May Day in Belfast – an opportunity for unity and a celebration of disunity
2 May 2005
Perhaps 1,000 participated in the annual May Day demonstration in Belfast organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, marking a continued decline in numbers attending the event. It came in the lead-up to an election but the demonstration neither presented nor represented an alternative to the politics of the main political parties. The policy of supporting the peace process and Good Friday Agreement means that in the shadow of the latter’s collapsed and decomposed condition the union leadership has no policy whatsoever. Anyway May Day demonstrations only serve to display the deep political divisions that exist among the left.
This year if the demonstration had any theme it was opposition to water charges with a number of political groupings putting out leaflets. Even here however, where there is some agreement on principles, the left contrives to create division through disagreement on tactics and where this is not possible then simple sectarian competition takes over.
Thus while everyone is agreed on the need for a mass campaign at least two campaigns exist which declare that there is no need for the campaign to discuss tactics because only one will work – non-payment. Rather than have one campaign with this foundation we have two because the Socialist Party (SP) has its own ‘We Won’t Pay Campaign’ that includes no one but itself. This has allowed it to take what is perhaps the ultimate in sectarian positions and stand in the coming local elections on the basis of a tactic!
The May Day demonstration is an opportunity to meet the rest of the left and debate these issues. In conversation with an SP member he argued that non-payment was the only tactic that could stop the charges. I argued that strike action by the water workers themselves could also achieve this but the possibility of this was severely doubted by my SP friend. In a separate conversation with two water workers the SP view would have gained some support. They indicated problems of demoralisation among workers in the water service. Over five years the union leadership have taken the view that it would be illegal to campaign against privatisation and have concentrated on the nuts and bolts of government plans, giving the process an air of inevitability. Workers are taking the inducements to leave early on sick grounds and the required 650 redundancies will partly be made up this way. On the other hand all the news is not in the government’s favour – the timescale for introducing the new corporate arrangements has slipped just as the introduction of the charges themselves is now timetabled for October next year instead of April. In any case the idea that workers are demoralised as workers in their jobs, but filled with mililtancy and willing to face jail in a non-payment campaign in the community simply doesn’t stand up.
The Socialist Democracy argument is not about this or that element of left political sectarianism, but about the corrosive, self-defeating nature of much of the day to day sectarian and opportunist approach of the Irish left.
Socialist Democracy had organised a meeting some months ago and invited a number of individuals and organisations involved in opposition to the water charges. We hoped to explore the possibility of a united campaign and the political basis for it. We argued that this political basis was not opposition to the charges themselves but opposition to privatisation from which the charges naturally flow.
Only the comrades of the Irish Socialist Network took up the invitation positively and we have jointly created a ‘Campaign Against Water Privatisation’ (CAWP) which had its own banner at the demonstration. Its significance is not currently in its size but in the example it sets of unity and methods of organisation. We seek to organise meetings in working-class areas and get local people themselves to organise a grass roots campaign. With enough committees the objective is to organise a united democratic campaign and put pressure on the rest of the left for wider unity. The CAWP was able to bring local people to the demonstration and it could have been a focus for the support won by others active on the issue.
The comrade from the SP explained their last activity was getting a meeting of twenty people in the working class unionist estate of Belvoir. This is the figure often quoted and an SP organised meeting in Andersonstown earlier in the year also got about twenty. Turning this into a vibrant and active local campaign is the real problem however and there is no evidence of any local campaign now active in Andersonstown.
We do not believe that it is currently possible to build a mass campaign by presenting those opposed to water charges with what amounts to an ultimatum that they sign up to breaking the law in the absence of a strong campaign to support and defend them. The recent lamentable failure of an anti-water charges demonstration in Belfast has obviously not given many on the left pause for reflection or doubt, though doubt is the mother of new ideas. It is not just a question of two alternative ways forward – strike action or non-payment. Building a mass campaign will involve lots of different initiatives and means of organisation.
Signing people up for non-payment invites not militancy but passivity. Signatures collected do not reflect real willingness to break the law and I credit those collecting them with more sense than to believe so, although if they do think this they really do need a strong dose of reality. It invites passivity because if non-payment is the road to success and pledges to do so have been collected there really is nothing else to do but get more signatures, collect more money and wait for the long arm of the law to take the charges off you through your wages or benefits when they are introduced next October.
So how do we go forward? Well we could now set ourselves a measurable target – by next May have a May day demonstration dominated by a united campaign against water privatisation mobilising not just a handful of working class people to their first May day demonstration but hundreds or thousands representing dozens of active local committees across Belfast and further afield. Militants of other left groups can make this a reality by fighting in their own organisations for unity. Readers of the web site can do so by contacting us for support in building meetings in their local areas.
May Day revealed several things. The trade union leadership is not going to fight water charges with any vigour, if at all. There is widespread agreement that it is an important issue demanding activity. We are currently divided. We are nowhere near a mass campaign although many agree we need one. The issue is not going to be solved by breathing life into the corpse of a Stormont Assembly.
Agreeing what to do next should not be too hard to work out. The mobilisation of even a small number of working-class militants would quickly pull the left out of their private universe and face to face with reality.