The Irish election, a victory for the left?

Lots of superlatives have been employed to describe the results of the Irish general election, almost all reflecting the dramatic growth of the vote for Sinn Fein, which is now the largest party in terms of popular support with 24.5%.  In 2016 it had only 14 % of the vote.

This is a bit of a surprise, not least to Sinn Fein, which was unable to capitalise fully on the votes received due to not having stood enough candidates.  The party had suffered badly in the previous Presidential, local and European elections and moderated its expectations accordingly.  Two stories indicate the abrupt turnaround.  One successful candidate topped the poll in Clare with 8,987 first preference votes after having failed to become a local councillor last May when she only got 385 votes.  Another successful candidate went off on holiday during the election and only campaigned for two weeks.

Two other changes were also notable.  The first was the comprehensive rejection of the ruling Fine Gael party, which had its worst result in 60 years, and the second was the failure of the main opposition party Fianna Fail, which had its worst result since 2011, when it paid the price for its role in the crash of the Celtic Tiger.  In 2007 these two parties totalled 68% of the vote, in this election only 43%.  Lastly, also worth noting in relation to other countries, was the failure of the far right, anti-immigration candidates.

This last phenomenon reflects both well and badly on the Irish electorate.  The Irish have no post-imperial hangover like the British and their history, in so far as they know it, is one of anti-colonial resistance.  The Irish are also much more aware of their true place in the world, as a home for mainly US multinationals, for whom no prostration to their needs is too much.  So, for example, the state’s inward investment agency gave a made-up award to the senior executive in Apple for the company having hung around Ireland for 40 years making money.  It should be recalled that according to the EU, Apple owes the Irish State €13.5 billion which Apple is contesting and so is the Irish State.

In any case the existing constraints on immigration and the treatment of immigrants in direct provision centres demonstrates the harshness of existing government policy.  The 80% majority in the racist referendum in 2004 is a stain on the country yet to be removed, although the views of younger people might now be very different.

So yes, the trouncing of far-right candidates is very much to be welcomed, just as long as we appreciate the context and its limits, which is what we should do when considering the overall results.

The election result is described as reflecting a ‘mood’ for change, and the sudden rise of Sinn Fein might reflect the fact that moods come and go and are never permanent. It might reflect not only the speed of change but also the indefinite character of the message being sent, just as we suffer moods but rarely experience them as well-thought-out drivers of definite objectives.

The ‘mood for change’ has however indicated some of the change demanded, primarily to housing availability and affordability and to access to health care, as well as a solution to the general malaise around state services, or sometimes their non-existence.  But how this change will be achieved is unclear, and how Sinn Fein would achieve it is also not clear.

Clear enough however is the rejection of the main bourgeois parties and a hope that the state can play a bigger role in sorting out the shortcomings of existing economic growth.  This growth has both caused the demand for change by making failures of the economic model and the government approach obvious, and made change apparently possible through the extra resources it has provided.

The question for socialists is how wide and how deep is the demand for change, reflected in the votes for Sinn Fein and rejection of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael? An exit poll recorded that 48% felt it was ‘best to have a change of government’, while nearly one third believed that ‘the country needs a radical change in direction’.  Fifty-one per cent said that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were wrong to rule out forming a government with Sinn Fein. These figures are significant without being overwhelming.

Part of the reason for the result is the fact that we have had a Fine Gael government for 9 years that only had the support of one quarter of the voters from 2016, a narrow base of support for a party that has never had real majority support.  A lot of people started off not having endorsed it and Fianna Fail’s confidence and supply arrangement did not act to add any popular support.

Now the decline of the two major parties has allowed Sinn Fein to come to the fore and we have widespread commentary that we have the beginnings at least of the formation of a new Irish politics defined by a left-right division.  So who is this left?

If we add up the parties to the left of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael we reach a total of 41.5% (SF, Greens, Labour, Social Democrats, Solidarity/People before Profit) which will only be slightly greater if we include some independents, most of whom are not left wing.

There is some coherence to this left in that Sinn Fein voters generally transferred to some of these parties and research has shown that the voters for these parties generally define themselves as left wing.  Unfortunately, all this does is transfer the limitations of this purely relative term to the people who vote for these ‘left-wing’ parties. They are, of course, to the left of the two main bourgeois parties, but how much does this tell us?

Included in this list of parties is Sinn Fein, which has grown as it has dropped its core programme of support for armed struggle to force the British out of the North of Ireland.   A list as long as your arm could be written of the U-turns it has accomplished as a result, but in the South of the country most notable is that it has gone from opposition to coalition with the two bourgeois parties to openly flouting their availability for a lash-up.  If the development of Irish politics has been defined by the crash of the Celtic Tiger, it should not be forgotten that Sinn Fein voted for the bank bail-out whereby generations of Irish workers will pay for the debts of the banks.

It includes the Green Party with 7.1% of the vote, which as a partner in Government with Fianna Fail, took political responsibility for the policies leading up to the crash and those afterwards, including the bank bail-out, suffering for years afterwards as a result.  Although apparently not long enough.

It also includes the Labour Party with 4.4%, which was the only party to vote against the bank bail-out, but then entered Government to inflict punishing austerity to pay for it.  Never one to shirk this role in alliance with Fine Gael, the party may have performed this cynical trick once too often.  The point of its existence is now regularly canvassed, since its brand is discredited and other parties appear to have taken up its claimed position on the left and apparently with greater sincerity.

The Social Democrats with 2.9% is the party that most clearly represents the alternative to Labour while Solidarity/People before Profit, with 2.6%, failed to make gains and lost one seat.  In a number of seats it relied on Sinn Fein transfers to get elected, without it seems showing much appreciation.  The left changed names, split again and ‘allied’ again for the elections and hailed the mood for change but no more defined it than before.  That it failed to profit from this mood is a real failure.

For groups claiming to be Marxist it is its own judgement that their intervention always fails to call into question the role of elections or advance the organisation and political consciousness of the Irish working class.  The limits of this consciousness have instead imposed itself on this left, by which we mean reliance on the state and failure to make reorganisation of the labour movement its aim.

