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.

The Norn Iron Elections – a few rays shine a light on the darkness

PbP imageIt may seem odd at first but the second most significant outcome of the Stormont Assembly election is the turnout, which fell from 55.71 per cent in 2011 to 54.91 per cent in 2016.  And even if the number of votes cast actually increased by nearly 30,000 it’s hard to overlook the fact that nearly half the population don’t bother to vote.  But this disenchantment with the political outcome of a world-renowned  peace process is a faithful reflection of the utter and complete inability of many to identify anything in the current political arrangements that they want to support.

Of course history has been rewritten, even as it was being made, to explain that this political agreement brought an end to political violence, and is still necessary for this to continue, but many (without thinking) are not buying the lie in practice.  While some will never vote, a greater proportion are disillusioned or have never bought into the sectarianism that saturates Northern Ireland politics.  The Stormont Assembly, its Trumpton Government and its third-rate politicians have been so utterly useless in even the most mundane of political terms that their unchallenged corruption is the stand-out feature of the regime.  Or it would be if the sectarianism that is the foundation of the regime and overlays every aspect of it were not primary, sometimes missed only because it is so taken for granted.

The turnout went down by under 1 per cent but this masks a fall in the combined DUP and Unionist Party share of the vote of 1.5 per cent and a fall in the nationalist vote of over 5 per cent; with the SDLP vote-share falling by 2.2 per cent and that of Sinn Fein by even more – 2.9 per cent.  The combined nationalist vote is now back to where it was in the early 1990s.  A majority for a United Ireland is not only a long way off but it’s getting further away.

Even the not very bright political commentators who had previously put this decline down to nationalist contentment with the new political arrangements are now forced to recognise that nationalist abstention is a result of precisely the opposite, and is a protest against the rotten Stormont regime.  Nationalists know they can not look to a united Ireland but the tolerable Northern Ireland is barely tolerable.

It is therefore the continuation of the sectarian regime which is the most significant outcome, despite its abysmal track record.  The largest unionist party, the DUP, has been validated in its nakedly tribal campaign to prevent election of a Sinn Fein First Minister, even when this was never a realistic possibility.  The sectarian card is played no matter what the game.

We now have another five years of sectarian dog-fighting, periodically interrupting a shared implementation of reactionary austerity policies.  It matters not that barely half the population took part in the election never mind the smaller number who voted for the two parties leading this austerity – the DUP and Sinn Fein.  This marriage made in hell is sold every five years based on one party claiming the greatest threat to hearth and home comes from the spouse.  The spouse continues to sell it as a progressive example to the world.

The sectarian gloom is never lifted.  There appears no alternative.  The trade unions first oppose the austerity policies but then welcome and support the political agreement, the ‘Fresh Start’, that saved the regime that now implements the austerity, the austerity that is codified in the political agreement now supported.  The other political parties oppose the big two Parties that dominate but are also in ‘Government’ and also support all the big two’s policies in all essentials and in almost every detail.

Opposition exists in the same way it exists inside the Stormont Assembly – it is assumed not to exist and no provision was made for it to exist.   Sectarian division means that all conflict must be contained lest in go down this cleavage so no real opposition to the sectarian agreement can be conceived.  The setbacks, conflicts and struggles are thus all internal to the arrangements which can brook no alternative.  We have an arrangement that seems rigid but at the expense of little flexibility.  Opposition within it is thus no threat as long as the political framework is accepted by that opposition at which point no real opposition can exist.

In other words a real opposition would oppose the very foundations of the Stormont regime.  It would however be the wildest dreams to believe that right now such an opposition can set itself the immediate task of bringing it down – any putative opposition is too weak and there is currently no alternative.

This however brings us to the third, but most dramatic, outcome of the election.  And that is the election of two self-declared revolutionary socialists from the People before Profit (PbP) organisation.

In the heart of Sinn Fein – West Belfast – the PbP candidate Gerry Carroll topped the poll with 8,229 votes, a stinging rejection of Sinn Fein by many and a rejection all the more cutting for not being unexpected.  The cronyism of the organisation has disgusted many and its disregard for its base illustrated by its support for building a new GAA ground with safety concerns in the heart of the constituency.  This will have particularly resonated in the last few weeks given media coverage of the victorious campaign by the relatives of those who died in the Hillsborough disaster.  This rejection has grown following complete capitulation to Tory welfare changes which Sinn Fein swore to oppose but eventually facilitated the implementation of.

While Gerry Carroll is pictured carried aloft by supporters all waving the red flag the other victorious left candidate, Eamonn McCann from Derry, was to be heard on BBC Radio Ulster singing the Internationale.  Eamonn explained that he was surprised by how many during his canvassing expressed their opposition to being labelled ‘Orange’ or ‘Green’, as is required by the Stormont rules, but said they were ‘Other’, the only alternative designation allowed.  How fitting a sectarian designation’s only alternative is ‘Other’ rather than ‘Anti-Sectarian’ or even ‘Non-Sectarian’.

