Ireland: Joe Higgins, socialist MP, denounces Bertie Ahern’s conversion to socialism.

Joe Higgins, socialist MP, denounces Bertie Ahern’s conversion to socialism.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister (or Taoiseach) shocked the Irish nation last November by declaring in the media he was, in fact, a socialist. This comment from the leader of the right-wing Fianna Fail coalition government which has launched neo-liberal attacks on the working class in Ireland, reflects the pressure the government has been under since the local and European elections where they did very badly.
Joe Higgins, a TD (member of the Irish Parliament) for the Socialist Party in Southern Ireland, reacted to this sudden and surprising conversion in the Irish Parliament during Leaders’ Questions (17 November) when TD’s get the change to confront the Taoiseach directly. Below we reprint two articles which appeared in the Irish Times on 18 November and the transcript of the Dail debate on the 17 November.
Joe Higgins, like all the public representatives of the cwi, stood for the general election defending a socialist program and the principle of a workers’ MP living on a workers’ wage. The Socialist Party is affiliated to the cwi. Socialistworld.net.

Irish Prime Minister declares he is a socialist

Comrade Joe examines new ally’s credentials

Frank McNally, Irish Times, 18 November 2004

For history students in the Dáil yesterday, the echoes of Russia in 1917 were unmistakable.

Back then, it was an alliance of workers and soldiers, led by a charismatic socialist called Trotsky, that came together to overthrow the establishment. Now, led by a charismatic socialist called Bertie, soldiers (of destiny, in this case) again seemed to be making common cause with workers, while bosses everywhere quaked. The excitement was added to by the return from a trip abroad of Joe Higgins.. There were shades here of Lenin’s return from Finland to address the Petrograd Soviet, except, of course, that Mr Higgins’s thinking has historically been closer to Trotsky’s than Lenin’s. It has also been a lot closer to both than to Bertie’s. But yesterday Mr Higgins seemed ready to join the Taoiseach in a revolutionary partnership. As he told the Dáil, when he read Mr Ahern’s claim to be "one of the few socialists left", he was overwhelmed by feelings of solidarity. He thought: "There’s two of us in it – we’ll go down together!" Given Trotskyism’s bitter experience, however, Mr Higgins needed to know who his friends were. So before the November Revolution could proceed, he set Mr Ahern a test to see if he really was a socialist. Here, his teaching experience took over as he split the question into three parts, seeking the Taoiseach’s comments on (a) public ownership (b) "imperialist invasions", and (c) social equality, and advising him to subdivide his allotted reply time equally to each part. To cut a long story short, Mr Ahern’s responses earned an F-minus, and immediate expulsion from the Fourth International. Any chance of a pass probably disappeared when the Taoiseach referred to Mr Higgins’s "Russian friends". The Kerryman may be a Joe, but he’s not an Uncle Joe, and he regretted that under the rules of Leader’s Questions, he didn’t have time to "educate" the Taoiseach on his relations with "Stalinists". No Stalinesque figure has yet emerged from these turbulent events. But it was noticeable during Taoiseach’s Questions that Willie O’Dea – a heavily moustachioed southerner who recently seized control of the Army – occupied the seat beside Mr Ahern, where Mary Harney usually sits. Yesterday also saw the first purge of the revolution, when independent TD Dr Jerry Cowley was sent into internal exile by the Ceann Comhairle. The Mayoman had objected too long after the Taoiseach called him a "right-wing doctor". The same compound adjective is suddenly popular in the Dáil. Defending Aer Lingus workers and expressing scepticism about privatisation, the Taoiseach snarled that he would not bow to some "right-wing economist." To be denounced as a right-wing anything by this revolutionary government could be the beginning of a trip to the salt-mines.

Irish Leader’s Unexpected Embrace of Socialism Is Causing a Stir

Brian Lavery, Irish Times, November 21 2004

After 10 years at the helm of Ireland’s dominant political party, Prime Minister Bertie Ahern marked the occasion recently with a surprising revelation – a political coming out of sorts – that has had Ireland in a spin.

