Return to Left Unity menu
New Left Unity Initiative in the North: Unprincipled and Unserious
2nd October 2003
So what are we to make of this proposed new left electoral alliance? The first thing to say is that it is not at all serious. Behind the keen rush to elections which has gripped the parties, especially the SWP - notwithstanding any ritualistic and clichéd denials of electoralism, there was no unity to be found at this meeting. And no one seemed to notice.
Let’s forget the politics for just a moment. What precisely did they think they had agreed on before they became aware that they hadn’t? Well they had agreed a sixteen point programme on top of which each candidate could say what they wanted, including on what some thought were the key political questions. They could stand against each other, so no unity there then.
But as it became clear, they didn’t even agree on this. The CPI was clear that supporting the GFA was the priority and that this meant supporting pro agreement candidates, particularly the Womens Coalition. Not a problem. The SWP said the GFA was ‘irrelevant’ or told the meeting, in the person of Eamonn McCann, that ‘personally’ he opposed it but was sure that neither he nor Gerry Grainger would change each others mind – which blew a whole in Anthony McIntyre’s idea that unity would allow differences to be worked out more easily. It was apparent right from the off that differences were not even up for discussion, so not much likelihood of sorting them out then.
Instead McCann reduced his opposition to the GFA to a purely private opinion which indicated that either the issue was not a serious one or he was not serious about his opinions. All this meant that the new alliance had to support the Womens Coalition – why? Because it supported the GFA even though they had apparently agreed to put the GFA to one side and not take a position. In fact, while Eileen Webster recognised that the WC was an all class alliance, and therefore not working class, the SWP put forward as a reason for the left alliance that it might help get one of their sitting MLAs elected! Indeed Eileen Webster viewed the crucial message to be delivered by the alliance as so important that she envisaged its members calling for a number two preference for themselves and a number one for some independents. The same independents that could not be trusted said the SWP because we would not know their views on womens’ rights or on the gay question. The same SWP who didn’t seem to mind calling on workers to vote for the new alliance without them knowing where it stood on the GFA, border and all the key questions of the state that Webster thought were so important. The same SWP which asserted that people were ‘joining up the dots’ but not that the left could join them up themselves, come up with an agreed position on the political questions and come out with a position on the GFA, partition and imperialism. Opposing imperialism around the world was fine but the only dot not to be joined up was to be on a little island on the edge of Europe called Ireland.
So we reached the point where in the new alliance they could stand against each other, call for a vote for someone else instead of themselves, and complain of not knowing what other candidates might stand for while refusing to state what they stood for themselves. But it goes on. Called in order to raise the red flag they came to agree that they must support a party, the Womens Coalition, whose raison d’etre is to assert the unity of women regardless of class and support whatever political deal the ‘sectarian parties’ and imperialism come up with regardless of its ‘imperfections.’ To speak otherwise of this organisation than to say that it is the most enthusiastic supporter of the GFA and entertains not the slightest notion of opposing imperialism is to do violence to even the slightest concept of truth. Only the speaker from the CPI stated the project’s logical conclusion, which was that they should not call themselves socialist or even left.
So if the project is not serious it should be equally obvious that it is not principled. All the parties stating support for the GFA seemed happy to characterise it as ‘institutionalising sectarianism’ but this seemed to have no bearing on their support for it. For any self respecting socialist if a political project increases sectarianism it should be automatic that it should be opposed. For the SWP this institutionalising of sectarianism is either, depending on their speaker, ‘irrelevant’ or a matter of personal opinion. Yet the whole project is justified on the basis of opposing sectarianism. Only the speaker from the Newtownabbey Labour Party, in a rare moment of seriousness and principle in the meeting, flatly refused to endorse the GFA or be a party to an alliance that did so.
