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The Irish left discusses unity – Curb your enthusiasm

Andrew Johnson

11th January 2006

On 6th December last, a public meeting was held in Dublin’s Teachers Club to mark the launch of the Campaign for an Independent Left (CIL), after a year or so of closed meetings aimed at preparing the campaign. Between 40 and 50 people attended, almost all belonging to one or another left tendency. On the platform were South Tipperary TD Seamus Healy, Independent Dublin councillor Joan Collins and Colm Breathnach of the Irish Socialist Network, with Des Derwin of SIPTU in the chair. The speeches and resulting discussion shed valuable light on the current unity debate on the Irish left, and the underlying assumptions involved.

Seamus Healy spoke quite briefly, giving an outline of his own biography and the development of the Workers and Unemployed Group in South Tipperary. It was clear from his account that his group has quite a bit of substance locally, and Healy seems serious about making links outside his constituency. This alone is encouraging, given the Irish left’s history of parish pump politics. But there wasn’t a great deal of political content in Healy’s speech which would give clues as to how he sees the current campaign developing and the role it could play in the future.

Joan Collins followed by speaking a little about her own election in Crumlin/Kimmage ward. Collins is of course a former leading member of the Socialist Party, and has obviously taken over that group’s approach to elections minus its extravagant sectarianism. She argued that in the last local elections the working class of Dublin had given a big mandate to Labour and Sinn Fein but those parties, rather than using their mandate, had preferred to cut deals with the right. There was a crisis of working-class representation which could only be resolved by a new party of the working class. How that party would look could be deduced from Collins’ description of the local group she had built in Crumlin/Kimmage. About forty activists were involved locally, but the group wasn’t very political. She put forward the idea that, as the workers won’t join a revolutionary socialist party, we need to build something they will join. Of course, the problem with this idea is that very often the workers won’t join these “broad” formations either.

Colm Breathnach expanded more on the politics of the campaign. He began with a recognition that the small number of activists gathered in the meeting could not form the basis for a new party – the party would be created by layers of workers moving into action. What the left could do was campaign for a party on the basis that the working class needed a political voice of its own. Breathnach also addressed the founding declaration of the CIL (appended to this article) by arguing that the elaboration of a detailed programme was the job of a serious party – however, he dismissed the idea that the declaration was just a list of platitudes. Breathnach stated that more important than formal political agreement were the qualities of transparency, democracy and trust. Those already involved in the CIL were there on the basis that they had worked together and trusted each other, while a lack of trust impeded work with other groups on the left, most notably the Socialist Workers Party.

Then the meeting was opened up to the floor. Two sympathetic contributions in particular were interesting. The first was from Cllr Mick Rafferty, an associate of veteran Dublin Central TD Tony Gregory. Gregory, of course, became an unperson for most of the left after selling his vote to Charlie Haughey in 1982, but it must be said that Rafferty’s contribution was no further right than anyone else. Rafferty was also remarkable in that he brought up the national question, a subject most Dublin leftists prepare not to talk about. Rafferty related that, when he started working with Gregory, he thought the national question would come between them as Gregory had been in the IRSP while Rafferty was a former member of the two-nationist BICO. One waited eagerly to hear how this was resolved. Apparently it wasn’t, they just stopped discussing the issue, which is surely a paradigm for these unity moves.

There was also quite an important intervention from Dermot Connolly, one of the prime movers in the campaign, who laid out in more detail how the movement for a new party would grow. Firstly, it would build a solid network through individual recruitment, with a national tour mooted. Secondly, election campaigns would follow the pattern already established by Joan Collins and Seamus Healy, or indeed Joe Higgins and Clare Daly – on-the-ground activism leading to a popular base being built up through the left winning respect from workers. Connolly also spoke about the trust issue, acknowledging that in his previous life as a leader of what used to be Militant and is now the Socialist Party, he had got on a few people’s nerves. While some, like Rory Hearne of the SWP, put forward a vista of us all being shiny happy people holding hands, Connolly felt it was better to be open about our differences and work to overcome them, bearing in mind that it will take time to build trust.

