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Left unity in Ireland: So good they did it twice!

Kevin Keating

3rd November 2005

October 21st saw the inaugural meeting of a new attempt at left unity in Ireland. The movement, titled ‘People Before Profit Alliance – Davitt League’ gathered approximately 80-90 militants together to discuss and endorse a programme for the new movement – one it was clearly hoped would go on to unite a broad range of left militants extending well beyond the gathering in the hall.

So far so good. The founding resolution contained a number of unexceptional points opposing privatisation, environmental destruction and the sell-off of natural resources. The tone was set by a basic principle of ‘total opposition to neo-liberal policies which have brought about… the prioritisation of corporate profit above the environment, public health and labour conditions and standards’.

However the meeting took on a rather surreal flavour when one of the participants, Dermot Connolly, announced the formation of a separate movement to unite the left. There was no suggestion that the two movements would join together. It was quite clearly the announcement of a rival unity project. The fact that the announcement passed without comment indicates a certain lack of seriousness on the left when it comes to political debate. Surely two left unity projects should be a matter of raised eyebrows? Isn’t the first question to present itself why there are two projects rather than one?

The question wasn’t asked and wasn’t answered. The answer would have been rather revealing.

The fact is that the Socialist Workers Party – the leading sponsors of the People Before Profit Alliance/Davitt League – have, along with a number of other organisations including Socialist Democracy, been excluded from the founding discussions of the as yet unnamed left unity organisation. All that is publicly known so far is that the unity movement is opposed to coalition. The fact that ‘unity’ is being built on the basis of exclusion is a bad sign. In the absence of some policy disagreement that would make united action impossible it appears to those outside the discussion to be politically sectarian.

Privately those involved will confess that the SWP are being excluded because of their past history of undemocratic manipulation of joint organisations. The October conference will have done little to reassure them. The conference consisted mainly of the SWP and the campaign organisations that it had been in contact with. The resolution founding the People Before Profit Alliance/Davitt League was put on its own and no alternative proposals for the basis of left unity were invited. The discussion of the resolution was perfectly open, but had the nature of comment rather than debate. Amendments were not put and there was a rather vague understanding that the proposals might be modified in the light of comments. The atmosphere was much more open and conciliatory than is usual at these gatherings, but falls well short of the open democratic discussions that might hammer out a united programme of the left.

Both left unity formations face a common problem – the belief that left unity is a desirable thing in itself and that the political issues around which it might unite are of secondary importance.

This downgrading of politics means that the centre point of the new SWP led alliance is ‘total opposition to… prioritisation of corporate profit above the environment, public health and labour conditions and standards’. Yet the SWP as a socialist movement is opposed to the profit motive and to capitalism itself. To downplay its programme from opposing capitalism to opposing some of the priorities of capitalism seems both dishonest and a statement of lack of faith in its own policies. The founding statement declares that social partnership has made the unions toothless – yet opposition to social partnership it not a plank of the programme. When Paul Smyth of SIPTU argued from the platform that the attack on wages and conditions by Irish Ferries was a step too far for social partnership no-one seemed to realise that this was quite a long way from the outright rejection of partnership implied by the letter of invitation. This is hardly surprising when one realises that the movement is not conceived of as one based solely on the working class. It draws on the tradition of anti-globalisation which tries to unite very disparate forces in one movement.

Here we can begin to see a political difference that could explain why there are two movements. Dermot Connolly’s statement to the conference did quite clearly envisage a new working-class movement. However Connolly’s call to defend basic rights, reclaim the trade union movement and replace the Labour Party, still appears to lack the political programme that would make this possible and to be drafted around what might win agreement rather than spelling out the steps needed to build a new movement. 

An illustration of just how important the primacy of politics is can be seen from the lack of policy on the North. Formally all the Marxist organisations oppose the Good Friday Agreement and there should be no difficulty in agreeing a policy. In practice opposition has faded away. There is a widespread economism that opposes taking up the issue of partition and a reluctance to oppose something that continues to be widely supported within the working class. As a result a rather anodyne statement of opposition to the GFA and in favour of ‘new’ politics was in the draft position of the SWP-led movement and was absent from the document that reached the conference.

Yet can one imagine for a moment that the enemies of the working class would allow a new movement to keep silent about the national question? That the new movement could fight Sinn Fein in working class areas without a position on partition or that the continual shocks and surprises that follow the ongoing decay of imperialist plans in the North would not need a response? In fact the very first question to be put to any new party would be whether it organised in 26 counties or 32!

Any attempt to bring together the meagre forces of the left is to be welcomed. On current showing the major weakness of the attempts is that they are trying to shoehorn the policies to fit the needs of left unity. There is also a strong flavour of electoralism.

We in Socialist Democracy believe that any long-lasting unity will have to fit itself to the policies arising directly from the current challenges facing workers. We also believe that it would be easier to achieve such unity by agreeing common action around immediate tasks in the trade unions and in the communities than to arrive at an electoral agreement that involves airbrushing the very deep differences on the left. There is plenty to do in building trade union democracy, in fighting a whole range of political and economic attacks on the working class, and in opposing the capitalist and imperialist foundation on which working class exploitation is based. It’s these sorts of tasks that can fuel genuine debate and build genuine unity.


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