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Creating a bogeyman in the East

The politics of distracting attention from capitalism’s failure



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Four days before the British general election of October 1924 the Daily Mail published a letter purporting to have been written by the chairman of the Executive Committee of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev. The paper claimed that the correspondence revealed a Bolshevik plot to plunge Britain into civil war, and that the Communist Party of Great Britain was manipulating the Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald.      

It was a forgery created by Conservative Party supporters in British intelligence; but their ploy worked. The political middle ground collapsed, the Tories won the election, and so ended any prospect of détente with the Soviet Union. Not, of course, that this was the only act of political sabotage ever conducted by British spooks. From Pigott’s forged Parnell letter to Tony Blair’s infamous dossier alleging Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction,” England’s secret services have never allowed the truth to get in the way of a reactionary political agenda.     

With this in mind we can consider more recent circumstances and events. The leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, has defied right-wing expectations that he would self-destruct and has instead reinvigorated left-wing social democracy by challenging Blairite and Tory-manufactured austerity. Though far from revolutionary, his proposals if implemented would challenge neo-liberalism, and not only in Britain. Moreover, if Corbyn’s party were to record a reasonable measure of success at the coming local government elections on 3 May his progress towards occupying No. 10 Downing Street might be unstoppable.      

Not surprisingly, therefore, the right is doing all it can to prevent a Corbyn government, and will not feel restricted by legal niceties.     

Earlier this year the tabloid Sun published an article insinuating that Corbyn had a questionable connection with a Cold War Czechoslovak spy. The claim was soon rubbished, but it was planted in the stratosphere all the same. Now we have the slanderous accusations of anti-semitism against him, something that is strongly contradicted by the man himself and the organisation Jewish Voice for Labour.¹ Nevertheless, this baseless accusation is gleefully repeated by embittered Blairites and given headline treatment by the BBC and other media.²     

Surpassing even these tall tales is the sensational story of an attack on MI6’s Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter. While it is impossible from our standpoint to know exactly what happened in Salisbury, there is still no convincing proof that the poisoning was either carried out or sanctioned by the Russian state. Even a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, is cautious about placing blame on Moscow. In a balanced observation he said, “There is no evidence it was Russia. I am not ruling out that it could be Russia . . . but I want to see where the evidence lies.”      

We have to ask, therefore, why Varadkar so enthusiastically supported the call by Theresa May to blame and sanction Russia. Keep in mind that Varadkar is a qualified doctor, trained to make assessments based on evidence rather than “highly likely” assertions from dubious sources. It would be easy to suggest a servile adherence to West-Britonism from the leader of a party that has long suffered from that affliction; the reason, however, is likely to be more complex, though just as unacceptable. Fine Gael is fulfilling its basic function as the parliamentary protector of capital and the ruling class.      

Two recent publications offer an insight. Last month the Financial Times conducted an analysis that revealed that, globally, large transnational corporations are now paying significantly lower taxes than before the 2008 financial crisis.³ This is a result of a decade when governments within the OECD adjusted corporate taxes to favour business, and have done so by cutting the social wage for working people—a practice better known here as “austerity.”     

 A few days before this article appeared, Fine Gael members of the EU Parliament published a report, called “Ireland and the EU: Defending our common European home,” calling for a review of this country’s position on neutrality.⁴ The document argued for (among other things) greater flexibility in how the Irish military might be deployed abroad, increasing spending on the Defence Forces to a damaging 2 per cent of GDP, and developing an Irish arms industry.      

To get the full significance of this ominous report it is necessary to read the entire document, with its chilling references to central intelligence units and a national security council.      

At first glance the issues of low corporate taxation and ending Ireland’s neutrality may not appear linked. Nevertheless there is a strong connection, in that the latter is used to distract attention from the former. The Financial Times report only confirms what is well known to people in Ireland: income inequality is growing, in spite of a so-called recovery and increasing levels of employment.      

The Republic has one of the world’s highest relative numbers of billionaires, coupled with very profitable transnational corporations. But what do we see? Hospital waiting-lists at crisis levels, homelessness and widespread housing shortages, overcrowded classrooms, and downgraded public services.      

Working people are understandably becoming increasingly disenchanted with this situation. They see an Irish government endeavouring not to collect $13 billion from Apple Inc. while indigenous and transnational companies are profiting greatly from a generous corporate tax regime.     

 And if this isn’t enough, we now have the banks that caused the economic crash of 2010 selling domestic mortgages to vulture funds that are preparing to evict working families from their homes.      

In the face of growing discontent from within working-class communities throughout Ireland and the European Union (and the United States) we are now seeing the emergence of what can only be described as the politics of distraction. The plan is as simple as it is old-fashioned. Create a bogeyman in the East, generate hysteria against left social democrats and socialists, and sew all together behind a blind advocacy of militarism. Defence of our “common European home” might just as well read “the defence of small nations,” as all the powers of neo-liberal Europe have entered into an unholy alliance to protect their privilege.      

So what should we do? Firstly, let’s recognise that this onslaught by the ruling elite is the result of fundamental flaws in their socio-economic system: briefly, an actual or impending crisis in capitalism coupled with concern by the powerful that they are vulnerable to working-class fight-back.      

Then we should do all we can to defend what remains of Ireland’s neutrality. This is a crucial struggle, to prevent Fine Gael and fellow-travellers in Fianna Fáil chaining us to NATO’s warmongers.      

Thereafter we must continue to build a movement among working people that is capable of resisting the savagery that is capitalism and moving forward towards constructing socialism. 

by Tommy McKearney  This article first appeared in Socialist Voice April 2018

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1. “Statement from Jews in the Labour Party,” at www.jewishvoiceforlabour.org.uk

2. See Joseph de Burca, “The dark side of the media: Secret service penetration of British media (and attempts to infiltrate one Irish medium),” Village, 26 March 2018.

3. “Multinationals pay lower taxes than a decade ago,” Financial Times, 11 March 2018.

4. “Ireland and the EU: Defending our common European home,” at https://brianhayes.ie


The first Dáil Éireann and the Democratic Programme


Something to celebrate

The first Dáil Éireann and the Democratic Programme

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Next January the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum will mark the centenary of the first Dáil Éireann and the publication of one of modern Ireland’s landmark documents, the Democratic Programme. The forum will celebrate the occasion with a conference in Liberty Hall, Dublin.

While it is important that seminal events are remembered, it is also necessary that we learn from them. There are lessons from that era that are not only of historical interest but have relevance to contemporary Ireland and its relationship with the rest of the world. The celebration on 26th January 2019 in Liberty Hall, therefore, will go beyond a simple commemoration: it will also explore the progress, or lack of it, since then and ask participants to contribute towards making a positive and progressive impact in the days to come.

The people who participated on that historic occasion in 1919 not only asserted the Irish people’s right to self-determination and independence but also identified a need to rectify serious social and economic issues that had a detrimental effect on Ireland’s working people. Moreover, they also created a political arena that had the potential to implement these tasks. That the eventual outcome did not fulfil its intention is cause for regret rather than outright dismissal.

Firstly, therefore, let us look briefly at the conditions under which working people live and labour in today’s Ireland. A century after the publication of the Democratic Programme, which included the statement that the Republic will “reaffirm that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare,” there can be little doubt that this objective has been decisively rejected by governing institutions in Ireland.

