From Socialist Voice, February 2007

Radical words and political strategies

The issue of water charges in Northern Ireland, like service charges for refuse collection in the South, continues to be a bone of contention and a subject of vigorous debate in many working-class communities.
     The Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU (unlike the ICTU in the South) has come out in support of a non-payment strategy as one of the most effective means of opposing the imposition of water charges. Working people over many decades have been involved in many bitter struggles, whether in the form of rent strikes, industrial action to defend jobs or secure wage increases, actions to oppose unemployment, or struggles for equal pay or shorter working hours.
     Every struggle presents its own lessons and experiences; but one lasting experience that all workers have learnt is that without struggle there is no change, that without struggle we are unable to defend existing gains already secured.
     Water charges are quickly becoming a litmus test for some political forces in relation to their radical words and political strategies. One significant political force in the North, Sinn Féin, is attempting to speak radically but act in a way that to a degree confirms what many who have left that movement feel has been an over-emphasis on electoralism and the desire for “political respectability.” The argument goes that you need to be in government to influence and change things—one that is similar to the position argued by the ICTU in relation to “social partnership” in the South.
     With the opening shots now being heard in the elections for the Northern Assembly as well as the forthcoming elections in the South in May or June, Sinn Féin is attempting to square the circle. In the South the party publicly supports the non-payment of service charges, while in the North it is opposed to the non-payment of water charges.
     As the dominant political force within Northern nationalism, having displaced the SDLP, it now appears to have adopted the traditional social-democratic position of keeping politics within the safe confines of parliamentary democracy, secure within the narrow parameters where the state attempts to marshal all political struggle and debate; while in the South, to capture those who are unhappy with society and how it is run, it presents itself as the radical, street-wise agitational party uncorrupted by establishment politics and so is opposed to the bin tax.
     Three leading spokespersons for Sinn Féin have come out in opposition to the non-payment strategy to stop water charges. Raymond McCartney in an article in An Phoblacht, Francie Molloy, outgoing Assembly member, in a television debate, and Jerry Kelly in an article in the Mirror have all opposed non-payment.
     Sinn Féin is arguing that it has given a “public commitment to repeal the current legislation” on the return of the Executive. As it will not be the sole or even the largest party in the Assembly or the Executive, it is not clear how it can bring this about. We know from experience that the rents and rates strike promoted by the civil rights movement in the early 1970s was very effective and brought great electoral benefits to the SDLP, which, when it got into government, introduced the legislation to break the strike and to recover all outstanding money from people’s social welfare payments.
     This argument is familiar to any worker who has been or has even threatened to go on strike: that the strike will hurt the workers more than the employers, or it will have more of an impact on the poor. The same can be said, and is said, about those who advocate non-payment: that they are somehow heartless and are willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable in some irresponsible political game.
      Surely a strong, well-organised non-payment campaign that has widespread support across the community divide can only strengthen those parties inside governmental institutions that wish to see the abolition of water charges, and other charges that bear heaviest upon working families. Would the non-payment voices from the streets not focus the minds of all those who support water charges or are weak in their opposition? Might it not have the potential to be a bridge, to go some way towards undermining the influence of unionism and even sectarianism among the Protestant section of our working people?
     Any party that presents itself as radical and struggling to bring about political change in the social and economic sphere also needs to recognise that the political structures are a reflection of that inequality and in fact ensure that the interests of the elite are secured. Is it not the role of radical forces to combine agitational politics—the mobilisation of working people in their own interests—and the representation of those views at the local, national or international level?
     The potential exists to build more radical forms of expression of people’s views and demands than those that now exist. At present many people throughout this island are greatly unhappy with the quality of their life, with the type of local and national representation that is allowed them, and with political structures that are out of touch and non-responsive to them. There is great potential to build movements within and outside the state structures to empower working people. The recent experience over the policing debate should have shown that, given the opportunity, people do take an active interest in and are prepared to take an active role in that debate.
     If republicans are to develop a more radical approach in the struggle to empower people, they need to take a wide view and develop a political strategy that is not confined to tame parliamentary structures. Throughout Europe over the last three or four decades far more politically advanced forces than Sinn Féin have succumbed to what Lenin called the “swamp” of social democracy and parliamentarism.
     There is a need for greater co-operation among all radical and progressive opinions, those who stand for greater democratic participation in political, economic, social and cultural spheres, giving real substance to people’s needs.
     Are we going to see instead another manifestation of elitism—like the strategy for the best part of three decades that somehow an armed elite would bring about a united Ireland—where once again people’s own involvement and actions are reduced to mere election fodder, leaving politics to parliamentary representatives operating within the narrow structures created by the state?

Home page  >  Publications  >  Socialist Voice  >  February 2007  >  Radical words and political strategies
Baile  >  Foilseacháin  >  Socialist Voice  >  Feabhra 2007  >  Radical words and political strategies