Summing up the Right2Water struggle
The Right2Water struggle, the biggest mass challenge to the austerity programme of the Irish government, is clearly at an end. It should be the most commonplace thing in the world to look back and access the outcome of the campaign. However this has not happened. The groups involved seem anxious not to look back but rather to move on to new projects.
At the Right2Water march in April the battle was being presented as victory and that continues to be the case. However it appeared much more as a swan song, with a much smaller demonstration than the mass rallies of the past and with a greater mass of the demonstration taken up by political groups rather than the more spontaneous mobilizations of the past.
Mobilization did halt payment of water changes for the majority and refunds are to be paid. However Irish Water survived, as did water meters, the charging structure and the potential for future privatisation. For the first time ever there was a critical debate among local activists, who discovered that Sinn Fein had introduced a resolution calling for universal water charging across Europe. They also argued that the movement could have demanded the continuation of an exemption at European level that would have prevented the imposition of a charging structure.
These criticisms pointed out a fatal flaw in the movement. There was no democratic national structure through which discussion could take place and no agreed demands beyond no payment and resistance to individual charges. As a result the first concession led to the collapse of the movement.
Why was this? At its heart the leadership of the movement was made up of contesting factions, each serving its own interests. The goal of representing the interests of the working class as a whole was never attempted.
The role of Sinn Fein, edging towards coalition government, shifting its position on water charges as the public mood changes and constantly talking out of both sides of their mouth, is easily understood. The role of the Right2Water unions is less clear. One useful guide is remembering that, with their union hats on, they had helped to set up Irish water and transferred their members from local authority contracts to the new company. This was in line with ICTU policy of social partnership that saw the union leaderships implement austerity and with acceptance of a modernisation programme that aimed towards mass privatisation of public services. As a result of this history of collaboration their reputation, and that of the Labour Party, was severely damaged.
The role of the trade union left was to restore the reputation of the unions and to look at new vehicles for exercising political influence. However they did not break with social partnership or with the ICTU leadership. As a result they were constantly dancing in the cracks, building mobilizations but ensuring that they did not move beyond lobbying of the government.
The last election saw the left unions attempt to cash in their chips by winding up the demonstrations and setting up "rRght2Change". The aim was a new left government based on Sinn Fein, but the project failed and the Right2Change programme of populist nationalism made no impression.
The left have shown many faults, but the chief among them is opportunism. When issues arise they follow along behind the workers rather than trying to propose a line of march. They stood silently behind the union leaderships throughout the austerity, fell in behind Right2Water without any political programme of their own, fell in behind Right2Change and have remained focused on electoral advantage as the water charge movement disbanded.
Now, in the vacuum following that disbandment, there is a frantic scurrying for position.
Sinn Fein, long the handmaiden of capitalist government in the North, has to the amazement of all made its rush for capitalist coalition in the Dail.
In September Brendan Ogle and the Right2Water unions planned a "Congress for a New Ireland" to recycle their populist Right2Change programme and make a further attempt to build a mass left party with Sinn Fein at the centre. The meeting is now scheduled for November.
Now they face a dilemma. Do they stay with the small left forces or line up behind Sinn Fein? The answer is not in doubt. The lifeblood of the union leaderships is lobbying and negotiation. The best mechanism for these strategies is a friendly party in the Dail, preferably a party in government. Those who doubt this should remember the silent alliance between ICTU and Fianna Fail throughout the history of the state, with the Irish Labour Party acting as cover for alliances to the right when Fine Gael took power. They should also cast their eyes North, where, when Stormont was sitting, Sinn Fein acted exactly as the confidante of the unions and the main path for lobbying the executive.
The reformist left have ruled out an alliance with Sinn Fein, yet for many years the idea of a broad left party and a left government, an Irish Syriza, has dominated their strategy. Of necessity Sinn Fein has been central to these calculations. In fact Brid Smyth of People Before Profit made it clear that it was only entry into a coalition with the right that would rule out an alliance. Strangely enough, the years of actual coalition with the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party in the Stormont executive is not an issue for the reformist left.
By ruling out Sinn Fein the left find themselves rudderless. The "no coalition with capitalist parties" is a common formula for reformists across Europe. The problem with the formula is that it disguises their own shift to the right, focus on parliamentary seats and a policy that argues for an improved capitalism rather than a call for a socialist society. Once you adopt this position you no longer have political grounds on which to resist coalition - in fact many of the reformist left end up there.
A similar logic operates in Ireland. The line between Sinn Fein leftism and the reformist left is quite blurred. A Sinn Fein bid for coalition will make perfect sense to many workers in a country where clientelism and the political deal are the normal mode of operation. Without a distinct revolutionary voice the left are more likely to lose out than gain.
If Sinn Fein achieves a position in government then they will become a magnet for the union bureaucracy, community groups and much of the left. However it will quickly become evident that the party is a junior version of Fianna Fail, totally in hock to capitalism.
Unfortunately the only alternative will be a populist nationalism, offered by the left unions' Right2Change programme and a complementary "Irish People's Party" launched by the Communist party. Guglielmo Carchedi, a leading Marxist academic, presented a paper to the recent “Capital 150” conference in London, described the current situation within capitalism: "The Old is dying, the new cannot be born". The new socialist society is in part blocked by the despair of the new reformists on the left. Things will stay the same. The workers will never resist, improved capitalism is possible and parliament the main arena of struggle.
The news from the Northern statelet is ignored. There the political settlement has collapsed from its own contradictions despite all the parties wanting it to continue.
Similar processes are occurring in the 26 county Irish state. In the midst of recovery a two-tier wage system applies in the public sector. The recovery for the elite depends on continuing the speed-ups and wage cuts established in the crisis. A programme of sell-off and privatisation of public services and natural resources roars ahead under the direction of the troika. Irish capitalism enriches itself while the mass of the cash goes to the European Central Bank.
As we look ahead we see a fragmentation of the dream of a broad left party with a reformist programme which has been at the centre of left strategy for many years. The various groups will wave different banners: people power, a People's Party, Right2Change, to line up behind Sinn Fein. In turn Sinn Fein in government will have to support austerity and will suffer the same fate as so many junior capitalist parties of the past.
The intensity of class oppression in Ireland will increase. The decay of British and European capital will continue. A new, kinder, Irish capital will prove impossible and the contradictions of Brexit, alongside the ongoing collapse of the political settlement in the North, will demonstrate that the Irish question is far from resolved.
In this situation new battles will break out. A new generation of militants will arrive onstage. Games of musical chairs played to the tune of a better, fairer capitalism will cut little ice.