The dogma of free-market capitalism is ruthlessly implemented, with little care for its effect on working people. There is a housing and homelessness crisis, with the neo-liberal Irish state, in spite of an obvious emergency, insisting on the provision of houses through the private sector, notwithstanding the abject failure of this policy. Lengthy hospital waiting-lists, and the spectacle of patients parked for hours on trolleys, is a national disgrace. Exacerbating difficulties within the health service is the absence of adequate provision of home help for the elderly. Nevertheless, this state persists with the detrimental practice of maintaining a parallel private and public health service.

Typifying the Irish state’s neo-liberal ethos is the fall-out from the Carillion fiasco.¹ So determined was the Dublin government to assist the privileged elite that this reckless British company was awarded responsibility for the design, building, financing and maintenance of six new schools around the country. This so-called public-services company powerfully illustrates the drive towards the privatisation of public services that has been relentlessly pursued over the past decades.

Whereas once the capitalist state provided a protective structure whereby an elite would profit from manufacturing and finance, this has now become a situation where the state also ensures that a favoured few benefit by being paid handsomely to manage public services. In the process, standards are frequently lowered, trade unions are often expelled, and ultimately, if privatised, the management fails, as Carillion and others have done, with the taxpaying public picking up the bill. Illustrating the sheer mendacity of this regime was the astonishing spectacle last year of an Irish government refusing to accept €13 billion in taxes owed by the enormously wealthy Apple Corporation.

In the light of all this it is reasonable to ask whether a sovereign Irish republic as asserted in the Mansion House ninety-nine years ago exists in any real sense in Ireland today. In the first place, a raft of restrictions is imposed on the popular will as a consequence of membership of the European Union. This can only get worse if proposals for closer integration, coupled with the strengthening of the euro zone, are implemented. Moreover, it is likely that this will come about, since the Davos poster-boy Emmanuel Macron is proposing this very package and has recently been receiving backing form the supine leadership of Germany’s Social Democratic Party.

More worrying still is the flagrant violation by the United States of what is left of Ireland’s neutrality. This was emphasised last month at Shannon Airport, where the vice-president of the United States, Mike Pence, posed for photographs as he shook hands with American soldiers in combat fatigues. These soldiers, bound for Kuwait, are clearly not tourists, and their presence in Shannon Airport makes the Irish government party to their military campaign. As Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD (Sinn Féin) said, “these images are a stark reminder that the civilian Shannon Airport has virtually become a forward base for the US army to carry out military operations and exercises.”

Let us not be complacent either, because this situation has a resonance beyond national pride. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has moved its symbolic Doomsday Clock to two minutes before midnight,² thanks largely to the “unpredictability” of Donald Trump. Compromising neutrality, therefore, poses a risk that Ireland could be dragged almost unwittingly into an imperial war.

To address the problems arising from a diminished sovereignty coupled with the destructiveness of neo-liberalism, it is worth reflecting finally on a central concept promoted by the first Dáil. This was the extension and empowerment of democracy. Those who gathered in the Mansion House on that January day could have taken their seats in the British Parliament but, while forming a significant bloc in the House of Commons, would nevertheless have remained as impotent as the Irish Party had been fifty years before. Just as then, there is now a need to facilitate a more participatory form of democracy, one that is not at present available.

The Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum is not calling for anything as dramatic as the creation of an alternative parliament. What it seeks to do, among other things, is to draw attention to the limitations imposed by a reliance on the existing parliamentary process, where, in the words of Lenin, “capital exercises its influence on the state power.” The powerful and inspiring campaign against the water tax taught us that single-issue campaigns are effective but can be limited. Without the continuous popular pressure of a mass movement the ruling class make strategic concessions that can be eroded in time.

The Forum plans thereafter to use its celebration of the first Dáil in 2019 to explore and advocate the establishment of a wider forum, aimed at encouraging political discourse and promoting the creation and direction of a bottom-up mass movement. 

Doing this, however, requires the building of a regularly convened assembly or arena designed with the intention of identifying and promoting a comprehensive programme capable of transforming Irish society. What the assembly would be named, how it would be made up or where it might be convened are matters for democratic agreement and are not a prerogative reserved by the Peadar O’Donnell Forum. What the forum does insist upon, though, is that a hundred years after the first Dáil the Irish working class must be allowed to realise the promise and potential of that assembly’s Democratic Programme. 

Tommy McKearney  This article first appeared in Socialist Voice February 2018

1. Paul Mason, “Ink it onto your knuckles: Carillion is how neoliberalism lives and breathes,” Novamedia, 15 January 2018.     

 2. “Doomsday Clock moved to just two minutes to ‘apocalypse’,” BBC News, 25 January 2018.

Sinn Féin edging towards social democracy

The decision by Sinn Fein to allow its Dáil deputies negotiate for a minority position in a future government coalition in Dublin, indicates that the party is now embedded within the parameters of centrist social democracy 

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The announcement of his retirement by Sinn Fein’s long-serving president Gerry Adams was deemed by the media to be the most noteworthy happening at the party’s recent ard-fheis. After 34, often turbulent years at the helm of a movement, ridiculed and lauded in almost equal parts, it could hardly have been otherwise. 


The Adams tenure has had a significance that goes well beyond his own organisation. No matter how one views the man, it is impossible to deny the impact he has had on Irish politics over the past decades. Under his stewardship, Sinn Féin not only emerged from the shadow of the IRA but has become a formidable electoral force both north and south. 


Yet in spite of media focus, it was another decision taken at the annual convention that will have greater significance in the days to come. Sinn Fein’s declared willingness to participate as a minority partner in a coalition government in Dublin has ramifications that go beyond the party. Taken at a time when it might reasonably have been anticipated that an incoming leader would have had time to adjust, the latest brouhaha involving Francis Fitzgerald and the Department of Justice has hastened developments.


For over a decade, Sinn Fein has straddled a position somewhere between radicalism and reformism. There was doubt as to whether the party was vying to replace Fianna Fáil as ‘the republican party’ or attempting to introduce discipline to that fragmented radical community inside and outside the Dail. Signalling an intent to enter government as a junior partner in a coalition resolves this conundrum and is a clear indication of a determination to conform within establishment parameters.


Although the Fine Gael led coalition will survive the latest upheaval, the longevity of this government must be in doubt.  The high-wire game of bluff between Varadkar and Martin has damaged confidence between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and questions the durability of the confidence and supply arrangement. While opinion polls are currently suggesting little change in the event of an election, it is possible that post-polling-day arithmetic could present the option for a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Fein administration. 


Have no doubts either about Micheál Martin’s position vis a vis coalition. Faced with the temptation of entering office or underwriting the inevitable mess of a hung Dail and the risk of yet another election, Michael Martin will accept Mary Lou McDonald as his Tánaiste.


While it is reasonable to point to the failure of other minority partners in coalition arrangements as an indication of where Sinn Fein would find itself, this is almost to miss the point. The  bourgeois parliamentary system is created for self perpetuation. In other words, it is not a question of whether those in cabinet are of sterling character or unbending republican principle. In the final analysis it is  down to the role of the state in capitalist society where as James Connolly said, governments are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the ruling class. 


