Lecture delivered by Eugene Mc Cartan, CPI general secretary, at the 17th Desmond Greaves Summer School, Dublin, 26 August 2005:
FIRST OF all I would like to thank the Desmond Greaves Summer School for inviting me to address this, its 17th annual school. The theme of this lecture is important to me personally as an activist of the Communist Party of Ireland. I am politically partisan and an activist, and my analysis is based upon that experience. But I hope also to be able to articulate a politics that will provide the basis for further discussion and debate with those who may share some or part of this analysis.
The title of this paper is "Prospects for the Left in Ireland". I suppose it would be fair to say that the state of the left in Ireland right now could be summed up as not good currently, but with good prospects in the future.
Those on the left should not see their role as simply expressing critical opinions and passing "profound" judgements on developments, but rather in seeking to shape the future by their day-to-day engagement in various struggles, understanding where the key struggles are and identifying those areas of key political importance which need to be developed. To engage in the battle rather than argue around the echo of the battle, is the key. The left needs to develop a more strategic approach to politics.
So, rather than presenting a shopping list of immediate demands of what the left should be "calling for", I would like to put forward a number of areas in which I think the left and all those who believe in radical change should attempt to find unity of purpose, and then concentrate on developing the political forces required to secure progress in these key areas.
The influence of the left cannot and will not grow in some abstract way but only by its ability to identify correctly the inherent contradictions within Irish society and to develop the capacity and ability to mobilise the people by giving leadership and developing alternatives to expose the duplicity of the establishment.
Although nearly ninety years have pass since James Connolly and his comrades seized the GPO, raised the flag over that building and struck a blow for national freedom against colonialism and imperialism, the political legacy and goals that Connolly left us remain unfulfilled. The struggle to establish a sovereign republic and ultimately to establish a socialist Ireland remains with us.
The key theoretical and practical contribution that Connolly made was to insist on the necessity of linking the two streams of radical Irish political thought, the socialist and the anti-imperialist nationalist. He argued that labour must take up the challenge to make the cause of Ireland its cause, for without taking on board that political task it could never achieve its socialist goals.
To the nationalist forces he argued that their goal of national independence would never be achieved fully or sustained unless they addressed the social and economic questions, that the economic and social structures, if not changed, would deliver little or nothing to the mass of Irish people, in particular to the working class and rural poor.
Today the struggle we face is to win back economic and political powers ceded to the EU and to build structures that will bring about community reconciliation in the North, which, if the current process continues and develops, should pave the way for a more integrated national economy and evolving political structures. Our people north and south have experienced Partition in different ways, which in turn has shaped how they perceive or experience and understand the processes taking place in our country. This gives rise to different but interconnected priorities which our people, north and south, need to face up to and the left needs to address and champion.
The South faces different challenges and priorities. Today it is the almost complete loss of whatever political and economic independence was achieved since Partition. It is also one of the most open economies in the world.
Today the Irish political elite are active junior partners in the construction of the new imperial entity called the EU. Just as the leadership of the Home Rulers wanted home rule, not to further independence but to have a seat at the imperial table in London, to benefit from the imperial plunder and exploitation of the empire, today's elites are willing servants of the interests of the European Union and the emergence and growing imperialist ambitions of the EU. They want to be part of this great imperial project and to be beneficiaries of its global strategies for domination.
This state is also dominated by and is to the interests of US imperialism. The use of Shannon airport is the latest example of this subservience. This is due to a number of factors, first and foremost of which is the domination of US transnational capital investment.
I would like to cover just three areas that I feel the left should address and establish as strategically important at this time because the united action of the left is more than just electoral strategies.
The title of this session begs the question, who or what is the left? How do we define the left in contemporary Ireland? Who is in, and who is out? I think these questions can be best or only answered by first defining what the main questions facing our people are. The following I believe are the key areas which mark out the ground on which different political forces stand.
- The primary question is the European Union and the recovery of lost economic and political powers as part of the process of reshaping European co-operation in a more democratic arrangement and less centralised structure;
- The Good Friday agreement and the struggle for a new politics.
- Finally, the re-establishment of a more independent, revitalised labour and trade union movement.
Irish politics do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they free from developments at a European or global level. They are shaped by those developments, by the pressures exerted upon us by imperialism. The starting-point from a left perspective must be to recognise that imperialism is a global system. It is not a collection of policies.
Our world is now under grave threat. Environmental degradation goes unchecked. Global warming once dismissed as "loony science" is now accepted as fact by the majority of ordinary people and the scientific community. Millions of people across our planet are dying of hunger and curable diseases, and AIDS is now almost out of control in Africa. Yet we live in world of unprecedented wealth and material goods. We have the scientific and technological means to harness the world's resources to better the lives of the majority of the world's population, yet it is not done. Why?
Imperialism is shaping and changing the world to meet its economic, political, military and strategic priorities. At the same time it is meeting with resistance across the world. It is not getting its own way all the time. An example of this was the worldwide peace marches by million of people against the drive for war in Iraq by George Bush Junior. We did not succeed in preventing the United States and its allies invading Iraq, but these protests did have an impact and shaped how the war was prosecuted.
