The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 2


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The demonstrations against the water charges last Saturday showed that the Right2Water campaign is supported by local groups in towns and cities right across the State.  This grass-roots organisation is a reflection of the strength of feeling among the working class and is its greatest political strength.  It is not the creation or front of one or other, or even the whole collection, of political groups although they are deeply involved.

It is united in total opposition to the charges and to the tactic of non-payment and it should expect to be challenged by the State on both.  Concessions by the Government will be offered in the next days and afterwards stronger tactics will be employed against those who remain in opposition, if they can be sufficiently isolated.  This is always the way it works.  Every carrot is followed by a stick.

The various organisations involved in the campaign have put forward their own perspectives for the way forward.  By looking at the leaflets given out at the demonstration last Saturday I want to review what they are proposing.

Sinn Fein put out a leaflet ‘Stop the Water Charges’ which promises to reverse water charges when in Government, which rather admits it will be in some form of coalition with one of the capitalist parties after the election.  Otherwise it has little to offer those who want to see the charges scrapped.  Simply waiting for a new Government on the other hand is something that would paralyse and then kill the campaign.

Sinn Fein claims in the leaflet that it blocked the introduction of water charges in the North.  As Eamonn McCann noted in his article in ‘The Irish Times’ I referred to in the previous post – all four main parties in the North have claimed the credit for not introducing water charges.

Eamonn McCann claims “that it was a mass non-payment campaign that prevented the introduction of water charges by Stormont in 2007.” As someone who went round doors helping to organise meetings and speaking at them I know this is, unfortunately, not true.  There were numerous campaigns but none of them had a mass character and lots of signatures on a pledge of non-payment doesn’t make a mass campaign.  Meetings were usually small and when candidates from the Left stood on anti-water charges tickets they generally got the same derisory vote they always got.

The parties in the new Stormont regime did indeed refuse to introduce water charges because it was very unpopular with their own supporters, and it was something that they could manage without – so they did mange without.

The Socialist Party leaflet doesn’t mention it’s a Socialist Party leaflet but hides itself, as usual, behind some party front; this time it’s the ‘We won’t pay Campaign.’  Since it already dominates the Anti-Austerity Alliance, this method of organisation it appears wedded to wouldn’t seem to be useful even to the SP.

The leaflet is however very good at putting the case for non-payment and explaining the position of the State and the legal implications of the tactic.  It looks back to the successful water charges campaign in the mid-1990s but provides no indication that the lessons of more recent failures such as the anti-bin tax campaign have been assimilated.

The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet also argues strongly for non-payment and advises on the real situation that non-payers will face.  It is also honest enough to explain the counter-measures that the State could adopt to thwart the non-payment tactic, but then also points out the problems this would give to the State.

So the State could deduct the charge from wages or benefits but this would require a change in the law and would make it impossible to privatise Irish Water, which they say is the primary reason for imposing water charges.  On this I am unconvinced.  Charging is necessary in order to raise revenue to reduce the budget deficit, meet demands from the Troika and get the debts of the company and its future debts off the Government’s balance sheet so its debt ratio looks better.  Direct State intervention to make deductions from salaries and benefits go against this project whether privatisation is hoped for in the future or not.

That the amounts might today be relatively small does not invalidate this view but does raise the point that retreat on the issue by the Government would not involve an enormous monetary cost.

In any case we should not lose sight of the fact that it is under public ownership that this attack on workers is taking place and it is under public ownership that the water service has been a disgrace with flooding, poor water quality and leakage at atrocious levels for years.

Public ownership is a euphemism for State ownership and is misleading because the public don’t actually own it and don’t, as we can see, have any say over how it is managed or run.  There is no need to bum up the benefits of such ownership when it’s not the socialist alternative.

With this in mind, calls for a referendum to prevent privatisation might allow some to avoid taking a strong position on opposing the charges.  It is not that surprising that Jack O’Connor appears on the television supporting the call for a referendum while SIPTU fails to back the Right2Water campaign.  SIPTU members should challenge its leadership on this failure and anti-water charges campaigners should stand outside Liberty House demanding the union’s support.

The Socialist Workers Party issued a leaflet from its own political front – People before Profit, practicing the politics of feeble reformism that it condemns in its other publications.  It has its own euphemisms that it uses to straddle the contradiction.  So it calls for ‘people power’ instead of teaching Irish workers that the people are divided into classes and that the power and interests of the working class are different from those of the people who belong to the capitalist class.

This way of approaching politics allows the issue of class to be side-lined and, for example, the class nature of the state ignored, so that the State can be called upon to provide solutions; such as their leaflet calling for taking ‘Ireland’s natural resources into public ownership’.  Like Irish Water?

The leaflet also appears to call fort a general strike on 10th December but doesn’t have the courage of its convictions to say so.  On the usefulness of this demand see a previous post.  It calls for a ‘revolt’ but it’s not clear if this means revolution or is something short of it and what this might be.

The fear of using socialist terms to define socialist concepts and therefore a socialist programme and strategy sits in opposition to what appears as a hyping of the existing struggle.  So the leaflet says that ‘the battle against water charges is part of a wider revolt.’

If only it were.

Its importance however is not that it is part of a wider revolt, but that it is the exception to the rule of general working class passivity and acceptance of austerity.  Its wider political significance is actually that it might herald the start of a wider resistance.  But then the question is how do we achieve this, or can we?  Not that it already exists.

The article in ‘The Irish Times’ noted that one reason behind the anti-water charges campaign was that the people cannot “give any more” and “the people have been pushed too far.”  The Workers Solidarity Movement leaflet notes that ‘hundreds of thousands of people are now saying ‘No More’”. In other words many workers have decided that they won’t pay this bill.  They have not decided to stop paying the price of austerity they are already paying or perhaps new ones that will heaped on them in the future should the new boom prove temporary.