Let’s be clear on this point. Connolly’s observation is not some outdated piece of left-wing hyperbole. No serious political observer believes that the cabinet exercises absolute power in the Republic of Ireland. In the first instance, the Dail gives way to the constitution guaranteeing the right to private property and this will be upheld by the judiciary restricting elected deputies ability to redistribute wealth.

 

Then there the state’s subjugation to the European Union which in effect amounts to conceding a large measure of economic sovereignty to Brussels. Moreover, huge influence is exercised covertly by other agencies such as the privately owned media, financial sector entities, speculators and foreign multinationals. The outworking of this is that a minority partner in a coalition government will have little ability to make meaningful change and in reality smaller  parties change well before the state’s free-market system begins to creak. 


This analysis should not be taken as simply another swipe at Sinn Fein but rather as an  assessment of the wider political situation in Ireland at present. The decision  to accept a junior partnership role in coalition has reverberations across the political spectrum. Around us there are grave issues demanding solutions as all the while we are witnessing a vacant space on the left highlighted by the latest Sinn Fein decision, coupled with the Labour Party’s decline.


Meanwhile, there is a real erosion of credibility in the state apparatus. How can it be otherwise as key institutions are faltering and urgent responsibilities neglected or discarded.  


Look at what is happening with one of the basic elements required for the exercise of state power; control of the administration of justice and policing. Chaos reigns unchecked in both these areas. The Department of Justice is apparently unable to exercise authority and cannot manage itself or its emails. Running parallel with the department’s woes are a series of seemingly unresolvable scandals within the Garda Siochana that has eroded the force’s prestige in the eyes of all but dyed in the wool right wingers. 


If that’s not enough, the state’s two largest parties have sweated hard and long to agree a sweetheart deal for reasons of political expediency, rather than sack the minister of justice for obvious incompetence.      


Adding further to the state’s ebbing authority is a raft of social problems. Housing shortages remain at crisis point with every indication that the situation will get worse. Austerity continues to hurt many working class families who see little opportunity to escape its grip. Zero-hour contracts, depressed wages, a diminishing welfare safety net and reduced social wage make life increasingly difficult in a lot of households. Moreover, addressing these social and economic problems is rendered virtually impossible by the Republic’s ruling class’ slavish adherence to the European Union and its neoliberal dictates.


Against this backdrop of damaged state credibility and widespread social disadvantage, there is space and need for a clearly defined left movement. The Irish Labour Party is in disarray while Sinn Fein is edging irreversibly towards centrist social democracy. The field is, therefore, opening up for a genuine socialist alternative and signs are that this is now a real possibility. For example, left-wing trade unionists in the Right to Change movement are exploring options in this field.


 Positive signals  are also coming from some smaller political parties and elected representatives as they combine in the Campaign for Public Housing. Meantime, the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum continues to provide an arena for political discussion facilitating the development of an ideological consensus around a programme for progressive transformative change.  


Nevertheless, nothing changes without a conscious and coherent effort and we must not forgo this opportunity to make progress. It would be unforgivable if we fail to measure up to the requirements of the new day. We must, as civil rights activists said in the 1960s, ‘Seize the Time’.


Tommy McKearney … 28 November 2017 …. This article first appeared in Socialist Voice Dec 2017

Encouraging signs of growing unity among progressive forces

Beware of the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA)



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A recent feature in the Financial Times might cause some surprise among Ireland’s eight thousand homeless, or the many others struggling with the spiralling cost of renting even modest accommodation. 

The article reported that the Republic is now enjoying one of the most remarkable economic revivals the European Union has seen, and that the country’s sovereign borrowing costs are now the same as those of France. 

This piece of good news, for some at least, was part of a recent “Person in the News” article that gave a glowing account of the new taoiseach, Leo “early rising” Varadkar.¹ The article contained the type of trite nonsense more often produced by Varadkar’s social-media spin machine. Young, handsome, clubbable, assertive prime minister, and—wait for it—“probably more centre-right as opposed to the non-ideological person which Enda Kenny was.” 

Well, there you have it: journalistic licence at its most unperceptive. To speculate that any leader of Fine Gael could possibly be “non-ideological” requires a lively imagination, but to suggest that Leo Varadkar might be centre-right is to do a hard-line neo-liberal a grave injustice. 

Above: John Douglas, general secretary of Mandate, main speaker at united commemoration for Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown on 20th August 2017

For almost three decades after the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan era’s onslaught on working people’s rights and entitlements, capitalist ruling classes everywhere were able to maintain control and hold the political high ground. 

They achieved this through a combination of factors. The collapse of socialist states in eastern Europe removed the threat of a competitive alternative. Their control of media and educational institutions granted the world’s oligarchs an almost uncontested telling of the political and economic narrative. Moreover, the creation of unlimited and ultimately unsustainable credit provided an illusion of prosperity and dynamism that offset opposition from the left, or indeed words of caution from the small number of critical classical free-market economists. 

The political calm enjoyed and exploited by capitalism’s elite ended with the economic crisis heralded by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent imposition of what is euphemistically called austerity. Working people in Europe, the United States and elsewhere reacted angrily to a brutal attack on their standard of living and challenged the legitimacy of the status quo. While the response over the entire spectrum of the working class has not always been progressive, it is nevertheless of concern to the ruling elite. 

Consequently, we are now seeing the emergence of a twin-track strategy from within capitalism. Firstly, there is the emergence of reactionary politicians posing as non-ideological centrists. Leo Varadkar and the promotional propaganda he generates exemplify this phenomenon in Ireland. 

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Secondly, and almost invisibly, there is a subversive and corrosive campaign to legislate for and implement free-market trade agreements beneficial only to global corporate giants. While Donald Trump spoke loudly during his presidential campaign of ending such agreements, he has not made good on his boast since arriving in the White House. Although he stalled development on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the United States and the          Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), almost all other trade deals remain in place. 

And now, in another spectacular U-turn, his associates are intent on resuming negotiations in September on a pernicious treaty called the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). 

State-appointed delegates from twenty-two countries, together with the EU, represented by its Commission, have been meeting in secret in Geneva since 2013. Regrettably, the Irish state is complicit in this scheme, about which the EU’s own web site says: “Like any other trade negotiations, the TiSA talks are not carried out in public and the documents are available to participants only . . .” 

What we do know is drawn from leaked sources obtained by the International Trade Union Confederation and published in a report, “All About TISA.”² This report tells us that TISA would (a) lead to a massive transfer of power from governments to transnational corporations, (b) lead to strangulation of the regulation of banks and finance, and (c) hasten the “Uberisation” of many more jobs. 

Moreover, there is heavy emphasis on an all-encompassing locked-in clause, which simply means that, once enacted, there would be no retracting any aspect of the treaty. 

Any such trade pact would have detrimental consequences for Ireland. Not only would transnationals, such as Shell and Apple, gain increasing influence within the state but also our already limited ability to control the financial sector would disappear completely. Interestingly, Scott Sinclair, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, now argues that TISA would also make it harder for governments to regulate vital services, such as energy and water³—a barely visible clause that would potentially offer the Varadkar-led Fine Gael–Fianna Fáil axis a vehicle with which to reverse the gains made by the campaign against the water tax. 

As a Swiss trade unionist recently said, despairingly, if this treaty is implemented national parliaments become virtually irrelevant, and popular sovereignty is grabbed by transnational capital. 