Life of Brian Cahill

Critical viewpoints were put forward by representatives of the two larger far left groups. Two members of the Socialist Party expressed their organisation’s position in rehearsed speeches, where identical points were made with identical turns of phrase and identical intonations, although they did go easy on the famous hand gestures. But to deal with the substance of their arguments rather than the style, the recitation of SP positions was very much as expected. The SP comrades stated, correctly, that the forces gathered together in the meeting were a long way from representing any new party – although, despite their implication, none of the participants was calling for the immediate proclamation of a party and several spoke against such a sectarian move. The SP members, anxious to prove that they were not boneheaded sectarians, also referenced the involvement of their international affiliates in the German Linkspartei and the Brazilian PSOL (although they exaggerated the role played by the SP’s affiliates in these parties, whose significance has itself been much exaggerated on the Irish left). In response to speakers who had mentioned the Campaign for a Workers Party recently launched by the SP in England and Wales, they claimed that a new party was on the agenda because of the much higher level of class struggle there, an assertion which beggars belief.

In essence, the SP members argued their group’s long-held position that this initiative is premature and therefore sectarian, a position justified by the absence of serious working-class forces. In his intervention, Brian Cahill of the SP evinced some irritation at what he saw as misrepresentation of the SP’s position by those who claimed that his group had a “wait and see” policy, that they would decide on their approach to a new party once it arose out of the ether. That is the impression often given by the SP, but there is a subtle point that more casual observers may fail to grasp – that is the SP’s belief that it has a mystical connection with the working class which renders it incapable of sectarianism. This means that in 1997, when the SP attempted to form an electoral alliance with the Healy group, it was presented as a step towards a new workers’ party; the new alliance of the Healy group with other socialists is a sectarian diversion, largely because it isn’t an initiative of the SP. This solipsistic logic really does not get us very far, except we can predict that by and by the SP will launch a unity initiative of its own and then the time will magically be ripe.

A somewhat different argument was put by Kieran Allen of the Socialist Workers Party. Allen poured copious amounts of scorn on the SP’s claim that all the current initiatives are premature, and rehearsed various reasons given for not having a new left formation and which he found unconvincing. The final reason he gave was that of trust, which Colm Breathnach had mentioned earlier and which we shall return to presently. However, after this sharp bit of polemic, Allen then went on a rather woolly excursion into the opportunities allegedly offered by the anti-globalisation movement – taken together with the SWP’s constant references to wildly varying parties in various countries as examples of “the left getting its act together”, this betrays a slide into an objectivist mode of thought according to which the inexorable historical process is heading in our direction and we only have to decide between getting on the train or missing it.

Allen did formally welcome the formation of the CIL, but was canny enough to notice that the coexistence of two unity initiatives was a bit odd, and argued that there really was no reason for the separate existence of the CIL and the SWP’s rival People Before Profit Alliance. “You say campaign, we say alliance – it’s just a difference of terminology.” In fact, there are implicit differences between the SWP’s initiative and the CIL. The CIL speakers put an emphasis on the working class and the labour movement, which contrasted with the SWP’s stress on the social movements. There is also the difference implied in the titles, which is more than just terminological. The CIL has as its goal a new party of labour; the SWP, on the other hand, continues to view itself as The Revolutionary Party which only has to get more bums on seats, a self-image which is not contradicted by participation in an alliance and goes some way towards explaining why the SWP can work well with individual radicals but not with other organised political tendencies. If we had a more mature left, of course, these points could be argued out in a common organisation, but unfortunately the actually existing left is what we have to build with.

The fallacies of No Coalitionism

If there was a common political thread in the meeting, it was an insistence on ruling out coalition with either of the big right-wing parties. This is consistent with the list of principles presented for the CIL, in which “No coalition” has pride of place. A number of speakers – John Meehan was perhaps most strident on this point – described it as the fundamental principle of the campaign. It was repeated over and over that Labour was tied to a policy of coalition, that Sinn Fein was ready to enter a coalition, and that this was crucial in creating the conditions for a new left formation.