If the strength of the campaign is its local organisation then an effective national campaign structure would help to leverage that strength to support activity in weaker areas or where no campaign currently exist.  Above all such a structure should provide for democratic accountability to the members of those speaking for the national campaign.  It would provide the means by which a collective view can be determined and publicised on such things as the response to whatever partial concessions the Government dreams up to stifle opposition.

At this stage it would not appear to advance the overall struggle against austerity to demand that the campaign take on wider objectives.  It is clearer however that at some stage it should.  The best grounds on which to do so would be success in defeating the water charges.  Such a step however needs preparation now for an extension of the objectives of the campaign down the line.

Fighting tax increases, cuts to public services and cuts to wages and welfare will not be easy and the tactic of sitting tight involved in ‘we won’t pay’ is obviously not an answer to these.  A debate on what we are for and how we might build it is also just as necessary, if not more so.

A second tactic is to stand in elections and electoral intervention is now the favoured method of moving forward by Sinn Fein and most of the Left groups.  The latter confidently argue that the former will betray the hopes of their supporters, and Sinn Fein’s support for austerity budgets in the North is all the confirmation one needs for this argument.

Unfortunately the Left’s own claims are hardly consistent either.   They regularly denounce the capitalist state but their programme fully relies on it doing what they want.  On this blog I have posted numerous times on how their support for capitalist state ownership and taxation of the rich are not socialist and won’t work.  In other words they would effectively end up betraying their supporters were they in office just as effectively as Sinn Fein.  Sincere intentions don’t enter into it.

At the more immediate level the Left does not provide an example to follow.  The anti-water charges campaign relies on unity and agreement on total opposition to the charges in any form.  Any sense by its supporters that it did not respond to their feelings and demands would see it lose support.

Unfortunately the Left has a culture of manipulation and a lack of critical and free debate within its ranks.  It regularly calls for workers’ unity while being utterly incapable of unity within its own ranks.  In fact in this respect it has gone backwards, with the demise of what limited unity there was in the United Left Alliance.  It is simply incapable of containing within its present organisation and politics any mass radicalisation of workers.

A potential for radicalisation arises from the sudden upsurge against water charges, posing the need for increased organisation and politicisation of the campaign.  A victory is possible, giving rise to the possibility of further advances and the need to debate now how these could be achieved.

The Politics of the Anti-Water Charges Campaign – Part 1

anti-water-charges-campaigns-protests-4-390x285I was sitting in a small café at 12 o’clock having a cup of tea and a bacon sandwich, with customers at only two other tables.  A group of four elderly people were talking at one while three middle aged men were talking at the other.  Both were discussing the water charges, their opposition to them and the march they were going to join in one hour’s time.

I joined a feeder march at Pearse Street that went up Dame Street, up to York Street, where it collected some more supporters, and then went round to St Stephen’s Green to stop  a few minutes outside the Dail to tell the Government that they “could stick their water meters up their arse”.  Even the Guards on duty outside had a smirk.  The thousand or so then took off to join the main rally outside the GPO in O’Connell Street where a number of other marches converged.

The demonstration was not as large as that of a few weeks before, which was estimated as 100,000, but this time there were dozens of other marches being held right across the State in cities and towns big and small.  Estimates are that in total the numbers were greater – 150,000.

On 11 October the apparently sudden scale of the opposition to water charges was reinforced by the victory in the Dublin by-election of the Anti-Austerity Alliance candidate, who defeated the firm favourite from Sinn Fein because that party had done a little too much talking out of both sides of its mouth and was seen as insufficiently opposed to the charges.

Sinn Fein posters were in evidence on the march on Saturday and it was noticeable that flags and banners from other republican groups were also in evidence.  The left groups were more peripheral than is usual in such marches and I didn’t see one trade union banner, although I could easily have missed it.

The demonstration was overwhelmingly working class, composed of what many on the left call ‘ordinary people’, although I’ve never considered myself extraordinary for example.  The other noticeable thing was the folk songs sung from the stage, the references to James Connolly and 1916 and the general referencing to Ireland’s rebel history.  It is as if, at least sections of the Irish working class go to sleep for a few years and that when they periodically wake up they look back to their greatest struggles and leaders, when their intervention into Irish history appeared to promise a new future. That hasn’t really been the case for a long time, at least in the South.  A Northern banner in solidarity might have highlighted the unfinished business.

While I was in the café I was reading ‘The Irish Times’ and in particular an article by Eamonn McCann entitled ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’.  I’m sure he didn’t write the headline so it is no criticism of him to point out that demonstrations in Dublin of 100,000 against austerity have already taken place over the last five years or so.  They were organised by the trade union movement and the demonstrators were betrayed by the leaders of that same movement, as McCann alluded to in his article.

So what makes this movement different, if it is?  Firstly there is a view that it could succeed, in fact an argument can be made that it is already succeeding.  The Government parties have already responded by concessions in the budget to lessen the impact of the charges and did so in such a hurry they messed it up.   The newspapers, radio and television news are full of reports of the panicked reaction by Government politicians, especially with an election around the corner; hundreds of thousands of registration forms sent by the new Irish Water company have not been returned and the deadline for returning them has been extended to the end of the month.

Opinion polls confirm the unpopularity of the charge and the effect of this on the popularity of the Governing parties.  Labour is already a dead duck and Fine Gael support has fallen while support for Sinn Fein and ‘independents’ has grown.  The new company is particularly disliked because of the millions of Euros being spent on consultants for a service the state has been providing for years (the same thing happened in the North when Northern Ireland Water was created).  Bonuses are also to be paid to Irish Water staff with those at the top getting much larger amounts than those at the bottom, with the added insult from the company that they continue to peddle the line that they aren’t really bonuses.

Irish workers facing these costs believe that they are already paying for water so in effect they are being asked to pay twice and for huge management consultant bills and bonuses on top.

