CWI School: Social and political turmoil in Ireland

Socialists play key role in rapidly changing situation

Below we continue with our series of reports from last week’s successful CWI school in Belgium, with a report of the discussion which took place in a commission to discuss the situation in Ireland and important role of the CWI in events there

The commission on Ireland at the CWI Summer School 2015 was introduced by Kevin McLoughlin, from the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland). He began by explaining how the political and social situation in Ireland today is drastically different to that of one year ago. The local elections in the summer of 2014 were the beginning of a turning point, after a number of setbacks for the anti-austerity movement. In 2013, there was a collapse and defeat of the anti-property tax boycott campaign, as well as another sell-out by the trade union leaders in the “Haddington Road “ agreement with bosses and the government, essentially accepting austerity.

However by the end of 2014, a change was clearly evident. The Anti Austerity Alliance (AAA) — which the Socialist Party and many working class activists who were part of the campaigns against the household and property tax initiated — was launched and made a significant breakthrough in the local elections, winning 14 council seats in Dublin, Cork and Limerick, and subsequently two historic By-Elections in Dublin, with Socialist Party members, Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy joining Joe Higgins in the parliament.

The boldness of the approach taken by the Socialist Party and the AAA was demonstrated by Kevin in outlining how the first of these By-Election victories took place in a strong constituency, Dublin West, where Joe Higgins has been a public representative since the early 1990s and where we were even seen as favourites by some analysts. However, nationally there was a strong wind behind Sinn Féin (SF), and an intense defensive battle had to be waged to keep them at bay.

However, the second By-Election was in Dublin South-West, probably SF’s strongest constituency in the state. Combined with the seeming surge in support nationally, most commentators thought SF were unbeatable. They didn’t expect the offensive of the sharp, wall-to-wall campaign behind Paul Murphy, based on the rising tide of the anti-water charges movement, which caught SF completely by surprise.

On the day Paul Murphy was elected, on a clear boycott platform, Kevin reported that there was a demonstration of 100,000 on the streets of Dublin calling for the abolition of water charges. Fearing this combination of radical ideas and mass discontent, the establishment and media tried to damage our representatives and the campaign through the now infamous “Jobstown protest” incident, where the deputy Prime Minister was blocked in her car for a couple of hours by a community protest of 700 people.

For days the patronising condemnations in the media were inescapable, and bound to have some effect initially, but the unwavering stance in defence of the protest from the three AAA TDs (MPs) was another shock for the establishment. Ruth Coppinger’s retort on one of the most listened-to radio shows in the state raised razor-sharp class politics, by asking what did the Minister expect when she waltzed into a working class community that has been ravaged by austerity, “garlands of flowers”?

These campaigns to demonise the protesters served to toughen up water charges movement and identified the AAA as a militant wing. The AAA TDs in particular have been the outstanding, leading advocates of a mass boycott, countering the governments scare tactics and spin at every turn over the last number of months. The non-payment figures have just been released by Irish Water and they’ve indicated a phenomenal 57% of householders are boycotting the bills. Kevin made the point that even if some of those who didn’t pay, pay in the future, others will be encouraged to boycott by the 57% figure.

If the non-payment figures remain high, water charges will be finished, signalling a huge blow against the government and against the austerity agenda of the whole establishment.

Marriage Equality Referendum

Another mass movement that developed in the recent months was the stunning victory for the Yes campaign in the marriage equality referendum. Significantly the highest Yes votes were from some of the most deprived working class communities in the state. In both the water charges and marriage equality movements, the working class in urban areas has stepped forward and put its imprint on events.

Opportunities for the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA)

This changed situation has facilitated activities we wouldn’t previously have been able to do, including huge anti-water charges protests of 5,000 in Dublin West and 10,000 in Limerick. Local community street meetings have taken place across the country. In the North East of Dublin, the AAA organised 17 street meetings in two weeks to build the boycott there, 800 people attended.

Even though the movement has not been as active in recent months, as it was at the end of 2014, the AAA has extended its base and will run candidates in new areas, such as Cork East, Cork South Central, Athlone and Waterford.

Kevin gave the example of a survey of 2,500 people who have been involved in the water charges protests. In this survey, 54% said that these protests were the first protests they were ever on. 81% of those surveyed are now intending to vote for those outside the establishment, 23.9% for Sinn Fein, 27.5% for independent lefts and 31.7% for the AAA or ‘People Before Profit Alliance’. Kevin underlined the significance of the fact that those who are active are more likely to vote for fighting left candidates than for SF. Interestingly, 79.6% of those surveyed said there was a need for a new party for ordinary people.

The water charges movement has been most active in hard-pressed working class areas that others call ‘underclass’ or ‘no-go’ areas. These communities have been abandoned by the capitalist establishment for years, with high unemployment, mostly manual workers and low educational achievement. These conditions can feed into a strong community spirit which when activated is generally on a serious basis.