His declaration was as simple as it was unexpected: "I am one of the few socialists left in Irish politics," he said in an interview with The Irish Times on Nov. 13, shocking his colleagues, infuriating his opponents and bewildering the public into wondering what kind of leader it had elected.

Since 1997, Mr. Ahern’s party, Fianna Fail, has led the Irish government in a tight-knit coalition with a small but vocally right-wing party, the Progressive Democrats, which has cracked down on immigrants and taken a pro-business stance to woo foreign investors. So in the debating chamber of the Irish Parliament last week, Mr. Ahern’s rivals spluttered with indignation, demanding to know how a man who had presided over year after year of tax cuts could call himself a socialist.

"People mightn’t believe this, but I have a very socialist view on life," he told The Irish Times. "What is the best form of equality? It is the fact that the richest family in this area can go on a Sunday afternoon to the Bots" – the national botanical gardens, which are in Mr. Ahern’s Dublin district – "and the poorest family can, too." Columnists joked that "Comrade Ahern" had wrapped himself in a red flag that had been made-to-measure by a luxury tailor, and Irish Times letter writers responded, en masse, with incredulity. "A certain asceticism and a willingness to allow the masses to use public parks are not the tests of socialism," one wrote.

The realization sank in quickly, however, that the announcement was anything but a throwaway line for Mr. Ahern, a well-liked and astute politician with his ear always – critics say too firmly – to the ground.

The statement seems to have had an immediate impact on his positions, as he sided with workers by criticizing the management of the state-owned airline, Aer Lingus, in Parliament on Wednesday.

Last summer, Fianna Fail (pronounced FEE-na foyle) suffered the worst electoral defeat in its history, losing seats in local and European legislatures to left-wing groups like Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army that appeals to working-class voters with a mix of nationalism and grass-roots issues.

As a result, Fianna Fail – its name means Soldiers of Destiny in Gaelic – is softening its image and returning to blue-collar voters who were alienated by policies that are perceived as antilabor. "One’s first reaction is to treat this outlandish claim with derision," said Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party’s member of Parliament. "But anything that Bertie Ahern says is said with intent." "Socialism hasn’t been flavor of the year for several years," Mr. Higgins said. "He knew that he would get a reaction." But even before Mr. Ahern revealed his enthusiasm for socialism, it was considered a legitimate and functional ideology here. Socialists won a handful of seats on local councils in June, and Mr. Higgins, one of the most respected orators in Parliament, gave impromptu lessons in Marxism on current affairs radio this week. Fianna Fail’s policies under Mr. Ahern, however, "have been anything but traditionally socialist," said Brian Nolan, an economist with the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin. Income distribution in Ireland has always been highly unequal, and the gap between rich and poor grew during and after the boom years of the 1990’s.

Taoiseach insists he is a socialist

Irish Times, 18 November 2004

The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, again insisted yesterday he was a socialist, but distanced himself from the policies of Dublin West Socialist Party TD Mr Joe Higgins. Michael O’Regan reports.

Mr Ahern said his politics and ideology might be closer to those of Labour’s Mr Michael D. Higgins.

"I have watched and listened to Deputy Joe Higgins with interest for three decades, but I have never heard him say anything positive.

"He displays what I believe to be a far-left or ’commie’ resistance to everything.

"He does so in the hope that some day the world will discover oil wells off our coast which will fall into the ownership of the State, thereby allowing us to run a great market economy with the State at its centre. That utopia does not exist."

Earlier, Mr Higgins said he had been abroad for several days on political work to advance the cause of socialism.

"You can imagine, Cheann Comhairle, how perplexed I was when I returned to find my wardrobe almost empty. The Taoiseach had been busy robbing my clothes.

"Up to recently the Progressive Democrats did not have a stitch left due to the same Taoiseach, but we never expected him to take a walk on the left side of the road."

Mr Higgins said that the words of the writer Tomas Ó Criomhthain had come to mind as he lamented that the likes of the last of the Blasket Islanders would never be seen again.