But previous, more outrageous decisions have failed to generate resistance that actually looks like it might win.  The decision to bail out the banks, costing over €64 billion, dwarfs the water charges in scale, with bankers hardly more popular than the Executives of Irish Water – and bankers’ bonuses have certainly been larger.   So what has changed?

Going back to Eamonn McCann’s article in ‘The Irish Times’:  he says that paying for a substance so natural sparks a particular anger.  But this isn’t really the case – in the café one guy was saying that he would be prepared to pay for water, but not twice and not for the consultants and bonuses.  This, I think, is the widespread view.  People are aware that they have to pay for water and sewerage services and they know this because it is obvious.

The headline over the article by Eamonn McCann in ‘The Irish Times’ said ‘Public finally take to streets as water proves a tax too far’; and that is the main reason for the resistance – it is one step too far.  As one of the leaflets given out at the demonstration put it -“No more.”

The whole austerity offensive, austerity budget after austerity budget, the state effectively bankrupt, posed the question of how to resist – what to do?  And resistance had to have some idea of an overall alternative.  The Irish working class didn’t know what such an alternative would be and didn’t buy the one sold by most of the Left.  I have examined this alternative in a series of earlier posts, for example here, here and here.

On the other hand workers are now being told that economic growth is not only on the way but has actually arrived.  Unemployment has fallen and tax cuts are promised while cuts in services will end.  Things look like they may have bottomed out.  They don’t think that they need to pay this unfair bill and what’s more they think that there is something very practical that they can do to stop it.

They won’t get their water turned off if they don’t pay.  As a commercial semi-state company the money can’t be taken off them through deductions to their salaries and wages.  Sure there is the possibility of court cases but cases against hundreds of thousands?  Even reduction of water pressure to the home is not so easily achieved and possible to prevent with direct, mass action.  In other words it is beatable and the disarray of the Government has demonstrated to many that it can be beaten.

To be continued

Thousands demonstrate for abortion rights in Ireland

DSC_0185In August it was revealed that a young rape victim had been denied the abortion she requested while apparently being led to believe that this was possible.  It came after the horrific death two years ago of Savita Halappanaver who died when she was refused an abortion.

Yesterday thousands demonstrated in Dublin to demand for abortion rights and repeal of 8th amendment to the Irish State’s constitution which enshrines this denial of women’s rights.

The march was organised by the Abortion Rights Campaign and was mainly composed of young people, overwhelmingly young women, who represent a new generation that is not prepared to quietly accept the denial of the most fundamental of rights to control their own bodies.  They are aware that increasingly they speak for the majority of people in the State and that the barrier to the vindication of their rights is the State itself, behind which stands the reactionary forces long associated with the Catholic Church.

The leaflet given out at the demonstration by its organisers pointed out that the Irish state has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe.  That if a woman seeks a termination it can only be on the grounds that there is an imminent and substantial risk to the woman’s life, including suicide.  Rape is not legal grounds for an abortion, nor is the fact that a foetus will not survive outside the womb and the restrictive grounds that do exist require an assessment by up to 6 doctors.

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Many of the demonstrators pulled wheelie luggage with tags for LHR and LPL, recording the fact that 159,000 women have travelled to Britain for an abortion since 1980. The latest legislation by the State is not a solution to this infamous ‘Irish solution to an Irish problem’ – the temporary export of women to Britain.

The demonstration signposted the need for a new campaign to repeal the 8th amendment on the 30th anniversary of its passing, with speakers noting that most of those attending would have had no opportunity to participate in this decision.

The repeated exposure of the criminal abuse by the Catholic Church has robbed this body of much influence but it continues to retain its power though its alliance with the state and many demonstrators demanded their separation.

The campaign and others have correctly decided that the demand for repeal of this part of the State’s constitution is not a policy of reliance and dependency on the state but an effort to remove shackles on their rights and that direct, first-hand action has and will continue to be taken to provide women with real choice during unwanted pregnancies.

 

Racism and anti-racism in Belfast

 

DSC_0117“Islam is heathen, Islam is satanic, Islam is a doctrine spawned in hell.  Enoch Powell was a prophet, he called it that blood would flow on the streets and it has happened.”

When a Protestant minister in North Belfast’s Metropolitan Tabernacle Church declared that Islam was “satanic” and “heathen” and compared “cells” of Muslims in Britain to the IRA the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson, who is known to have attended the church, was widely called upon to speak out.

Oh dear.

When he did, he said that Pastor McConnell had been demonised, that it was the duty of any preacher to denounce what he described as “false prophesy” and said he would not trust Muslims either, particularly with regard to those who had been involved in violence, or those who are “fully devoted to Sharia law, I wouldn’t trust them for spiritual guidance”; however he would trust Muslims to “go down to the shops” for him or to deal with a number of “day-to -day issues”.

Cue lots of people with their heads in their hands, especially those considering the Northern Ireland administration sponsored trips to the Middle East to promote trade and investment.

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A newly elected unionist councillor for Belfast had that week been found to have tweeted a year earlier that “I’m so sick of the poor Catholic b*stards they make me sick I wish they would just go down to Ireland . .” but she was young and sectarianism is hardly news in the North of Ireland unless someone in the media decides to make it news.

But racist attacks, especially by loyalist paramilitaries, have already been in the news and have increased by 43 per cent over the year, twenty seven per cent of them in North Belfast.  Having been called upon to comment in order to denounce racism, Robinson was then called upon to apologise for his own offensive and insulting remarks.

Anna Lo, the Hong Kong born local politician, had just received some racist harassment herself and called upon him to resign if he did not publicly apologise, vowing to leave Northern Ireland because of local racism and  sectarianism and stating that she would not stand for election again.  One Democratic Unionist Party councillor then called her a “racist” and was dropped by that party as its candidate for mayor of Newtownabbey, which is adjacent to North Belfast.  Other ministers and unionist politicians backed McConnell and claimed Christianity was being persecuted.

Two Muslim men where then beaten in their homes in the north of the city and stated that their attack was connected to Robinson’s statement – he had “lit the fire”.