PbP success represents a dramatic rejection of Sinn Fein but if it is to represent something more it must not just declare an alternative but create one.  Two successful candidates allows PbP to present itself as more than a protest but how much more will depend on how it thinks its revolutionary socialism can be applied outside the Assembly.  As we have seen, what happens inside it is not taken seriously even by those who support it, especially by the DUP and Sinn Fein who carve up the jobs and the decisions between them.

A light can now be shone on the darkness through the election of two socialists but to begin to dispel the darkness will require an alternative labour movement that can offer practical alternatives to sectarian division.  What role will PbP play in that task?

 

The 2016 election – a victory for social democracy?

27/2/2016. General Election 2016 - Counting of Votes. Scenes from the counting of votes for the Dublin West Constituency, at the Phibblestown Communmity Hall Count Centre in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo shows Anti Austerity Alliance candidate Ruth Coppinger after winning a seat in her constituency. Photo:RollingNews.ie

27/2/2016. General Election 2016 – Counting of Votes. Scenes from the counting of votes for the Dublin West Constituency, at the Phibblestown Communmity Hall Count Centre in Blanchardstown, Dublin. Photo shows Anti Austerity Alliance candidate Ruth Coppinger after winning a seat in her constituency. Photo:RollingNews.ie

The 2016 general election has been hailed as delivering a ‘sensational’ result, although this is disputed, and has led to some difficulty in forming a new Government.  Apparently only one party, Fine Gael, wants to be part of one, partly as a result of the horrendous results for the governing parties in the last two contests.

In this election the two Governing parties, holding a record majority, lost heavily: the Fine Gael vote fell from 36.1% to 25.5%, while the Labour Party was decimated, losing more than three quarter of its seats, its vote falling from 19.5% to 6.6%.  The biggest apparent gainers were Fianna Fail mainly because of a striking reversal of fortune, increasing its vote from 17.5% in 2011 to over 24.3%, and Sinn Fein, which increased its vote from 9.9% to over 13.8%.  This performance however will be seen as disappointing, coming nowhere near the 20% it recorded in polls beforehand.

The governing parties stood in the election on the basis that their painful austerity medicine had worked and that there was now a remarkable recovery, the fruits of which would allow tax cuts and improvement in public services.  And the truth is that there has indeed been a recovery; new austerity measures have generally ceased and for some people incomes are rising, either through getting a job or pay increases.

Unfortunately for the Governing parties their arrogant declarations of success rankled with a population fully appreciative of the slenderness of the improvement, which for some has been non-existent, while the more they declared the scale of the success the more it appeared to contrast with the experience of the majority.  The Government claimed credit for the improvement but it was a long time coming and the Irish people are aware enough of the vulnerability of their economic circumstances not to be inclined to credit the Government with creating it or of letting the possibility of a new recession escape their minds.

Above all, the accumulated austerity measures inflicted by the Government have not at all been reversed, the huge cuts and tax increases of the last seven or more years are still being felt, the price is still being paid, and smug and arrogant claims of achievement angered a population weary of austerity and aware of too recent and continuing attacks, including water charges.

Fine Gael won the previous election on the back of the then Government’s perceived responsibility for a disastrous economic collapse, a promise that its policy would be different and that the existing ‘no bondholder left behind’ approach would be challenged.  Labour campaigned on the grounds that there was a choice between Labour’s way and Frankfurt’s way.  Of course these promises were hollow and no coherent policy alternative was put forward, a more politically aware population would have understood this, but the immediate task was to punish the egregious Fianna Fail and a Fine Gael/Labour coalition has been its historic alternative. What this meant, as one commentator has put it, was that in that election they took the least radical option for change, just as they have almost done so again, while in between they voted to accept austerity in the 2012 EU referendum.

So the 2016 election has been hailed as a vote against austerity and an Irish reflection of the forces that have produced Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US.

But the vote in 2011 was also in part a vote against austerity, although driven mainly by the desire for revenge through a massive vote against Fianna Fail, which rocked that traditional hegemonic party of the Irish State and led many to wonder whether it was finished.  It has now had something of a comeback in yet another anti-austerity election.  In the 2011 election the Labour Party did extremely well on an anti-austerity ticket, at one point believing it might end up the largest party.  So what exactly is the nature of a ‘new’ anti-austerity vote that sees the bounce-back of Fianna Fail and the continued development of Fianna Fail nua in the shape of Sinn Fein?

The general election has been characterised by some as a demand for social democracy, an anti-austerity alternative, that was reflected in Fianna Fail’s emphasis on the fruits of the recovery being spent on public services and not on tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the rich.  The claimed new consciousness is also supposed to be reflected in the increased vote for Sinn Fein, which emphasised that it was in favour of a ‘fair’ recovery in which the better off paid most, and in the showing of new formations such as the Social Democrats, which did moderately well arguing that US tax levels were not compatible with a European standard of public services.

