labour Party to accept members here. These parties are both union linked. Most of the unions that back them are organised in the North. New Labour and the southern Labour Party will make no impact in the North. However traditionally the right wing leadership of the unions in the North have hidden behind a façade that the unions must remain non-political in order to protect unity in the work place. This argument holds less and less water if union backed parties are already here, it is a dent in their argument that can be used against them.

The victory of Kieran Deeney in the Assembly elections, and of Raymond Blaney in the last council elections, both standing on local hospital issues, demonstrates conclusively that candidates outside the sectarian mainstream can make an impact.

It will become more and more an organic component of any industrial dispute or serious community campaign to consider standing candidates in future elections. At some point this will happen, maybe slowly, occasional candidates, here and there. Or perhaps it will be a more generalised movement, developing quickly.

It is an historical fact that when working class people engage in industrial and political struggles that they clearly see the need to have political representation. The former mass parties of the working class – the labour and social democratic parties – came into being at times of heightened class struggle. In the latter part of the nineteeth and early part of the twentieth centuries, during the birth of the trade union movement, and a period of major class battles workers drew the conclusion than none of the establish parties represented their interests. They also saw that the battles they were fighting in the workplaces and on the streets for trade union recognition, for better wages, for reforms on health, housing and education would have a better chance of success if they had their own political party. As the great socialist and trade union leader Jim Larkin said the working class were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.

Society today is very different to that historical period. However the working class face a neo-liberal assault from the right wing establishment parties and the bosses. More and more working class people will be forced into struggle against attacks on wages and working conditions, into defending the health service, fighting aAgainst privatisation, the imposition of water charges and so on. It is precisely during such struggles that working class people will draw the conclusion again that they need to build a new political party to defend and fight for their interests.

In Ireland North and South, the best contribution that can be made to the development of new mass parties of the working class at this time is to join and build the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party is playing a leading role in defending working class communities against the right wing attacks from Blair’s New Labour and Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail led coalition. The Socialist Party is to the forefront of industrial struggles in the North, and led the bin tax battles in the South. We cannot predict exactly how a new mass party will come into being. But we can say that the Socialist Party will play a fundamental role in bringing about its formation. Our aim would be that such a new party would be a broad federation in which we would co-operate with trade union and community activists and young people to build a socialist alternative to the capitalist parties.

From Socialist Review, magazine of the Socialist Party, cwi in Ireland

See Socialist Review online on the Socialist Party (cwi Ireland) web site.

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