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Corruption, reformism, electoralism - Irish left close ranks around bureaucracy

Kevin Keating

21 October 2010

The depth of corruption in the Irish trade union movement, illustrated by the misuse of Health Service Executive training funds, beggars belief.  Money earmarked for the training of the very poorest of health workers - porters and cleaners - went instead on junkets and four-star holidays for the most well-heeled of union bureaucrats.

If the corruption were not so overpowering it would be fitting material for a "Father Ted" comedy. Over 300.000 euros were "just resting" in a SIPTU account they know nothing about but in any case are willing to pay it all back. 

But behind the story of corruption lies an even stranger story. That story is the story of the deathly silence of the small socialist movement in Ireland. Organizations who should have responded to the global crisis of capitalism by challenging for the leadership of the working class have instead linked themselves to a union leadership responsible for the betrayal of the workers, the linkage stretching even to a blank silence about the rankest forms of corruption.

That charge is not made lightly nor is it based on a single failure to oppose corruption. The socialist organizations for some time have been collapsing into the arms of the bureaucrats. This reached ludicrous levels in the Dublin 29th September demonstration, part of European day of action, where the union leadership headed the platform and a small band of socialists and anarchists provided the audience. 

This was no accident. Jack O'Connor of SIPTU and ICTU's David Begg were extremely reluctant to organize the demonstration, given the levels of anger produced by the Croke Park agreement that they had pushed through. The socialists organized the demonstration, but they did so not in opposition to these gangsters but in support of them. Socialist posters in Dublin and in Belfast advertising the day of action carried the ICTU logo in the simple-minded belief that more workers would support the demonstrations. The left leaflets used to build for the demonstration said nothing about the Croke Park agreement, does the compliance and collusion of the union bosses in four more years of all out attacks and destruction on the workers count for nothing?

Much was made of socialists hatred of the bosses, of the British ConDem government, of Fianna Fail. The fact that the trade union leadership had agreed that we should pay the bill was ignored. When the issue was taken up it was in terms of the need to persuade them to change direction rather than the need to replace this corrupt leadership.

An even clearer indication of the political collapse of the left was given by their reaction to the tour by Jerry Hicks, rank and file candidate for the leadership of UNITE. One group, the Socialist Party, was completely opposed, supporting the "left" bureaucrat in the election. Another, the Socialist Workers Party, attended meetings but advanced arguments that would in practice lead to an alliance with the bureaucracy. 

One argument was that the workers lacked confidence. We could only build that confidence by building a large movement that would initially be led by the union leadership. We should remember that it was the bosses rather than the union leadership who were the enemy. Another argument said that the key issue was workers support for the Irish Labour party. Socialists had to organize an electoral challenge in the coming election so that, by the time of the next election, the workers would have seen through Labour and would vote socialist.

So these socialists, supposedly committed to the idea that the working class are the motive force of revolution, argue, in the middle of a global crisis of capitalism, when the Irish capitalists are completely discredited, that workers need to gain confidence from the people who have been selling them down the river and that they will remain completely inert for the next five or six years, when they will gain enough confidence to cast a left vote!

With that sort of view it is hardly surprising that they cling so closely to the union leadership and close their eyes so firmly to each example of corruption and betrayal! 

A newsletter by the SWP on the 29th of September laid out the strategy in some detail. The Irish unions approach was weak and low-key. They were downplaying the European day of action, holding back publicity material, suggesting token attendance by branches, keeping the lid on protest.

This was part of a deliberate strategy to maintain a "partnership approach" to the government and "divert" workers towards a vote for Labour.

However the European day of action represents an opportunity for other forces to turn it from tokenism to a serious approach. These forces are listed: SWP fronts such as People Before Profit and the Right to Work campaigns, the Socialist Party, community councillors and community organizations,  "left" elements in the CPSU, SIPTU and UNITE. 

These groups should oppose ICTU'S strategy of accepting the parameters of the government's cuts strategy while seeking consultation rights. The alternative was the strategy "beginning to be put forward" by European trade unions including the "normally moderate" British TUC. That was to have strikes and demonstrations arguing for increased investment and job creation policies.

The SWP strategy was a complete failure. The small band on the Dublin demonstration did not indicate that a new opposition was arising but rather that workers as a whole were no longer willing to act as cannon fodder on ICTU demonstrations.  However you will look through the SWP website for a long time if you are looking for signs of an analysis of this failure or for any change of direction. That's because the left strategy is based not on the working class, but on the needs of their organization. Their need is to retain a base among trade union 'lefts'. These lefts are not enemies of the union bosses, but a loyal opposition. They do not organize around a socialist programme. Nor do the other component of the alliance, community groups in electoral alliances around local issues.

The SWP stay with their periphery, so ICTU's utter betrayal of the Irish working class is transformed into a mistaken strategy. The task is to persuade them to change tack. The political basis of an alternative not socialism, but the warmed-over implausible reformism of the European trade union leadership.

At the beginning of the year, when we tried to encourage a debate among Irish socialists about strategy, we warned of the dangers for the movement if it failed to put forward its own programme.

“Too often on the left the theoretical struggle for a socialist programme has been ignored, but it is particularly when a real crisis develops that it becomes apparent that unless one has worked out some overall socialist alternative one is really in no position to offer a credible political alternative at any level.  A concentration on activism without being informed of the goal of that activism, or how one may proceed towards it, inevitably involves an accommodation to reformist practices.  These are not solutions because, within the framework of capitalism, the working class is always called upon to pay the price to ensure continuing profitability of the system.
………….The task of socialists is to respond to the attacks on the working class by putting forward a revolutionary alternative, even while it is clear that a revolution is not at all on the agenda.  Major elements of this alternative are contained in our article ‘A Capitalist Crisis but a Workers Solution!’  This is because only such a programme actually defends workers interests.  Anything less compromises and betrays them.  The struggle for such a solution is in itself the education process through which its future success can be achieved.  Even partial victories under its banner would be more enduring and significant than the implementation of reformist panaceas that accept the logic of capitalism.”

The fact that the majority of the socialist groups took a different direction is a tragedy. It will not however change the direction of events. The workers will resist because they must. Out of that resistance will develop the programme of the class and the organizations committed to the revolutionary transformation of society. It is still open to socialist militants to embrace that possibility.


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