Fortunately, though, all is not lost, and there is an answer to our difficulties. The above-mentioned water campaign provides a lesson in how to organise a peaceful and democratic mass movement capable of foiling the designs of neo-liberalism. 

Moreover, we have witnessed recently the beginning of an encouraging and indeed significant coming together of crucial progressive forces. Rallying under the slogan Unity of our people, unity of progressive forces, unity of our country, communists, republicans and trade unionists came together to hear a leading trade unionist, John Douglas, deliver an inspirational oration at the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone. 

A central theme of the speech was the need to build a progressive movement in order to reverse the damage done by neo-liberal austerity in general and to prevent specific attacks on workers, such as the TISA treaty. “There is an untapped hunger for change and justice in Ireland that we need to give expression to,” he said, “. . . and we can only do this through the unity of progressive forces.” He went on to add: “Our task now is to build from the ground up, to educate, to agitate. We need to build a movement that is capable and confident and which grows with every victory.” 

John Douglas has undoubtedly got it right. To build a movement sufficiently confident and capable of opposing and overcoming the neo-liberal agenda we must create unity among progressive forces. The recent united commemoration for Wolfe Tone was not only a positive first step along this road but indicated the real potential that exists. 

Evidence of success will be when a future Financial Times “Person in the News” article publishes the story of a leading Irish trade unionist who is causing as much distress for capital as Varadkar is providing for its comfort today. 

Tommy McKearney


This article first appeared in Socialist Voice Sept 2017

1. Laura Noonan, “The bright young man leading an Irish revival,” Financial Times, 19 August 2017.

2. (a) International Trade Union Confederation, “All about TiSA” (www.ituc-csi.org/all-about-tisa); (b) further information is available on the UNI Global Union web site (http://bit.ly/1Qlw9xf).

3. Scott Sinclair, “TISA Troubles: Services, Democracy and Corporate Rule in the Trump Era,” Rosa Luxemburg Institute (www.rosalux.eu).

The people who get up early in the morning

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The citizens of many European countries are being confronted with the invidious option of choosing between aggressive neo-liberalism on the one hand and fascism on the other. Nowhere was this clearer than during the recent presidential election in France, when voters were asked to decide between the right-wing financier Emmanuel Macron and the National Front leader Marine Le Pen.

The dilemma may not be quite so obvious everywhere, but the trend is nevertheless all too evident.

Nor should we in Ireland be complacent. There is not, at the moment, a significant ultra-right movement in this state, but we are certainly seeing the emergence of an increasingly authoritarian neo-liberal government.


There is no shortage of evidence of this imperiousness in action. We have the Jobstown trial, with its vindictive attempt to punish people in a working-class area who confronted the state; and equally ominous is the blatant attempt to curtail the right to protest.     

Then there was the contemptuous treatment meted out to Bus Éireann workers as they struggled to retain hard-won terms and conditions. And then we, the people, had our queries brushed aside when we demanded to know how the Irish delegation had voted on Saudi Arabia’s membership of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.     

We could continue, but lack of space prevents us.       

Just as we were beginning to think that things couldn’t get much worse, we are now faced with the nasty prospect of Leo “people who get up early in the morning” Varadkar becoming Taoiseach. During a pitch for the leadership of Fine Gael, he made his right-wing credentials crystal-clear, claiming that “unfortunately there are a group of people, very often supporters of the far left, that believe they shouldn’t pay anything and that Apple, bondholders or billionaires should pay . . .” Adding to this crude piece of neo-liberal dogma, he stated that if selected as party boss he would curb the right to strike in certain circumstances, by introducing binding arbitration on trade unions—the thin end of a wedge designed to emasculate organised labour.

It would be unwise to treat these comments and proposals as mere electioneering. Varadkar is responding to the demands of a powerful section of Ireland’s capitalist class. They are an elite group within society determined to take every possible advantage from the confusion and demoralisation created by the financial crisis of 2010—a group that at the same time is fearful of the power displayed by working-class communities when they united around the anti-water tax campaign.

To meet the demands of this elite cabal, Enda Kenny’s probable successor is setting out his agenda, and it is frankly anti-working class.

Varadkar may well bob and weave in order to obfuscate his real intentions as he offers so-called clarifications. He now says, for example, that his reference to people who get up early in the morning should be understood to recognise those with long journeys to work, and that his proposal to curb strikes is merely an initiative to improve the Labour Court.

In spite of this cynical play-acting, Varadkar’s aggressive neo-liberalism is ingrained and is as calculated as his headline-grabbing stunt ostensibly designed to counteract welfare fraud. Worth noting in this context is the absence of any suggestion of preventing white-collar crime, or replacing the discredited ODCE.      

The minister for social protection (an oxymoronic title if ever there was one) is moulded in the Fine Gael forge and will seek to ruthlessly protect the interests of capital. There can be little doubt that the next leader of the original corporatist party will ensure that it stays true to the ethos of its blue-shirted founding fathers.

Under these circumstances, however, it is important to recognise that Leo Varadkar is not so much a personality as a product of his class. He may display certain irrelevant idiosyncrasies that set him apart, but in reality any other contender for the party leadership would follow a similar political and economic path. Ever since the Lehman Brothers crash of 2008, capitalism’s elite has sought to protect its position by forcing the working class to pay for the financial crisis through what is euphemistically called austerity. Therefore, so long as Ireland is governed by free-marketeers we will have to endure the consequences of being forced to live by the rules laid down by those forces and elements controlling the market.

In the first instance, this will mean making Ireland conform to directives emanating from those vested interests that manage the European Union. It is useful, therefore, to bear this in mind and consider the programme now advocated by Germany and France—the core powers within the union. The ruling class in both states is determined to intensify integration, reinforce the currency zone, and accelerate what they like to describe as liberalisation of the labour market.

In a nutshell, this means that fiscal control will be decided by French and German financiers via Brussels and thereafter implemented through regional parliaments performing the task of emasculating organised labour. Leo Varadkar as Taoiseach would be one of those peripheral satraps entrusted with the latter chore—presumably a labour of love for him.

What, therefore, is to be done? From the outset, it’s important to recognise that we have entered an era in which old-style social democracy has become irrelevant and redundant, or sometimes even worse. The programmes being advocated by those parties that believe it possible to engage with and moderate neo-liberalism are offering a dangerous illusion. They have failed spectacularly everywhere and, just as has happened to the Labour Party, they are distrusted by a majority of working people and have been left floundering.

Nor is this a matter of appearances and presentation, where the application of a slick marketing campaign coupled with clever spin-doctoring will facilitate their return to power. Neo-liberal capitalism has left little space for placating a compliant working class and has therefore rendered social democracy redundant.

It is important, therefore, that we as a class understand that social democracy is in terminal decline, and not just in temporary retreat. Our choices are now limited, albeit not to those offered by capitalism. We should be absolutely clear that we do not have to settle for either neo-liberalism or fascism. There remains the only and perfectly viable option for working people: that is, a workers’ republic.

To make this a reality requires, above all else, organisation and unity among the progressive currents in Irish society. The unthinkable alternative is a choice between socialism and barbarism. One option we cannot allow ourselves is to wait passively for events to dictate. We must continue to endeavour to build the people’s movement capable of transforming society into one fit for the working class.