Behind this motley history lies a coherence that is not apparent at first glance.  Greater state intervention is common to all these parties with a preference for a left government to carry it out, however variously understood.  Now Sinn Fein has said it wants to lead negotiations of these parties to create such a government.

The numbers do not add up but this is not initially the point.  The point would be some agreement that these components should come together with their own proposal for government.  Whether it succeeds is not within its control, but it sends a message.  What happens when it does not succeed is something else again.  It would at least form a benchmark against which voters in future elections might seek reference and therefore accord relevance.

Of course, some on the left ‘left’ might denounce Sinn Fein sincerity, pointing to its implementation of austerity while in office in the North, or its use of such an initiative purely for leverage with Fianna Fail in coalition negotiations, but this would be seeking to avoid the problem.  If such denunciations were effective on their own Sinn Fein would not be where it is today.  An alternative would be to challenge the party to make real on commitment to a left programme and a left government; because of the left’s own Keynesian-type policies there are no qualitative differences with its own programme.

If this is not the approach then the claims to fight for a left Government by Solidarity/People before Profit is a fraud, for what they can only mean in such a case is that their policy is for themselves alone in Government.  Given the propensity to split this looks even further away than their already 2.6% vote would lead one to believe.  One problem is that these organisations don’t trust each other or themselves, the latter leading to splits, and if this is the case, why should the working class?

Only a united, democratic left, whatever its political shortcomings, could begin to repair this situation.

Of course, this is not a very revolutionary perspective, but there are no smart political policies or demands that will make for one.  It reflects where the working class is at, the degree to which the election results have shown the scope and extent of radicalisation.  We either meet it, and seek to develop it, or we present it with ultimatums to be more revolutionary than it is.

 

 

Sinn Fein in Government?

This week’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll reported that Sinn Fein is potentially headed to be the biggest party in this weekend’s general election,  While it’s on 25% support, the governing party Fine Gale is on 20% and the opposition Fianna Fail on 23%.  Sinn Fein has almost reached these levels of support before in the Irish State but never in first place.

The Irish Times sketch writer, Miriam Lord, has described all three parties as now in various degrees of panic.  Fine Gael, because its loss of support reflects the depths of opposition to its years in office and it may be out of it soon; Fianna Fail, because of its years of keeping Fine Gael in office in an agreement between the two parties, and Sinn Fein, because it has come as a surprise to it as much as many others after very bad Presidential, local and European elections.

The Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has been described as looking like an OTR (as in an ‘on the run’- a member of the IRA who doesn’t have immunity from prosecution) on the grounds that now that they have reached this great height they don’t want to screw it up by having to answer any difficult questions.  McDonald has been acclaimed for good media performances and tapping into a widespread mood for change, while also being applauded for not being too specific about how she is going to solve the health and housing crises giving rise to this demand for change.

It would not be wrong to note that Sinn Fein’s opposition to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail does not exactly transmit into opposition to either of them being in office, only that they should be open to Sinn Fein joining them.  That of course would require a joint programme for Government, which by definition requires no significant differences between them in any potential coalition programme.  But if Sinn Fein can go into coalition with one of the most reactionary parties in Europe, I refer to the Democratic Unionist Party for those unfamiliar with Irish politics, coalition with either of these parties should not be a problem.

Fine Gael originates from part of the Irish Republican movement that fought the British in 1916 and in the War of Independence.  Leading figures in these struggles were also leading figures in the pro-Treaty side in the following civil war, including the prime military leader of the War of Independence, Michael Collins, and W T Cosgrave, the Irish State’s first Taoiseach.

Fianna Fail’s leaders also fought in 1916, the War of Independence and Civil War, just on the anti-Treaty side in the last conflict.  While the Pro-Treaty ancestor of Fine Gael supported the new Irish State from the beginning, because of the argument that it would provide ‘the freedom to achieve freedom’, the anti-Treaty Fianna Fail claim it is they who delivered it, (although it was a Fine Gael led government that declared the Irish State a Republic and Fianna Fail can’t explain what proved to be wrong with the pro-Treaty argument).

Sinn Fein holds itself to be the party both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail split from, except it itself is a split from the Official Republican Movement in 1970, its claim now resting on the fact that the Official Republicans abandoned the name and moved away from the politics of traditional Irish nationalism.  Like pro-Treaty republicans who rejected the British solution of Home rule; and like Fianna Fail, who rejected the new British solution of the Free State; Sinn Fein rejected both, but now accepts the latest British solution to ‘the Irish Question’, which on this side of the sea is more accurately described as ‘the British Question’.

All three parties now agree that the Free State/26 County State/Irish State is legitimate and now accept partition, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  They have their differing constituencies of support – Sinn Fein stronger among less well-off sections of the working class in urban areas; Fianna Fail among farmers, but also among other social layers; and Fine Gael among the better off middle class, but they all hail from the same tradition of militant Irish nationalism that isn’t militant anymore.  In the end all three provide proof of the old adage that fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.

For many decades now there has been no essential, and little inessential, difference between Fianna Fail (FF) and Fine Gael (FG), and many have ridiculed the competition between them.  It’s rather the political equivalent of club rivalry in the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), in which the cousins in one club beat the shit out of the cousins from a rival parish’s club.  If you’re in the club you don’t need explanation for the rivalry, but any explanation you might get for it will make not much sense.

Now we have a third force, which promises real change, and because of its youth, is not yet fully conscious of its position in the world and has yet to form a rounded, fully-developed and more or less permanent personality of gobshite politics. I have no doubt many Sinners believe they are opposed to austerity in the South and have not implemented it in the North, or will excuse themselves for it.  But reality says different.

Sinn Fein policies involve broadly social democratic promises, including significantly higher state spending, some lower taxes and increased taxation of businesses and higher incomes.  It has made hay with the now dropped plan of Fine Gael to commemorate the Royal Irish Constabulary, the paramilitary police force the British used to police the whole of Ireland before partition.  There is no good reason why this particular revisionist step should suddenly detonate a reaction, but it is welcome nonetheless, even if it exposes once again the limited nature of popular nationalism.

