October 2016        

The coming of the new left

Tommy McKearney

Fianna Fáil continues to support the Fine Gael-led coalition in spite of having done a U-turn on water charges.
     Its move against Uisce Éireann was more than simple opportunism. On the one hand it certainly did indicate a party preparing for the next general election by endeavouring to clear as many obstacles from its path as possible. Equally so—and this is important—Fianna Fáil populists have recognised that there is a changed political climate in the Republic. They may not have realised, though, that it is more than a passing phase. The financial collapse of 2010 and subsequent leeching of the 26-Counties’ people by the Troika has revealed a powerful socio-political constituency at odds with the status quo. What is not obvious, though, is the direction in which this movement is heading.
     Politics in the south of Ireland was dominated until recently by three conservative political parties; and no matter how much some of us despaired, the people appeared content with the arrangement. No longer though. Fianna Fáil’s somersault actually went some way towards underlining this fact. Thanks in no small measure to Mícheál Martin’s Pauline conversion, the fate of the water tax is sealed for the time being, and few of its opponents can have failed to recognise this.
     In spite of that, last month saw one of the largest protest demonstrations in Dublin this year. Thousands took to the streets demanding the definitive abolition of a virtually defunct tax.
     How does such energy remain in a campaign that is seemingly won? The reason is that something profoundly different and important has undoubtedly happened. A goodly proportion of the population is deeply uncomfortable with the existing model of governance, epitomised by the major parties that have held power over the decades. After several years of austerity and the bailing out of bankers, we are now witnessing the bizarre and offensive spectacle of a Dublin government refusing to collect €13 billion in tax from the world’s wealthiest corporation.
     Working people are understandably angry—so angry, indeed, that the Irish Independent reported that the Gardaí closed off Molesworth Street for a day in September, apparently fearing that “angry protesters would strike again as the Dáil resumed recently after its summer break . . .”
     Even allowing for Indo hype or Garda overreaction, this is a remarkable situation, with a government seemingly frightened by its own citizens. Nor is this a localised Irish phenomenon that may exhaust itself through the granting of limited concessions. Similar sentiments are being expressed throughout Europe and North America. So disenchanted have people become with the working out of contemporary capitalism that even powerful representatives of the global elite are openly concerned.
     Their worries were summarised by a recent editorial in the Financial Times that stated that “supporters of open markets and liberal values are acutely aware that they are facing a political backlash that threatens the current international order . . . Christine Lagarde spoke of the ‘groundswell of discontent’ felt in many countries with growing inequality in income wealth and opportunity.” The article went on to mention other concerned members of the global elite, including the EU bosses Donald Tusk and Mario Draghi. Needless to say, the moneyed people’s newspaper only offered free-market solutions.
     This belief in free-market economics, long shared also by social democrats, is now being challenged to a greater extent than at any time since the 1930s. Events in England, with the consolidation of Jeremy Corbyn’s position at the head of Britain’s Labour Party, are further proof of what is happening.
     Developments within that party are instructive, exciting even, and surely to be welcomed in the wider context, in spite of their limited social democratic agenda. They have, nevertheless, the potential to be somewhat misleading, in the sense that under Irish conditions there cannot be an exact replication of the Corbyn campaign.
     As a result of extensive nineteenth-century industrialisation and the growth of the trade union movement there has existed in Britain a mass working-class party (albeit centre social democrat and bourgeois-led) since the early 1900s. There is no similar mass organisation in Ireland, and we would do well to recognise this. For well-known historical reasons, the political left of centre in Ireland is not dominated by any one party, as it is in Britain. Nor has the modern Irish working class a shared folk memory identical to that which still influences many British working-class communities.
     Ireland’s history of anti-colonial struggle, coupled with what for decades was a predominantly rural population, has helped shape its grass-roots political movements, resulting in several schools of thought. Consequently, the strong radical constituency that has emerged over the last few years is influenced by a number of different currents, as evidenced by those participating in the recent Right2Water demonstration. Without question it is a predominantly working-class movement with a healthy trade-union contribution, an obvious socialist and republican participation, and a non-party community involvement. While this is clearly a healthy and progressive development, there is minimum consensus on a shared programme, how it might be implemented, and by whom.
     Agreement around a limited programme such as the Right2Change principles is a useful first step but has weaknesses when inevitably faced by major issues such as membership of the European Union, the rejection of finance imperialism, or partition. And let us be honest with each other: these are important issues that cannot be ignored and will eventually either split a movement or prevent it unifying. Republicans, for example, will continue to reject partition, and socialists will remain hostile to EU membership.
     Until there is agreement on these contentious but vital issues it is premature to talk of a new mass political party of the working class. On the other hand, ignoring these questions in an attempt to maintain a façade of unity will at best result in creating the type of compromised and flawed entity that is SYRIZA.
     However, there is no reason for despondency or lethargy. Significant progress has been made, and the conditions are favourable for positive advancement by the working class. What is required is to identify a vehicle that will allow for maximum co-operation while simultaneously facilitating and promoting intensive discussion and negotiation around the formulation and implementation of a programme for the establishment of a socialist republic.
     We already have Right2Change as a vehicle with a proven record of promoting co-operation. More, however, is required in the form of organisational and policy consensus. In this age of modern communications, with continuous on-line activity, among other helpful features, there is every opportunity to carry out the extensive political education and discussion needed to complete the tasks.
     At the risk of echoing the afore-mentioned U-turners, significant progress made, but much remains to be accomplished.

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