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Can the ‘republican left’ unite?
On what issues would working-class unity be built?

Below we reprint a question from one of our website readers.

We reply at some length as we consider the question of future united action important and we would welcome contributions from out visitors in order to stimulate debate.

Some questions
From: Philip F, New Zealand 

I'd be interested in your views on the following:

1. Do you think the IRSP has sorted out the problems that bedevilled it in the 1980s and into the 1990s (most especially the feuding)?

2. Do you see it as a basically healthy left organisation today?

3. What is your attitude towards taking some initiative to bringing together socialist republicans - IRSP, yourselves, Bernadette, the Blanket/Fourthwrite people (yes, despite their support for the awful SEA election campaign), at least at the level of some kind of regular public forum, to try to develop a serious revolutionary political alternative to the Provo sell-out and GFA?

Look forward to hearing from you,
Philip F

Reply on united action

Dear Phillip

Forgive me for the delay in replying. Your email gave us the opportunity to look again at the prospects ahead and for this reason it has taken some time to construct a response.  In addition, you ask us for comment on some organisations and individuals and this involves some thought.  Where we are critical, we do not want to be so in any frivolous way and cause unnecessary friction.

If I can begin by arguing backwards from your own correspondence and dealing first with the issue of united discussion and possible action.  We would agree with you in seeing the Good Friday agreement – or rather the skeleton left given its collapse to the right – as a central issue for anyone who want to fight capitalism and imperialism in Ireland.  We would give equal weight to the issue of social partnership in the 26 counties and the decades of collaboration between union bosses and capitalism in shackling the working class.

The fact is that, despite the collapse of many of the GFA structures and a situation where ‘success’ would now be the disbandment of the IRA and a government under Paisleyite leadership, not one element of the opposition to the Provos can demonstrate a consistent political opposition to the GFA.

Traditional republicanism might claim an irreconcilable opposition, but only by vowing to continue an armed resistance to the British with a fraction of the resources that they once had and without any explanation for the failure of decades of struggle other than to blame the personal failings of the Provo leadership.

The first attempt to organise a political opposition and discussion was the republican writers group and the Blanket website.  Unfortunately members were not able to agree that opposition to the GFA should be the basis of a new movement and the theme of the Blanket became open discussion.  In fact there is no discussion.  What we have instead is open platform extending to loyalism and supporters of imperialism.  We view the result as a tower of Babel.

Arising for the republican writers discussion came the magazine Fourthwrite.  This is quite a lot better than the Blanket website and the range of views expressed is generally within an anti-imperialist framework. Formally the basis of the group is opposition to the GFA and Social partnership, but informally the constituent members to not accept this, preferring a vague declaration of a socialist republic.  This formulation supports what is essentially a loose network based around the magazine which could possibly support a formal discussion or debating structure, although with the present components the political differences are probably too great and the entry of some new forces would be needed, or a sizable advance by a section of the working class. 

Bernadette McAliskey did of course have for a considerable period of time the potential to build an opposition to the GFA and made a number of trenchant criticisms of it.  These were always couched in the language of a loyal opposition, seeking to engage the leadership in a debate about an alternative strategy.  At any gatherings where the possibility of an organised opposition has been discussed Bernadette has invariably made ferocious attacks on the left – on one occasion claiming that the left were a hotbed of political sectarianism and that this political sectarianism was identical to, and as virulent as, the religious sectarianism of the Loyalists! Bernadette has made it perfectly clear to her followers that an alliance with socialist movements was not to be considered.

The reason why Bernadette slanders the socialist movement, the Blanket refuses to take up the issue of the GFA, and Fourthwrite has failed to make opposition to the GFA a central plank of their platform is in our view based on the tasks which the groups and individuals have set themselves.  That task is the reform of republicanism.  In order to undertake that task they must be to some extent ‘inside the tent’ with the majority of provisional republicans.  Too sharp a criticism of the republican leadership will isolate them from a rank and file that is still in its majority loyal to the Adams leadership.

In our view those who set themselves this task are simply blinding themselves to reality, based on the long history within republicanism of glossing over political differences in favour of support for the ‘movement’.