Sinn Fein are opposed and rather hysterically denounced by both FF and FG, but both of these have recognised the electoral need to support increased state spending and reduced emphasis on tax cuts.

They and Sinn Fein also do so because, as the economic boom in Ireland has continued, the inherent imbalances in capitalist growth require a State to intervene to ensure these do not become an obstacle to further profitable expansion.  Poor infrastructure in health, housing, childcare and transport threatens to increase the cost of labour power (the value of labour power in Marxist parlance) and so provide both practical and cost barriers to capital accumulation and growth.

The two most pressing are housing and health.  The problem is that more money is not the (only) problem for both and there is no easy solution for any of the parties within the limits of their political ideologies and projects.  An unreconstructed health service could gobble up much more money without comparable improvement in the population’s health, although the worst experiences might be avoided. Pumping more money into housing could easily make it more expensive to buy and rents no more affordable.  The power of the middle class interests in both, and particularly of landowners and property developers in political networks, makes any radical solution (that doesn’t automatically involve capitalist expropriation) the last thing the major political parties will want to do.  And this will be true of Sinn Fein, as potentially a new addition.

However, in itself, the Sinn Fein economic programme offers no insuperable barrier to the formation of a coalition with either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.  The difference is mainly one of scale and the compromises involved in coalitions can cover that in every meaning of the word.  The economic boom provides as benevolent an environment as Sinn Fein is likely to get, even taking account of a potential hit from Brexit.

The potential for another recession, through another property crash (a couple of property investment funds have recently refused to allow investors to cash-out) might however reveal the underlying debt position of the state.  The bank bail-out that caused the bankruptcy of the Irish state has left an overhang of debt that is currently relatively easily affordable because of low interest rates, with yields on 10 year Irish bonds in negative territory.  But this cannot last and a recession could easily raise them.

But that is more than a problem for Sinn Fein, although it should not be forgotten that the party supported the bank bail out that made the debts of the banks the debts of the people.  Sinn Fein has thus shown that it is no more a real alternative to Fianna Fail than Fianna Fail is to Fine Gael.  It simply has yet to be demonstrated, which of course is not something inconsequential in itself.

Unlike the North, the Irish State is a sovereign state and acutely aware that the Provisionals were until relatively recently a subversive threat to the stability, if not the existence, of the state.  The Provisionals are no longer a real or a proclaimed threat but they are an armed force outside of state control, even if much diminished, and this is unacceptable.  Sinn Fein will still have much to prove and the political establishment in Dublin may make arrangements to ensure exclusion of Sinn Fein from office this time.  It may be possible, for example that Fianna Fail gains sufficiently in seats from the unpopularity of the Government that it is able to form a coalition, which some pundits predict will be the case.

The reaction of the left to Sinn Fein growth is to ask that it not enter coalition with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.   But this left is in competition with Sinn Fein for the same constituency and has regularly denounced it as soft on both establishment parties and ever-ready to do a deal with either of them.  The alternative, which I noted in a series of posts on the strategy that the left has pursued, was to be more open to an alliance with Sinn Fein and fight to unite with it in a common alliance.  Of course, this would require some common programme, but since the left’s electoral policies are just souped-up social democracy, this too would simply be a matter of compromise without breaking any principle.  The policies of the left do not involve the overthrow of capitalism, not to mention any mechanisms for the development of socialism.

In the first leaders debate on television, the first question asked was all about why people should vote for a party if it couldn’t form part of a government.  And this was a reasonable question, because this is what elections are for.  And it was a question that rendered People before Profit/Solidarity irrelevant and Richard Boyd Barrett with nothing to say.  Listening to him there was no sense in which he spoke on behalf of a movement outside the establishment bourgeois democratic process that in itself was the alternative to the problems he and the others were asked about.

That is because the left is currently now almost wholly an electoral force, something that limits its potential and limits its development.  A long time ago it ceased to fight for socialist politics in these elections and retreated to radical social democracy.  It clearly has no idea what sort of platform a Marxist organisation should stand upon in an electoral contest, or rather It thinks it already does.  However, its Keynesian policies and state-centred solutions render the working class absent as the agent of change, making it instead the supplicant of the state it must ultimately remove and replace.

The left has collapsed into social democratic politics in order to be consonant with the existing political consciousness of the Irish working class and to demonstrate its practical relevance to it by being elected.  But this ultimately means getting into office, a step it is both unprepared to take and to which it puts up unjustified obstacles, its opposition to Sinn Fein being one of them.

While it is possible to condemn Sinn Fein for its opportunism and its betrayal of working class interests, this has to be demonstrated.  Having decided to adopt electoralism as a strategy the left should either abandon the strategy and totally re-evaluate its understanding of Marxism, or it should follow through on its electoralism and take its social democratic programme to its logical conclusion.  If history is anything to go by, the latter is the much more likely road that will be taken.

Remembering or forgetting the Kingsmill massacre?

News in the North of Ireland for over a week has been dominated by the controversy created by Sinn Fein MP Barry McElduff, who posted a tweet of himself with a loaf of Kingsmill sliced bread on his head in the shop at a service station.  He’s regarded as the Sinn Fein clown but nobody was laughing, at least not publicly, as he posted his video at 5 minutes past midnight on the 42nd anniversary of the killing of ten Protestant workmen by the IRA, at Kingsmill in Armagh.

He was roundly condemned and Sinn Fein suspended him from his post for three months, which was generally regarded as a weak admonition.  Unionists roundly condemned the photo and the punishment and contrasted one republican’s behaviour and the party’s mild rebuke with the recent Sinn Fein demand for equality and respect.

McElduff complained that he had not been aware that there would be any link between his tomfoolery and the massacre but some argued that it was too much of a coincidence.  My own view was that it was crass but couldn’t see the point of a republican drawing attention to something Sinn Fein would wish forgotten and which the IRA at the time would not admit.

What was more important was that the killings had actually taken place and had not been politically accounted for by those who carried it out and who are now claiming the mantle of reconciliation.