Resistance to imperialism is growing right across the world, with various degrees of success. We are can see growing resistance to neo-liberalism across Latin America, the victory of Chávez and the emergence of other progressive governments on that continent. But in Europe everything appears on the surface to be going the way the elites desire it. But is that really the case?
THE EUROPEAN UNION
THE REPUBLIC is now completely emasculated within the EU. The EU has steadily moved on the inevitable course of the creation of a centralised superstate. It was not this or that treaty that was the problem but the whole process itself; the economic and political forces driving the EU would always lead and have eventually led us to this point or juncture in the history of our nation.
There are forces operating within capitalism which compel it to move in certain directions. Its ability to do so is determined by the political conditions that it faces, the resistance that it meets. The concentration of power and the building of an EU superstate are an objective necessity for European monopoly capitalism and its political representatives. It needs to concentrate and consolidate in order to protect itself and its interests globally.
If we look at the countries that make up the current EU, all nations and peoples have their own traditions, historical evolution and experiences. Some have been or still see themselves as imperial powers in their own right. Some are advanced industrial powers with a strong indigenous industrial base, from which they have expanded and colonised other countries and built empires, while others, such as Ireland, have experienced colonial domination, the impact of which has retarded economic, social and cultural development.
All nations and peoples will experience change at different points and at a different pace. This leads to uneven political developments across a range of countries. Some may move forward towards a more radical process of change than others.
The traditional left takes a number of positions and views in relation to the EU and its drive for ever greater integration. Some see it as unstoppable and in fact as an objective necessity and the outcome of capital concentration on the European continent; therefore it is a good thing and it speeds up the process or movement to a united socialist Europe - for if you have a united Europe you surely must end up having a united working class. This approach, I believe, is very class-reductionist and economistic.
If we take a look at the position adopted by the Labour Party, it may not take such a crude view as I have outlined, but in essence it supports the central thrust of integration. Its leaders believe that the EU is somewhat different, that the European "social market economy" is different from the US free-market economy. This view is shared by the Irish trade union movement. Along with the wider elements of the European labour movement they also believe that the best and only way to protect what they call the "European social model" is greater involvement in and support for increased European integration as a bulwark against neo-liberalism. They constantly state that there is no alternative.
It is clear that many from the European social-democratic tradition, both political and trade union wings, have failed to recognise that the European social model is under attack from the very process and institutions they support. Increasing numbers of workers across Europe recognise this fact. The establishment still uses the rhetoric of support for the EU as a bulwark against the "threat" posed by the British and US market economy. This highlights the point I have made about what monopoly capitalism wants, and that what it can impose is down to the level of resistance it meets.
Yet in countries which have been able to sustain their well-developed social policies, structures, and provisions, due to the fact that they have well-organised resistance, opposition to the EU is strongest, for the very reason that they see EU integration as a threat to those very social achievements. They already equate attacks upon their social gains as coming from the likes of the Lisbon Agenda, potentially from the Bolkestein directive or some variation on it, and from numerous other neo-liberalist directives, and the very structure of welfare itself as under attack from bodies like the EU Commission.
Throughout the European Union, with the backing of EU law and the Commission, governments, including the Irish government, have been commodifying and privatising services in accordance with neo-liberalist dogma and the GATS regulations. This, while simultaneously enriching a few, represents an attack on the living standards of the majority. It is driven by the need of corporate Europe to roll back the working conditions and social gains that they have had to concede to workers over many decades. The whole thrust of the currently stalled EU constitution was and is to consolidate and facilitate these ongoing attacks upon workers' rights.
Clearly, for the left to take a position on current developments it must define what the EU is, what forces are behind it, whose interests does it serve, and what is its nature. This would be central to finding a common position, thereby leading to common action.
I will not deal here with chapter and verse of the history of European integration, other than to say that it has been a topic of debate and on the political and economic agenda since about the 1920s. This political and economic necessity became a reality after the Second World War; it was and is driven by European monopoly capitalism. These forces were and are tied closely to and dependent upon the big nation-states, in particular the former imperial powers. Although imperialism is a global system, there are still difference of interests and competition between the states involved.
European monopoly capitalism needed both to break and to combine the European nation-states, in order to streamline investment, production and the movement of goods, establish a larger, unified market, and consolidate labour resources. As separate economic powers its individiual states they were not capable of competing with the United States on their own, due the latter's population size, its low unit production costs, its global economic dominance, and its access to vast natural resources under its control, both domestic and foreign.
The United States both welcomed and pushed for closer co-operation and integration between European states in the initial phase it supported European integration as a bulwark against the threat it perceived from the Soviet Union. In addition its elites were concerned about the growing strength of working-class forces in post-war Europe resulting from the role those forces played in the defeat of fascism. The contradiction between keeping socialism at bay and building up a potential economic and political opponent to itself is now very apparent.
From my perspective and understanding, what is being constructed is a new imperial power with the capacity to impose its economic, political and military priorities around the globe. It will be both an ally of and in opposition to US imperialism at a global level under different sets of conditions, needs, and priorities. I don't believe that you can have a benign form of imperialism, and history shows that. Capitalism and imperialism have only political, economic and military interests. The economic forces driving EU integration, those forces that really take the decisions, have priorities that are based upon maximising profits, market share, market penetration, controlling the ability of labour to defend itself, and global strategies of domination. They are guided by their economic and political interests. They do not deal in such categories as good and bad, just or unjust: only self-interest rules.
