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  The minor theme of the Northern elections –  A left in crisis
John McAnulty
7th December 2003
All the parties in the Northern elections agreed on one thing – they all agreed that British imperialism was the mechanism that could guarantee the future of the Irish people.  The rivalry between them was about what programme they should lobby the British to adopt.  No-one challenged the British right to rule and only Sinn Fein made symbolic protest when the British indicated that they would once again switch off the lights in the comic-opera assembly.
However the suspension of the assembly – effectively for the fifth time if we include the odd glitch when abortive attempts were made to re-establish the Good Friday structures, means that there is a crisis of British rule and that, despite its overwhelming support, it is unable to offer a stable solution for the North or a democratic solution for the Irish population as a whole.
In this situation the socialist movement, as a potential leadership in waiting, able to offer an alternative to imperialist rule, have an importance out of proportion to the tiny vote they attract.
However the election campaign in the North shows that the organisations of the Marxist left are unable to mount even the bare bones of a political challenge to imperialism and are in fact locked in a strategic crisis where the interests of their individual organisations blind them utterly to the interests of the working class as a whole.
Worth mentioning briefly is the wolf in sheep’s clothing - Billy Hutchinson of the PUP - not that Billy was of the left.  The PUP, a front organisation for the UVF, is an organisation of the far right, representing sectarian death squads.  He enters on the list because of the attempts by the Communist party, Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party, in the face of all the evidence and direct critiques from ourselves, to present Billy as a socialist, only finally falling silent when Billy surfaced at the head of howling mobs attacking Catholic primary school children at Holy Cross.  Billy’s electoral demise was entirely predictable, given his actual role, not as spokesman for Protestant workers, but as muscle for the Official Unionists.
Also presented as the ‘left’ especially by the Communist Party, was the much loved Women’s coalition.  It was especially loved by local capitalist politicians and by the British press precisely because it was innocent of any left policies.  Despite its name the Women’s coalition failed  to prioritise  the fight for progressive polices on women’s issues in an area where there is ferocious opposition to women’s rights.  It had only two policies: women should be active in politics, even if the politics were those of utter reaction.  Secondly Irish women should support imperialism and the Good Friday Agreement.  The coalition was a good example of the old Stalinist theory of ‘stages’ pushed to absurdity.  The CP opposed fighting on socialist demands on the grounds that there was a preliminary stage of Irish independence to go through.  Then they argued that democracy in the North was a necessary preliminary to this. Now the Women’s coalition indicates that a preliminary stage of imperialist rule and sectarian division should also be supported.  Unfortunately the voters who agreed with this view preferred to vote for the sectarians themselves rather than the Women’s coalition.
The electoral campaign of the Northern Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions deserves mention, even if they did not stand or formally endorse candidates. NICTU (or NIC, as they prefer to be called to avoid hurting unionist sensibilities) and some affiliate unions such as ATGWU and UNISON campaigned around a ‘bread and butter’ campaign that patronised workers.  Workers shouldn’t bother their head with politics and restrict themselves to prices and wages.  The fact that this line is always rejected by workers, who always vote on political grounds, is never an issue as the main role of the campaign is to avoid the necessity of the trade union movement taking up any progressive policies.  The unions however did have one political position that they were determined to put.  Workers must vote to save the agreement and bring back the Stormont assembly.  The movement of Connolly and Larkin had only one policy they were enthusiastic about – the return of an assembly that cements British rule and that splits the working class between North and South and then splits it again in the North on sectarian lines.  What makes the present position of the unions so utterly shameless is that they spent thirty years banning politics from the trade union movement on the grounds that they were divisive – even then, of course, it was only socialist and democratic politics that were banned.
Socialist Party
There was one organisation who tried to put the Trade union line into practice.  The Socialist Party stood Tom Black in East Belfast and Jim Barbour of the Fire Brigades Union in South Belfast (even though Barbour apparently isn’t a member of the Socialist party). The SP candidates received utterly derisory votes. One commentator pointed out that Barbour’s vote of 167 was half that of the Natural Law Party in the last election – a group of cranks who believed in yogic flying! Black did little better on 176 votes.
This represents a serious crisis for the Socialist party strategy in the North.  Briefly summed up it can seen as a sort of pink unionism that links frantic support for a Stormont assembly with the ‘gas and water’ municipal reformism dismissed by James Connolly over a century ago.  This strategy has failed four times now. It failed when they tried to set up a ’mass labour party’ with loyalist paramilitaries. It failed when they set up a ‘Labour Party’ for the pre-Stormont convention.  Not only did the party collapse, it turned out to have nothing to say!  It failed in the last election when they stood themselves and now it has failed utterly when they thought they could capitalise on Barbour’s prominence in the Fire Brigades Union.
The Barbour campaign represented another right-wing element of Socialist Party policy.  For some years now they have operated as a handmaiden of the bureaucracy rather than their left opponents.  Barbour’s candidacy represented this perfectly.  Rather than a representative of rank and file fire workers sold out by the FBU bureaucracy Barbour was the local representative of a bureaucracy that surrendered to the bosses and then rammed the sell-out through the branches.  Even from a trade union perspective it is hardly surprising that Barbour got such a derisory vote on the day that his members got a 3.5% wage increase tied to productivity after the FBU promised them 40%!
One last element of the Socialist Party perspective deserves mention.  There has for several years been a rather confused unity debate on the left.  The Socialist Party has always demonstrated an absolute and politically sectarian refusal to participate or consider any unity proposals.  Its case has been that the left is irrelevant and that it stands in a unique position in real unity with a section of the working class.  The election shows how hollow these claims are in the North.
The narrow sectarianism of the Socialist Party is counterbalanced by the blatant opportunism of the Socialist Workers Party.  Politically there was little to distinguish between the two campaigns. Yet again the workers were advised to ignore politics and vote ‘bread and butter’ politics.  Where the Socialist Party supported a Stormont executive the SWP ignored it.  An election is held to a capitalist, colonial, sectarian structure that is in permanent crisis and whose survival is the main item on the agenda and the left tell workers to ignore the issue!  Instead the SWP try to build an opportunist alliance with the Communist Party and Workers Party, with whom they should have nothing in common and who their own supposed programme sees as pro-capitalist parties!  A hilarious meeting is held in Belfast where the WP say they are not interested in unity, the CP say that unity must be in support of the Women’s Coalition and the Good Friday Agreement, other groups argue for opposition the GFA and the SWP say the issue isn’t important!
The initiative falls apart under its own contradictions but the SWP go ahead with a mini alliance with the CP in Derry.  Even the SWP hesitate to call the 2,257 vote of Eamonn McCann a victory.  Contrasted with the 137 vote for running mate Marion Baur of the CP, it is clearly a personal vote, a fact underlined by the transfers to the SDLP and Sinn Fein (the votes splits 50-50 between the two parties, with a handful for the unionists). This indicates that building working class consciousness, the lynchpin of any Marxist intervention in elections, is clearly absent here.


