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.

This© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com