The current EU power structures and the structures envisaged under the now on-hold EU constitution correspond to and reflect what EU-based monopoly capitalism needs and requires. All power is to be retained in the hands of an elite, the powerful influence of the European Round-Table of Industrialists and other lobby groups for big business and corporate interests, coupled with an increasing lack of democratic accountability.
- Do part or all of the left agree that the EU is an emerging imperialist power bloc?
- Do we only have one imperialist power in the world today?
- If people do not agree that the European Union is an imperial power, then what is it?
The answer to these questions will determine what your demands are and the political strategies that you adopt.
If you believe that the EU is an imperialist entity, then we need to continue to oppose it at all levels: (1) Politically; (2) Economically, realising that its economic policies not only impact on us, by call for internationalist and anti-imperialist solidarity in relation to how the EU imposes harmful economic policies and priorities upon the world's poor nations; and (3) Militarily, by resisting its military ambitions, its efforts to construct its own army and to build up its own military-industrial complex.
The left and democratic forces need to deepen their understanding of the nature of the EU and what it is, and where it is attempting to push us. From that understanding there follow certain political priorities, the nature of one's demands and the strategic approach that we should take. For this will determine how we engage with the EU.
The left needs to recognise that the EU itself is now one of the main obstacles to progressive social change, and that the erection of obstacles to such change is one of the key underlying rationales that have shaped and driven EU integration.
An example of this is that the whole thrust of EU economic policy and directives is to push the privatisation of publicly owned industries and services,impose market deregulation and militarisation, the destruction of social gains won by workers over a century of struggle, the commodification of everything from health services, education, and social security to pensions.
The central question in relation to the EU is one of sovereignty, democracy, and accountability. The achievement of social and democratic change in Ireland, as in other EU member states, is made much more difficult, if not impossible, in the current conditions, due to the anti-democratic nature and the forces driving the EU.
As power is removed and transferred to the EU level, the impact of this is an undermining of democracy at a national level and the building of a closed system at EU level, free from national democratic accountability. Issues like poverty, unemployment, economic policies and priorities become mere technical issues, to be solved by setting up groups of experts and consultants to come forward with ideas and proposals within very prescribed and narrow boundaries, inside the EU box. The whole process is about the Commission and the political and economic elites it interacts with having complete and unchallengeable power.
The central thrust of EU policy is about removing political and economic decision-making from popular democratic debate and influence, giving people no opportunity to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. People are presented with fait accomplis: no discussion, no debate involving thewm; take what you get.
Over the last thirty years or more, the struggle for national independence has been progressively made more complicated and difficult, as many of the powers to build and develop an independent Ireland have been ceded to the EEC, EC or EU. Without those powers it is near impossible to advance to a socially progressive Ireland. This has meant in practice that in addition to the struggles for civil rights, democracy, community reconciliation in the North and social progress and change, progressive forces have had to struggle and continue to struggle against the ongoing erosion of Irish democracy and sovereignty.
Democracy should not be limited to what we have today, in the main a representative form of parliamentary democracy. The left should be arguing for more than just that: we need to be arguing for a participatory form of democracy, where power and decision-making are real and meaningful to people's everyday lives, whether on the factory floor or in the office and community. Real power must rest is in the hands of the people.
The left needs to take a more strategic approach and develop tactics that will bring new socal forces into play to defend and extend Irish democracy. We need to develop a political strategy to take advantage of the inherent contradictions in the whole EU integration process, which will lead to a situation where the character of the EU itself changes.
There are three areas that I believe can deliver change if we develop the contradiction (1)between democracy and EU diktat; (2) between the interests of big business and working people; and (3) between people's social aspirations and the economic priorities of the elites.
WE HAVE historical experience of building such forces and alliances and developing the necessary political demands to bring change about. The experience gained from the building of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement is one possible example. It identified the anti-democratic structures and the inherent anti-democratic nature of unionism as its Achilles heel and then challenged it on that basis. We should examine what were the forces involved and the methods of struggle on that occasion. I know it is dangerous to extrapolate a complete, worked-out experience from the past and attempt to impose it upon today's conditions, but there are certainly the bones on which to build.
This strategy, if developed by the left and democratic opinion, would pose a number of questions to the Irish people and would expose the deep contradiction between them and the Irish political elites and between our people and the EU.
Here I would like to pose two key questions for consideration:
- Can the needs and aspirations of our people be met within the economic straitjacket of the EU?;
- Can the EU cede democratic changes without itself unravelling and the very character of the EU itself being changed?
I believe the answer to these questions is No. So the challenge for the left is not to follow the establishment in some phoney internationalism but rather to see that the point of struggle at the national level is in defence of democracy, and at the international level it is to show solidarity with other progressive and democratic forces within the EU and beyond. The left and progressives forces must present an alternative vision of Europe, one where the people are central.
The recent defeat inflicted by the French and Dutch electorate on the EU constitution presents renewed opportunities to engage, or at least we should make the effort to engage, with those forces that are pro-EU but opposed to neo-liberalism or the current direction in which the EU is proceeding. There is no use in us engaging in the politics of "I told you so".
