Irish Ferries: The role of the left
3rd January 2006
The Irish left are normally irrelevant. Their total size is insignificant in relation to the other political forces in Irish society.
Now and again, however, they have an opportunity to justify their existence. The mass of the working class move into action and the socialist organizations are offered the space to draw upon their programme, their understanding of the history of working class struggle and the balance of class forces, to offer proposals on the way forward, ways to intensify and advance the struggle.
Such an opportunity occurred around the Irish Ferries demonstrations of December 9th. By and large the left failed the challenge offered to them.
The failure was a failure of policy. The revolutionary left was united in denouncing social partnership, in contrast to the Labour Party's defense of it under the slogan 'partnership not piracy'. However, by itself the opposition remained an empty slogan. How were the workers to express that opposition? Was it enough to encourage the union leaders to stand firm? To engage in polite debate? Or was it necessary to organise independently to fight the bureaucrats for control of the unions?
The history of the last two decades makes the answer self-evident. It was not an answer the majority of the left organizations were prepared to give. Most treasure their links with elements of the bureaucracy and the imagined influence that gives them.
By far the most striking opportunism was shown by the Socialist Workers Party. They had marked a sharp turn to the right in the weeks before the December 9th march, downgrading opposition to social partnership in favor of unity with elements of the bureaucracy, a theme continued in their literature at the demonstration and even to initial support for the SIPTU line claiming the union sellout as victory, announcing a ‘stunning climbdown from the management of the shipping company’.
The Socialist Party, with a longer history of alliances with the bureaucrats and greater inside information, was much more clear-sighted, warning of a sellout before the mobilisation, calling for a fighting union during the marches, and issuing a clear analysis of the defeat and betrayal.
To follow through on such an analysis would involve a seismic shift to the left for the SP. It would mean breaking with the union bureaucracies and uniting with other leftists for a long guerilla struggle at rank and file level. Their analysis hints that this will not be the case, saying that ‘current union leaders are for the time being committed to the idea of partnership in the belief that it is the only way that they can maintain the wages of workers or gain any social reform’. This sort of formulation ignores the different interests of workers and bureaucrats, the way in which the bureaucracy have enriched themselves and points towards a further attempt to lobby the bureaucrats and win them away from social partnership. It echoes earlier calls by the Socialist Party around the GAMA scandal, resolved by the SP forgiving the bureaucracy and returning to their standards policy of lobbying the leadership.
If the individual organizations of the left behaved poorly, it was as nothing to their collective behaviour. The Trade Union Campaign against Social Partnership met in November, brushed over the right turn by the SWP, agreed that an opportunity existed for a campaign, then did nothing! A meeting to launch a campaign for a new left party met only days before the December 9th marches, gave the ferries dispute as a central justification for a new party, was informed that ICTU had already agreed the sellout – yet did nothing!
The left has missed an opportunity, but it was not the opportunity to lead the Irish working class. The sleeping giant of Irish labour is still asleep, marching behind a leadership determined to betray them – even when, as was the case with the seamen’s union, it leads to its suicide as a union.
The opportunity for the left was to seize the attention of the most advanced workers, to prepare for the inevitable sellout, to begin to set up the structures needed to face the massive offensive to come.
The opportunity will come again. Will the
left be able to overcome its endemic opportunism and make a real difference?