Tommy McKearney This article first appeared in the Socialist Voice June 2017

Sinn Féin faces a daunting task

Sinn Féin’s newly appointed leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, faces a daunting task as she begins to guide her party during a period of uncertainty in the six counties

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Notwithstanding the fact that she is a politician of considerable experience and ability as outgoing minister for health in the Stormont Assembly, she faces several difficult challenges. Not only has she a short preparatory period before leading the party into an election in early March but she will be faced immediately thereafter with what are bound to be fraught negotiations with the DUP over the establishment of an Executive—and that may prove to be the easy bit. 

The fundamental problem facing all political parties in Northern Ireland is not restoring the institutions but what to do with a failed political entity, locked helplessly within the United Kingdom.   

Although there may be some small degree of electoral slippage for both major parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP are likely to remain the two largest groups in the Assembly. Thanks to the limited ability of the Stormont opposition, not to mention the absence of a visible alternative beyond that institution, the previous coalition partners will emerge as the only contenders for executive office. 

Whatever the electoral tally may show, there is undoubtedly a wide gap to be bridged if an Executive is to be formed in the weeks following 2 March. Sinn Féin has been stung by criticism from its own supporters for its inept and often contradictory early-days handling of the “cash for ash” scandal. The party was reluctant to bring down the Assembly and felt angry when forced to do so and thus trigger an election. Michelle O’Neill will be obliged, therefore, to wring some noticeable concessions from the DUP before re-entering coalition. 

Arlene Foster, on the other hand, has practically staked her reputation on acting tough with Sinn Féin while simultaneously rejecting any responsibility whatsoever for the RHI fiasco. This indicates the likelihood of stalemate, followed by direct rule, for some months at least. 

There was a time in the not too distant past when both London and Dublin would have reacted with some alarm to the prospect of relations between Northern Ireland’s political parties breaking down. Not any longer, though. Put bluntly, there is virtually no prospect of this rupture in the Assembly leading to widespread armed activity, and at any rate the Irish and British governments are now wrestling with what both consider the much more important issue of Brexit. Consequently, the quarrelsome Northern politicians will be left on the back burner until Theresa May finds time to send someone in to force through a settlement.    

No doubt an arrangement of sorts will be reached sooner or later. Both parties are acutely aware of what may happen when local political institutions are put in cold storage. Without the structures presented by the existence of a devolved administration and the public platform this provides, electoral parties tend to stagnate and even wither. Sinn Féin and the DUP are well aware of what happened to the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP as a result of the prolonged period of direct rule during the 1980s.   

Both parties, however, are caught in a bind. Stormont as now constituted allows them to exert a certain amount of influence but grants no real power. The recent ruling by Britain’s Supreme Court in relation to article 50 of the Treaty on European Union—i.e. Brexit—made this painfully clear when it “unanimously ruled that devolved administrations did not need to be consulted and did not have a right to veto Article 50 . . .” It might well have added that, deprived, as it is, of fiscal and political authority, this applies to all other matters of significance coming before the Assembly.   

Making matters worse is the fact that those who have administered the six counties over the past ten years have no concrete plan for improving the situation. On the contrary, they have found themselves in the unenviable position of having to manage their responsibilities within parameters dictated by governments in London.    

How impoverished their response to this has been is evidenced by feeble initiatives such as the proposed reduction in corporation tax and appeals by the first and deputy first ministers to foreign transnationals to come and exploit the North’s low-wage economy.   

Moreover, it now appears that the absence of meaningful control over the economy may have played a significant part in the RHI (or “cash for ash”) scandal. Approximately 45 per cent of this grant was allocated to the poultry industry.¹ An impartial observer could be forgiven for thinking that this was, in effect, a disguised subsidy for a low-tech industry that, unsupported, might easily have been undermined by competition from abroad. 

Interestingly, the scheme’s attraction for poultry farmers was reported by the News Letter as far back as August 2014,² a fact that may require answers from the then minister for agriculture, Michelle O’Neill.  

Whatever conclusion will eventually be drawn from inquiries into this affair, it exposes inherent weaknesses in Stormont’s political and economic structures. The northern political entity is a peripheral region of the United Kingdom, locked in to London’s political and economic orbit. Unable to chart its own course, Northern Ireland is reduced to operating an opportunist economic policy, regulated and contaminated through the mean practising of sectarian politics.  

Therefore, while the Assembly and the Executive may eventually be restored, they will continue to huff and puff and do little to improve the dismal lot of the region’s working class. 

As with so many other states failed by a colonial past and contemporary capitalism, the North needs a transformative strategy. This requires frankness, honesty, and a willingness to contemplate options that will not please everyone. The northern state, as now constituted, is a failure and has to be replaced. That such a change will come about is no longer in doubt. The fall-out from Brexit, Scottish disenchantment with London and changing demographics are among the factors that guarantee this.    

Simply waiting for events to take their course, however, is not an option in the volatile political arena that is Northern Ireland. The only responsible approach is to make sure that change happens under the best possible conditions and with maximum support from within the working class. To do so it will be necessary to introduce a programme that demonstrates (even if it cannot be immediately implemented) a clear and reasonable path towards a new and better society. Core issues detrimentally affecting working-class communities have to be given priority and solutions identified over the short, medium and long term. 

It doesn’t take long to list problem areas that would form the basis of a transformative programme. Just as in the Republic, there is a homeless and rental-housing crisis in the North that can only be addressed by a comprehensive public housing strategy. The creeping privatisation of the National Health Service has to be halted and rolled back. Workers’ rights need defining, asserting, and defending. Adequate care for the aged must be made a priority. And the greatest stain of all—ubiquitous food banks in 21st-century Northern Ireland³—must be addressed and the need for them ended for all time.  

To implement such a strategy it will be necessary to build a movement around progressive forces and identify a methodology for engaging with the situation. Let’s be honest: this won’t be easy, but the alternative is to do nothing while tolerating existing failure, as we wait for the situation to inevitably get worse. 

As socialists, however, we believe we can succeed in this endeavour, because we always exercise “optimism of the will,” even in the North of Ireland. 

Tommy McKearney …This article first appeared in Socialist Voice, February 2017

1. Conor Macauley, “RHI scandal: Locations of RHI boilers revealed to BBC,” BBC News, 17 January 2017 (http://bbc.in/2k5EUju).     

 2. Future of farming appears to be “Brites,” Farming Life, 22 August 2014 (http://bit.ly/2kBd52i).      

3. Just one example: “Giving generously to food bank,” Mid-Ulster Mail, 15 December 2016 (http://bit.ly/2ksBZo


The Coming of the New Left


A new left-wing constituency is appearing on the Irish stage but it remains disjointed



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Fianna Fail continues to support the Fine Gael led coalition in spite of having done  a U-turn on water charges. Their move against Uisce Eireann was more than simple opportunism. On one hand it certainly did indicate a party preparing for the next general election by  endeavoring to clear as many obstacles from its path as possible.  Equally so, and this is important, Fianna Fail populists  have recognised that there is a changed political climate in the Republic. They may not, though, have realised that it is more than a passing phase. The 2010 financial collapse and subsequent leeching of the 26-Counties' people by the Troika has revealed a powerful socio-political constituency at odds with the status quo. What is not obvious though, is the direction this movement is heading.