It goes without saying that I would be in favour of a socialist Europe, but that is not on offer. The current stage of the struggle should be about what type of relationship should exist between the nations of Europe and the peoples of Europe; to establish equality and mutual respect between EU member states and with other European countries that are not members of the EU; to retain the maximum independence and sovereignty that is possible in today's world; to share and to co-operate with our European neighbours in those policy areas that strengthen mutual support and solidarity around issues of common concern and mutual benefit. An obvious area is in environmental and marine protection.
I approach the question of the EU from a position which I hope is shaped by my understanding of Connolly: that it is only in the linking of the social and the national that political advances can be made and secured. Can we advance to a socially just Ireland when our country is emasculated and subservient to the interests of imperialism? This is the fundamental question that must be answered by those who support the EU and claim to be on the political left.
If we had a progressive government in Ireland, what would its attitude be to EU integration? Would they support the abolition of the euro, a central plank, surely, in re-establishing more economic control at a national level? The left needs to answer the question: Is European imperialism any better or different from British imperialism in the past and US imperialism currently?
THE BELFAST AGREEMENT
WITH REGARD to the north of Ireland we need to look at the question of imperialism not just as squaddies wandering around south Armagh but at its political, economic and cultural influence on the Ireland of today. For decades some on the left and some republicans defined the relation of the Irish Republic to British imperialism as one of a neo-colony, and the relation of the North and Britain as a direct colony. That was a very accurate reflection of the relation pertaining since Partition up to at least the 60s and 70s. The question needs to be asked, is this still the case?
British imperialism had strategic reasons for bringing about Partition and sustaining it for as long as it has. This had nothing to do with protecting the interests of the unionists or the majority of Protestants or their traditions. What is the situation today? Does British imperialism have any further reason to maintain its control? Is its position more a hankering for and pandering to past glories, or does it have any significant reality today?
It is clear that the Irish establishment are willing partners, albeit junior ones, in the building of the new EU imperialist bloc; so clearly there is no threat to imperialist interests from that quarter. Britain does not derive the same economic benefits from Ireland as it did in the past. The North is a drain upon its resources. The once-powerful industrial base in the North, which was linked to British imperialist interests, has all but gone. Britain still has a strong ideological influence and base, particularly within the North. In the South we can also see that influence through the huge numbers of British papers bought on a daily basis, and the television and radio programmes watched and listened to by the Irish people.
Is Britain the main - and I would stress the main - obstacle to realising Connolly's dream of an independent Irish Republic? Today surely it is Brussels and global imperialism that stand in the way of that goal? I am sure the EU establishment do not care whether there is a unified state on this island or not. They are and would be concerned about the nature of thatsState or its possible future government and the policies it might pursue.
The British have stated that they have no economic or strategic interests in the North. They say that it is a matter of consent by the majority of the population, and that they will go along with that decision. Certainly they have been dragged along and been forced to implement the Belfast agreement. This is the context in which the Belfast agreement was shaped and formed.
We need to ask ourselves a number of questions. As the balance of forces and the political and economic interest of the Irish elite have shifted from one of dependence on Britain to being active junior partners with the EU, how does this affect the strategic approach of the left in relation to Partition? Does the adoption of the Belfast agreement mean that the very narrow view of imperialist involvement in Ireland, that it consists essentially of Partition, will wither on the vine? Is this view in fact on the way to becoming defunct? Has the Belfast agreement made Partition superfluous?
Certainly from a strategic point of view, to have developed an all-Ireland economy with the necessary evolving political structures would put the Irish people in a better position to move forward on other fronts. The question of the nature of what we are fighting for cannot be sidestepped or put off. It is the nature of one's goals and the potential of the forces who see their interests as lying in the direction one wishes to bring them, which makes the nature of one's demand so important and central.
Because of Britain's diminished direct role, its objectives in relation to Ireland may not be as dominant as previously was the case. Nevertheless the left and republican forces need to keep up the pressure and develop the necessary political alliances. The desirable common demand should be that the British follow through on their stated positions. We know from experience that imperialism rarely if ever totally abandons reactionary positions held. They always take a long-term strategic view. They would be mindful of the possibility of a more progressive state emerging in an all-Ieland future on this island.
What should be the left's approach to the Belfast Agreement? How does the left evaluate the possibilities of political change in relation to both the Agreement and its impact upon northern politics and potentially upon the whole of the island? The views of some republican groupings outside Sinn Féin, and certain left organisations, could be summarised by the following assessments of the Belfast agreement:
- that it is a complete sell-out of republican ideas and goals;
- that it is the consolidation of Partition and the emasculation of militant republicanism;
- that it is the inevitable outcome of republican involvement in "constitutional" politics; that republicans have compromised too much, given a lot for too little in return;
- that it institutionalises sectarianism;
- that we should be arguing for "class, not creed" politics;
- that nationalism and socialism are incompatible.
The majority of the traditional left are very supportive of the agreement, with a few reservations and concerns about weaknesses. The first three or four points of criticism reflect the traditional narrow understanding of imperialism, how it works, how it achieves its economic and political goals and how those goals may in fact change, due to the fact that its own relative strength may alter in relation to other imperialist formations. Once again I emphasise that imperialism is a relation, not a set of policies.