The sectarian slaughter was so appalling there was no admission of responsibility and, despite years of demands by republicans for a truth process, they still haven’t done so and aren’t going to.  Six members of two Catholic families had been murdered by loyalists the day before the Kingsmill massacre, and Kingsmill was carried out and widely seen as retaliation.  A classical tit-for-tat killing designed to deliver a message that we can also do what you can.

I remember that, perhaps five years later, a republican supporter defended the massacre to me on the grounds that it stopped the sectarian tit-for-tat killings.  This was the view of republicans at the time and no doubt still the view of most of those old enough to remember it now.

A also remember a comrade of mine once saying that the IRA fought a campaign that sometimes involved sectarian killing while loyalists fought a campaign that was sectarian killing. That many of the unionist politicians today complaining about the behaviour of McElduff are still today collaborating with loyalist paramilitaries up to their necks in criminality and with a record of sectarianism no republican could match makes their protest and grievance easy for many to dismiss.

The media controversy didn’t die, partly because it suited unionist purposes, and partly because it really does put a big pall over the republican ‘equality and respect’ agenda, with the video conjuring up the view that sectarian killing is a joke.  In the North the controversy will not significantly dent Sinn Fein support, but it just adds to the cynicism and/or calculated ignorance required to continue that support.  While always stating their republicanism could not be compared to loyalism, the retreat to what-about loyalist hypocrisy admits of such comparison. It is a defence, but only at the expense of embracing your enemy and sharing the same unwanted spotlight.

In the South, things are different.  It is now being argued that the resignation of McElduff after the mild rebuke of suspension has not been voluntary but demanded by Sinn Fein, especially Sinn Fein in the South, for whom association with the past deeds of the IRA really is a shackle they seek to escape.

This might seem the worst of all options for republicans – refusing to take strong action that might demonstrate they have changed and recognising  their responsibilities, while losing their colleague anyway.  But this is not how it works.  He’s gone; they can welcome his decision and move on.  Just like the original massacre – admit nothing, while sending a message, and hope to move on.

Like seemingly every major atrocity during the ‘Troubles’ the spectre of the British state’s involvement has also been raised by the controversy and as usual relegated in importance.

Police failure, seeming incompetence in investigating the case and suspicions of collusion, with no one charged over the killing, has raised again the issue that the IRA and loyalists seemed often to be almost puppets of agents working in the bowels of the British State.  That this was the case for much of loyalism can hardly have been doubted, though seldom admitted, but the state penetration of republicanism has been much more surprising.

In truth, there is little new in the episode because nothing has been revealed that we didn’t know already.  It will not affect the current political stalemate in the North and in the South every step away from its past renders the new Sinn Fein closer to a pale imitation of the rest of staid Irish nationalism.  Those coming from a republican tradition are devout in their remembrance and commemoration of the past but they seem incapable of learning from it.

Far from facing its history and learning its lessons they forget nothing and learn nothing because they either seek to repeat the same strategy today or defend the strategy applied yesterday. In any circumstance it would be a failure today as it was before.

The episode is seen as showing the barriers to reconciliation existing in the North but the columnist Brian Feeney of the Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ is right when he says that reconciliation is a religious notion that is a chimera, one that hasn’t, isn’t and won’t exist.  What is actually being demanded is reconciliation of incompatible claims coming from different sides while the respective validity of these different sides is also paradoxically affirmed.  The complete incoherence of the equality of sectarianism that passes for political progress here is on show once more.

What is required is not reconciliation of two sectarian sides but unity across sectarian division that through this unity dissolves it.  Irish republicanism has failed this task, which it once set itself over two hundred years ago, and no one really expects it to have much to do with achieving it now.

James Connolly, Socialism and Sinn Fein

The front-page headline of ‘The Irish News’ yesterday read ‘Sinn Fein and DUP accused of ‘political carve-up’ of £4m’ – a report on the joint decision of the two parties in Belfast City Council to spend £2m on museums and a ‘training hotel’.  The training hotel is a ‘social economy training hotel’ in the loyalist Shankill area and the museums include an Orange Hall museum and a ‘James Connolly Interpretive Centre.’

The latest collaboration between the two best of enemies has not been prevented by their failure to agree terms on a return to Stormont rule, and has been compared to the paramilitary slush fund that is the Strategic Investment Fund.  Opponents have claimed that the funding of the projects in the home base of the two parties has not offered “even an illusion of fairness” and has been put forward with a “complete lack of transparency”. According to ‘The Irish News’, Belfast City Council could not provide minutes of the committee meetings at which the decisions were taken.

The justification for the museums etc. is that they will hugely develop tourism and promote heritage.  So very Irish and very peace-process; money to oil the wheels of ‘peace’.

What James Connolly would have thought of his relatively short stay in Belfast being employed as part of a political carve up, with him on one side and an Orange museum on the other, is not hard to guess.  A report of the new ‘interpretive centre’ has a link to a speech by Martin McGuinness, stating that the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rising and subsequent events should be “mature and inoffensive”.  One must therefore look forward to any new centre providing such an interpretation of Connolly’s views on Orangeism, with which his memory will now be twinned.

I also look forward to its interpretation of Connolly’s socialism, which is the very opposite of Irish republican and of much socialist opinion as well, and which is particularly apposite to this proposed municipal initiative.  The following article – ‘State Monopoly versus Socialism’ – written by Connolly in the ‘Workers Republic’ in 1899 is more relevant today than when it was written over a century ago:

“One of the most significant signs of our times is the readiness with which our struggling middle class turns to schemes of State or Municipal ownership and control, for relief from the economic pressure under which it is struggling. Thus we find in England demands for the nationalisation of the telephone system, for the extension of municipal enterprise in the use of electricity, for the extension of the parcel system in the Post Office, for the nationalisation of railways and canals.”

“In Ireland we have our middle class reformers demanding state help for agriculture, state purchase of lands, arterial draining, state construction of docks, piers and harbours, state aid for the fishing industry, state control of the relations between agricultural tenant and landlord, and also nationalisation of railways and canals.”