There is a popular belief on the Irish left that history repeats itself according to the following schema: A radical party gets lots of votes, then goes into coalition with the right, then haemorrhages support, leaving a vacuum which a more principled party can fill. Most of the Irish left have elevated this schema to the status of a historical law, so it is worth delving into a little. Essentially, it derives from the collapse of Clann na Poblachta following the Inter-Party Government of 1948-51, with the experience of Labour between the 1992 Spring Tide and the 1997 election, which saw Labour’s representation halved and the dissolution of Democratic Left, being adduced as further evidence.

Even in historical terms, this is dubious. In her definitive study of Clann na Poblachta, Eithne MacDermott has convincingly argued that the Clann’s collapse in 1951 was not inevitable but largely a result of Sean MacBride’s failings as a party leader. Labour, of course, has been in and out of coalition governments since 1948 and, while its support has ebbed and flowed, the party has stubbornly refused to die. As for Democratic Left, the fact that that group now form the leadership of the Labour Party suggests that their project had not come to an end, but that DL had decided to admit what had long been obvious – having abandoned Stalinism, they had simply become right-wing social democrats.

But there are more substantial reasons for doubting the schema. Partly it relies on the theory that there is a solid block of leftist votes that is unjustly dominated by Labour and Sinn Fein and will be wide open for a more principled alternative once those parties discredit themselves. All the left has to do is wait for the misleaders to sell out, while issuing “expose and denounce” propaganda. This idea gels perfectly with the passive propagandism of the Socialist Party, and its spread to other tendencies was memorably demonstrated by the SWP’s support for a possible DUP-Sinn Fein coalition at Stormont, which would allegedly lead to the broad masses seeing through their communal politicians.

There are other problems. Referring to a “vacuum” on the left ignores the fact that workers don’t live in a vacuum. They have their own ideas, history, traditions and organisations. For example, if the next election results in a Fianna Fail-Sinn Fein coalition, disillusioned Sinn Fein voters are more likely to switch to Labour than the far left, particularly if Labour ditch Rabbitte. Conversely, a Fianna Fail-Labour coalition would most likely strengthen Sinn Fein. Also, and this is entirely a problem of the left’s own making, appealing to reformist or republican voters has tended to lead to the left groups concealing their own politics and issuing propaganda that could just as easily have come from Sinn Fein, Labour or even a halfway canny Fianna Fail candidate. This probably explains why the propaganda has to rule out coalition explicitly, rather than put forward politics that would mean coalition would not be on offer in the first place.

Finally, the extraordinary importance given to No Coalition assumes a party based around electoralism. If there isn’t a parliamentary party, No Coalition is meaningless. If there is, then we are faced with a familiar problem from the old Socialist Labour Party – how do the rank and file control the TDs? The SLP’s demise was due to a breach between a rank and file who saw the party as a grassroots campaigning formation, and a parliamentary party who saw the rank and file’s function as being to deliver votes for the TDs. The recent coup in the British Liberal Democrats shows that this is not a problem unique to socialists, but for people who stand for working-class self-emancipation it assumes much greater importance.

What can be done

Members of Socialist Democracy put forward a more sceptical perspective, but also raised questions about how a movement for a new party could go forward. We argued in the first instance that you do not create the political basis for such a movement by drawing up a list of platitudes that anyone can agree to. It is much better to be open about disagreements, and to talk about disputed areas, which also tend to be the most important areas. For example, the CIL document does not refer to the North except obliquely and in the vaguest terms – but how would you sell workers on a party that has no policy on the national question? Even a bad policy would be better than no policy, because at least you can fight to change a bad policy, while an agreement not to talk about the issue would be disastrous. This is the real content of arguments about programme – while we don’t advocate that the campaign should have an immensely detailed programme, we do think it is ridiculous that a meeting composed almost entirely of people who consider themselves Marxists should, by and large, take the view that the job of Marxists is to identify a lowest common denominator that workers might vote for. Too many militants on the Irish left say “sectarian” when they mean “political”, and believe you can get a worthwhile unity by banning polemics.