Behind these criticisms is clearly the view that British imperialist interests have remained static and fixed in relation to Ireland since Partition; that there is only one form of struggle that can bring about progressive change - physical force; that there is some special purity in armed struggle that removes the possibility of compromise and political sell-out.
The latter three points come from a leftist perspective. Yes, there is some validity in stating that the agreement does institutionalise sectarianism. But at this historical moment it is nonetheless possibly the best option. Is a return to Unionist "majority rule" a better option? People experienced that for nearly seventy years, and what did was the result? Yes, would not "class politics" be better? The lines of conflict would be clearer, with two great social armies facing each other, ready to do battle. That is the stuff of an impractical idealism.
The sectarian divide in the North was deliberately created and nurtured over nearly two centuries by British imperialism. It will not just go away because we wish it, because it gets in the way of "real politics". Sectarianism is still a potent weapon in the armoury of certain elements of the establishment. To pose the social against the national is to fail to understand real politics.
Those of us who support the Belfast agreement and who believe that the priority at this time should given to political forms of struggle by republican activists should welcome it. Ending one method of struggle does not mean, nor should it mean, the end of struggle as such, but rather that struggle takes different forms and new forms must be adopted. In this context we strongly welcome the recent statement from the IRA on the complete end to all republican military activities.
The left should not view the Belfast agreement as an end in itself but as a vehicle which at this moment in time has the potential to make advances, to change the economic and political landscape if it continues to develop. It provides political conditions from which we can struggle and develop the necessary forces to eventually bring about a unitary state in the future.
The Belfast agreement emerged and was supported by the southern establishment because they believed that it was the best way to contain the inherent political instability and uncertainly of the North within the confines of the six counties. They hoped that they could construct a sufficiently strong middle ground, with the UUP and the SDLP holding the upper hand, to run and control the institutions set up under the agreement. That has clearly not happened. It shows one that political struggle can change the balance of forces.
I do not think that the majority of the southern establishment have any real strategy to advance the possibilities contained within, and the overall strategic thrust of, the agreement. It is one of the key weaknesses of the whole process that there has been little or no mobilisation of people or political forces around the expansion of and the development of the strategic thrust contained within the GFA in the South.
The future of the left will be clearly determined by its ability to build alliances with other forces around shared goals. The broad national question and not just the very narrow view in relation to Partition is a key area where left activists can and must find common cause and approaches with republicans. I say this because not all republicans are, or claim to be, socialists, and not all socialists necessarily understand or appreciate the centrality of the national question in its broadest sense, and consequently they may not necessarily see republicans as allies.
THE FORCES CURRENTLY ON THE IRISH LEFT
THE IRISH Labour Party has traditionally been the largest party which sees itself on the left of the political spectrum. There have been a number of views within the Labour Party. The dominant one has always been old-fashioned economism or "gas and water socialism". There has always been a very pro-imperialist tendency and a small republican labour current.
The Belfast agreement did provide, and still provides, the Labour Party with the opportunity to break away from its traditional position, confining itself politically and organisationally to the 26 counties. It could, if it had a clearer understanding of the central importance of building an all-Ireland democracy, and an all-Ireland economy, address the republican labour base of Fianna Fáil. Yet it still continues to pander to neo-unionist forces in the South and does not see nor, it appears, realise that conditions have moved on. It does not see any political or electoral gains to be made from taking a more progressive republican position.
The majority of the Labour Party leadership increasingly view Sinn Féin as being in competition with its own electoral ambitions, rather than as allies sharing common goals and shared aspirations. Surely the Labour Party has more in common with republicans than with Fine Gael, a party that epitomises and champions law and order and Partition and is completely bought and sold to the interests of imperialism? Multi-seat constituencies provide the opportunity to build unity without the unnecessary electoral competition.
This weakness on the part of the Labour Party could possibly lead some republicans to believe that their only option is to seek some form of coalition with Fianna Fáil in the South, hoping thereby to drive Irish political and economic integration by being a partner in the Southern government and being central in the Northern executive, using the North-South structures contained within the Belfast agreement to achieve this. If this approach were adopted, would this lead to potential tensions within Sinn Féin?
Some may see their priority as to push this approach, but it could, and I believe it would, lead to long-term damage to the building of a dynamic broad left in the South in particular and the whole island in general. Here the experience of the Labour Party and Democratic Left in previous coalition governments should provide a salutary lesson.
Movement is important, but more important is the direction you are going. It is not so much where one is coming from but where one is going to.
I do not believe that the main objection to Sinn Féin being a partner in some future government in the South was or is the guns of the IRA. A much more important factor is that they are not sure if militant republicanism has completely bought into the status quo now pertaining within the South. As Trimble put it, they need to be "house-trained".
There are huge pressures from the establishment and the EU upon all political forces and organisations to change their policies, particularly those relating to economic priorities and demands and most importantly to accept the EU and our continued membership and subservient role within it, to accept the central thrust of the EU elites in building a heavily centralised European superstate. It is clear that the leadership of the Labour Party, along with leading elements of the Greens, have become well house-trained and are no threat to the establishment in relation to many of these questions.