Any objective analysis would conclude that the Provo leadership are on the other side of the barricades, openly allied with capitalism and imperialism and having succeeded, because of the apolitical militarism of most of their supporters and base, in taking the vast majority of ‘the movement’ with them. 

There is also a more difficult theoretical problem facing a revival of republicanism.  Inherent in the republican idea is the concept of an alliance of classes around a programme of democracy.  There is no disguising the fact that absolutely no element of the Irish bourgeoisie supports a democratic settlement.  The GFA, with continued imperialist rule, partition and sectarian division, is their policy. Any new movement would almost immediately be faced with the choice of abandoning a republican programme or basing itself on a working-class programme and becoming a socialist current.

As a socialist organisation we do not look to a reform or revival of republicanism, although we would be willing to work alongside ay new movement fighting for democratic rights.  We call for a working class movement, opposing capitalism and imperialism on its own behalf.  The weakness of our position is that many militants know the history of the Irish left.  Those who don’t can stand aghast at their current policy and practice.

Formally all the left organisations oppose the Good Friday agreement.  Its sectarian nature is too self evident for any of the groups to offer any theoretical justification for it.  What they don’t do is oppose it as an imperialist settlement.  That means that in practice they are perfectly happy inside the mechanisms and structures of an agreement they repudiate.  The Socialist Party expresses this most clearly. They oppose the agreement, but at the same time it ‘opens the way’ for class unity based on the simple-minded economism that they espouse.  They are firm in their support for the main plank of the agreement, a sectarian Stormont government, and one of their main demands is that it be given more powers, so that when a majority of socialist MLAs are elected they can usher in socialism in the Northern statelet! Needless to say, the thugs of the loyalist death squads are conciliated as the representatives of the Protestant workers and the attacks that they launch on Catholic workers as community disputes in which the task of the socialists is to urge moderation on ‘both sides’. The Socialist Workers Party have outdone themselves in a bid to catch up with the Socialist Party in the drive rightwards.  Through the mechanism of the Socialist Environmental Alliance they have managed to dump not only the national question but any coherent socialist programme also. In addition their members, participating in local antiracist campaigns, have pursued a policy of conciliating loyalism that put them firmly to the right of even the Socialist Party (if that is possible).

Needless to say, neither of these organisations is in the least anxious to debate their current policies with anyone. We have supported for some time a small discussion circle in Belfast – the ‘Belfast Socialist Forum’.  Despite the fact that the organising committee and the meeting are completely open it receives support only from a small number of independent socialists and occasional intervention from the anarchist movement.  The respose of the local SWP was to briefly set up a ‘Belfast Marxist Forum’.

The lack of a movement and of political discussion in the North is perhaps not surprising.  We have had a very vicious and bloody 30-year struggle which could never have been resolved within the confines of the North even at its height and has ended with the defeat of the major opposition movement and the collapse of the political consciousness of its members.  The fact that the imperialist settlement is collapsing under its own contradictions and that the policy of Sinn Fein is showing itself to be bankrupt does not by itself guarantee a revival.  More common is the withdrawal from politics of the old working class republican base. 

We are not saying that things are frozen.  There is a growing disillusion with the post GFA society and we ourselves are seeing a slow ‘primitive accumulation’ of our organisation.  We do not however forsee a rapid breakthrough in the North.

Perhaps we should look now to the 26 counties, where workers have not had to suffer the same repression, for the first signs of revivial?

Unfortunately the political collapse in the North is mirrored by a similar defeat of the working class in the South.  For almost two decades the trade union leadership have been linked in formal partnership with government and the bosses.  During that period there has been wave after wave of attacks on the working class.  Most of the major unions have seen no strike action over that period.  Where industrial action has taken place they have spearheaded the breaking of the strikes. The result has been a sharp fall in the proportion of Gross Domestic Product held by the workers at a time when the Irish economy has been in boom, the disappearance of any form of democratic choice as the Labour Party, and then the majority of Worker’s party under the name Democratic left, adopted the policies of the right.  Almost every party in the Dail found itself in one or another coalition governments, but each government had identical policies of crushing the working class. 