We also put forward the view that we must start with the needs of the working class. To be more concrete, the meeting was held on a Tuesday night. On the following Friday a mass demonstration in support of the Irish Ferries workers was due to be held. Beginning with Des Derwin’s opening remarks, numerous speakers – notably an excellent contribution from Eddie Conlon – had referred to Irish Ferries, had mentioned it as an example of the crisis of working-class representation, and had predicted accurately that the bureaucracy would orchestrate a defeat. There was broad agreement on the issue. But nobody even suggested the left having a joint intervention, not so much as a joint leaflet! We believe that, by taking up practical work of this sort, the left can make a genuine difference. It would also be a way of building trust through activity, as both Dermot Connolly and Colm Breathnach had advocated.

If there was a theme running through the discussion, it was after all the importance of trust. Sometimes one felt that the discussion was more about psychological categories than political tasks. Many speakers argued that the SWP’s record in the anti-war movement and other campaigns meant it wasn’t trusted by those outside its ranks. This is true, and Kieran Allen’s assertion that this is a sectarian argument because, in any case, the SWP are trustworthy people, is not a serious response. But we might just as well ask, why should the participants in the CIL be trusted as of right? This is a movement that has been based from the beginning on exclusion. Its political basis, judging from the founding declaration – and the meeting added little to it – is minimalist in the extreme. Its focus is electoralist, and the major justification for its existence is the cry of No Coalition.

This is not to write off the campaign in advance. Those involved appear to be genuinely committed to the project. It is entirely possible that something worthwhile could come out of it. But both the statement and meeting raise more questions than they provide answers, and do not inspire a huge amount of confidence for the future. If the campaign is to come close to achieving what its supporters genuinely want, it is clear that some serious thinking is in order.

Appendix: Founding resolution of the Campaign for an Independent Left

Campaign for an Independent Left
Building a new party of working people

The individuals and groups involved in the Campaign for an Independent Left are united by the common aim of a radical transformation of Irish society. We are committed to the struggle to build a society where working people democratically control all aspects of their lives—social, economic, cultural and political—and where the gap between rich and poor is eliminated. 

To help achieve this transformation, we believe it is necessary to develop a new independent all-Ireland party of working people. By independent we mean a party that we will oppose in real terms the right wing pro capital parties, north and south, and will under no circumstances enter into government with them.

This will be a grassroots campaigning party—broad, pluralist, democratic, and with no agenda other than advancing the interests of working people. We now commit ourselves to campaigning for such a party, winning over people active in the labour movement, community campaigns, and the various movements for social justice to get involved in making it a reality.

The following are the initial points of basic political agreement that have brought us together to begin this process.

  • No coalition with parties of the right, under any circumstances.
  • Public ownership and democratic control of the country’s resources and services, so that they can be developed in the interests of working people and our environment. An end to the privatisation or commercialisation of public services.
  • A comprehensive universal public health-care system. An end to all state subsidies for private health care.
  • A free, secular education system, aimed at the full and equal development of each human being from pre-school to university. An end to all state subsidies for private education
  • The provision of housing as a basic right
  • A public transport system based on the needs of users, not profit, and the protection of the environment.
  • A progressive taxation system that will redistribute wealth, making the rich pay their fair share, and lifting the burden of stealth and double taxes from working people. 
  • No to so-called “social partnership”. We want trade unions run democratically by their members, and fighting for their interests. Repeal all restrictive legislation against union activity. Unite Irish and migrant workers by fighting for basic trade union rights and conditions for all workers.
  • We believe in equality and solidarity between all working people—men and women, black and white, Travellers and settled people, Catholic and Protestant. We will offer 100 per cent opposition to all forms of racism, sexism and sectarianism.
  • We are for an inclusive, multi-cultural society with equal rights for all; asylum seekers should have the right to work.; for an end to deportations.; full citizenship for all children born in Ireland; work permits to be issued to workers and not employers.
  • A foreign policy based on opposition to imperialism, and solidarity with those fighting for democracy, justice and peace, the re establishment and maintenance of military neutrality, opposition to an EU dominated by big business and for a Europe of solidarity between working people.
  • We appeal to all individuals and groups who share our vision of a new party of working people to contact us and help build it in practice.

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