The clarion call of the establishment is to come into our political swamp, that there is more to be gained from joining us than from struggling for an alternative, because, according to them, there is no alternative.
The left cannot afford to allow the current opportunities now opening up, to leave the development of alternative political and economic priorities, to the political forces which now dominate. Nor can the left sit back and predict that Sinn Féin and republicans will do this, that or the other and that they will go the way of previous developments within republicanism. The left needs to come forward with its own vision of what needs to happen in order to establish and argue for its own economic and social priorities, but at the same time we need to actively work with those forces inside republicanism who wish to see and are struggling for a different Ireland and to shape the course of history.
We should boldly assert that those who believe in the importance of struggling for national independence are natural allies of the left, and vice versa. So, we need to be actively engaged in the battle of ideas around the future direction of whatever structures, programmes and policies emerge over the coming period.
Fianna Fáil and the establishment will be attempting to establish their domination and influence and shape how economic cross-border development takes place. The left needs to exploit the difficulties and contradictions between what the people want and what they get, so as to push politics in a progressive direction. For it is clear that you cannot and will not outdo Fianna Fáil in Fianna Fáilism.
Yes, the history of twentieth-century republicanism is very contradictory. It gave birth to Fianna Fáil, which had a radical phase for about a decade or more; it spawned Clann na Poblachta; it split into two wings in the 60s, the Provisional and Official; it produced pro-imperialist organisations like the Workers' Party, and various ultra-left groupings and other splits. In addition there have always been political forces within it struggling to bring it to the left and to re-connect it with the cause of labour. In the course of those struggles it produced the Republican Congress; and leading members of the Communist Party of Ireland also came out of that tradition.
We have reached an important juncture for both Sinn Féin and the Labour Party. Do both parties become mere props to keep the main establishment parties in government, in whatever combination? A left-right alliance of the Labour Party and Fine Gael confronting a left-right alliance of Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil? Is this what Pat Rabbitte wants? Certainly the leadership of the Labour Party bears most responsibility for this, as they have turned their backs on any other possible alternative.
So once again the question needs to be posed to both the Labour Party and republicans: do they follow James Connolly or de Valera?
The left must become the champions of the cause of social emancipation and national independence and proclaim that the involvement of labour is central to a successful outcome of that struggle, and not a side issue.
A MORE RADICAL APPROACH REQUIRED
THE LEFT needs to take on board Connolly's strategy of linking the social and the national dimensions to the political struggle; that they are one and the same. There is at this time the necessity to connect these two key questions to radical political currents both dealing with the EU and building economic and social structures which will undermine unionist ideology among the working-class supporters of unionism.
We cannot afford not to see that the struggle for socialism needs to embrace the national question in its broadest sense. I believe that a more socially progressive government in the South would appeal to and win those who currently support unionism in the North, particularly among the working class there, to a more progressive politics and to the idea of a unified state.
The struggle to bring progressive politics and more dynamic political, economic and social policies into the northern executive can play a central role in shaping how the unionist working class view political changes and developments. It can shape how they perceive where best their political, economic and social needs will be met and what sort of Ireland might be possible and acceptable. Political parties are both shaped by and in turn shape political struggle from within and without the political structures or system.
Currently, there is a belief among some political commentators that the political problems in the North will be settled by the changing demographics - the Tim Pat Coogan approach: that the numbers game will ensure that the Catholic-nationalist population will overtake Protestant-unionists in the next decade, then outvote them.
I believe that this approach is anti-republican and a very sectarian one and will not provide a long-term, stable solution. So the role of both the left and republicans, whether inside or outside of government, is critical. We need to be active in bringing about change, by putting into practice what you believe in, to actively engage with working-class unionism; showing that what you say and what you do are the same. Being in government does not necessarily mean you are the sole or determining factor for the growth of progressive politics. As experience shows, it can have a detrimental affect.
The Belfast agreement, as I see it, is a means to and end, not an end in itself. It presents better conditions for struggle and has the potential to allow the left and radical forces to build the links and to establish the connections between the social and the national in a real and meaningful way.
We should remember that social ideas and people's understanding of how their material needs such as jobs, housing, education, social provision, equality, as well as language and culture, can be secured, are shaped by their experience of where best their social and economic needs can be met.
Over any period of time the left needs to develop politics that are changing and shaping the conditions of ordinary people's lives. The building of a broad democratic alliance is essential if we are to win allies within the unionist community and weaken and undermine unionism in a progressive direction. This is where the left, trade unions and other social movements can bring their experience and ideas to the table, allowing a progressive democratic alliance to develop in peaceful conditions. Once again the question posed by Connolly, of what type of Ireland we are struggling for, remains very relevant. This, I believe, will have the potential of moving politics forward in a progressive left direction.
The development of all-Ireland economic and social bodies will over a period of time take precedence over what is now the dominant view among many working-class supporters of unionism, of looking to London for money and solutions. But this will not happen automatically or in a progressive, people-centred way: what is needed is the active involvement of, and conscious political actions and clear demands and strategies from, such a democratic alliance as was outlined previously.
