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.

How Northern Ireland Works

rhiTurn to a certain page of ‘The Irish News’ on any day and one will find an editorial and two opinion pieces, on a Thursday always by Newton Emerson and Allison Morris.  Today’s tells you a lot about how the British State in Ireland works.

Newton Emerson covers the £80 million Social Investment Fund run by the Westminster sub-contractor at Stormont, which, when it was set up, was widely and accurately described as a paramilitary slush fund.  It is meant to help paramilitary criminals ‘transition’ from sectarian thuggery and criminal racketeering to normal society by giving them money.  Much as previous Direct British rule gave them money, weapons and intelligence, all the better that they could kill and intimidate opposition to that rule.  Think of giving money to criminals in order to stop them beating the shit out of you or killing you and you will get the picture – it’s called protection.

The current controversy revolves around a police statement that ‘active’ UDA members are involved in one of the ‘community’ bodies which is funded by this Social Investment Fund.  The two parties running Stormont – the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein – both defend the governance of this fund and say that it has all the checks and scrutiny that disbursement of public money normally involves.

However, this appears to involve giving money to intermediary bodies who decide who gets the funding, so it’s not directly given by Stormont, and no particular monitoring, in fact no monitoring at all, of just what outputs or outcomes or performance measurements are expected to be demonstrated by these ‘community’ groups.  In fact, the front page of this edition of ‘The Irish News’ reports that accounting records can be burned and a qualified statement made on the organisation annual accounts and you will still get the money, rather raising the question of just what checks and scrutiny Sinn Fein and the DUP are referring to.

It might be expected by the ignorant or just naive that Sinn Fein might object and try to stop money being given by the DUP to sectarian loyalist criminals but this would be, well, either ignorant or naïve.  For Sinn Fein it’s a case of allowing each party to slush its own funds.  And anyway, these loyalist gangs are a much greater menace to working class Protestants than working class Catholics and Sinn Fein is a Catholic party.

It might also be expected that the law enforcement agencies might take steps to prevent the funding of terrorist organisations, of which the Ulster Defence Association is one.  Much of Newton Emerson’s opinion piece is taken up by setting out all of the anti-terrorist law that appears to have been broken by everyone involved, including, if I’ve got this right, you and me, now that you have read these lines and I have written them.

It is against the law to be a member of the UDA and it doesn’t matter if you are ‘active’ or otherwise.  Financial support to such an organisation is against the law, even when you merely have “reasonable cause to suspect that it may be used for the purposes of terrorism.”  “Entering into or becoming concerned with” any suspicious “funding arrangement” is also against the law.  And there is a duty to disclose any “belief or suspicion” regarding these offences, with failure to do so itself an offence that could send you to jail for five years. This law applies in Britain and not just in Northern Ireland – so if you’re reading this in Britain it also applies to you! –  so now that both of us have had our suspicions awakened we are all obliged to report this to . . . who exactly?

The second opinion piece by Allison Morris is about what is now called the biggest financial scandal to hit Stormont, since it’s reckoned to be going to cost £400m over 20 years.  It centres on the innocuous sounding Renewable Heat Incentive scheme (RHI) run by the now-renamed Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment (DETI).  This involves payments to people who burn renewable biomass (wooden pellets) and is part of the UK wide initiative to reduce climate change.  The scheme in Northern Ireland originated from a similar scheme in GB except the GB scheme had a cap on the money handed out and the local one didn’t.  Bit of a bummer from the kick-off you might think.

The scheme involved a further design feature that meant you could get more money for burning the wood pellets than it would cost you to buy and burn them.  So, let’s say I bought and burnt wood pellets to heat my farm and this cost me £1,000; the scheme would give me more than £1,000 to do it!

What would you do?  Would you economise on your fuel bills to help save the planet and human kind? Or would you join one scheme participant who is heating an empty barn, or others who have heated their property while opening the windows?  Apparently one farmer will earn £1m over the life of the scheme, and there is no suggestion he is doing anything other than playing by the rules.

This is a scandal not because it is stupid but because one concerned citizen reported to DETI that with five minutes research anyone could work out that this scheme was a mess.  It’s a scandal because the scheme wasn’t immediately stopped when this was pointed out.  It’s a scandal because the relevant Minister responsible has blamed almost everyone but herself and excused herself by saying that she cannot be expected to know “every jot and tittle.”

