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After Belfast March 22nd demonstration – which road for the anti-war movement?

John McAnulty

25th March 2003

The character of the demonstrations across Ireland following the outbreak of the blitzkrieg on Iraq was of a smaller and weaker version of the February 15th demonstrations. At one level this is no one's fault. The mass sentiment against the war arose suddenly and spontaneously and this is just as likely to fade again. In fact the polls that recorded this massive anti-war sentiment also recorded a great deal of volatility in popular opinion.

What is shocking is that there's been little progress in moving from spontaneous demonstrations to a mass movement. It appears that much of the movement has been in the other direction. At the same time there is little indication of radicalisation towards a political consciousness that reflects an understanding of the imperialist character of this war or of its links to a more generalised global offensive against the working class.

One road that could have led to a radicalisation is through the existing political organisations shifting to the left. In fact the opposite has been the case. Existing organisations either support a policy of lobbying the capitalist governments - for example the Greens and the Irish Labour Party, or are play acting, with one face for their base and another for the bosses -for example Sinn Fein and the self- proclaimed leadership of the campaign, the ICTU. The Sinn Fein leadership signalled their opposition to the war by drowning the Shamrock with Bush in the White House. The ICTU is busily agreeing the most craven yet of a whole series of ‘partnership’ agreements where they police the workforce for the government. To imagine they are an opposition is to rob the word of meaning.

Another route to radicalisation could come from the self-organisation and the self-activity of people independently of existing organisations. Unfortunately this route has been blocked through the policy of the main left organisations - the Socialist Party and Socialist Worker's Party. They have reacted to the generally low political level of understanding by dumbing down their own politics. They hide behind a façade of respectability by carrying out all the activity while proclaiming the supine ICTU the leadership. More importantly they have fragmented the movement, with a base of isolated youth the target of a cynical recruitment campaign and all real decisions the subject of secret diplomacy with ICTU.

The hope among the left was that this would catapult them into the leadership. The result was disaster. The idea that anarchists would indulge in some minor forms of direct action at Shannon airport horrified the establishment groups.  Put on the spot the left fell in behind a mock horror which effectively help stymie and fragment the campaign.

The left used their new-found respectability to call for a day of action and walkouts, ignoring the fact that those they proclaim the leadership, ICTU, did not make the call and did nothing to organise or lead the workers.

We're now in the land of Catch 22. The Left tried to use the larger parties to force mobilisation, while the intention of ICTU was to moderate and muffle dissent and concentrate on ineffectual lobbying. The outcome has been smaller demonstrations, a lower level of political understanding and the lack of any strategy with which the campaign can move forward.

The harsher the political landscape the more dreadful the consequences of this sort of opportunism.  In the 26 counties ICTU are happy enough to sit back and veto anything that goes beyond polite dissent.  In the North they have long practiced a form of ‘workers unity’ that capitulates to imperialism and unionism and prevents any action or debate within the organised workers movement.

The unionists were not long in throwing down the gauntlet.  Both Trimble and the Democratic Unionist Party accused ICTU of disloyalty to ‘our boys’ in the British army.  ICTU responded immediately.  The new policy of the movement was proclaimed as being one of opposing the war while supporting the troops.

There is only one way to make such a policy work. That is to not have a movement.  For those familiar with the craven capitulation of ICTU the nature of the Belfast demonstration on March 22nd was all too clear. It was yet another burial party to close down any real resistance. The handmaidens of the left had all been banished from the platform, replaced by liberal and religious figures whose job it was to put the crowd to sleep.  The ICTU speaker repeated, to boos from the crowd, the new line of support for ‘our boys’.  Peter Bunting finished off the meeting by assuring everyone that we had given Blair such a fright that he would never dream of launching war like this again.  The message was stark.  We had done our duty and it was time to shut up shop and go home.

There is nothing surprising about the ICTU betrayal.  The sooner that militants acknowledge that movements are built in opposition to this leadership, not in collaboration with it, the sooner will we see a real resistance.



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