Some in the press and other unionist leaders attempted to minimise the impact of the insult by claiming he was just clumsy.  Michael Nesbitt, leader of the Unionist Party, claimed that “we say things we don’t really mean or express them in ways that perhaps we could have thought through better.”

Robinson then made a private apology to some prominent local Muslims, except it wasn’t an apology.  He didn’t admit to being wrong, did not withdraw the remarks and did not say he was unconditionally ‘sorry’.   What apparently he did say was that “If” anyone thought he had said anything derogatory “he would be hurt” and he would apologise, but he didn’t because he didn’t think so.  He had been ‘misinterpreted’.

So he might be the injured party in this episode and it was everybody else’s fault for not understanding him.

But still the calls for a public apology raged and eventually Peter Robinson did publicly apologise – except the apology wasn’t public.  It was one of those occasions when the media reports something and you look to see when and how it happened but you can’t actually find any evidence of it having happened, and when you look closer it appears that it hasn’t actually happened.  Yet most assume it has because it has been reported and before you now it it has happened because, well, that is how it has been reported.

In such cases this can only occur because everyone with any power to get across a media message has decided it’s in their interests to go along with the concealment.  For the unionist parties the interest involved is obvious.  Any gain in stature among its racist, sectarian and lumpen base has been achieved, while the reality of selling local business to Saudi Arabia etc. cannot be ignored so the controversy has to be closed down.

The British Government especially would be happy for the story to die no matter how this might happen and they showed no intention of doing anything that might shine a light on the bigoted character of their local political settlement, sold to the world as a model to be admired and to emulate.

But what about the nationalists, including Sinn Fein?  The second dog that did not bark was the failure of these parties to call upon Robinson to resign, as – to her credit – Anna Lo did.  Had such remarks been made in Britain by a leading member of the Conservative Government their feet would not have touched the ground as they headed for political exile and extinction. But not here.

What we got here was a bland resolution sponsored by Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly opposing “racism, discrimination and intolerance of any kind, wherever it occurs”  but for God’s sake don’t mention that the First Minister has promoted all three.

What such resolutions reveal is not the willingness of Irish nationalism to oppose racism and bigotry but its willingness to avoid doing so, to avoid identifying and condemning it in reality, to replace lofty, banal and meaningless condemnations of racism in general for dealing with it in concrete reality.

Sinn Fein is setting itself up to be in Government North and South in 1916, 100 years from the Easter Rising that saw the beginnings of an attempt, that failed, to achieve Irish independence.  To do so it must ensure that there is an administration around in the North for it to be a part of.  Since this requires unionist participation no provocation or act, irrespective of how outrageous it is, will be allowed to threaten the political structure in the North no matter how rotten, dysfunctional and bereft of credibility it may prove itself to be.

In this way a political settlement based on sectarianism demonstrates its bigoted logic by ensuring that the most offensive statements can be made without fear.   In this way, but not only in this way, Irish nationalism becomes complicit in feeding the bigotry on which the Northern state rests, even while it self-righteously insists on its own non-sectarian character and its supporters continue to be the main victims of the bigotry.

What the Government parties are called upon to do, unionist and nationalist, is to deliver another document on “building a united, shared and reconciled community “, another piece of paper reviewing Stormont’s ‘Unite Against Hate’ campaign and together parrot inane promises from within ”its clear commitment within the Programme for Government.”

So if nationalism cannot provide an opposition to racist bigotry who can?

In a demonstration of thousands called quickly over social media a trade union spokesmen could only say that it was organised “in response to a worrying increase in the number of racist attacks in recent weeks, a situation which has been exacerbated by inflammatory comments by some religious and political leaders.”

Once again the identity of these racists couldn’t be stated.  Throwing a punch in mid-air takes the place of landing a blow on the real bigots who are allowed to continue to disclaim responsibility through the connivance of the media, political opponents and cowardice of others.

What political leaders are the racists?  How can you oppose something when you cannot even name it?  How are their excuses and non-apologies to be challenged?  How is the collusion of others to be highlighted and exposed?  How is their hypocrisy to be demonstrated?  And what is your alternative?

The trade unions bemoaned “the absence of the promised Racial Equality Strategy and the lack of coherent political leadership from the Northern Ireland Executive” as if pieces of paper are a solution and coherent racism would be better.

This hasn’t worked before and it’s not going to work now.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Amnesty International and the Northern Ireland Council for Ethnic minorities called a second demonstration today and got a good turn-out given the bad weather.  Again however there was no call for Robinson to resign despite his remarks and his non-public public apology that retracted nothing of the substance of what he had said.

Some People Before Profit placards called for his resignation and some chants from the Socialist Party contingent called for him to go but the latter’s leaflet didn’t mention it and instead claimed his apology was a great victory for anti-racists despite it being obvious that these forces played a relatively minor role.

Such repulsive episodes highlight the rotten character of politics in the North of Ireland because they involve relatively new targets but the solution that is always proposed is that local politicians be something that they are not and do something opposite to what they have just done.  That they oppose bigotry and sectarianism even while the sectarian basis of the political settlement is supported because it is part of the peace process.  ‘Peace’ becomes the excuse for yet more and more injustice because an alternative to the present political deal cannot be conceived.

Debating what such an alternative could be would be a start to addressing this obstacle.

 

Loyalists riot in Belfast against Republican demonstration

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By Belfast Plebian

Yesterday I decided to participate in an anti-internment demonstration in Belfast. I could not get to the starting point so thought to join at the midpoint in central Belfast.  The demo I think was organised to do three things: to commemorate the August 1971 introduction of imprisonment without trail, to highlight the continuation of the same policy by less conspicuous means, imprisonment for long stretches of time under the guise of waiting for a trial date; internment on remand, and finally the abuse of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and in other ‘special facilities’.