It’s a big scandal because she is now First Minister.  For the reaction of the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister see scandal one above.  It’s an even bigger scandal because it appears the special advisor to the responsible Minister availed of the scheme, as did his brother, as did another brother of another DUP special advisor and as did god knows who else – because the full list of scheme participants hasn’t been revealed.

The First Minister is obviously not into “every jot and tittle” but not being into it does not seem to prohibit strong action, as she is reported to have delayed stopping the scheme when at last someone at Stormont thought the smell had become too much.

But really, this isn’t the point of this post as readers in the North of Ireland will know all this and others will be well aware that corruption is part and parcel of the capitalist system.  What I found interesting in the two opinion pieces was not the hand-wringing of the two columnists but the conclusions.

Newton Emerson believes that funding illegal terrorist organisations in order that they might behave better is against the law and that since the state is doing this and breaking the law we should change the law!

It’s simply brilliant – isn’t it?

“If paramilitary transitioning had a legal basis, would it feel less like putting some people above the law?” he asks.  I’m really sure there’s an answer to that.

Meanwhile Allison Morris has her conclusion:

“Arlene Foster (the First Minister) has refused to fall on her sword, and this is where I will probably differ in view from many other commentators.  I don’t think she should . . . because the alternative as DUP party leader and First Minister is too awful to think about, Sammy Wilson or Nigel Dodds running the place? No thanks.”

So what will Allison say to us when Foster does go, whenever that is and for whatever reason, and we get a Sammy Wilson or a Nigel Dodds to take over?  Who will the DUP put up as next in line to make Allison put up with a Sammy or a Nigel?

Such is the nature of the peace process in British ruled Ireland and such is the nature of the critical nationalist press, that is, those who are supposed to oppose the rottenness of British rule.

Anyway, that’s enough for tonight.  I’m away to watch the BBC Northern Ireland current affairs programme ‘Spotlight’, which has been trailed as an exposure of the truth by the DUP ex-minister who succeeded Foster at DETI.

Will it be fireworks or a damp squib, like the pathetic indoor fireworks I had to put up with as a child during the troubles because too many loud bangs would send the British Army into apoplexy?

If only I had a bottle of beer in the house I’d open it up and settle down, ready to be delighted or mildly disappointed.

Must go.

 

 

 

 

The politics of conspiracy – the case of Denis Donaldson

donaldsonI remember a number of years ago I was handing out leaflets at a Sinn Fein meeting in Conway Mill on the Falls Road in Belfast.  It was about the relatively new peace process and it would be fair to say that the leaflet was not celebratory of the new initiative.  I was outside the room, although inside the Mill complex, but since the Provos came to regard the whole of West Belfast as theirs it came as no great surprise that one of their number decided I was trespassing on their territory.  As the years have gone by, and if rumours are to be believed, this is less and less their territory and more and more their property.

I was collared (not very roughly) by a then prominent Sinn Fein councillor and pulled (not very strongly) over to another prominent Sinn Fein member, Denis Donaldson.  The councillor wanted to know from Donaldson was it not alright that I should be handing out leaflets critical of Sinn Fein but should be told to get lost.  Denis Donaldson was no more interested in me giving out leaflets than the man on the moon and couldn’t even give a full shrug of the shoulders in apparent indifference; he couldn’t either be bothered to grunt any disapproval or otherwise.

The councillor was a bit exposed so he mouthed some vague displeasure to no particular point and I meandered back to outside the door to give out the rest of the leaflets.  As a comrade of mine put it, the Provos were more tolerant of other opinions when they were less ‘political’, when they confined themselves overwhelmingly to shooting and bombing, than they were to become during the peace process.

The point of this reminiscence is that Denis Donaldson was obviously the go-to guy at the meeting who determined what (or who) was allowed, in other words from ‘the army’.  Denis Donaldson was later revealed as a long term agent of MI5 and is now dead.  He was shot after being exposed as a spy in a remote and ramshackle cottage in Donegal. The rather pathetic circumstances of his death were fitting to someone who, unlike other agents, appeared too demoralised even to run in an attempt to save himself.