To illustrate this, Kevin went back to the example of Jobstown, Tallaght, when 700 people rushed to blockade the deputy Prime Minister when word got round the community that she was there. These working class communities have also traditionally expressed an anti-establishment sentiment, for example with high No votes in successive EU Treaties. In Jobstown itself, there was an inspiring 88% yes vote for marriage equality, showing how the working class can be the leading force for change on all issues.

A strong feature of the activism of the Marriage Equality and water movements was that often the key drivers of community responses have been women. Young people also played a crucial role in the referendum. An estimated 50-60,000 mainly young people who have emigrated in recent years came back to Ireland to vote, many of whom came from as far as Australia and North America.

In terms of political perspectives, Kevin made the point that SF has plateaued for the last year in the polls. Fine Gael (FG) has weakened in recent polls and in the last two polls, Independents and Others (including AAA and others on the anti-capitalist left) have gone up. Both Fianna Fail (FF) and Labour are finding it impossible to recover from sell-outs and the austerity that they’ve implemented.

Kevin put forward two perspectives on possible governments after the upcoming general election which has to happen by March of 2016 at the very latest, but could take place before the end of this year. The first is a government of all the main establishment parties, FF, FG and possibly Labour. The second is a government made up of SF, FF, Labour and some Independents. In this context, between now and the election, the main narrative of the campaign could boil down to choice between FG and SF. This could potentially lead to swing to SF. If there is momentum behind SF, the AAA might come under pressure but we should be able to fight to hold onto our support.

Sinn Fein is different to Syriza and Podemos in many ways, Kevin explained. The fact that they’ have implemented austerity in the North of Ireland and have not used their considerable position in the Dail in South to advocate non-payment of the water charges is not lost on working class people, even those who are inclined to support them at this point.

Sinn Fein towards government?

If SF are not in government, there will be a potentially explosive situation with a huge crystallising of class anger. The reality is that in 2007, establishment parties got 87% vote, 75% in 2011, but now, remarkably are on less than 50% in polls. If FG and FF come together to form a government, people will feel cheated by the formation of such a right-wing coalition, precisely when there is a clear shift to left in society, creating the likelihood of continuing movements from below.

Such an environment would have the potential for SF and the left to grow. There will still be a clear space for the AAA in this context, precisely because SF do not actively fight on issues, like with water charges.

Kevin raised that there is a strong prospect that SF will be in next government, especially if it emerges as the biggest or second biggest party. This may lead to a situation not unlike that which prevails with the Scottish National Party, where despite being a party implementing austerity, they can keep support for a period.

Even if SF go into coalition with FF, that government would likely be given some space to manoeuvre for a period. However, over time this would inevitably change, as such a government – operating on a capitalist basis – would be pushed towards implementing austerity, which would fundamentally marr how SF is viewed by the working class.

This reality, alongside the tremendous activism and politicisation amongst huge swathes of the working class and young people that has been seen in the water charges and marriage equality movements, means huge potential for the left in the months and years ahead.

Important contributions in the discussion were made by a number of CWI activists from Ireland and other CWI sections. Sandra Fay, a teacher who hails from and works in Jobstown, and who joined the AAA on the day of Joan Burton’s infamous visit, explained how the AAA has politicised her further and resulted in her joining the Socialist Party recently.

Cillian Gillespie made points about the colonial relationship between the EU and peripheral countries like Greece and Ireland. He explained that the Troika programme in Ireland from late 2010 to early 2013, created a tangible sense of national oppression and humiliation. Ireland, as a former colony with a still unresolved national question, has inevitably thrown up nationalist sentiments on anti-water charges demonstrations with lots of Irish flags being carried. This is symptomatic of inchoate class anger, but given that next year will be the centenary of the 1916 Rising against British colonial rule, Cillian raised the likelihood of SF trying use these nationalist sentiments for its benefit, detracting from the building of a working class alternative. Cillian reported that the Socialist Party will produce a book on 1916, advocating a socialist solution to the National Question.

Joe Higgins TD spoke about the extraordinary pace of social and political change in the South of Ireland. He explained that just over 30 years ago the 8th amendment referendum passed (inserting a ban on abortion into the constitution) and condoms were only available on prescription. The referendum to legalise divorce only happened in 1995, passing by a very narrow margin. Joe contrasted this with the huge Yes vote on equal marriage, over 60%, and the fact that a significant majority of the population support a repealing of the 8th and increased abortion rights, in poll after poll.

Joe explained that the austerity parties had 90% of the vote 30 years ago and are now barely on 40% in the latest opinion poll. Joe described the rapid change in working class consciousness last year. The Troika bailout was a huge blow to the morale of ordinary people. The media mocked the lack of “fighting Irish” compared to the masses in Greece, but in the last year, the giant awoke. The government put forward the idea that the water charges will be last the austerity measure and asked people to “be patient” and accept it, but the working class retorted with a clear “get lost!”

Today’s movement has the same three key planks of mobilisation, boycott and political pressure as had the victorious struggle in the 1990s movement against water charges that was pioneered by the Socialist Party, but now on a much larger scale. Joe also made the point that it is unprecedented for a small party to win two by-elections, but this achievement again was made possible by, and is testament to, the huge forward momentum over the last year, of working class consciousness.

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