I am not big on the commemoration thing, a street demonstration is a very inferior way of coming to a coherent understanding of past political events, however the other two are very important just now because the democratic rights of common people are under sustained attack in the countries that first originated them, namely in the United States, France and Britain.

The comprehensive attack on democratic rights is turning into something ever more serious in most bourgeois democracies.  Just last month the British Government passed into law something called the Justice and Security Act 2013 (JSA). The key provision creates a new procedure to permit the use of secret evidence and testimony against a defendant in any civil case in the UK.  The new measure constitutes yet another negation of the democratic rights of the individual in relation to the powers of the State.

The new provision is called ‘a closed material procedure’ (CMP) and it means that a defendant’s barrister will have no right to question the evidence against a client if the CMP procedure is invoked by the State.  The new courts will also now have the power to make use of evidence against defendants not previously disclosed to their legal team.

The JSA is a response to the case of Binyam Mohammed, a British citizen who was detained at Guantanamo. His legal team had forced a civil action against the British government for being complicit in his torture in 2011 and evidence came to light in court that showed that British police agents had secretly assisted in his torture and rendition.  The judge in the case had ruled that the secret police material was admissible. Now this sort of secret evidence is to be totally closed to viewing.

The new act is a change to the already highly restrictive Public Interest Immunity procedure frequently used during the ‘troubles’ to keep evidence of crimes committed by the security forces from legal examination.  From now on, even the presiding judge in a case will no longer have a say on what kind of evidence can be scrutinised by a jury.  It means the abandonment of civil courts presided over by judges in favour of political courts manipulated government officials against selected defendants.  In the closed material procedure only the government and its lawyers will be present before the judge.  The defendant and their lawyer will not be present in court, they will not be permitted to see the evidence being presented if it depends on ‘sensitive security material’. Also the defendant is not entitled to know the reasons why the judge came to a decision. The Act is to apply to ‘all relevant civil proceedings’ in the High Court, Court of Appeal, Court of Sessions and the Supreme Court. The above is just one way by which the rights of people are being curtailed by government.

The problem you always have to deal with when defending basic democratic rights in the North of Ireland is that those who do so are habitually associated with republican inspired anti- British feeling, not just by the State officials but by the organised part of political Unionism. So as I strode into the city centre the first thing I noticed was a very large number of angry loyalists gathered at one end of Royal Avenue, who were obviously hell bent on preventing a so called ‘dissident republican’ march from getting into their beloved British city centre.

They had been gathering for hours and had reached two thousand strong by about six o’clock. I wondered why there were so few police officers on duty, only a tiny fraction of the number that had been on duty for the G8 demo and I wondered why so many loyalists had been allowed to gather unhindered on the very street that the anti-internment demo was supposed to pass along.

I mingled with the loyalists for about an hour; the mood was ugly and the loyalists looked well up for a street battle. A riot then kicked into full swing when the police asked some loyalists to move into a designated zone behind a makeshift barrier consisting of a handful of police land rovers. It was pretty obvious that there would be no anti-internment rally passing down Royal Avenue this evening.  The loyalists were by now in full riot mode, getting tore into the police at close quarters, tossing bricks and bottles.

It was very striking just how many loyalists had turned out to stop what they considered to be a provocation by the ‘other side’ from holding a small political demonstration. The ‘other side’ were the despised Irish republican enemy without any equivocation or qualification. To be honest it has hard to see how the loyalists present could ever be reconciled to the State granting the same right to free assembly for republicans and reds in a city that they maintain is exclusively British and monarchist.

It does not look good for the ‘shared future’, with so many alienated loyalists regularly attacking the PSNI on the streets.  The DUP and the Unionist Party are clearly feeling a rising pressure to resile from the rather forced agreement they made with Sinn Fein called the Good Friday Agreement.

The British government on its part has no big idea or plan to settle things with the loyalists. The big idea of bourgeois democracy I believe includes a principle best articulated by Abe Lincoln in the famous Gettysburg Address, that in a democracy in contrast to a monarch- aristocracy ‘all men are created equal’: meaning they are all entitled to the same constitutional rights as something universal.

Bourgeois democracy is built on two platforms: free and fair elections leading to a democratic government and universal democratic rights. Ulster Unionism currently bows down to only the one platform of bourgeois democracy, the free and fair elections platform part, and even this is qualified by the anti-democratic forced partition of 1920

When the great majority of Irish nationalists voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement it surely indicated that they were now ready to treat partition as an accidental error and not a terrible historical grievance perpetuated against them. They believed that by dropping the Irish constitutional articles on sovereignty, this act of political humility would be enough to lend a necessary democratic legitimacy to a perpetually insecure Unionism that would be great enough to allow for a future of peace and equality.

But Unionism accepted the offer ever so reluctantly and made no corresponding provision for Lincoln’s universal rights; unionist democracy just stayed thinking and behaving as in the past; an elected government should mean majority rule, and we the Protestants are the majority and our rights must come first. It should be recalled that the majority of unionists actually opposed the initial Trimble made Good Friday Agreement.

Majority rule was in fact the democratic cry of the Southern Confederacy; those states commanded a popular majority in favour of maintaining things as they stood, and in 1860 this so happened to include slavery.  The best of them who were not slave owners fought in the name of a democratic majority rule, a right of self- government in the seven and then eleven Southern States.  In their minds Lincoln was the opponent of democracy, the Tyrant of the Federal Union. The task of educating the American people in 1860 as to the essence of bourgeois democracy, that it was about more than not just having an elected government but was also about universal rights fell to Lincoln. The example of the American Confederacy is good reason why self-government in the name of a majority is not always for the better.

I am not suggesting that British Unionism in Ireland is in favour of slavery; in fact it has always favoured free wage labour and private property.  What I am suggesting is that it has no stomach for digesting the bourgeois principle that all men are created equal, and this is at the very heart of the matter and largely explains why there is so little of what is termed normal democratic politics to be seen in the here and now.