Now he has become a headline again because an ex-British soldier has alleged he was shot by the Provisional IRA and not by a ‘dissident’ IRA, which had claimed responsibility.  The headlines have been made because the ex-soldier has now written a book about his activities in the north of Ireland and accuses Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams of having sanctioned the killing.  Adams, through his lawyer, has denied it.

One of Donaldson’s notable activities was his involvement along with two other men in an alleged Sinn Fein spy ring at Stormont.  He was subsequently charged only for prosecutors to drop the charges “in the public interest.”  In such cases “the public interest” is anything but the public interest and is invariably in the state’s interest.

In the south of Ireland an inquest into his death has been delayed 20 times at the request of the Garda Síochána due to concern that a detailed journal found in Donaldson’s cottage contains information about the organisation of the republican movement and about his activity as informer and the activity of the state forces.  It’s doubtful either Sinn Fein or the British State want the contents revealed.

So we have an ex-soldier selling a book making one claim and Adams making the opposite claim.  The ex-soldier also claims that he was previously going to seek to join the IRA before then joining the British Army.  He regards himself as a republican and supports Sinn Fein today, indeed he claims he did so even when serving for the British Army in Ireland!  One can hardly think of anything more bizarre! Indeed it’s hard to think of anything less credible, except for Gerry Adams’ claim that he was never in the IRA.  So on purely a priori grounds of credibility the ex-Brit appears to come out on top.  Does it matter?

In so far as it impinges on Adams it simply reminds one of his lack of principle, unwilling and incapable of defending what was the primary dogma of republicanism – driving the British out of Ireland by armed force. After this was surrendered nothing remained sacred.  Following this betrayal there has no repentance of Gerry who has denied his movement more than three times.  Any further promises – to oppose austerity etc – are open to charges of relying on the same level of credulity necessary to accept his claims to non-membership of the IRA.

In so far as the headlines recall the murky intrigue of the ‘dirty war’ it reminds everyone who lived through it of just how dirty it was.  It was well enough known that loyalist murder survived upon the tolerance and sponsorship of the British state.  What has become clearer since the ‘end’ of the various armed ‘campaigns’ is the degree of this sponsorship.  But even more revelatory has been evidence of British penetration of the republican movement and the betrayal of genuine republican activists by agents of the British State inside the movement.

What all this history has demonstrated is that the conspiracy of the state cannot be overcome by any revolutionary conspiracy.  Irish republicanism is pathologically disposed to such conspiracy and has failed again and again.

As I near the end of reading a recent biography called ‘Karl Marx – a Nineteenth Century Life’, one consistent feature of Marx’s political activity recorded in the book was his opposition to conspiracy as the means of working class organisation.  The political activity that won Marx to socialism and which he in turn fought for again and again was the open organisation of the mass of workers, in struggle for their own objectives based on their own class interests.  It was Marx’s view that these interests are ultimately revolutionary and either the workers became conscious of them, became revolutionary, or they “were nothing.”  Freedom cannot be made behind the backs of workers.  A class cannot come to control society without being aware of its control.

A movement that perennially fails to recognise such basic truths signifies one of two things.  It is incapable of learning or its goals are essentially not about the freedom of the working class.  In both cases conspiracy becomes a favoured means of organisation since, like Gresham’s law, bad organisation drives out good.

Add to this a militaristic outlook and all the horrors of the dirty war are almost inevitable.  It is however not inevitable that sincere working class people end up in such demoralised circumstances that death is almost invited.

Voting in the 2016 election

aaapbp imageAs we head into the last ten days of the general election campaign the failure of Fine Gael’s strategy of ‘stability or chaos’ tells us not only that a majority would like to see a new Government, something explicitly polled and confirmed, but that there really is no threat of chaos that Fine Gael can hold itself up as protection against.  The liberal author Fintan O’Toole has cited pursuit of foreign investment, membership of the EU and a ‘consent’ approach to the national question as the reigning consensus.  Even if we added such things as social partnership, fake neutrality and unwillingness to challenge the Catholic Church this consensus holds.

So even after a full scale crisis, encompassing banking meltdown and the approach of sovereign bankruptcy, plus a grossly unfair transfer onto the majority of the reckless gambling debts of a privileged minority, the Irish working class is not threatening to overturn the existing political order.  Not that this is a shock, having voted into office the traditional Tweedledum alternative of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition to the thoroughly but not completely discredited Fianna Fail Tweedledee in the last election and then confirmed its choice in the 2012 austerity referendum.