"I then thought: ’Good, Taoiseach. There are two of us in it, and we will go down together.’ Sadly, I had a reality check. If this conversion was genuine, we would have to go back 2,000 years to find another as rapid and as radical.

"Saul’s embrace of Christianity on the road to Damascus stood the test of time, but the Taoiseach’s embrace of socialism on the banks of the Tolka hardly will."

During the noisy exchanges, Mr Ahern referred to Dr Jerry Cowley (Independent, Mayo) as "a right-wing doctor".

Dr Cowley was expelled from the Chamber when he continued to insist that Mr Ahern withdraw the remark.

The verbatim report of the debate on Wednesday 17 November 2004

Leaders’ Questions, Dáil Éireann.

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party): Many of today’s newspapers were kind enough to point out that I was not in the House yesterday when the Labour Party leader asked the Taoiseach about his new found commitment to socialism. Ironically, I was abroad for several days on political work to advance the cause of socialism.

Pat Rabbitte (Labour Party): Did the Deputy have the Government jet?

J. Higgins: You can imagine, a Cheann Comhairle, how perplexed I was when I returned to find my wardrobe almost empty. The Taoiseach had been busy robbing my clothes. Up to recently the Progressive Democrats did not have a stitch left due to the same Taoiseach but we never expected him to take a walk on the left side of the street.

The Taoiseach: Extreme left.

J. Higgins: He said: "I am one of the few socialists left in Irish politics". Immediately, Tomás Ó Criomhthaín came to mind, as he lamented the last of the Blasket Islanders: "Ní bheidh ár leithéidí arís ann". I then thought: "Good, Taoiseach. There are two of us in it and we will go down together."

Sadly, I had to take a reality check. If this conversion was genuine we would have to go back 2,000 years to find another as rapid and as radical. Saul’s embrace of Christianity on the road to Damascus stood the test of time but the Taoiseach’s embrace of socialism on the banks of the Tolka hardly will.

I was not impressed with the Taoiseach’s answers yesterday so I will set him a test on three brief points to check if he is a socialist. On public ownership, the Taoiseach stated—–

The Taoiseach: Is the Deputy inquiring if I am a positive or a negative socialist? He is a socialist of the negative kind.

J. Higgins: We will see if the Taoiseach answers in the positive. Public ownership is crucial for socialists and the Taoiseach stated that he likes the idea that the Phoenix Park and the Botanic Gardens are publicly owned. As has been stated, however, he gave our telecommunications industry to venture capitalists to play around with. Will the Taoiseach answer the question to which he failed to reply just now? The Government is split on Aer Lingus and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, wants it to be in private hands. Will the Taoiseach—–

An Ceann Comhairle (Chair): The Chair is reluctant to intervene but the Deputy’s time is concluded.

J. Higgins: The second test is that democratic socialists never support imperialist invasions and certainly those of the type launched by the US military which is wading in blood through Falluja. The Taoiseach helped the US military to get there. Will he now denounce that atrocity and condemn the murder of an innocent Iraqi as we this morning condemned those obscurantists who murder innocent hostages?

On equality, the Taoiseach stated that he is happy that the children in Rutland Street school are given breakfast there. Why should they be obliged to depend on the school for their breakfast? It is because he has presided over one of the most unequal regimes in the western world which has given huge concessions to big business while poverty remains in our State.

The Taoiseach has three minutes in which to reply. I suggest that he devote one minute to each of the three tests and I will judge his replies at the end.

The Taoiseach: I would never consider that I subscribe to the same kind of politics or ideology as Deputy Joe Higgins.

Michael D. Higgins (Labour Party): The Taoiseach has scored a "D" grade already.

The Taoiseach: My politics and ideology might be closer to those of Deputy Michael D. Higgins. I have watched and listened to Deputy Joe Higgins with interest for three decades but I have never heard him say anything positive. He displays what I believe to be a far left or "commie" resistance to everything. He does so in the hope that some day the world will discover oil wells off our coast which will fall into the ownership of the State, thereby allowing us to run a great market economy with the State at its centre. That utopia does not exist.

