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Report on Socialist Democracy Weekend School 

JM Thorn 

19 November 2007

Socialist Democracy held a weekend school in Wicklow on the last weekend of October.  Under the broad theme of “Irish society and economy today" it consisted of three separate sessions each on a specific topic. These took the format of a speaker making a presentation followed by a discussion. 

Session One 

The first session was on the Irish economy and the working class.  This was introduced by Joe Craig of Socialist Democracy. Joe began by going through some of the conventional explanations for the development of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy.  The first of these was that Irish economy had been opened up to the world and attempts at national development abandoned.  In this explanation the growth of the Irish economy is ascribed primarily to the influx of foreign capital.  Joe pointed out that that his had been the policy of successive Irish Governments since the 1960’s, but it had failed to produce the type of economic growth seen in the last decade.  Indeed, in the early 1980’s this whole strategy had come crashing down.  The second explanation is to view Ireland as a regional economy that has been successfully integrated into the world economy.  But again this is not new.  As Joe pointed out, Ireland has always been seen as regional economy.  For a long period it was part of the UK and never got as far as developing an independent currency.  As a regional economy its growth was less impressive, being easily outperformed by a number of regions in the US.

Joe said that it was generally agreed that foreign investment was a key element in Ireland’s recent economic growth.  The questioned that needed to be posed was why it came to Ireland.  In addressing this Joe highlighted a number of general trends.  There had been a worldwide increase in the amount of mobile investment; there had been an upturn in the world capitalist economy with increases in trade and investments and less volatility; there were new areas of the world, the former Soviet states, opened up to investment; also there was strong growth in developing states such as China and India.   More specifically, there was a clear link between US investment in Ireland and the creation of the European single market in 1992.  All these elements contributed to the growth of the Irish economy in the last decade.  However, this growth had not seen the emergence of a strong indigenous capitalist class in Ireland.

Joe moved on from the economy to the working class. He said that the working class, in terms of numbers, had grown dramatically over the past 15 years.  Despite this the organised working class had become weaker.  He pointed to the decline in union density as an indicator of this.  Joe said there were a number of reasons for this.  Firstly, workers were aware of the mobility of capital, and the possibility of their jobs moving out of the state.  Secondly, the nature of the service industries which had grown up made it more difficult to organise.  Thirdly, there had been a growth of inequality that provided a basis for the widening divisions within the working class.   This was part of a worldwide trend.  Those affected most were the less skilled sections of the working class, which had seen the greatest relative decline in the value of wages.  Alongside this there has been dramatic decline in the level of industrial strike activity. 

Joe said that on the face of it this seemed paradoxical.  Under the conditions that prevail in Ireland, of rising living costs, stagnating wages and a relatively high level of union organisation, a much higher level of class struggle could have been expected. 

The expansion of the industry has often been associated with a rise in class struggle. Joe pointed to the history of the car industry in which trade union organisation and militancy followed wherever it set up.  But in Ireland an unprecedented period of industrialisation has resulted in a decline of class struggle.  Joe said that to understand why we had to look to the political context in which it took place.  Unlike in other countries and in earlier periods, industrialisation in Ireland took place on the back of defeated struggles.  It was the defeat of such struggles that laid the basis for social partnership.  Joe said that even those who claim to be on the left now pay little attention to the few strikes that break out.  An example of this was the Nurses dispute during the election campaign.

Joe concluded by saying that while capitalism seemed triumphant in Ireland it did have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. He pointed to the fact that the economy was now being driven along more by house price inflation than production.  There was also growing evidence that foreign capital was moving out of Ireland looking for even lower cost countries to operate.  Joe said that Ireland was not unique and that ultimately its economy would follow worldwide trends.

A number of points were raised in discussion.  One speaker highlighted the historical divisions within the working class in Ireland and how the reaction to the crisis of the early 1980’s demonstrated the failure of working class leadership. Another disputed Joe’s claim that the Irish economy did not have any peculiar features pointing to the disproportionate importance of the property and construction sectors.  Another argument was that the working class was looking for a means of self defence against the impact of globalisation, and many saw support for Fianna fail and social partnership as a mechanism for that. One speaker recalled the period when social partnership first came in, when it was sold as a means to avoid what happened to the working class in Britain under Thatcher. For him social partnership was class collaboration on an institutionalised basis.  The movements of the 1980’s that arose outside the traditional trade union structures were recalled as a model for today. 

In his summing up Joe said that despite its recent economic rapid growth Ireland was still backward compared to the advanced capitalist states.  He said that despite the apparent triumph of capitalism it was in an historic decline, citing the growing debt crisis as evidence for this.  He concluded by saying that given the decay of the traditional trade union new methods of organisation would be required in this period.

