The Coming of the New Left

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

protest march 12

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

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