Last, but very definitely last, we should mention the intervention of the republican opposition.  A group of six republicans led by Tony McIntyre of ‘the Blanket’ website endorsed the McCann campaign.  Nothing illustrates more clearly the bankruptcy of republicanism in modern Ireland.  The majority of the signatories have spent their whole lives fighting for self-determination and a number have spent long periods in prison.  They refuse to go along with republican capitulation but they not only fail to build a republican alternative but end up endorsing a candidate who says that the National question doesn’t matter and shouldn’t be an issue!
The truth is that the strategic crisis of the left is not confined to the North.  All the tricks of political sectarianism and blind opportunism can be found as readily in South and North Dublin as in South Belfast.  Dirty deals behind the scenes, putting their parties before the class, forming alliances with the union bureaucracy against the class.  These are all familiar themes.

The tragedy is that a working class resistance is possible.  In the North a layer of traditional working-class republican vote has disappeared with no-one to vote for.  In
Dublin the one sizable trade union demonstration against the bin charge sees rank and file members of SIPTU throw their union cards at SIPTU secretary Jack O’Connor.  The Socialist Party stay well back while the SWP members merely looked confused.   

There is only one alternative to imperialist rule in
Ireland.  That alternative is socialism.  The Northern elections show that the left are throwing away a chance to lead the new wave of struggle and are in fact, helping to smother it. 


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