One SWP speaker stated that the issue should wait: ironic that the economistic left should echo and mirror the old republican cry that labour must wait. For both the questions of politics are not a question for the working class, except for the CPI and WP, for whom the working class position is the same as imperialism’s and the ‘sectarian parties’.’ Support for the GFA must apparently be mandatory because it is ‘the only show in town.’ The only show that has had to be suspended four times because of its inherent weakness! One might wonder why these parties do not just come out honestly and say we should support capitalism because it is ‘the only show in town.’ It is, after all, a lot more permanent looking that the GFA.
Having said that there was no unity in the meeting, beneath the contradictions and incoherence was an underlying political unity. All those involved agree with Eileen Webster’s assertion that the GFA gives the left a ‘breathing space’ to build themselves, it is just that the SWP find it too difficult to give open support to that which has given them this supposed opportunity. Never has it been a better time to fight sectarianism they say, while every objective commentator notes the increased sectarianism that has accompanied the peace process.
Their assertion that the GFA ‘institutionalises sectarianism’ is true but they think that this has no effect on workers (if they think about it at all) because they view this term as meaning sectarianism increasingly infecting state structures. Hence sectarianism is always blamed on the ‘sectarian parties.’
What this ignores is that ‘institutionalising sectarianism’ is reflected also in the State increasing sectarianism in society and the working class. Yet another illustration that it is the state, i.e. imperialism, which is the cause of sectarianism. A key feature of all these parties is that they ignore, and excuse imperialism, of this responsibility and look to its colonial creation in the Assembly as the means of overcoming it. Far from fighting sectarianism they collapse in front of it.
This is why they ignore the other features of the GFA which explain why it has, and can only, increase sectarianism. They ignore its role in buttressing imperialist rule and ignore its legitimating of imperialism’s role, so that it is the only country where this left refuses to characterise the intervention of Blair and Bush as imperialist. Finally it ignores, and de facto accepts, the division of the Irish working class that is imposed by partition – the final irony for those who harp on so much about workers unity.
One final observation must be made. Those present repeatedly described what they were doing as new. One must suppose that with such wilful blindness to the present they could not be expected to reflect even for a moment on the past, yet it is only just over five years ago that a similar labourist alliance was created for the Forum elections, which was to discuss the shape of the new political set-up. Upon election its representatives found that they had nothing to say about how Ireland was to be ruled, a fact consistent with their current descendants’ acceptance of the rotten deal the ’sectarian parties’, or more accurately imperialism, came up with.
The ‘bread and butter’ politics, as expressed by the NIPSA member at the meeting, has been seen time after time in the North and its bankrupt programme found wanting time after time. What was discussed at this meeting was not new and had certainly nothing to do with the politics of Karl Marx, quoted (inaccurately) in the meeting along the lines of the task being to change the world. Funny he never talked about colonialism being the ‘only show in town.’ During the meeting this author considered that old Karl might have started spinning in his grave, were it not for the fact that he was probably already in perpetual motion over the betrayals of social democratic reformism and the crimes of Stalinism, movements so strongly represented at the meeting.
This article may seem to many as unduly sharp, overly polemical and dismissive but if one takes a serious view of left politics such an approach is unavoidable. The history of the left in the twentieth century is one in which the name and reality of socialism has been buried by social democracy and Stalinism. The formers history is one of betraying every ideal for which socialism stands for; their treachery in sending literally millions of working class people to their death in the trenches of the First World War causing the final break between socialism and this rotten politics. The latter has been responsible for creation of a monstrous bureaucratic dictatorship in the Soviet Union, selling it to the workers of the world as socialism and then telling these workers that socialism is not an international phenomenon but can be created in one country. This country was Russia and the struggles of the rest of the world were saddled with a stages theory of revolution that declared the objective of working class politics was not socialism but to defend this monstrosity.
How the SWP hope to revive socialism in the twenty first century by attempting to breathe life into these traditions is a mystery that can only find solution in appreciation of their opportunism. From being an affliction of their politics such opportunism has now become its nature. This alliance has no role to play in reviving socialism in the North of Ireland. It can only increase and continue the miseducation of workers in what socialism is about. The road to a revival of socialism lies far from its shores.