We need to develop this type of politics. It has the potential to develop our people's understanding and their consciousness of what needs to be done. Politics should be about people and not purely electoral or ministerial positions. Electoral success will come when people see that the left have real and meaningful solutions to fit their needs and aspirations. We need to get beyond posturing to show what we are in favour of and not just what we are against. One of the most widely held views of the left among working people is that they know what we are against but little about what we are in favour of.
Already we have all-Ireland bodies to deal with tourism, etc. The left need to be pushing for a wide range of cross-border developments, such as energy, transport, infrastructural projects, health service co-operation, natural resources like oil, gas, and fisheries, fiscal autonomy for the (northern) executive. The question of a single currency for the whole of the country, that being the euro, is being discussed in some circles. I believe this would be a mistake in the long term. In the short term it appears attractive in current conditions. But I would re-state that if we are to have the powers required to develop more independent economic policies, then the question of the euro arises. In politics, like life, sometimes there are no easy solutions. I would argue that the breaking of the euro could deal a significant blow to European monopoly capitalism; so this is not a narrow nationalist position but rather an internationalist one. There are points in history where we have only divergence of views and positions amongst imperialists at our disposal from which to wage our struggle.
THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT
THE TRADE union movement is central to any advance to the achievement of progressive change in our country. The role and involvement of the labour movement in any potential progressive democratic alliance is crucial. It is the most significant social force across the whole of the island. It brings together, north and south, nearly 900,000 workers. But it is not without its weaknesses.
Some figures put the number of unionised workers in the private sector at around 30 to 35 per cent of all those employed. The bulk of trade union membership is made up of public-service workers or state employees. The work force in the Republic has grown over the last decade to nearly two million working people, and it is now multi-ethnic. Working people now far outnumber those working on or dependent upon the land. Employment in the construction industry has grown since the mid-90s from 80,000 to 200,000 workers.
We have experienced the most unprecedented and sustained economic boom since 1993, which is only matched by China. It was during this period that we had a floating currency, from 1993 until joining the euro. We should study this period carefully to see what are the lessons to be learnt, if any. This has brought new sets of problems and new demands. This growth has been due to the high levels of foreign direct investment (FDI), that is, transnational capitalist corporations investing in the Republic, particularly from the US, as they view Ireland as a gateway or, in their jargon, "platform" into the EU.
This over-reliance on FDI, coupled with the ongoing privatisation of state and commercial semi-state companies, has the potential to make our country very vulnerable to global changes and fluctuations, with potentially disastrous results. This overdependence on FDI, taken alongside the economic and fiscal levers already ceded to the EU, can and will spell real dangers in the long term for Irish workers. Another feature that we are experiencing is uneven economic development leading to uneven social development across the country. Dublin and its hinterland is bursting at the seams, while large parts of the country remain underdeveloped.
The boom has also led to growing inequality. According to the UN Human Development Index, Ireland ranks with the US and Britain as the three most unequal societies in the developed world in terms of the proportion of the population living below 60 per cent of median income levels. This is made up of people dependent on social welfare, on fixed incomes such as private pensions, the unemployed (4.5 per cent of the labour force) and the unskilled, small farmers, people with poor educational standards, as well as particular categories such as low-skilled unmarried mothers. These figures were recently backed up by Combat Poverty research.
We are also witnessing the gross exploitation and abuse of migrant workers in many industries, not just in construction but in agriculture, in small manufacturing, etc. These are new forces that the left needs to address and involve. All this prosperity comes with a very heavy price tag for workers and their families: one of the longest working weeks in Europe, one of the highest productivity levels, leading to high rates of profits for repatriation; so the level of worker exploitation is intense.
The life-style promoted and encouraged by contemporary capitalism is taking a huge toll on both the individual and families and on the environment. The pursuit of endless consumerism is central to capitalist ideology and is in fact unattainable and unsatisfiable.
It is crucial that the left takes on board the central role of the organised labour movement and develops its potential both industrially and politically. There are no areas of economic, political and social life that Irish trade unions do not or should not have a view on and articulate and campaign for, and upon which their members do not exercise considerable influence.
It is the first or basic level where the ideas of the establishment must be challenged. For if the labour movement has no vision for itself, of what its role is within society, or if it has no distinct view on the nature of society and possible alternatives, then it will remain caught up in social partnership. Its ideas, its vision of any possible alternative Ireland will be blunted. If the left cannot come forward with an alternative, then the establishment in all its forms, the boss class itself, newspaper-owners and columnists, academics, establishment economists, radio and television will provide it.
Trade unions bring together the largest group of organised workers in the whole of the country, north and south. The trade union movement has the potential to be developed into the most coherent voice for organised workers and workers in general.
In the current economic and political conditions the trade union movement is losing ground in both influence among workers and the numbers of workers joining or who feel the necessity to join it. Social partnership is sapping its strength and its independence. In many ways it is creating a very lethargic membership. It is losing its own identity. This I do not believe is down to some malign influence and control by a bureaucratic clique. There are objective reasons for it. The role and influence of the left is divided and weak and in many cases ineffectual. The level of political consciousness is also low. The Industrial Relations Act of 1990 has greatly affected the ability of unions to defend their members' interests and to take effective action, thereby making unions appear impotent.