Session Two 

The next session on “The Working Class in Ireland Today “ was introduced by Norman Croke of SIPTU.  He started off by examining the objective structure of the Irish working class.   He cited statistics that showed that there were now 2.2 million people in employment in Ireland. This compared with 1.8 million in 1960.  In terms of numbers this was the biggest the working class had ever been.  At the most basic level the working class could be defined as a class of people who worked for a wage.  This was the traditional definition.  But there was also a legal definition which recognised an employer – employee relationship and established certain rights and responsibilities.  This legal definition did not cover such categories as agency workers and the self employed. 

Norman then went on to talk about more subjective measurements of class.  He said that any mobilisation of workers on a class basis required class consciousness.  There had to be a basic knowledge of the relationship between classes and a realisation that workers were being exploited.  Behind this was an ideological viewpoint that workers had interests to protect and rights to exercise.  Norman claimed that trade unions represented the interests of workers, but that a rights based consciousness was more political.

He then went on the talk about the history of the trade union movement in Ireland.  He said that with 800,000 members the trade union movement remained the biggest organisation in civil society.  People joined unions because they recognised a common interest that was best advanced through collective action.  It was class conditions that gave rise to class consciousness.  In the early part of the 20th century there was great hostility towards unions from employers and the government.  The Dublin lockout and the British General strike were about the right to join a union.  Trade unions came under attack because they were seen as a political movement.  Norman then discussed the relationship between politics and trade unionism – pointing out that the unions were behind the creation of the Irish Labour party. 

The final part of Norman’s presentation was about the current state of the trade union movement in Ireland.  He said that there were a number of factors putting pressure on trade unions such as globalisation, occupational restructuring, union avoidance, the individualisation of work based rights and the institutionalisation of industrial relations.   He said that while trade union membership was holding steady there had been a decline in trade union density - this had fallen from 62 per cent in 1980 to 35 per cent today.  Union membership was lowest among young workers, and membership was concentrated in the public sector, manufacturing and construction. The result was that trade unions were being marginalised in policy making particularly at a local level.  Norman said that despite this hostile environment trade unions could still run effective campaigns and connect with the sense of fair play and solidarity that ran through the wider population.  He cited GAMA and Irish Ferries as examples of this.  Norman concluded by saying that if trade unions were to survive they would have to mobilise around the concept of rights and provide an expression for the anger at injustice that wasn’t taken up by political parties. 

Norman’s talk drew a largely hostile response from the audience.  The first speaker said that the trade union movement was in the state it was in because of its poor leadership.  The key question for him was how they could be challenged and the process of revival begun.  Another speaker questioned Norman’s use of union density as a measure of class consciousness.  He pointed to the north where union density was high but the consciousness of workers was largely sectarian.  He had problems with the trade unions basing themselves on the concept of rights as these were dependent on the state.  The state did not recognise the working class interest and rejected social rights such as the right to work.  Also, individual rights were not necessarily best advanced by trade unions. If people felt their legal rights were being denied to them they usually went to a solicitor not a trade union. 

A further point was that today people only look to unions at a time of crisis, such as a threatened closure, and often didn’t see the value of being s trade union member.  The next speaker claimed that trade unions were defence organisation of the working class that operated within the structures of capitalism.  To change society workers had to go beyond trade unionism. Social partnership meant trade union leaders policing the workers.  The IWU had had the potential to challenge social partnership but had not realised that potential. 

Another speaker took up Norman’s point about the link between union membership and class consciousness. For him the link between them wasn’t automatic - what was needed to transfer from one to the other was class struggle. Under social partnership the unions had no influence over policy; this was demonstrated clearly by Aer Lingus.  Trade unions had been absorbed into industrial relations machinery.  The next speaker pointed to the increasing age profile of trade unions activists.  She claimed that trade unions did not campaign and then blamed the members for their apathy. She questioned whether trade unions were a vehicle for struggle anymore, or whether we had to look for other forms of struggle. The final point was that it was wrong for unions to base themselves themselves in the concept of rights, as many of these emanated from the EU which was leading the drive for privatisation and deregulation across Europe.  Social partnership had a corrupting affect on trade unions, for example two former trade union officials acting on behalf of the billionaire Denis O’Brien.  Trade union leaders identified themselves with the interests of capital rather than those of their members.

In reply Norman said that the tone of the contributions was too negative.  He said that there was a trade union movement that people could identify with, though he admitted that the political reflection of this was weak.  If they had the right to do so the vast majority of workers would join a union. He claims that social partnership would not be brought to an end by trade unions. Other union leaderships from around the world regularly expressed admiration for the amount of influence on government that Irish unions had and the experience of workers without union representation was not a happy one.  The danger was that when union density fell to a level in the private sector where it is no longer required the right would strike against it.  Norman concluded by saying that the trade union movement was essential in building class consciousness, and that we had to be optimistic about its future prospects.