It should be said, this is not unique to Ireland, it appears almost everywhere in variations.  Across the Middle East the overthrowing of the military dictatorships in Iraq, Libya, Egypt were superseded by democracies that insisted on the unalloyed sectarian viewpoint of the majority must rule, there is no room for universal democratic rights. Marxists in particular need constant reminding that just getting to the normal state of bourgeois democracy and keeping it going is a massive undertaking in itself.

Karl Marx in1860 thought that if the side of Lincoln were defeated it would be a massive blow to the historical advance of the working class in Europe.  Leon Trotsky argued in 1933 that the smashing of bourgeois democracy in Germany would be a much greater blow to the international working class than the Stalinists at that time imagined. It is all too easy to downgrade the democratic rights side of the socialist programme in pursuit of the maximum or even the transitional demands of the socialist programme.

I decided to move away from the town centre and try and join up with the anti-internment demo at another place. I was told that the demo would most likely be rerouted along Millfield, a street that connects North Belfast to the lower Falls Road. As I took to my heels the police decided to do a pincer on the hundred or so mainly nationalist youths still standing at the juncture of Castle Street and Royal Avenue. They came at us from two directions and forced us up into Castle Street.

It was then that the nationalists realised their chance of joining the demo in the city centre was gone for this time. Some of them began chanting the familiar old anti police slogan SS-RUC, others mentioned groundhog day and moved away – the police had capitulated in the face of loyalist fury said others.  I walked up to Millfield and waited and waited without really knowing what was happening, the wait lasted for a couple of hours

Eventually, at about nine o’clock the head of the demo appeared, it was a substantial demo of about 1800 people; they looked tired but not demoralised.  The 300 hundred or so people waiting for them to arrive cheered and clapped like supporters standing at a football match. They joined the demonstration and it proceeded to snake its way up the Falls Road to the final destination point in Andersonstown.

I did not stay to listen to the speeches; I guessed they would be of a traditional republican hue something that I have heard many times before. I had still some walking to do to get back home, the buses were not operating, it was eleven thirty when I finally made it back to the house, an intended hour spent at a demo had turned into a seven hour marathon. 

Making a political assessment of the significance of the demo is a little more difficult than with loyalism. The demo was the biggest one that has occurred in Belfast organised by diverse republican and residents groups not aligned to Sinn Fein. The very subjective impression I got was that those on and those supporting the demo were drawn mainly from the very poorest segment of Belfast society, the loyalists gathering was composed of working class people too but they looked more prosperous in their general appearance.

They were certainly the sort of working class people who in earlier days used to be solid behind the IRA and Sinn Fein. The fact that Sinn Fein has lost some of its urban working class support is not that significant in electoral terms because the party has definitely replaced that support with those who used to be sympathetic to the political party of steady decline the SDLP.

A feature worth mentioning is the age profile, previous republican demos that I have witnessed were staffed by well seasoned not to say aging types; the bulk of the people on this one were under 30. What was positive was a genuine will not to get drawn into a sectarian street battle with loyalists. One young republican that I spoke to was worried that loyalists had come out to block their way. Why, he asked, do loyalists fight against things like demanding an end to interment on demand, something that oppresses them as much as it does us?

I think the organisers of the demonstration will be pleased with what they got and they will likely try to build on it by staging more of the same. However it might still be the case that the marked increase in the numbers of young people participating may actually just be a response to the rising tide of loyalist provocations generated by more and more loyalist street activities. It is too early to say if this represents a turning point against Sinn Fein within the old core republican community.  

A couple of other things are worthy of note. I have listened to a good number of nationalists speak well of the PSNI of late for standing up to loyalist threats of violence, a nationalist expectation that the police will continue to perform well may well lead to a big let down in the near future with unpredictable consequences for those politicians who are trusting them the most.

It was also evident that there were no socialist currents either on the parade or around the fringes.  They have abandoned all thought of unfulfilled democratic tasks in pursuit of socialism for today, or rather what they consider to be socialism.  The assessment they make of the recalcitrant republicans is one they hold in common with hired pundits who work for the capitalist owned press; that they are dreadful atavistic nationalists whose time has thankfully gone.

I don’t really share this mode of thought because it is too undifferentiated; all of the recalcitrant republicans are not unthinking militarists. ‘The Irish News’ referred to all involved as ‘dissident republicans’ but it was certainly more diverse than that expression suggests. Today basic democratic rights are being shredded all too readily, the prospect for socialist advances are very poor in both Ireland and Britain and politics at this time of austerity is favouring the right wing rather than the left wing – just look at the advance of UKIP compared to the abject failures of the socialists to the left of the labour Party.

The pressures of being in government for the foreseeable future are sure to test an inexperienced Sinn Fein’s capacity for political survival and in the absence of anything even vaguely resembling a socialist movement in the North of Ireland the social conditions may well favour a surprising republican revival.

The G8 comes to Northern Ireland

DSC_0394The leaders of the G8 group of the wealthiest countries are meeting this week in rural County Fermanagh.  That some of the most powerful political leaders on the planet are visiting us is yet again another opportunity to demand of the local population the most obsequious and embarrassing homage to our betters.  Deference normally required only for royalty.  A columnist in a local paper reported that claims had been made that the visit would boost the local economy by something like £700 million, a figure so outlandish it does not even deserve ridicule.  More sober estimates have come in at less than £100 million but if the experience of Scotland is any guide the costs will easily exceed this and today I saw first-hand evidence that this will indeed be the case.

As is usual the media have been on overdrive to sell how wonderful this all is, normally in some vague and unspecified way, for example ‘it puts us on the map’, as if we weren’t already on it, and it gives us the opportunity to sell Northern Ireland. How often can you sell something that never gets bought?  It was the occasion for yet another economic package, announced by David Cameron, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness.  But again it was déjà vu all over again.

The local Executive, it was announced, will be able to borrow an additional £100m for capital projects for shared housing for example.  But the Executive has just confirmed that it is incapable of providing shared housing through its handling of the old Girdwood British Army base in North Belfast.