“There is a certain section of Socialists, chiefly in England, who never tire of hailing all such demands for state activity as a sign of the growth of the Socialist spirit among the middle class, and therefore worthy of all the support the working-class democracy can give. In some degree such a view seems justifiable. The fact that large sections of the capitalist class join in demanding the intervention of the State in industry is a sure sign that they, at least, have lost the overweening belief in the all-sufficiency of private enterprise which characterised their class a generation ago; and that they have been forced to recognise the fact that there are a multitude of things in which the ‘brain’, ‘self-reliance’, and ‘personal responsibility’ of the capitalist are entirely unnecessary.”

“To argue that, since in such enterprises the private property-holder is dispensed with, therefore he can be dispensed with in all other forms of industrial activity, is logical enough and we really fail to see in what manner the advocates of capitalist society can continue to clamour for such state ownership as that alluded to – ownership in which the private capitalist is seen to be superfluous, and yet continue to argue that in all other forms of industry the private capitalist is indispensable. For it must be remembered that every function of a useful character performed by the State or Municipality to-day was at one time performed by private individuals for profit, and in conformity with the then generally accepted belief that it could not be satisfactorily performed except by private individuals.”

“But all this notwithstanding, we would, without undue desire to carp or cavil, point out that to call such demands ‘Socialistic’ is in the highest degree misleading. Socialism properly implies above all things the co-operative control by the workers of the machinery of production; without this co-operative control the public ownership by the State is not Socialism – it is only State capitalism.”

“The demands of the middle-class reformers, from the Railway Reform League down, are simply plans to facilitate the business transactions of the capitalist class. State Telephones – to cheapen messages in the interest of the middle class who are the principal users of the telephone system; State Railways – to cheapen carriage of goods in the interest of the middle-class trader; State-construction of piers, docks, etc. – in the interest of the middle-class merchant; in fact every scheme now advanced in which the help of the State is invoked is a scheme to lighten the burden of the capitalist – trader, manufacturer, or farmer.”

“Were they all in working order to-morrow the change would not necessarily benefit the working class; we would still have in our state industries, as in the Post Office to-day, the same unfair classification of salaries, and the same despotic rule of an irresponsible head. Those who worked most and hardest would still get the least remuneration, and the rank and file would still be deprived of all voice in the ordering of their industry, just the same as in all private enterprises.”

“Therefore, we repeat, state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism – if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials – but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism.”

“Schemes of state and municipal ownership, if unaccompanied by this co-operative principle, are but schemes for the perfectioning of the mechanism of capitalist government-schemes to make the capitalist regime respectable and efficient for the purposes of the capitalist; in the second place they represent the class-conscious instinct of the business man who feels that capitalist should not prey upon capitalist, while all may unite to prey upon the workers. The chief immediate sufferers from private ownership of railways, canals, and telephones are the middle class shop-keeping element, and their resentment at the tariffs imposed is but the capitalist political expression of the old adage that “dog should not eat dog.”

“It will thus be seen that an immense gulf separates the ‘nationalising’ proposals of the middle class from the ‘socialising’ demands of the revolutionary working class. The first proposes to endow a Class State – repository of the political power of the Capitalist Class – with certain powers and functions to be administered in the common interest of the possessing class; the second proposes to subvert the Class State and replace it with the Socialist State, representing organised society – the Socialist Republic. To the cry of the middle class reformers, “make this or that the property of the government,” we reply, “yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.”

 

 

Socialist Strategy – reply to a critic 2

The second point I want to respond to in the response to my initial posts is what Socialist Democracy have to say about the nature of Sinn Fein (SF), which in my view is once again confused.

SD state that it is a serious weakness of mine that I see Sinn Fein in the North as a Catholic Party and equivalent to the DUP.

I do indeed assert that it is a party that defends Catholic rights but that does not mean I assert equivalence between it and the DUP.  I don’t assert this, and in fact my analysis has been that Sinn Fein’s project of seeking equality of sectarian rights is not only not the same as the DUP’s but has been rejected by the DUP, which wants superiority of sectarian rights for unionism and rejects such equality.

What this means is that Sinn Fein fights for Catholic rights, for communal sectarian rights, but is not equivalent to the DUP, which continues to seek Catholic subordination.  How could the Socialist Democracy author have missed this?

It is nevertheless the case that Sinn Fein has asserted and defended sectarian rights and does so straight from entering Stormont, when declaring itself as part of one of the sectarian blocs for voting purposes.  Even the SD author acknowledges that in relation to defense of Catholic rights that “it is true that this is their mode of operation in the various carve-ups in Stormont.”

It is at this point that the SD author attempts something extraordinary.  First by saying that this “does not sum up the party itself or the dynamic of their supporters.”

We have already quoted from SD itself on the dynamic of its supporters – “popular consciousness is still contained within the consciousness of the peace process that the parents of current activists voted for and which they grew up in. Imperialism does not exist.”  As SD have also said: “the majority of the population accept the framework of the Assembly and the idea of a balancing of sectarian rights.”  It has also pointed to Sinn Fein conciliation of unionism in its response, which, let’s be clear, means conciliation of sectarianism.

As for the party itself, interested readers are free to read article after article on the Socialist Democracy web site slating the political practices of Sinn Fein and its support, and its collaboration with imperialist rule and the most outrageous facilitation of loyalist corruption, including its own description of Sinn Fein’s politics as “Catholic populism.” (article 1 June 2017)

In an article published on 10 March this year we read this:

“the central tenets of the peace process, equality of the two traditions and the Government of Ireland Act, remains a barrier to anything other than the institutionalisation of sectarian division.”

“they (SF) were facilitating, and participating in, the corruption and sectarian carve-up of resources that is the everyday activity of Stormont.”

“the St Andrews Agreement and the settlement around it is based on communal rather than civil rights.”

Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein “went from opposition to Britain rule to administration for British state and comfortable membership of a nationalist family of church and state.”

“McGuinness and Sinn Fein surrendered to the Catholic Church and the Catholic bourgeoisie represented by the Derry Traders Association.”