Session Three 

The final session on “The national question in Ireland after the general election” was introduced by Anne McShane of CPGB.  She began by pointing to the poor performance of Sinn Fein.  Prior to the election mainstream commentators had talked up the prospect of Sinn Fein emerging as a new left wing force in Irish politics.  However, it did not happen.  Anne listed some of the reasons given for the failure to make a breakthrough such has the party dropping its polices; Gerry Adams’ embarrassing lack of knowledge about the south; and the lack of interest about what was going on in the north.  Whatever the reason, their poor election result represented a failure of Sinn Fein’s all-Ireland strategy.

Anne then went on to talk about the instability of the settlement in the north; how it had resulted in greater polarisation between Catholics and Protestants and workers in the north and south being pitted against one another.  She said that in the past support for the anti-imperialist struggle could be justified, even though it was not supported by the British working class.  She said that nationalism is a divisive force and divided the working class. Despite this the working class had to take up the question of democracy.  The demand for self-determination was not a bourgeois demand.  She highlighted the current attempt to forge a capitalist unity on the nations of Europe from above through the EU.  In order to counter this the working class had to be united on a pan-European basis.

The final part of Anne’s presentation dealt with the question of whether the Protestant population (or the British-Irish as she described them) in Ireland had a right to self-determination.  She briefly outlined the history of the Protestant population and the reactionary role they often played in undermining the struggle for self-determination.  Anne said that Protestants had distinctive customs and tradition and an understanding of themselves as a people apart.  Given this it would be difficult to incorporate them into a united Ireland.  She concluded by claiming that in order to undermine their reactionary ideas the right of Protestants to self-determination, apart from the rest of the Irish nation, should be recognised. 

Anne’s presentation probably provoked the most heated discussion of the weekend.  The first speaker claimed that most people on the left knew nothing about the national question or how to apply Marxist categories.  He objected to Anne using the term Protestant people as it defined them in religious terms.  As a counter he suggested there was a material basis for the division in the working class.  This was the relative privileges Protestants enjoyed within the northern state and that state’s sponsorship of loyalism. 

The second speaker said that we could not discuss democracy in abstract terms as it had a class basis; a distinction had to be made between bourgeois democracy and workers democracy.  He said that socialists only supported the demand of self-determination because they recognised that some nations were oppressed by others. The objective was to settle such questions and start to break workers from identifying with their own ruling class. He said that while self-determination for the “British/Irish” was not possible, the identity of Protestants as a separate group had to be addressed. 

In response it was argued that, just as socialists fight for social/economic reforms within capitalism, so they must also fight for greater democracy.   Unionism in the north of Ireland could not accommodate Catholics, and a Protestant right of self-determination would lead to repartition and ethnic cleansing.  It was further suggested that Protestants did not have a right to self-determination because they were not a nation. While Irish self-determination did not in itself provide a basis for workers unity a unified Ireland would create a more favourable environment than the status quo.  The struggle for a united Ireland therefore had a progressive content. 

The next speaker took up the theme of loyalism.  He asked if any distinction could be made between the UDA and IRSP as both were involved in criminality.  The PUP could be characterised as a left organisation within the Protestant community, and a whole community couldn’t be written off as reactionary.  In response it was argued that loyalists had to be judged on their record not on what they said.  Loyalist politicians had been consistently rejected by Protestants and socialists should make no accommodation to pro-imperialist sentiment. 

It was further argued that the reason there was a lack of interest in the national question in the south was the recognition that the struggle has been defeated. The next speaker claimed that the PUP could be characterised as a reactionary paramilitary force.  In his view it was impossible for any progressive politics to emerge within unionism, because unionism by its nature was undemocratic.  Its objective was to put Protestants in a privileged position over Catholics.  A counterargument was that there was a danger of classifying Protestants as reactionary and Catholics as progressive.  We should regard the PUP as representing a step forward. 

The following speaker said that there was no Chinese Wall between Protestants and Catholics, and that while there were divisions they were not completely separate communities.  He said that in their daily lives Protestants and Catholics were continually being challenged to identify themselves as workers.  On numerous occasions they do identify themselves as workers and there were examples of workers unity, but these had been smashed time and again by the sectarian state.   The population of the north were forced to operate within a sectarian framework, policed by groups like the PUP.   Socialists were right to support the republican demand for self-determination.  The Provisional movement failed because it believed this was also the demand of Irish bourgeoisie, when in reality they supported partition. The lesson to be drawn from this experience was that opposition to partition has to be combined with opposition to capitalism. 

In her reply Anne McShane said that Ireland could be only be understood within the context of Europe.  She also rejected the suggestion that a distinction can be drawn between bourgeois and workers democracy.

Overall, the weekend school can be judged a success.  It addressed the fundamental issues facing the working class in Ireland in a depth and openness that would not be seen in any other forum.  This comes against a background in which such issues barely make it onto the agenda at left gatherings, and if they do receive no more than superficial consideration. However, it is only by addressing these that socialists can build up a sound Marxist understanding of Irish society that can guide us during interventions in class struggles. 

Events, such as Socialist Democracy’s weekend school, represent a small step forward in this process. 


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