And no one will be able to tell you what golden opportunities were being missed until now by absence of this money .

More measures to boost lending to business was promised but it has been reported in the financial press that the ConDem coalition has totally failed in its attempts to achieve this goal with its own schemes in Britain.  Borrowing just when bond yields are rising across the globe, even after countries have printed money like never before – heralding an end the recent era of low interest rates and an interest rate rise that may have devastating economic consequences – does not look the cleverest policy in terms of timing.  Projects to be financially profitable will have a higher hurdle to jump over than before.

More peace money is promised while the local paper’s front page reported this week that there had been  a 25 per cent increase in paramilitary intimidation; sanctioned by the local police who have approved the loyalist UVF’s marking of territory in East Belfast by their flying of their paramilitary flags on anything that doesn’t move.  Meanwhile the DUP and Sinn Fein leaders hatch an £80m slush fund for these same paramilitaries.

We are promised yet another investment conference while having witnessed the utter failure of previous ones and most recently been treated to the farce of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness’s ‘investment-promoting’ visits to China and Brazil. Again we are promised another look at devolution of powers to reduce corporation tax as if a different result might be expected.  The example of the Republic across the border should demonstrate even to the terminally stupid that low corporation tax is perfectly compatible with bankruptcy.

It is simply impossible for anyone with any appreciation of recent events not to be cynical because no matter how jaundiced a view one takes of this event it is exceeded by the malignant contempt shown by the visiting leaders and their local satraps.

Obama has sanctioned spying powers that make George Orwell’s 1984 look like a photograph of the future and he approves drone attacks that murder dozens if not hundreds of civilians.  We have Russia’s Vladimir Putin whose wars in the Caucuses have involved utter devastation on an enormous scale. Then we have the Japanese, attempting to lay the foundation for a new nationalist militarism by rewriting its murderous imperial history. These are the leaders we are asked to welcome as if we are blessed to breathe the same air.

But reality intrudes and the real character of their visit is revealed by the security clamp-down that looks like and feels like a police state. Roads in Fermanagh have been blocked for a month, causing problems for small businesses in the area, while young people doing their year-end exams have been told to get to school at an unearthly hour to do them.  Fences have been built and thousands of security personnel brought in.  Belfast city centre on Monday morning looks like it is to be closed down.  Sixteen miles of the M2 motorway into the city is also to be closed so that Obama can speak at the Waterfront Hall in praise of the peace process that never ends and never ends promising the end of strife.  Government workers have been told by email that they may have difficulty getting to work but should therefore plan to travel longer, get in earlier and leave later – section 3.11 of Annex 2 paragraph 4.1 of the HR policy is referenced.  With no hint of irony the responsibility to maintain services to the public is repeated.

The reality of the visit is revealed by the fresh painting over of empty shops in the county town of Enniskillen to make them look like they are open and full of people. Oh, and the hotel complex the meeting is in isn’t really in administration, not being a casualty of the Irish property boom.  The plan is obviously that the hype will cover up the reality and, well, if it doesn’t, we’ll be outa here soon anyway.

Holding the G8 in Northern Ireland was seen as a bold step.  Wasn’t this the scene of decades of trouble and didn’t the G8 risk occasioning more?  Hadn’t previous summits been the cause of widespread protest wherever they were held?

Well today, Saturday, was to be evidence of the scale of the opposition to the G8 leaders and their crimes.  A demonstration had been called by trade union leaders and assorted NGOs.

Unfortunately this opposition proved that it wanted to show, not that a different world was possible, but that a slightly different world would be nice.  The hype of the G8 cheerleaders was replicated in the ICTU Northern Ireland Committee’s leaflet, which promised ‘what is sure to be one of the largest mass mobilisations of peoplepower Belfast has seen.’   The demo was in fact no more than 2,000 people – maximum – and not much different than the usual May Day demonstration.  The annual 12 July Orange bigot-fest is many times larger.  The slogan of the demonstration that ‘they are G8 – we are 7 billion’ looked very hollow. Belfast City centre was unusually quiet.  The alternative of having the demonstration through some working class areas would never have crossed anyone’s mind, certainly not that of the trade union leaders.

As I walked the less than half mile to the demonstration starting point through Belfast city centre I must have passed about 70 police land rovers, and that was just on the route that I took.  Most of the coppers were English – they looked like they weren’t natives and were very much more po-faced than the local cops, despite the overtime.  There were hundreds of them.  A bigger case of over-kill it would be hard to imagine.  It might even be embarrassing for their top brass, were the media to make anything of this OTT display of the state’s repressive power.  This was a demo called by ICTU for god’s sake!

This is the same ICTU that has for years either been in partnership with the state, as in the South, or seeking partnership, in the North.  Its leader was a member of the Southern State’s Central Bank, the Regulator that allowed the ‘wild west’ financial system to accumulate so much debt it bankrupted the country.  This is the trade union movement responsible for the Irish being renowned throughout Europe for their ability to accept austerity that has caused riots in Greece, Spain and Portugal.  It wants a ‘better and fairer way’ to inflict the pain of austerity.  It doesn’t actually want to overthrow capitalism and socialism was not a word I heard at the rally at the end of the demonstration.

DSC_0416 Instead the speeches were declarations of opposition to bad things and support for good things and appeals to moral values such as fairness and justice.  Unfortunately the world is only as fair and a just as we can make it and in the meantime it is as just and as fair as the capitalist class considers it should be based on how it defines both.

What was missing was any strategy to change this situation and any agency that could enact this strategy.  What we were left with were appeals to the governments against whom we were actually demonstrating; appeals to the same states whose job it is to defend the system, not change it – the same state that put on show such a massive show of force to justify its hyping up of dire threats of violence.