What I said yesterday when the Deputy was not present is that—–

J. Higgins: I read what the Taoiseach said yesterday. He should just answer the questions I have put to him now.

The Taoiseach: —–at the core of left centre political ideology is the desire to spread the wealth more evenly. That means that people must be encouraged to create the wealth. When this is done, they are taxed and the money collected is used to resource them.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputies should allow the Taoiseach to continue, without interruption.

The Taoiseach: Deputy Joe Higgins is against wealth creation and, as a result, he favours high unemployment, high expenditure and high borrowing. Any of the tests the Deputy would set me fail on the grounds that he does not believe in them. That is the issue. What we do is create the wealth, thereby allowing ourselves to employ 100,000 people in the health services to care for others, tens of thousands of teachers, many community care professionals and resource and home liaison teachers and teachers to look after the disadvantaged in our schools. That is what our brand of socialism allows us to do. The Deputy’s brand of socialism has changed so much in recent years. As he is aware, one of the reasons for the rise in oil prices is because his friends in Russia have decided that the market economy can afford $50 a barrel. That is what is wrong with Deputy Joe Higgins’s policies. I would be delighted to discuss the matter with him on the Blaskets or elsewhere whenever he likes.

J. Higgins: The basic advice a teacher gives to a pupil who is going in to do an examination is not to spend the entire time on one question.

An Ceann Comhairle: Unfortunately, under Leaders’ Questions the Taoiseach must focus on one question and not on three.

Dermot Ahern (Fianna Fáil): The problem is that one cannot sack a teacher.

J. Higgins: It was one question, divided into parts (a), (b) and (c). The Taoiseach, not being able to answer parts (a) or (b), spent all of his time trying to answer (c). On that alone, he has flunked the test. He has also flunked his history test by putting my type of socialism in the same gallery as that of the Russian Stalinists. I do not have time – unless the Ceann Comhairle will provide it – to educate the Taoiseach about that matter. He referred to my friends in Russia.

The Taoiseach: They are not communists any longer, they joined the WTO.

Willie O’Dea (Fianna Fáil): Trotsky was the same.

J. Higgins: My friends were murdered by the Stalinists. Trotsky and other fine socialists were killed because they stood for democratic socialism.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Deputy’s minute is exhausted.

J. Higgins: The Taoiseach stated that he has spread the wealth around. That is a curious statement, particularly as he has given €600 million to big business in corporation tax cuts, allowed tax exiles to get away with murder while ordinary people are obliged to pay through the nose and allowed stud farm owners and the rest to operate tax free while ordinary people are obliged to pay out massively through stealth taxation and in other ways. The Taoiseach should do the honest thing and withdraw the ludicrous claims he made at the weekend. Let us return to normal. Socialism is not a flag of convenience to be used after one’s party has been battered in the local and European elections in order to pretend that one is a friend of working people.

The Taoiseach: In reply to Deputy Joe Higgins, my point is that one cannot distribute resources to education, health and social welfare unless wealth is generated. Deputy Higgins’s outrageous accusation against me that corporation tax has been lowered is not true. The facts are that the rate of corporation tax has soared from 4% to 9% of GNP during my period as Taoiseach. The Government through its policies has taken far more from the corporate tax sector by having lower taxes and generating far more activity in the economy. There are over 400,000 more in employment and lower unemployment figures—–

Joan Burton (Labour Party): The recent corporation tax yield is down. That is a matter of fact.

The Taoiseach: The Government has been given the resources to spend far more.

J. Burton: The Taoiseach is wrong. His ready reckoner is wrong.

The Taoiseach: That is how we can have more doctors, more nurses, more therapists, more teachers. When the then Minister for Finance Deputy McCreevy halved the rate of capital gains tax, the Government gained four times more revenue. By having lower taxes, we were able to spend more. I quoted a figure yesterday in the House in the Deputy’s absence which proves that the average industrial wage is now €10,000 more than it was seven years ago. Even taking the tax rate then and the different tax rate now, a person on that salary is paying €300 less. This shows the success of what we do. I know that the Deputy is actually an admirer of that also.

D. Ahern: That is our legacy.

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