This current vote will again demonstrate that elections will usher in no fundamental shift in the political power of the working class without a previous shift in its economic and social power and how to achieve this is hardly apprehended never mind understood.  Instead, it appears that the only stable configuration of parties that could form a Government after the vote is a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition, although opinion polls put them at just under 50 per cent of the vote.

So while nothing fundamental will change, and the inability of Irish workers to break from the rotten political culture of the Irish State is once again confirmed, this does not make the election unimportant.  A marriage of convenience between the civil war parties would be a step forward in removing the false alternative they have claimed to offer for the best part of 90 years.  Nor is the search for some sort of alternative by many workers without importance, even if most seek it in independents who are utterly dependent on the rotten political culture that is often seen as the problem, and in newer versions of the old populist nationalism that has already failed them.

The most striking expression of this search for an alternative is the potential vote for left parties made up of the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People before Profit Alliance and others such as Clare Daly and Joan Collins.  Irish workers should be encouraged to vote for this left alternative.

As regular readers of the blog will know I have many criticisms of the politics of this left and I do not consider their political programmes either adequate or Marxist, in fact not even socialist, except in the popular understanding of what socialism means, in itself a misunderstanding that these parties unfortunately only confirm.

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The manifesto of the AAA/PbP Alliance puts forward a mixture of increased state intervention into the economy and redistribution of income through taxation.  The first involves an increased role for the existing capitalist state, which in the form of taking over of the banks was a weapon against the majority, while the second is predicated on existing property relations, the redistribution of income presupposing the existing ownership which alone can allow such a redistribution to take place.

It is however an alternative in the sense that it breaks from the right wing consensus and in doing so opens up space for a debate on more radical alternatives.  It impinges on the current choices of private capital and by seeking to protect workers from the worst ravages of the system increases their social power, which should also increase the scope for their political development.  That ultimately this Keynesian programme will not work, as indeed some of its authors admit, does not currently matter since it will not be called upon to be implemented.

The problems created by the view that the limited programme will be naturally outgrown by the need to go further, in order to realise even the limited aims of the proposals offered, remain but will therefore not be exposed.  The fight for more radical change based on a strategy centred on electoral and parliamentary success, but without the necessary building of the working class’s social power, will prove disastrous, since it fights precisely on the terrain favoured by the political and social forces that are the bulwarks of the current system.  No amount of rhetoric about support for a left Government from mass action outside the Dail makes up for the weakness of seeing the state as the mechanism for social and economic transformation.

Nevertheless the left’s alternative creates openings and if even minimally successful would create more favourable political and social conditions for the political development of the working class.  The organisations involved would not be able to cope in their existing form were masses of workers to join them, seeking to make them vehicles for their political advance.  These organisations would be changed more by a large influx of workers than the workers would be changed by these organisations.  Already their sometime declared revolutionary politics has been diluted by their electoral activity and hasn’t withstood the necessity of knocking on doors and asking for votes.

The less than revolutionary character of their programmes is due to their inability to conceive of revolutionary politics in a non-revolutionary situation, reflected in the low level of political consciousness of the workers from whom they have sought votes.  In this the left are not an obstacle but not much of a help either, certainly not as much as they should be.

The lack of democracy and dogmatic character of the left organisations would shatter if masses of workers raised within them the real questions facing the construction of socialism.  This lack of democracy is not primarily because of undemocratic restrictions, such as lack of rights to organise political tendencies, but because the memberships see no fundamental problems that need debate in the first place; despite or perhaps because of the lack of any revolutionary success.  For them the strategic questions have already been answered.  However for workers this might not be the case.

The Left are now recording around 10 per cent in Dublin and such a result would be a significant step forward.  Such results do not however confirm the strategy of seeking creation of a Left Government as the way forward, and given the political and economic crisis of the last decade may be seen as a relatively poor return.  What the left offers however is a class identification even if somewhat diluted.  This is evidenced in their ideological background, their manifestos and subjective intentions. On this it may be possible for something more adequate to the tasks to develop.