As I and my friend left the rally and went into Boots for a short cut my friend was told to take down his hood – it had been pouring down for hours.  An older woman with grey hair was also told to take down her hood although she demanded to know why?  Was she hiding her identity so she could trash capitalism and then run into the street and avoid the hundreds of cops outside?  (Most of the bigger shops had massively increased security on their doors, another example of the hype surrounding the visit of the leaders of the ‘free’ world.)

One footnote: the rally outside the City Hall at the end of the demonstration was jeered and heckled by a group of perhaps 50 loyalists from the Shankill Road who were continuing their own protest against the butchers’ apron no longer being flown 365 days a year.  Ironically it was flying today, it being a ‘designated day’ because it was the Queen’s birthday – she has two don’t you know. These reactionary bigots sang sectarian songs including the ‘Billy Boys’, i.e. they were ‘up to their necks in fenian blood’ – a favourite of supporters of the now deceased football club Glasgow Rangers.  They waved the Israeli flag when the Palestinian cause was mentioned, booed loudly when the ‘Irish trade union movement’ was referenced and jeered when Derry was called Derry.

DSC_0408

For some on the left being anti-sectarian means pretending that Irish nationalism is just as sectarian as loyalism and there exists by definition a sectarian equals sign between the political expressions of the catholic population and the Protestant one.  That, in my 35 years of political demonstrations, I have never come across contingents of loyalists on trade union and socialist demonstrations while republican contingents, just as they were today, are commonplace and unremarkable, might therefore seem strange.  If I believed what some of the Left do this fact would be inexplicable. The loyalists however know they are reactionary and today they knew that they hated those on the demonstration.  They felt safe in the knowledge that the demonstrators were either ‘fenians’ or, even worse, ‘rotten prods’.

One other footnote:  there was no Sinn Fein contingent on the demonstration.  Even a few years ago they would have sent a youth contingent to keep up pretence of some radical credentials.  Now instead they parade the hope of corporation tax cuts and multinational investment beside the DUP and a British Tory prime minister announcing imperialist intervention in yet another country, this time Syria.  Their non-participation is one welcome clarification of what was otherwise unfortunately not much more than an exhibition of weakness before power.

Support the ICTU demonstrations!

frame-1-ictu-protest-march-over-the-governments-four-year-austerity-plan-assembling-at-christchurch-in-dublin-irelandThe Irish Congress of Trade Unions is meeting on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of organising a series of demonstrations across the Irish State in opposition to austerity and debt.  It has issued a press statement outlining its reasons; in particular it is targeting the issue of debt and has indicated that demonstrations might take place in a number of towns and cities including Dublin, Cork, Galway, Sligo, Limerick and Waterford.

The possibility of these being organised should be welcomed but more important, if they take place, they should be supported.  It gives working people an opportunity to demonstrate their opposition to austerity, to demonstrate the scale and anger of their opposition and put forward what they think should be the alternative.

It gives the small socialist movement an opportunity to campaign in the working class to make these events as large as possible so that the demonstrations can convince and give confidence to others to also oppose austerity and oppose the crippling debt.  It gives it the opportunity to speak to workers to take action outside as well as inside the trade union movement and in the private sector as well as the public sector.  The purpose would be to begin reuniting workers who have been successfully divided into union and non-union and between public and private sector by the propaganda of the State, employers and media.

A real campaign at union and community group meetings, at workplaces and in the streets including door to door leafleting and canvassing should aim to mobilise as many as possible to turn out, should the demonstrations be called.  Right away attempts should be made to extend the numbers building the demonstrations through meetings organised to discuss the demonstrations and how they could be made as large as possible.

These meetings should not simply be organising meetings but should also discuss why we oppose austerity and the debt, how they are affecting the lives of working people, how we should organise against them and what our alternative should be.  What for example is our position on debt default?  What role does strike action have in a campaign against austerity and default?

There are many issues facing workers and socialists have the opportunity to give them the possibility of coming together beyond the existing union movement to unite and discuss all these issues.

In this blog I have addressed these questions here, here, here and here.

What have been called as one-off demonstrations should be supported in order to make them an on-going campaign both before and after they take place.

All this is primarily the task of the socialist movement but it is not limited to it.  There are many opposed to austerity and many campaigns against its effects that should take the opportunity to better organise and unite with each other to discuss what should be the alternative.

An additional onus is however placed on the socialist movement.  It claims to stand for the interests of the whole working class and has a special duty to take every step to unite it in defence of its own interests.  This has two aspects.  First it must unite itself to carry out the task of uniting workers.  Otherwise it is weaker and opens itself to charges of incompetence, hypocrisy or political sectarianism.  The second is to create a campaign which is open and democratic and which at the very least offers the possibility, if not yet the certainty, of uniting the most militant workers.

The unity of the socialist movement in such a task should in principle be easier since it has theoretically already achieved some level of unity through the United Left Alliance.  The ULA should immediately discuss how such an opportunity can be utilised to build an anti-austerity campaign, on what basis it should be built and what policies it should fight for.  This is, after all, something which the ULA said it was going to do when it got elected and it would not do to renege on promises, just like the Labour Party and all the other right wing parties, once elected to the Dail.

Complete agreement should be no barrier to taking this action.  A democratic campaign would in any case allow everyone to argue its particular view on the way forward and the alternative.  In a democratic campaign of action there would be no role for vetoes.

The objective on the day would be a united left contingent, united around an agreed programme and demands, offering an on-going campaign to everyone at the demonstration who didn’t just want to go home afterwards to watch themselves on the RTE news.  The size and resonance of such a contingent would testify to the potential to build real and lasting opposition to austerity.

There is of course a flip side.

To borrow from management-speak: for every opportunity there is a threat and for every potential strength a potential weakness.  To fail to take opportunities threatens the effectiveness of resistance to austerity and to fail to strengthen the resistance will result in weakening it.  The ULA through its minor electoral success has given itself some responsibilities which it should relish as opportunities to help workers build a movement against austerity.

Support, build and go way beyond the ICTU demonstrations!