Politics in the South of Ireland was dominated until recently by three conservative political parties and  no matter how much some of us despaired, the people appeared content with the arrangement. No longer though. Fianna Fail’s somersault actually went some way towards underlining this fact. Thanks in no small measure to Micheál Martin’s Pauline conversion, the fate of the water tax  is sealed for the time being and few of its opponents can have failed to recognise this.  In spite of that, last month saw one of the largest  protest demonstrations in Dublin this year. Thousands took to the streets demanding the definitive abolition of a virtually defunct tax.

How does such energy remain in a campaign that is seemingly won? The reason is that something profoundly different and important has undoubtedly happened.  A goodly percentage of the population is deeply uncomfortable with the existing model of governance epitomised by the major parties that have held power over the decades. After several years of austerity and bailing out bankers, we are now witnessing the bizarre and offensive spectacle of a Dublin government refusing to collect €13  billion in tax from the world's wealthiest corporation. Working people are understandably angry. So angry indeed that the Irish Independent reported the Gardaí closed off Molesworth Street for a day in September apparently fearing, ‘… angry protesters would strike again as the Dáil resumed recently after its summer break …

Even allowing for Indo hype or Garda overreaction, this is a remarkable situation with a government seemingly frightened by its own citizens.  Nor is this a localised Irish phenomenon that may exhaust itself through the granting of limited concessions.  Similar sentiments are being expressed across Europe and North America. So disenchanted  have people become with the outworking of contemporary capitalism that even powerful representatives of the global elite are openly concerned. 

Their worries were summarised by a  recent Financial Times  editorial  which stated that, 'supporters of open markets and liberal values are acutely aware that they are facing a political backlash that threatens the current international order.... Christine Lagarde spoke of the “ground swell of discontent” felt in many countries with growing inequality in income wealth and opportunity'. The article continued, mentioning other concerned members of the global ruling elite  including  EU bosses Donald Tusk and Mario Draghi. Needless to say the money people’s newspaper only offered free market solutions.

This  belief in free-market economics, long shared also by social democrats, is now being challenged to a greater extent than at any time since the 1930s. Events in England, with the  consolidation of Jeremy Corbyn's position  at the head of  Britain's Labour Party, is further proof of what is happening. Developments within that party are instructive, exciting even and surely to be welcomed in the wider context in spite of their limited social democratic agenda. They  do nevertheless have the potential to be somewhat misleading in the sense that under Irish conditions, there cannot be an exact replication of the Corbyn campaign.

As a result of extensive 19th century industrialisation and the growth of the trade union movement, there has existed a mass working-class party (albeit centre social democrat and bourgeois led) in Britain since the  early 1900s. There is no similar mass organisation in Ireland and we would do well to recognise this. For well known historical reasons, the political left of centre in Ireland is not dominated by any one party as is the case in the UK. Nor has the modern Irish working class a shared folk memory identical to that which still influences many British working class communities.

Ireland’s history of anti-colonial struggle coupled with what for decades was a predominantly rural population has helped shape its grassroots political movements, resulting in several schools of thought. Consequently the strong radical constituency that has emerged over the last few years in Ireland is influenced by a number of different currents as evidenced by those participating in the recent Right to Water demonstration. Without question it is a predominantly working class movement with a healthy trade union input, an obvious socialist and republican participation and a non-party community involvement. While clearly a healthy and progressive development, there is minimum consensus around a shared programme, how it might be implemented and by whom.

Agreement around a limited programme such as the Right to Change principles is a useful first step but has weaknesses when inevitably faced by major issues such as membership of the European Union, rejection of finance imperialism or partition of the island. And let us be honest with each other, these are important issues that cannot be ignored and will  eventually either split a movement or prevent it unifying. Republicans, for example, will continue to reject partition and socialists will remain hostile to EU membership.

Until there is agreement around these contentious but vital issues, it is premature to talk of a new mass political party of the working class.  On the other hand, ignoring these questions in an attempt to maintain a façade of unity will at best result in creating the type of compromised and flawed entity that is Syriza.

However, there is no reason for despondency or lethargy. Significant progress has been made and conditions are favourable for positive advancement  by the working class.  What is required is to identify a vehicle that will allow for maximum cooperation  while simultaneously facilitating and promoting intensive discussion and negotiation around the formulation and implementation of a programme for the establishment of a socialist republic.

We already have the Right to Change as a vehicle with a proven record of promoting cooperation. More, however is required in terms of organisational and policy consensus.  In this age of modern communications with continuous online activity among other helpful features, there is every opportunity to carry out the extensive political education and discussion needed to complete the tasks.

At the risk of echoing the afore mentioned U-turners;  significant progress made but much remains to be acomplished.

Tommy McKearney … This article first appeared in Socialist Voice October 2016

History Repeating itself as farce

Policies of the Stormont Executive parties converging


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How often have we heard the phrase from Marx's ‘Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon’, that history repeats itself ‘... first as tragedy, then as farce’? That the axiom is overused is hardly surprising since it has been proven accurate so often and rarely more so than when applied to the current administration in Stormont. Once we were afflicted with an uncompromising Unionist regime that governed the six counties with scant regard for democracy and creating misery for many.  In its place we now have an administration that appears intent, instead, on making itself a byword for banality and ridicule.

The Lords Craig and Brookeborough must be turning in their marble tombs as the state they created is now home to what might charitably be described as a political circus. For pure farce it would be difficult to out-do the most recent brouhaha following revelations that a Sinn Fein MLA had coached flag waving loyalist Jamie Bryson prior to the young unionist giving evidence at a committee hearing investigating the Nama scandal. The only redeeming feature of the affair was the MLA’s immediate and exemplary resignation when found to have transgressed; an act of integrity almost unprecedented in northern political life where a mule-headed refusal to accept blame for any misconduct is more often the norm.

As well as the titillation provided by the Namagate coaching scandal, Stormont’s second coming contributes daily to the surrealism that surrounds Assembly business, indicating that it is more about optics than substance. Deprived of overall or full authority, due in large part to the absence of fiscal control, the Assembly (or the Executive at any rate) is now striving to maintain its existence at all costs, often paying less attention to living conditions for its electorate than to its own fortunes.

One result of this is that the two main parties have agreed on a curious modus vivendi that provides for a distinctly Northern Irish version of bicameralism. Instead of having two chambers, Stormont has effectively two arenas, one for designated areas of public disagreement and the other providing for an underlying consensus on economic policy. Readers of this newspaper hardly need reminding of the often-reported areas of disagreement in the North. Less obvious perhaps is the extent to which a neoliberal consensus underpinning the political institutions has led to a virtual policy convergence on economic matters. 

Just how close the two main parties are in these terms was highlighted recently in a joint letter[1] from First Minster Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to British Prime Minister Theresa May. In spite of angry denials, the First Minster had apparently performed a dramatic u-turn in relation to the European Union. Notwithstanding her enthusiastic support (and that of her party) for the Brexit campaign to leave the EU, Ms Foster has, in the letter to Downing Street, shifted her position on Brussels to one that appears not unlike that of Sinn Fein. The extent of the DUP leader’s about-turn is evidenced by no less than four references in the letter to the benefits supposedly accruing to Northern Ireland from EU membership.

While the First Minister was being ridiculed by her political opponents and some media outlets for her remarkable political somersault, the Deputy First Minister’s party had managed to perform a no less dexterous manoeuvre albeit one that drew much less public attention. As well as reversing its long-standing opposition to the free-market driven European Union, the letter to Theresa appears to indicate that Sinn Fein has adopted a pro-business position vis-à-vis workers and wages.