There is therefore a case to be made that the election was a vote against austerity, a vote for some sort of social democracy and even a move towards a more conventional right/left political division, now that the more or less identical Fine Gael and Fianna Fail parties together have declined to just under half the vote.  There is also an obvious case to be made that this is a reflection in Ireland of a wider international phenomenon.  But it is more an Irish reflection of this phenomenon rather than a reflection of the phenomenon in Ireland.

So we have an initial clear problem that the recovery in the vote for Fianna Fail is evidence of the move towards social democracy while its savaging in 2011 was also such an example.   We have a move to a left/right divide while the historically largest civil war party made a strong recovery.

This does not invalidate the argument but simply demonstrates its limitations and the weakness of the shift.  But that a shift is taking place is nevertheless still the case.  The long term decline of the civil war parties continues, as recently as 1997 they received 78% of the vote and in 2011 73%.  The 2016 vote was a vote against austerity, but not yet a vote for an alternative, at least not a real alternative because neither Fianna Fail nor Sinn Fein are a real alternative and neither are the majority of right wing independents coming, as they say, from the Fianna Fail or Fine Gael gene pool.

The social democratic tone of the likes of Fianna Fail reflects more an improved economy and not any more basic shift in economic policy.  Fianna Fail is still widely blamed for sharing a large degree of responsibility for the economic crisis while Sinn Fein voted to bail out the bankers and bondholders.  Fianna Fail has a long history of populist rhetoric and actions, which may be called social democratic in a broad sense, but which has been successfully employed to prevent the development of a left/right divide in Irish politics.  Without such a divide we have simply had a right/right division.

The case for a growing right/left split rests partly on the policy proposals of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, and their success, and partly on the pressure on Fine Gael and Fianna Fail to collaborate in order to allow creation of a new Government.  There are no credible alternatives as the forces of ‘the left’ are too disparate and divided.  Some informed commentary is that Fianna Fail will not allow such an alliance to happen partly to frustrate the development of such a divide, which would threaten its traditional role and base inside the working class.

The argument for the development of a left/right demarcation however mainly rests on the rise of Sinn Fein, understood broadly as a ‘left’ party, and the fortunes of the Social Democrats and some left independents.  It also rests on the progress of the genuine left, most visibly in the shape of the Anti Austerity Alliance/People before Profit (AAA/PbP) alliance, the creation of the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party.

But Sinn Fein is not, it must be repeated again and again, a genuine left party.  Have a look at austerity in the North if you find this hard to accept. Only by the most expansive definition can it be considered left wing, which might be useful as some sort of catch-all description in some circumstances but is misleading when it comes to any analysis.

Having a predominantly working class support does not make a working class party; Fianna Fail has had the largest support of any party within the working class for many decades until relatively recently.  A working class party is one that not only is supported by the working class or part of it, but is composed of workers, is organised from within its ranks and in some way represents its separate interests to a greater or lesser degree.

So what constitutes ‘the left’ and how has it performed in this election?  One commentator has argued that, if we include one third of the large number of independents elected, the left has hardly increased, amounting to about a third now compared to 35% in the outgoing Dail, although the composition of this left may be said to be more ‘left wing’.  A second analysis defines Labour, Sinn Fein and United Left Alliance as the left in 2011, together receiving 31.5%, while Labour, Sinn Fein, AAA/PbP and Social Democrats are defined as left for the purposes of the 2016 election, receiving 27%.  Another perspective groups the AAA/PbP and explicitly left independents together to arrive at a total of 141,890 votes, not very different from the Labour Party’s 140,898 – which is supposed to have had disastrous election.  A narrower definition could take the TDs from the United left Alliance that went into the 2011 election and compare their performance in 2016 (while including the gains of the AAA/PbP) and arrive at a total of over 5%.

None of these show any dramatically increased vote for the left, however defined, and are certainly more convincing than some comments from the AAA/PbP, who have not unnaturally looked firstly at their own results.  Richard Boyd Barrett has been quoted as stating that “we went from being newly formed to almost 4 per cent.”

However one delineates the left it is clear that the only consistent social democratic alternative offered has come from the AAA/PbP and the candidates who used to belong to the United Left Alliance and perhaps a handful of others.

There has therefore been no qualitative radicalisation but instead a longer irregular evolution of rejection of the traditional right wing parties but without an embrace of any consistently thought out alternative.  This is therefore expressed in illusions in parties which peddle familiar solutions that may appear to a greater or lesser degree to be social democratic.  When we see these include the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and even Fianna Fail what we don’t see is any sort of consistent social democracy.

to part 2

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.