A vote for these left candidates is therefore important and would strengthen the resistance to existing austerity.  It would place the existence of an alternative on the political agenda in a much more elevated way and make it the subject of increased debate.

The question then arises whether a vote for Sinn Fein should also be called for.  After all, I have previously argued that the difference between the policies of Sinn Fein and the Left is one of degree – greater state involvement and greater redistribution but no fundamental change in property relationships.  I noted that involvement of Sinn Fein in a left electoral alliance would add some credibility to the perspective of electing a Left Government, which is the left’s own perspective, and I recommended that the left seek agreement with Sinn Fein on the platform for such a potential alliance and future Government.

However, the pursuit of some sort of agreement was put forward in order to better expose the limitations of Sinn Fein’s claims or alternatively to lock them more effectively into an agreement of more substance.  In the event this approach was not attempted and neither objective can be said to have been achieved.  There is no real left alliance regardless of Sinn Fein signing up to the principles of Right2Change or agreements on voting transfers.

Sinn Fein is therefore standing as a purely independent party and can only be judged on its own credentials.  In the North it has been tried and tested and has not only failed to offer an effective fight against austerity, or alternative to it, but has actually implemented it in coalition with one of the most right wing parties in Europe.  It is a purely nationalist party that abandoned its core rationale a long time ago; it has no class perspective, even of a limited kind, and its interventions in actual struggles against austerity have been opportunistic.

Of course it can be argued that the smaller organisations of the left have the luxury of not having been tested either and their constant refrain of betrayals of the working class have been made without themselves having withstood the pressures of office.  Indeed my argument has been that their reformist and electoralist strategy puts them precisely in the position of those such as Syriza in Greece that they have condemned for selling out.

There is however a difference between those who have been tested and failed and those who have not.  A difference between those who offer some perspective of struggle, even if subordinated to electoral and parliamentary calculations, and those for whom such calculations are everything.   A difference between those whose politics are purely nationalist and those whose policies are limited to the nation state by virtue of other weaknesses of their political programme.  A difference between those for whom the working class has some independent political interest and those for whom it is simply a sociological category denoting the poorest sections of society.

There should be no vote for Sinn Fein even though a strong showing for it would also reflect opposition to austerity and pursuit of an alternative.  While it is possible that the working class could develop its political strength and its class consciousness through left organisations, in my view the possibility of doing this through Sinn Fein is excluded.  A strong vote for Sinn Fein is as likely to lead it into coalition with Fianna Fail as it is to result in increased pressure for concessions to workers.  This is more so the case because of the lack of any alliance of Sinn Fein with the left, for which of course the fault lies also with Sinn Fein itself.

Workers in the Irish State should therefore vote for the Left.

Dáil tactics when there is no Left Government

Dail images (13)With protest politics in single issue campaigns being inadequate to stem or reverse austerity, and with a party building strategy based on electoral intervention, there is no doubt that the obvious prospect of no left Government arising from the general election that is closing in leaves the Left with a problem in explaining what they’re going to do.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance proposes the following:

“In the case that no left programme for government can be agreed, but a government could be formed without the establishment parties, our TDs will vote in the Dáil to allow the formation of that alternative government. While we would not participate in a government without a left programme, we would allow that government to come to power and then vote to support measures that benefit working-class people and oppose ones that do not.”

Whether this addresses the problem satisfactorily we shall see.  First we should note the absolutely crucial role the project of forming a left Government plays, for the AAA says immediately after the above that:

“At the same time, we would seek to build a mass movement outside the Dáil to put pressure on the government to deliver on its promises and to achieve a genuine left government as soon as possible.”

It is not therefore just that protest politics on its own presents limits to potential impact, or that electoralism has eaten into any former recognition of the limits of parliamentary politics on transformational change; it is clear that forming a Government sitting at the top of the state is the route to their ultimate political objectives.  Since immediate achievement of a majority in the Dáil has never been possible and success in getting a few TDs elected can no longer be presented as success the problems of being a minority in the Dail unable to form an administration have to be addressed.