There has been creeping privatisation of state resources, wholesale theft of public money and scandal after scandal involving the absolute corruption of the ruling class. At one point a clause was inserted into the tax bill which had the result of saving a close friend of Bertie Ahern from a €5 million tax bill – no-one else in Ireland was effected by the clause.  The most recent criticism of the state was from its own public accounts committee – Fianna Fail had agreed to pay up to one billion in compensation incurred by the Catholic church through the sexual abuse of children by religious working state institutions controlled by the Church.

In considering where an effective response might come from I think we can right away rule out the ravings of some sections of the left in seeing the dramatic rise of Sinn Fein as some sort of left vote – one hilarious outcome of the recent local government elections was an analysis by the Socialist Workers party that put Sinn Fein in a progressive alliance.  At exactly the same time Sinn Fein representatives were outlining a future government that would include the ‘progressive’ wing of Fianna Fail!

Only the deeply entrenched partitionism of Southern Irish society, combined with the dishonesty of Sinn Fein, allows the ‘radical Sinn Fein’ idea to float for a second. This after all, is the party that was in coalition government with official unionism in the North, that is fighting today to form a coalition government with Paisley’s party in Stormont, that oversaw the privatisation of public services while in government and whose last big financial idea was that the low-tax regime that applies to capital in the South should be brought North.

That really only leaves the small socialist movement.  An attempt was made some years ago to unite the socialists.  At the time, and ever since, the Socialist party has opposed resolutely any attempt to unite the left.  Their argument is that they have a ‘special relationship’ with the working class that enables them to build effectively and that would simply be impeded by the other socialist groups.  In reality this was a policy of electoralism, accommodation to the trade union bureaucracy and to elements of loyalist sectarianism in the North that would not really bear any exposure to argument.

For a short period the Socialist Workers party posed as a unifying alternative, only to undergo a rapid decay.  What was once a method of opportunism has become a policy.  This effect was greatly amplified by the anti-war movement where SWP militants saw the mass turnout against the war as directly attributable to the absence of politics. Since then they have been playing ‘catch-up’ with the Socialist party’s electoralism and opportunism (not to mention kow-towing to loyalism) while showing a great deal less political coherence.

The outcome is a hardened sectarianism and opportunism that was shown to full advantage in the recent Bin charges campaign in Dublin.  Here we had a fightback by a sizable number of working class militants, yet a campaign that remained small enough to be dominated by the socialist movement.  The result was that the organisations proved an obstacle to the success of the campaign with a practice of ‘sharing out’ areas where they based themselves and coming to diplomatic agreements that short-circuited any democratic discussion.  When the trade union bureaucracy attacked and sold out the campaign the left organisations stood aside, substituting a moralism where they threw themselves into the arms of the gardai to be arrested, before any genuine political discussion.  Insofar as there was any opposition to the left organisations it tended to come from anarchism and to turn towards dramatic direct action, unconcerned with the task of mobilising the working class. 

A sad footnote was the scramble by the left groups to get a handful of candidates elected as the ‘bin tax candidates’.  In the scramble a massive campaign against the working class – a referendum to insert racism into the Irish constitution – was largely ignored by the socialist parties. As we mentioned earlier, the outcome of the election has been presented as a sort of fantasy where there was a left victory – as long as we include Sinn Fein in the left and ignore the mass vote in favour of the racist amendment.

What then of the unity movement itself gathered around a small left discussion magazine ‘Red Banner?’ It fulfils something of the same role for the socialist movement as ‘Fourthwrite’ does on the national question – providing a platform for opposition, but unwilling to clarify the political basis of that opposition.  The magazine bans any direct criticism of other currents and this has the effect of stifling any real debate, tending to reduce the magazine to a sort of open platform where different positions are put but rarely debated or put to the test. 