Reformism is deeply entrenched within the trade union movement: that is the nature of the beast. As the Labour Party has weakened and declined, the more it abandons traditional left, even social-democratic, positions and adopts many tenets of neo-liberalism, the more neutered the trade union movement becomes.
I am not in favour of turning our frustrations with the current state of the labour movement into some dogmatic opposition to the ICTU or to union officials as such. But rather we should recognise that we need to mobilise trade unionists on the ground by participation in the democracy within their unions at all levels.
The priority should be to break social partnership and free up trade unions to act more independently from the state and employers. We need to recognise that workers in the main fight for their own immediate interests.
One key area surely is that the trade union movement needs its own all-Ireland economic strategy, geared towards bringing both economies closer together, which it can fight for at a national level, north and south. That would present an opportunity for workers north and south to fight around common goals. The challenge is to bring an alternative vision of a "new Ireland" into the heart of the debate within the labour movement.
Flowing from the above priorities I would like to address the question of what forces we should be looking to and the demands that we should be bring forward.
Other social groupings
It is increasingly clear that our people are frustrated and unhappy with the current state of the country, and many have voted with their feet. Many no longer see any point in voting at all. Others have taken a step away from the etablishment parties and have voted for minority left parties and progressive independents. There has been a growth of local campaigns around a wide range of issues, local development priorities, the environment, local services, service charges, water privatisation, etc. We have radical Catholics expressing opinions on government policy far to the left of the Labour Party and trade unions.
The government has successfully channelled these groups into safe and secure control structures, such as the Social Pillar in Social Partnership, in various Area Partnership Boards and the like. They have made many community groups and poverty organisations funding-dependent to stifle any potential political development and sap their independence, pull their political teeth. The challenge facing the left it to give expression and leadership to this very diverse set of forces and campaigns. We need to fight for the vision of a reformed or alternative Ireland, a society driven by values other than greed, blind consumerism and environmental degradation.
What we need to do is begin to build a broad democratic alliance. The make-up and nature of that alliance will be shaped by the nature of the demands that we develop.
The following are a few proposals for further discussion and debate.
- Ensure the full implementation of the Belfast Agreement.
- Develop and fight for an all-Ireland economic plan which will facilitate the building of an all-Ireland economy which is centred on the priorities of people and local communities.
- Advocate public ownership and control over all natural resources.
- Work for policies aimed at community reconciliation in the North.
- Oppose any further privatisation of state assets, north and south.
- Internationalise the struggle for national democracy.
- Fight for policies that are centred on mutual solidarity between peoples and nations.
- Work towards relations and co-operation that are built upon respect for national independence and national sovereignty.
- Regional regulations should only be introduced in problem areas which require united action.
- National Parliaments or people alone should determine what powers should be exercised at the regional or global level.
- Withdrawal frm Partnership For Peace and the EU Rapid Reaction Force.
- Rebuild the neutrality of this state (Republic of Ireland).
The struggle to expand democracy is the key to opening up the road to progressive change and to challenge the ever-increasing situation where we have democracy in form without real content.
This democratic alliance should attempt to embrace the broad range of forces that I have outlined above. It should include organisations and individuals who are involved in the struggle to empower their communities, those who wish to see a more human and democratic culture, those involved in the struggle for women's equality, in particular working women, those involved in the struggle to protect our environment, peace activists, those wanting better and more equal health services. The trade union movement has to be a central part of any new alliance. We now have political parties and progressive independents elected to both the Dáil and local authorities who would be allies. This alliance should exclude those who preach or encourage racial or ethnic hatred.
This alliance should be from the bottom up and be about empowering working people and their communities. It is this growing alienation in political, social and cultural life that needs to be challenged to make politics people-centred.
Certainly the coming together and greater co-operation between a party in the Dáil and at local level would be a significant step forward. But we need more than an electoral pact or strategy. Any alliance must be about policies and priorities. If we take, for example, that we had a left government tomorrow, what should or would be its view on the EU? So content is vitally important.
One of the first steps in the building such a democratic alliance is the importance of regular gatherings such as this. It provides the opportunity for people from different backgrounds to come together to argue and discuss in a non-confrontational way the political and social priorities of the day and to reach common understandings leading to common actions.
We have had the top-down experience of the Left Alternative in the 70s, which fell apart for various political reason. One of its main weaknesses was its top-down approach. We need more contact, more discussion and debates at all levels. The building of trust is the first step towards achieving our goal.
Once again I emphasise the importance of the struggle for democracy to expose the establishment and to hoist it on its own petard.
This topic of "prospects for the left" has been the subject of many meetings, many thousands of words written, many a pint drunk debating it, but it appears that nothing ever changes.
There are no magic wands to be waved to solve our difference or our problems. The political conditions have been favourable and unfavourable for the left. Sometimes we have made progress; at other times we have suffered defeats. The ruling elements are not going to make life easier for us: they are not that foolish or stupid.
But we know that we can learn from the past to see where our own weakness lay, and if we overcome them in relation to the link of the social and the national struggles then we will begin to finish the task left to us by James Connolly. For if we do not take on board Connolly's analysis, then we are doomed to repeat our own mistakes again and again.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2005 Eugene McCarten