This is especially so given the enormous economic and political crisis that has hit the Irish State over the last 8 years or so.  Following scandals that robbed the political establishment, state institutions and the Church of much legitimacy the financial crisis saw the State go bankrupt in order to bailout bankers  who were exposed as treating the people with complete contempt.  The Irish State lost any pretence at undivided and exclusive sovereignty through the arrival of the Troika and austerity saw large reductions in peoples’ living standards, compelling tens of thousands to emigrate.  After all this the failure to elect parties no different from those that presided over the crisis, plus voting to endorse austerity by EU Treaty, have been blows to the Left view that their combination of protest and electoralism offers a long term alternative.  And here I will ignore the Left’s habit of always posing its answers with regard only to the short term.

The AAA says its TDs will allow the formation of a Government that does not contain the establishment parties – Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour Party, but does this mean it will vote in the Dail for it or simply abstain? It then says it will vote to support measures that benefit working-class people and oppose ones that do not.  What if a proposed budget (for example) includes both?  What if voting against a measure will see this government fall with the likely alternative being formed by the establishment parties?

With a non-left Government in place there will be no pretence on its part to be introducing a non-capitalist alternative.  Does the AAA think it correct to keep such a Government in office?  How would their political responsibility in doing so be justified?  What measures by this Government would see the AAA vote against it regardless of the consequences in relation to its replacement?  Who would make such decisions?

If it would in effect allow a non-left government to remain in office how can it oppose an alliance with the trade unions in Right2Change on the basis that such an alliance will include Sinn Fein, when Sinn Fein would inevitably be in the non-left Government that the AAA would allow to be formed and would support in certain votes?  That it will not form an alliance is based on the claim that SF in government “will make compromises with the system . . .  that will undermine the whole basis of the initiative and lead to a dead end.”

Since socialists in parliament are obliged to vote for measures that benefit or strengthen workers, no matter who proposes them, it does not appear that the AAA is saying anything very new.  Except that it will be taking political responsibility for letting that Government take up office in the first place, and this on the basis that it is not formed of ‘establishment parties’, which is hardly a very rigorous political distinction on which to make such a judgement.

All this may be academic as at least one of these parties will be in government following the elections.   The main point is not that Dail tactics may be unclear and messy but that the admission that such tactics are now considered means the strategy of forming a left Government as the answer to the political challenges faced by workers will shortly be revealed to be worse than academic.  Worse because the reformist logic behind this perspective will not only not have any purchase on reality after the election but will prevent elaboration of a debate on what a socialist strategy should be.

That the logic of the AAA strategy is reformist is made clear by the passage quoted above – “At the same time, we would seek to build a mass movement outside the Dáil to put pressure on the government to deliver on its promises and to achieve a genuine left government as soon as possible.”  Such is the role of the workers – to put pressure on the capitalist politicians and then replace them with other better politicians.

All this being the result of “ mass movement”  does not make it better but in so far as it becomes the fixed and certain political perspective of the workers’ movement it is a strategy bound to mislead.

To be clear: there is nothing wrong with putting pressure on capitalist politicians and a left Government is preferable to a right-wing one.  The point is that this pressure should arise from a strategy of building up working class power and seeking to exploit a left Government to facilitate this further.  This is not the same as this pressure and a left Government actually being the strategy itself.

So why is this misleading?  Well the Socialist Workers Party, which leads the People before Profit electoral front, has written a short article setting out the history of the failure of such initiatives based on the traditional Marxist analysis that the capitalist state cannot be reformed, even with a left government sitting on top of it.  I will look at this in the final post.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

The exclusion of Sinn Fein from the idea of a Left Government

demo imagesSince there isn’t going to be a left government elected in 2016 the left has seen itself with two challenges.  Firstly how to defend themselves against the charge that it is they who are the barrier to such a prospect through ruling out an electoral alliance of some sort with Sinn Fein and the trade union organised Right2Water campaign and secondly, how do they explain their electoral strategy without a left Government; a plan B so to speak?

As I have argued in the three previous posts, the left programme for Government and that advocated by the Right2Water campaign are not so dissimilar and if they were serious about a broad alliance that included Sinn Fein there would have been more of an effort to pursue an agreed platform and having done so seek to split the trade unions from endorsing Sinn Fein if this effort proved fruitless.  The cause of the failure could then be held up as warranting the split of the unions from their endorsement  of the Sinners.  I have argued the grounds for the latter are narrow, although from my point of view this justifies more the creation of a different platform than accommodation with Sinn Fein.