The jointly agreed and signed communiqué contains a request for policies that, it states, should be, ‘…sufficiently flexible to allow access to unskilled as well as highly skilled labour’. Elaborating on this point, the letter said that this was necessary because employers in the private and public sectors are heavily dependent on EU and other migrant labour.

Whether Sinn Fein care to admit it or not, there is nothing transformative or progressive about this stance. There is little doubt that this will not play out as an enlightened appeal to welcome workers from abroad. In Northern Ireland's depressed economy this is a strategy for lowering wages that are already among the lowest in the United Kingdom.

Both parties in the Stormont executive would probably claim, with some little justification, that they are restricted by the terms of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act[2] (i.e. devolved powers) and the amount in their annual block grant from London. Nevertheless this is to ignore the fact that there are several areas such as health, housing and economic development (among other areas) over which the local assembly has authority. Significant improvements could be made in all of these areas were it not for this unspoken but undisguised neoliberal consensus.

Take just one area, that of the National Health Service in the Six-Counties. Even allowing for financial restrictions imposed by the finite block grant, there is no good reason why Stormont doesn't act to remove privatisation from this service. Nor is this a purely ideologically inspired suggestion. Late last year BBC in Belfast reported[3] that care services for the elderly in their home environment were at breaking point. The report makes for grim reading with one care worker reporting that all too often they can only spend a bare 15 minutes per day with their elderly and often weak patients.

Disturbingly, the report also stated that there are more than 300 local private domiciliary contractors in Northern Ireland while care workers experienced the lowest average hourly rate paid for domiciliary care in the UK. This surely begs the question, what need is served by having 300 private middlemen (or any middlemen) and at what cost to patients and care workers?

Supporters of the Executive will claim that this is the price to be paid for maintaining the political institutions in the North and implying by extension, a necessary part of maintaining peace. However well intentioned, this is a mistaken argument since the current status quo in Stormont is above all else, preserving sectarianised institutions serving a failing state. Ultimately the solution to this problem rests in replacing the flawed and failed institutions on both sides of the border with the establishment of a workers republic.

Nevertheless, this should not be interpreted to mean that we have to postpone challenging the Northern Executive's neoliberal programme in the here and now. Building a workers state is not something that comes about spontaneously or without struggle. Highlighting the flaws within capitalism and campaigning to overcome, even some of them, are important aspects of that struggle. The northern state’s political institutions may indeed have become something of a farce but the real tragedy would be if we fail to expose them and or hesitate to organise resistance to these injustices.


Tommy McKearney …… This article first appeared in Socialist Voice September 2016


[1] Letter to PM from FM & dFM - 10 August 2016:  http://bit.ly/2b2LFPL

[2] Devolution Settlement: Northern Ireland. http://bit.ly/2cdLZ1F

[3] Elderly home care services in NI 'at breaking point'. Marie-Louise Connolly. BBC News NI Health Correspondent…29 October 2015

The first step in a new departure

A Socialist Republican Summer School


An important first step in what we may well come to describe as our “new departure”—this was how the recent summer school of the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum was described by one of the participants. Cautioning against a pedantic comparison with historical events, she pointed to the coming together of hitherto divergent currents in an effort to advance the cause of a workers’ republic.      

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Communists, republicans and socialists from around Ireland gathered last month in Co. Tyrone to take part in the event. While the forum organised a very successful celebration of the 1916 Rising earlier this year, the summer school was by far its most ambitious and also its most successful happening to date. In spite of a full and often challenging agenda, all those attending agreed that the time spent had been worth while, productive and, best of all, greatly encouraging.      

Speaking during a break in the schedule, Eugene McCartan said that the purpose of the forum is to provide a vehicle to facilitate informed political discussion.¹ This, he said, will hopefully allow for a consensus to emerge on the interpretation of socialist republicanism that encourages the coming together of people prepared to strive for the establishment of a workers’ republic.      

This outlook was endorsed by Breandán Mac Cionnaith, who reminded those present of one of the forum’s principles when he quoted the lines “that to struggle to undo the conquest it is necessary to oppose and actively resist both the imperial interests and their domestic gatekeepers. That struggle has the potential to draw into activity all those who suffer the effects of this dual domination. In effect, this means the vast majority of the Irish people.”      

From its formation, the forum has been clear that it draws inspiration and insight from the Republican Congress of the 1930s. Nevertheless it has also proceeded with the clear understanding that the world does not stand still, and that any analysis has to be grounded in contemporary reality.      

Acting in this light, the summer school agenda included an exploration of present-day imperialism, socialist republicanism, women’s rights, damaging trade agreements, the privatisation of health services, and the need to effectively communicate the socialist republican message.      

Demonstrating the power of effectively communicating a contemporary message, Patricia Campbell opened the summer school with an incisive presentation on the damaging effect of privatisation on health services, north and south. Drawing on her many years of nursing experience, she illustrated how imposing private companies on the health service diverts resources from patient to shareholder, with a particularly devastating effect on the elderly.      

The opening session was followed by an outline (coupled with a facilitated discussion) of contemporary imperialism, with an emphasis on its financial manifestation and therefore illustrating the injurious role played by transnationals as well as by Britain, the EU, and the United States.      

The next session was a workshop examining the reality and perceptions (or misconceptions) of socialist republicanism today. Overseen by Frankie Quinn, this sitting utilised to the full the forum’s desire to practise a participative rather than didactic method of engagement. With the aid of a series of thought-provoking questions, participants explored socialist republicanism honestly and robustly, sparing no sensitivities.      

Eoghan Ó Néill, author of Trading Away Democracy: How TTIP and Other Trade Agreements Will Destroy People’s Rights, guided the participants through a workshop demonstrating the threat posed by a number of impending trade agreements. He pointed to the dangerous Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) but also the lesser-known, although no less harmful, Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada.      

Valerie Hayes brought the second day to an end with a workshop examining the lack of women’s rights in Ireland, north and south. She drew a comparison between the reactionary attitudes shared by right-wing groups in both jurisdictions and demonstrated how ingrained conservative attitudes towards women also help to reinforce the unhealthy status quo.      

Finally, the summer school devoted time to the question of organisation. This is a matter of huge significance, as ill-conceived structures are inimical to progress. Several speakers emphasised the need to reject political sectarianism and resist the temptation of a selfish form of “party-building” that excludes others. There was broad agreement, therefore, that it is essential to cater for and encourage maximum co-operation among different political entities on a set of shared principles that address current concerns.      

These issues involve the status quo, which the summer school agreed must change radically if the Irish working class is to overcome the profoundly unequal and debilitating political and economic system, a regime in the Republic that has caused a recurring series of recession, emigration and homelessness over decades and is now on the verge of creating American levels of income divergence between the wealthiest 10 per cent and the much more numerous cohort earning the average wage, or even less,² while in the North the BBC recently reported that people there have “on average, the lowest disposable incomes of any UK region.”      

Coupled with these long-standing harmful economic conditions are recent developments that are now creating circumstances demanding answers and simultaneously offering a fresh opportunity to the left. The working out of the most recent crisis within capitalism, and resistance to its imposition of a bail-out and austerity on Ireland, has altered the party-political landscape in the Republic. More recently in the North the result of the EU referendum has posed a series of difficult questions for the ruling elite throughout Ireland. The larger pro-EU parties in both jurisdictions confine their arguments to whether there would be a “hard” or a “soft” border, without asking why there is a border at all. Moreover, they have failed entirely to address the impact of TTIP on workers and working-class communities within the EU.      