In another article from 5 January this year we read that “structural sectarianism extends into the internal life of the parties. . . The main business of the assembly is to share-out resources on the basis of sectarian privilege.  Its output is a routine of scandals based on sectarian corruption. . . But to really get to the heart of Arlene’s impunity we must take into account the role of Sinn Fein. . . In this environment, they must desperately wave their presence in government and the share of sectarian patronage they control as proof of the success of their strategy of working within the colonial system.”

If one wants to read a textbook case of the sectarianism that Sinn Fein defends then one could do no better than read the Socialist Democracy article published on 8 December 2016.  It sums up the political practice of Sinn Fein in Stormont by stating that “the consequence is that sectarianism – rather than being allowed to wither away – is being artificially kept alive.”

Yet, in his reply to my critique, the SD author finds that “Sinn Fein presents itself as a part of the left.  Their main demands at the moment – an Irish language act, LGBT marriage rights, investigation of state killings, are essentially democratic demands. . . . It is not long ago that the SM (Sráid Marx) blog itself proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state!”

It’s not clear at all what we are supposed to make of all this. Previous SD commentary on Sinn Fein speaks repeatedly of Sinn Fein “lies” and states that “Sinn Fein have been speaking out of both sides of their mouth since the beginning of the peace process.”

So, what point is the SD author now making?  Is SF still up to its neck in sectarian patronage, or is it in some way a party of the left, putting forward democratic demands?

Did SD not write on 10 March that “Sinn Fein itself was unconcerned about state murder, about corruption or about the Irish language until their own members revolted.”  Is it now implied that this revolt has changed the nature of the party?

Just as on the question of reforms, which are supported in general in order to be dismissed in particular, Sinn Fein is sectarian in particular but dare not be compared to the unionists in general because it puts forward democratic demands.

Oh, and isn’t it noticeable that while PbP gets slated for putting forward demands for reform, Sinn Fein’s claims to do so are presented as some sort of defense or exculpation for its less appealing practices?

But perhaps it really is that Sinn Fein have changed. So, for example, in its article on the elections on 1 June, Socialist Democracy say that “The political campaign that Sinn Fein ran in the March elections was much sharper than the vague populism of the SWP.”  After another paragraph, we learn in the same article that “The Sinn Fein slogans were insincere.  They allowed all these issues to fall in order to keep Stormont running, but now they put forwards substantive policies that reflected the anger of their supporters.” (Emphasis added by Sráid Marx).

This indeed would now appear to be the SD argument, for it says in its response that “It is true that Sinn Fein voters, along with the majority of the nationalist population, hold the illusion that reform will come through Stormont, but it is not the case that they seek only rights for Catholics. There is all the difference in the world in looking to Stormont for reform and supporting Stormont as the bulwark of reaction.” (Of the last sentence, we can only agree!  It is SD that, in its criticism of PbP, appears not to see any difference, as I pointed out in the first of these posts.)

But of course, it must be noted that now SD is speaking not of Sinn Fein itself but of its supporters.  Yet this doesn’t quite tally with what it has previously said: of the working class, SD has said that “many oppose open sectarianism, but feel that there is some benign form that could share resources peacefully. They despise politicians, but feel that a team of better politicians could manage better. Politics are avoided as many have been convinced that the only alternative is armed conflict.”

Most importantly, this move to discuss aspects of the Sinn Fein support appears here to be employed with the effect of providing cover for the Sinn Fein party, for nowhere is it admitted that Sinn Fein is a bulwark of support for sectarian discrimination, something that was previously an SD commonplace.  This is a remarkable retreat on its part.

This shift in the assessment of the Party has been presaged with earlier SD condemnation of PbP while simultaneously at least partially exonerating Sinn Fein:

“Nowhere in the PBP narrative is there any recognition of the imperialist dominion of Ireland or an acknowledgement of the material base of partition in armed bodies of the state. The Sinn Fein narrative, while mistaken, is at least coherent. A presence in government in the North and South would so impress the British that they would immediately withdraw from Ireland, they believe. Exactly how having PBP candidates in Stormont would lead to a united Ireland is far from clear, given their frantic support for the institution.”

So, read that again.  As against the PbP narrative, the Sinn Fein one is at least coherent – get into government North and South and the British will withdraw, but the PbP strategy of getting into parliament is “far from clear.”  So, although both strategies are described as more or less the same – achieving power through parliament – the SF one is ‘coherent’ but the PbP one is not.

More importantly, the role of Sinn Fein itself in mobilising Catholic workers in support of sectarian arrangements, which in turn support loyalist intimidation of Protestant working class communities, one that “keeps sectarianism alive” (according to earlier SD analysis quoted above), is nowhere admitted in the response to my critique.  It all falls to the wayside in defense of what SD thinks is an anti-imperialist and revolutionary approach to politics in contrast to perceived reformist heresies.

However, SD notwithstanding, as long as Catholic workers support Sinn Fein they will be vicariously supporting sectarianism and this has and will continue to block development of a socialist alternative among these workers.  This is what is key, but is what is completely absent in the SD response, which consists of savagely criticising the failings of PbP, while now putting forward some meagre cover for Sinn Fein.

This bias for Sinn Fein and against PbP, even in particular cases where it appears that there is no essential difference in approach between them (and we leave aside whether this is in fact true) arises from a further aspect of SD’s politics, illustrated in a recent theme of their criticism of PbP – opposition to the slogan “Neither Orange or Green, but Socialist.”

However, before dealing with this and leaving this section of my reply, I want to address the SD point that while I criticize Sinn Fein for defending sectarian rights I also “proposed Sinn Fein as a central element of a reformist movement in the 26 county state.”  This is correct, so I need to explain why I did so.

The posts in which I put this forward explained that the programmes put forward by the left groups in the South were reformist and different only in degree from that of Sinn Fein.  In order to put their strategy forward as a credible alternative, these groups would have to seek unity with Sinn Fein and seek to stiffen the latter’s reformist promises or expose them as fraudulent.

If this led to a larger reformist alliance there might be some greater hope that a break by Irish workers from the capitalist parties they have supported (in particular Fianna Fail) might be made on a larger scale, providing the grounds upon which Irish workers could learn and advance to more adequate socialist politics.