The Anti-Austerity Alliance has attempted to do some weak imitation of this in a statement:

“The AAA is part of Right2Water and we believe that R2W and the trade unions behind it have played a very important role in mobilising people on many mass demonstrations.  We accept the positive intentions of the trade unions in initiating Right2Change but we believe having Sinn Fein at the centre of a new anti austerity political movement is a major mistake.”

The statement then goes on to make a number of points about the weak tactics of Sinn Fein in the anti-water charges campaign, their role in imposing austerity in the North, their signals to Fianna Fail (FF) that they may go into coalition with them and their own much more radical policies and reliance on working class self-activity.  Finally they bum up the potential for a left-led electoral intervention, dropping a figure of potentially 30 per cent support into the discussion.

As far as tactics go, tactics are tactics and not a strong basis to refuse alliance.  The criticism of Sinn Fein’s role in the North is bang-on; the question of coalition with FF would not arise if there was a wider left alliance and their claim to much more radical policies is not nearly as strong as they would like to believe.  Certainly, as the analysis of their budgetary proposals goes, it is a question of differences of degree only, which are important but not in themselves enough to rule out an alliance.  As for the question of workers’ self-activity – in the left’s strategy this the consistent practice of sponsoring campaign fronts consisting of protests over single issues.  The broader strategy remains one of electoral success backed up by such support outside, workers self-activity is therefore strategically subordinate.  And as far as the prospects for success go, the figure of 30 per cent is not a promise, not a forecast and not an analysis or fact on which to decide what has to be done.

In answering the specific questions posed by the Right2Change they argue as follows:

“Does the AAA support the Right2Change policy principles?

The AAA generally supports the reforms outlined in the policy principles. We believe that for these to be realised will necessitate going much further than the projected spending increases in the Fiscal Framework Document. These reforms are reasonable and necessary and provide the opportunity to win mass support for the radical change that is needed but they are beyond what the current system can offer.

Does the AAA agree now to form a progressive government based on this platform if the numbers allow?

The AAA is open to participate in government but not a government that includes any parties associated with austerity or a government whose policy is based on operating within the strict fiscal rules set by the EU or capitalism. We want a government that will scrap the unjust taxes and charges and reverse the draconian austerity cuts that have been implemented; a government that immediately sets about the transformation of the economy on the basis of democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy to ensure people’s needs not profit is the basis of society.”

What this means is that the AAA is not in favour of a left Government but what might be called an anti-capitalist Government in which case an alliance with Sinn Fein does not arise, and neither for that matter does an alliance with the trade unions in the anti-water charges campaign

In so far as the AAA pretends to an alliance with these trade unions it is on the basis that agreed reforms have simply to be made more extensive to inevitably lead to a break with the EU and capitalism and the working class that voted for these reforms will carry along supporting this break.  The left Government leads and the working class follows or, in the very left version of this strategy the left leads the workers in militant action that leads them to elect a left Government that the working class follows.  Not much hangs on the difference.  In either case the working class is expected to be a bit slow in realising that when it votes for reforms it really gets revolution, of a sort.

Except it won’t be getting socialism.

As Leon Trotsky so accurately put it “it would of course be a disastrous error, an outright deception, to assert that the road to socialism passes, not through the proletarian revolution, but through nationalisation by the bourgeois state of various branches of industry and their transfer into the hands of the workers’ organisations.”

In essence the policy of the other organisation on the radical left, People before Profit (PbP), is no different from the Anti-Austerity Alliance:

“Sinn Fein is sending out conflicting signals. They talk about forming a ‘progressive government’ but also indicate that they are willing to join in coalition with Fianna Fail or Labour, provided they are the larger party. In view of the position we stated above, they

* would have to rule out coalition with the establishment parties –something they are very reluctant to do.

* would have to agree to an increase in corporation tax – even though they tried to reduce it in the North.

* would have to agree to writing down Ireland’s debt rather than just asking permission from the EU.

* would have to stop promoting austerity in the North while opposing it in the South.

* would have to join the active fight against water charges by promoting a boycott.

Working people who want real and significant change should query Sinn Fein on these issues.”

The PbP policy has all the strengths and weaknesses of the former but it combines it with its own political confusions which I will look at in the next post.

Back to part 3