Exacerbating these difficulties for those in power here are doubts afflicting their masters abroad, as evidenced, for example, by the turmoil within the IMF as it admits to “a series of calamitous misjudgements” in its dealings with the EU.³     

In the light of this, not only did the forum’s summer school in Co. Tyrone cover relevant issues but its convening was timely. Moreover, by drawing together previously divergent currents in a dialogue on issues of shared concern, the forum is in step with other, similar initiatives. A vibrant initiative, for example, is under way among the most progressive elements of the trade union movement to examine how best to promote the interests of Ireland’s working class.      

The summer school shone a light on the possibility of a fresh departure for left politics in Ireland, and hopefully this will prove what Victor Hugo once said, that “nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.” 


Tommy McKearney

This article first appeared in Socialist Voice Aug 2016

1. https://socialistrepublicanforum.wordpress.com/about.https://socialistrepublicanforum.wordpress.com/about

2. Carl O’Brien, “Ireland at risk of reaching US levels of income inequality, says study,” Irish Times, 16 February 2015. 

3. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “IMF admits disastrous love affair with the euro and apologises for the immolation of Greece,” Daily Telegraph, 28 July 2016.

British Referendum a victory for democracy

The left campaign for leaving the EU


The United Kingdom has voted to leave the EU. Its electorate has done so in spite of exhortations to remain from, among others, David Cameron and Peter Mandelson, a majority of FTSE 100 chief executives, Goldman Sachs, the managing director of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, and Enda Kenny. It’s difficult, therefore, to overestimate the significance of this outcome. It has happened in spite of enormous scaremongering by the Remain campaign and its shameless exploitation of the murder of Jo Cox MP.      

Undoubtedly, strident attempts will now be made to attribute this result, in its entirety, to the impact of migration exploited by xenophobic British reactionaries within and outside the Conservative Party.  It would, of course, be wrong to dismiss the part played by racism. Britain is a former imperial power, and contempt for other peoples was an endemic feature of its past and has not been eradicated. Nevertheless, this tendentious argument deliberately ignores the fact that there have been waves of migration into Britain for decades, all accommodated thanks to an expanding economy.      

Worse than being a deliberate misrepresentation is the fact that concentrating entirely on resistance to migration denies what the Financial Timesdescribed as the “rage from Leave voters alienated by London and globalisation.”  No matter who legislated for the referendum or for what reason, voting was open to all, and the working-class movement had an opportunity to participate in a crucially important debate and decision-making event. Herein lay, perhaps, the most ominous aspect of the entire campaign. Apart from a small, coherent minority centred mainly on people in the RMT Union and the daily Morning Star, the left in Britain (in its widest definition) either failed to recognise or, worse, chose to ignore the despair felt by so many working people in the UK.      

In part because of the depoliticisation of large swathes of organised labour as a result of the pernicious right-wing influence of New Labour’s Blairite cohort, there was a general absence of any critical narrative, not to mention socialist analysis, in relation to the European Union. This weakness led to the mistaken assertion, when the referendum was first announced, that being anti-EU was tantamount to being anti-migrant and xenophobic. Stepping back from positive engagement meant that the debate was dominated at first by feuding reactionaries.      

Fearing a split in his Blairite-dominated parliamentary party, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, felt forced to support the Remain campaign, though offering a different rationale from that of William Hague or Theresa May. With little by way of evidence, he argued that the European Union protected workers’ rights and offered access to a lucrative market for British manufacturing.     

Depressingly, Corbyn’s lead was gladly followed by both the TUC in Britain and the ICTU in Northern Ireland. In fact the referendum debate in the North of Ireland paralleled that in Britain. The DUP supported quitting the EU for reasons similar to those of right-wing conservatives, while Sinn Féin argued a Remain case along lines employed by New Labour. The Northern Ireland committee of the ICTU strongly supported the Remain campaign but ,interestingly, did acknowledge its deep-seated flaws at public meetings attended by this writer.      

In the face of powerful opposition it seemed almost inevitable that the Leave campaign—including the well-reasoned left “Lexit” case—would succumb. That this did not happen is worth consideration. Over the past forty years many British working-class communities have endured deprivation, with industries closing, low wages, zero-hour contracts, the welfare state undermined, and public services being privatised. As a consequence, a large number of these societies have been damaged, and many less-well-off people feel alienated from the political establishment, whether it is in the EU or London.      

The EU is clearly not directly responsible for every socially destructive effect suffered by the British working class; but its overarching neo-liberal ethos has certainly facilitated the devastation. Equally pertinent is the fact that the right-of-centre social democrats of New Labour have not only failed to offer working people a viable remedy but have colluded with the free-marketeers in inflicting their punishing programme. Kevin McKenna, writing in the Herald (Glasgow), accurately reflected the feelings of working people in the north of England towards the party when he said that “during three successive Labour governments they had been made to feel like an embarrassment to the metropolitan Islington elite who thirsted for power and money . . .”¹      

While not underestimating the significance of a vote to leave the EU, it should not be taken in isolation from its wider European context. Disenchantment is not confined to Britain. A recent article in the Financial Times revealed the fact that the EU is becoming increasingly unpopular among people in its member-states.² Quoting from an extensive survey of opinion, Timothy Garton Ash mentioned that in eight of the ten member-states surveyed, a majority disapproved of how the EU manages the economy, and only 51 per cent are in favour of retaining the union.³      

Admittedly these statistics are garnered by a research company, employing opinion poll surveys, and so must be viewed cautiously. Nevertheless some facts are indisputable. One is that the European Union, with its treaties enshrining neo-liberal economic policies, has exacerbated austerity in many of the member-states, and offers no obvious way to correct this deficiency. Furthermore, the legal structures and constitution of the union not only make reforming its institutions practically impossible but also, as the Greek people (as well as the Irish and others) have learnt, makes futile resistance from within.      

As a consequence, working-class people throughout the EU have an objective need to dismantle the EU as an entity; equally important in the light of its rapidly diminishing popularity, there is now a realistic possibility of doing so. However, this will require a carefully crafted and enlightened strategy, because otherwise fascism will exploit the misery created and perpetuated by the neo-liberals.      

Essential to the success of such a strategy is challenging comprehensively and dismissing the illusion peddled by centrist social democrats that the EU can be reformed. The British referendum result shows that demolishing this myth is now a realistic option. Running in tandem with this, however, is the need to promote a clear and unambiguous socialist alternative that speaks to the needs of the majority throughout the continent. Undoubtedly this will pose challenges; but when has building socialism been easy? And when has that been a reason for not trying? 

Tommy McKearney … this article first appeared in:   Socialist Voice July 2016
1. Kevin McKenna, “EU vote truly signals the end of a Union dearer to me,” Herald, 25 June 2016, at http://bit.ly/293ZNY8

2Timothy Garton Ash, “The fading of Europe is a result of both its failures and successes,” Financial Times, 11 June 2016. 

3. Pew Research Center, “Euroskepticism beyond Brexit (http://pewrsr.ch/1ZvrKcY)


© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com