I understand that for SD this is to be regarded as a betrayal, involving the creation of a reformist movement, in which case I also await their opposition to Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain.  For my part, it is a judgement that at that time such an alliance would have been an advance for Irish workers upon which further advances could hopefully be made.

However, despite SD protestations to the contrary, it is clear that it envisages a purely revolutionary democratic road forward (and they criticise stagism!) when the comrades state that:

“As in the years following 1916, we should not wait for the British and for Irish capital to grant us independence. We must take it for ourselves. Given the number of parties who claim that they stand for a united Ireland and the widespread support for unity even while it is downplayed everywhere, is there any reason why a 32 county constituent assembly cannot be called to assert our democratic rights?”

So, SD believe the bourgeois democratic institutions of the Southern state can be overturned and replaced by a Constituent Assembly!  To answer their question – the reason why such an assembly cannot be called is that all the parties claiming to support a united Ireland don’t really mean it, and the mass of the population regard their bourgeois democratic institutions as legitimate and support them.  If the tiny number who support a constituent assembly attempted to turn their slogans into reality this vast majority would join in crushing them.

I have no idea how such a perspective could be defended from the charge of being ultra-left.

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Martin McGuinness, personification of republicanism

On October 24 1990, a Derry man Patsy Gillespie was abducted by the IRA, tied to the driver’s seat of a van and told to drive the van packed with explosives to a British Army checkpoint on the border with Donegal.  While doing so his wife and children were held at gunpoint.  Two other such bombs were also delivered to targets on the border on the same day.  Using others to deliver bombs was a well-known IRA tactic and almost inevitably the driver got out at the target and warned of the bomb.

This time however the bomb was to be detonated by remote control or by the door of the van being opened, which Patsy Gallagher did as he struggled to free himself and get out of the van.  When it opened five British soldiers and Patsy Gallagher were killed; the largest part of him to be retrieved afterwards was part of his hand.  The use of a ‘human bomb’, as it was quickly called, caused widespread revulsion, including among nationalists.

Patsy Gallagher was killed because, according to the IRA, he was “a part of the British war machine”. He had been warned to leave his job because he worked at a British army base, as a cook.  He was, to use a more old-fashioned phase, a ‘collaborator.’

The deployment of three such attacks on the one day would had to have been sanctioned by the Northern Command of the IRA, whose Officer Commanding was Martin McGuinness.

Just under a decade later he was Minister of Education in the Northern Ireland Executive, the administration devolved from Westminster.  His Sinn Fein colleague in the Executive was Bairbre de Brun, who was Minister of Health.  One of her more important acts was to launch a review of acute services in Northern Ireland: “I want to hear all the arguments and weigh up the options before taking any final decisions. To put me in a position to take the necessary decisions, I need measured, informed and objective advice on how acute services can best be developed to meet the needs of our people.”

To lead this review she appointed a well-known figure, Maurice Hayes.  He had been the most senior Catholic civil servant at Stormont, supplying weekly reports on politics in the Irish State to the Northern Ireland Executive in 1974; later becoming head of personnel for the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services and later Northern Ireland Ombudsman. He was Electoral Boundary Commissioner, a Senior Advisor to the Chair of the Constitutional Convention, a member of Lord Patten’s Commission to reform the police in the North of Ireland, and authored the report which led to the establishment of the office of Police Ombudsman.

In other words it could be said, if one wanted to, that when Sinn Fein got into office they asked the most senior ‘collaborator’ around to help them decide what they were going to do now they had got there.

Nothing epitomises the evolution of republican politics in the North of Ireland so much as the sequence of these two events.  In fact, it could be said that no two events define republican politics so much as the conjunction of these two events.  All the more important because they are now either forgotten, or, in the second case, were barely noticed at the time.

Of course, Martin McGuinness was later denounced for various actions by other republicans, including his condemnation of these republicans as traitors for shooting British troops; and for toasting the Queen in white tie and tails at Windsor Castle.  These were high-profile events but they were mainly symbolic.  The killing of Patsy Gallagher for being “a part of the British war machine” while hiring the biggest ‘castle Catholic’ when it entered office were not symbolic but very real.  These events tell us most of what we need to know about the politics of Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein.

A working class cook had become a ‘legitimate target’ in a war which, when it ended, they could think of nothing better than to ask one of the most prominent Catholic establishment figures for advice on what they should do.  Militarist ‘anti-imperialism’ gave way to equally ineffective subordination as a parliamentary ‘opposition’ to British rule, an opposition that involved not being in opposition but being in government.  And with a party so right wing its antediluvian views resembles closely the most rabid base of Donald Trump.

Throughout their evolution, no matter what its twists and turns, the movement exhibited a complete lack of class politics.  The socialist opinions of some masked the right-wing politics of the movement as a whole.  As the old adage goes, opinions are like assholes – everyone’s got one.

The movement has been a vivid demonstration of lessons not widely enough appreciated – that ‘anti-imperialism’ does not necessitate socialism and that a predominantly working class base does not equate to politics defined by class.  A socialist assessment of the political life of Martin McGuinness that does not register these facts is worthless.

This is important because the political assessment of someone’s life often becomes more important than that life’s impact when it was lived.  Gerry Adams claimed that “Martin McGuinness never went to war, the war came to him.”  But this of course is untrue.

Martin McGuinness and the Provisional IRA did go to war.  The necessity for armed defence against sectarian pogroms was usurped by the Provisional IRA into a conscious offensive war that promised victory ’72, ’73 etc. It was they who claimed that only the IRA and its armed struggle could bring victory, by which they meant a united Ireland; but their struggle degenerated as the British State inevitably crushed it by its superior power.   They failed so comprehensively they now pretend this war was about something other than declared at the time, all about equality and not ‘Brits Out’.  In all this Martin McGuinness played a leading role.

I remember being asked by the wife of a republican whether I thought Martin McGuinness was a British spy.  Not because I had any more knowledge of the secret war than she had, because I was pretty sure I had less, but because despite this she really didn’t have a clue, or rather the clues were useless.  She simply wanted another opinion of someone who might have thought about it from a different perspective from her own.  The important point is that it was a legitimate question and one that will probably never go away (see the posts here and here.)