One of the most illuminating examples of the politics of the Dublin left was presented by a series of meetings headed by a small group, the Irish Socialist network. It turned out that all the groups invited, outside of the ISN and Socialist Democracy, actively opposed a political programme for unity, tending to put forward either direct action projects or for support for the latest ‘unity’ lurch by the SWP. 

There are some unfortunate consequences of this lack of clarity.  The first is that ‘left regroupment’ can be stretched  beyond its envelope to include a whole slew of NGO’s, charities and religious groups seen as in some way anti-globalist.  This view has had little currency so far because of the weakness of these movements in Ireland, their unwillingness to get too close to the left and the weakness of the left itself. More unfortunate is the tendency of the Socialist Workers party and, to a certain extent, the left in general to use ‘unity’ activists as cover. When there is no programme of unity, it is difficult to avoid falling for quite dishonest posturing, when for example, calls for unity are simply intended as a recruiting strategy. 

A much more serious problem arose around the race referendum.  The main vehicle for the left was a ‘unity’ movement called Campaign against the racist referendum (CARR).  This endorsed a unity in action perspective that banned political discussion after the first meeting and concentrated on a large scale leafleting campaign based on liberal moralising – quite explicitly arguing that politics should be avoided to maximise the opposition.  The apolitical campaign then became cover for the left groups and Sinn Fein who were able to ‘oppose’ the referendum while providing minimal resources and leaving it firmly in the background when they canvassed for votes in the local and European elections – the only way a mass vote in favour of the race referendum can be reconciled with the big increase in the Sinn Fein vote.

Finally the IRSP. I could deal with your query by simply saying that in the twists and turns of unity initiatives we have rarely come into contact with the IRSP.  They were involved in discussions around the original ‘Blanket’ website and appeared briefly at a Fourthwrite conference later.  I can however say something a little more political.

The first thing to be said now is that we were involved in the early discussions after the establishment for the IRSP.  We withdrew from these early discussions when it became clear that the military element in the INLA was to be the supreme authority.  In our view that remained the dominant factor throughout the history of the organisation and meant that no real independent political theory could arise.  The main function of the IRSP was always first and foremost to defend the actions of the INLA, who were not themselves firmly bound by any decisions of the IRSP.

Today the INLA is on ceasefire.  It benefits from the arrangements on early release of prisoners contained within the Good Friday agreement. It shares in the network of grants and community funding arising from the peace process.  The INLA is very firmly inside the tent and our observations are that the IRSP critiques of the GFA are largely the opinions of a few individuals rather than the programme of a political movement.  Certainly we have not come across a current working in the same direction as ourselves and consistently attempting to articulate a programme of opposition.

We would not support the recent statements of the Socialist Workers party, refusing to work with IRSP members and obscuring the SWP retreat from the national question on the grounds that they don’t work with paramilitaries – a position that does not consistently prevent them from approaches to the PUP mouthpieces of the UVF.  However we are far from sure of the position of the few members of the IRSP we come across on the two key issues of the GFA and the partnership deals between Irish capital and the union bosses.

So the answer to your question is both long and rather bleak.  Neither in republicanism nor in the socialist movement is there the degree of unity to mount any sort of generalised united fightback, nor is there even enough political agreement, or honesty, to fuel a broad discussion such as you suggest.  The situation is much worse within republicanism.  Ten years after Good Friday there is hardly a suggestion of a political alternative to the Provos.  The most optimistic thing we can say about the North is that, despite almost universal support from nationalists, the British settlement is simply too unstable to work and that when it falls the British will still be supporting a sectarian supremacy and the existing republican leadership will have a lot of explaining to do.

The position is somewhat better in the socialist organisations.  In the ten years there has been a series of campaigns and, if not a great deal of debate between the left organisations, at least some internal reflection that has seen some splits, fusions and the odd new group.  In addition the left can look to the various political questions that arise on the international stage and gain some knowledge from their evolution.

In both cases however what most hampers debate and movement is the low level of working-class action.  No amount of debate on the left or within what there is of a republican opposition can force the workers into movement.  We could however wish that a greater number of militants took seriously the task of putting together a working class party ready for the day that the worker being to move forward again.


John McAnulty



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