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Afghan hunger strike – time to end moralising and act against racism

Kevin Keating

26 May 2006

The events around May’s St Patrick’s cathedral occupation and hunger strike by Afghan refugees have caused a great deal of reflection and concern amongst Socialists.  The Afghans, driven to desperation by an increasingly racist and inhumane asylum system and under threat of return to a country occupied by the imperialist powers and still on a war footing, occupied the cathedral and began the hunger strike in an attempt to win a guarantee that they would not be sent back.  A number, including juveniles, threatened to commit suicide.   In the event they were evicted by force with only limited support from the socialist movement and in the face of serious racist counter-demonstrations and a growing racist sentiment expressed in radio talk shows and on the street and in the factories.

In an early internet post on May 18th ISN activist Fintan Lane asked: “Where are the Left?”  Later Socialist party TD Joe Higgins, speaking outside the cathedral, asked for the whereabouts of the trade union leadership.

But the poor turnout from the socialist movement, the lack of unity and communication, should come as no surprise.  The left have been on the run from the question of race from before the racist referendum of 2004. In fact the mechanism they used during the occupation: ‘unity’ behind Residents Against Racism while diverting their resources elsewhere, and a policy of basing that unity on prioritising the humanitarian aspects of the victims of racism while ignoring the political case that had to be made, is identical to their manoeuvres at the time of the referendum. 

In the 2004 referendum the majority of those voting voted for the racist amendment and the left disbanded, having organised not even the most advanced workers around a political position that would have defended migrant rights.

Since then there has been a whole series of examples of the super-exploitation of migrant workers and of a general offensive against wages and conditions where the bosses try to use migrants to drive down wages and the race card to further divide the workers.  During this period the trade union bosses have been at the side of the bosses and there is plenty of evidence to tie them to collaboration in cases like the GAMA workers, where they signed up the workers as members but did nothing to protect them.  In recent times the Labour party has quite clearly played the race card and the union bureaucracy have begun to advance it also.  Is it any wonder that racist attitudes are growing?

Joe Higgins asks where the Trade union leaderships are.  He doesn’t provide the answer. The trade union bureaucracy is locked in meetings with bosses and government.  They are finalising a new partnership deal which will involve further cutbacks for workers and further super-exploitation of migrants. This is not just a rhetorical question, the collaboration of the leaders of the workers movement in the bosses offensive against the historic gains of the working class is the key element in the rise of racist sentiments against emigrants. The fact that the most vocal elements against the Afghans were those who are the most marginalised and oppressed in Irish society is not unrelated to the collusion policy of the unions. 

 The majority of the left are willing to be a loyal opposition to wholesale betrayal. The outcome of loyal opposition was well illustrated at the May day parade in Dublin. The left made up the numbers and listened politely while bureaucrats ranted about fighting to save Aer Lingus the health services etc. Everyone at the meeting knew that ICTU had already accepted much of the privatisation agenda and that privatisation would not be one of the issues dividing them from the bosses or government in the partnership talks which reconvened 2 days later.  The fact they get away with these hypocritical Groundhog Day speeches is an indictment of the lefts’ failure to mount a serious challenge to the union leader’s strategy of delivering defeat.

There is one major obstacle to a mass racist current in the 26 counties.  That is the lack of a political vehicle.  At the moment it is the government and state that are feeding racism and it is difficult to translate official oppression into a popular mobilisation. An openly racist platform will not be adopted as an election manifesto but the issue will certainly be raised informally by politicians in the run up to the next elections. The danger for workers is that the only way the bosses can continue to benefit from the  exploitation of cheap migrant labour is by maintaining division from the rest of the workforce through the use of racism. Racism is here to stay as an essential weapon of the bosses to maintain our “world class” competitive Celtic Tiger economy. 

The initial task of socialists is not to moralise but to set out the socialist case:

    •  It is not migrants but bosses who drive down wages and conditions.  It is the bosses who encourage racism to divide the workforce.
    • Opposing the bosses means unity of the working class and demanding equal rights for all workers
    • Failure to promote this unity means that the workers movement will be fragmented and the offensive will accelerate. 

An anti-racist movement needs its own vehicle – it needs a rank and file movement at factory level that cuts across unions, that builds unity in action by defending wages and conditions for all.  That will only be build on political principle and it will be built in opposition to the trade union leadership who have sold us out and who have led the foundations for a racist current 


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