Politically it doesn’t really matter, because informers are as much a part of the republican movement and its history as anything else.  Secret conspiracies are particularly vulnerable to much more powerful secret conspiracies to counter them, and the British state is not short on this resource.  The role any individual can play is limited in most circumstances and particularly so  in the oppressive circumstances in which McGuinness was politically active.

His legacy is one of a failed armed campaign and collapsed political arrangements at Stormont that he fought doggedly to promote.  But the grubby reality of the latter is as clear as the brutality of the former.  This includes broken Sinn Fein promises to oppose welfare cuts and support for austerity and sectarian patronage.

No amount of media spin, lamenting the botched implementation of a renewable energy scheme, or failure of the institutions to deliver effective government, can hide the fact that the scheme was not botched – it worked perfectly – and Stormont is still effective in containing politics within sectarian boundaries, even when it only functions as a prize still to be realised.

In the latter part of his political career Martin McGuinness must be judged on both his pursuit of such an unworthy goal and his failure to achieve its lasting implementation.  To rephrase slightly: pity the land that needs heroes and sad the land that needs one like this.

 

The decay of Stormont and Sinn Fein

martin-mcguinness-resigns-2_-lewisWhen a dreadfully ill-looking Martin McGuinness appeared on television to announce his resignation as Deputy First Minister he perfectly personified the alarming state of Sinn Fein strategy.  Whatever about the nature of his illness there is nothing secret about the utter failure of the latter  The repeated response of Sinn Fein to republican critics that these detractors had no strategy to bring about their goals has itself been exposed, as their own policy has become a self-declared failure.

The resignation letter of McGuinness put a poor gloss on a hasty decision that was forced on the party and which it dearly sought to avoid.  Recent actions betrayed a desperation to save its position in the Stormont regime and thereby the regime itself.  It opposed a public inquiry into a scandalous Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) Scheme, designed to protect the climate by giving participants £160 for every £100 they spent on burning wooden pellets.  Unlike the British scheme no limit was set on how much was to be spent on the incentive to burn as much as one could.  It was indefensible and in any other liberal democracy, such as Northern Ireland pretends to be, it would have led to a resignation.

Sinn Fein opposed a vote of no confidence in the First Minister Arlene Foster, responsible for the scheme, explicitly stating it was because it wished to save the Stormont institutions.  It also opposed a public inquiry into the scheme because it knew that the Democratic Unionist Party would not wear it.  It hoped instead that a call for Foster to merely step aside for a few weeks, while some fig-leaf of an investigation did the needful in calming the political waters, would be agreeable.  However, the DUP advanced the age-old ‘not an inch’ approach of unionism to reject its request for the pathetic.

To rub salt into the wounds, just before Christmas the DUP Culture Minister withdrew the small bursary scheme, costing only £50,000, for children to attend the Gaeltacht to learn Irish.  The widespread suspicion that millions were being given to well-connected DUP supporters through the RHI scheme sat beside the vindictive insult to Irish language enthusiasts who are overwhelmingly Catholic.

McGuinness has accused the DUP of arrogance, to which it might be tempting to say that it takes one to know one, where the DUP not in a league of their own. Nevertheless, they made for a workable double act for 10 years and the DUP has not recently changed its spots.

The personal arrogance or otherwise of Arlene Foster (she hardly hides it) confuted the media-attempted creation of yet another new ‘moderate’ Unionist leader and is hardly the point.  Expecting a Unionist leader to show humility ignores the laager supremacist ideology with which unionism is inseparably entwined, summed up in its primitive slogans of ‘not an inch’, ‘this we will maintain’, ‘we can do no other’, ‘no surrender’ and ‘we are the people’, all testament to an utterly reactionary movement.

Sinn Fein sat for ten years promising and not delivering, promising equality while delivering sectarian division; promising to oppose austerity while imposing it; promising opposition to welfare reform while handing powers to Westminster to ensure it was implemented, and within the last year promising a ‘Fresh Start’ and a ‘united Executive’, which produced the old, stale smell of bigotry and bitter animosity.

It failed and its complaint about the failure of the Good Friday Agreement is its own failure – the DUP are not complaining about any such failure.  So sewn up has Sinn Fein been that when McGuinness resigned over the RHI scheme the DUP straight away cynically announced its support for a judicial inquiry, leaving Sinn Fein as the only party not to support one.

It promises no return to the status quo following the resignation.  But how is it going to convince anyone that it can go back into office with the DUP and deliver anything different from the last decade of failure?

We should be clear.  It was not RHI that forced Sinn Fein out.  As we have seen it was prepared to give the DUP a way out.  It has known about this scandal for a year and did nothing.  It put up with unionist arrogance and sectarianism for 10 years on the basis that it too had its own sectarian spoils to dispense.  It hasn’t all of a sudden become remorseful at broken promises: once it abandoned armed struggle against the British state the Provisionals had no principles left.

McGuinness resigned because Sinn Fein’s humiliation was so comprehensive its base were leaving it – through increased Catholic abstention and grumblings even from the membership.  The election of two People before Profit candidates in West Belfast and Derry was a warning that it could face an alternative.  DUP arrogance was a factor to the extent that it knew its predicament wasn’t going to change – Foster and the DUP were openly flouting the rules that both parties were deemed to be equal and could only act together.

Some will see these events as proof that the Northern State is irreformable.  McGuinness’s statement was careful to include the British in the cast of those to blame.  A local Stormont regime steeped in sectarianism has never been unpalatable for the British and Sinn Fein is not now presenting them as the necessary factor in making unionism more amenable to equality of sectarian division.  The final proof of the irreformability of the Northern State, in the sense of its inherent sectarian nature, is that it is more than likely that any election will return the same two forces as the largest parties.

The Stormont regime provides evidence of the instability of a sectarian carve-up.  While almost all commentators and political parties have lamented the loss of credibility of the political settlement through the RHI scandal, this is its only progressive outcome.  Stormont is destroying itself.  What matters for socialists is that some steps are taken by workers to build an alternative.