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Report on the National Assembly of the Irish Anti-War Movement
12th May 2003
The leadership of the Irish Anti-War movement (IAWM) called a ‘National Assembly’ on Saturday 10th May at Liberty Hall in Dublin. Structured in the form of plenary forums and workshops, it lasted six hours, and was attended by over 200 people.
It was clearly an assembly rather than a conference because the leadership remained the controlling body during the day and did not, as in a conference, lose its leadership role once the meeting started. On the other hand it was more than just an assembly since resolutions on the political foundation of the campaign and on future activity were taken. Its precise organisation seemed designed to allow the existing leadership to remain in control of proceedings while giving it the power to heavily influence the policy and future direction of the movement.
Before it had even begun the meeting had been heavily criticised in some quarters, especially by activists in Cork, for the IAWM leadership not consulting activists on the agenda and for this agenda being undemocratic.
The first session was an open forum on the theme of “End the occupation of Iraq - resist the US Empire” and was addressed by John Gormley of the Green Party, Eamonn McCann of the Socialist Workers Party, Kevin McLaughlin of the Socialist Party, and Nuria Mustafa, an Iraqi exile.
Opening the session, John Gormley praised the work of the anti-war movement, claiming that although it had failed to prevent the war, subsequent events had proved its arguments to be correct. No weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, which was now under US/UK occupation rather than being liberated. He also highlighted the danger of the EU becoming increasingly militarised as it seeks to counter US influence. In order to counter charges of anti-Americanism, he urged the anti-war movement to focus on the struggle against militarism in general rather than concentrating solely on the US.
The next speaker, Eamonn McCann, began his address by praising the anti-war movement for the “magnificent job” it had done in mobilising people to oppose the war. However, he also went on to identify a key weakness of the movement - the small size of its organising core compared with the numbers on the streets. To overcome this “disproportion” and to be better prepared for the next war he advocated that anti-war activists relate to what’s happening in people’s everyday lives, giving as an example the prospect of water charges in the north. Eamonn also said that there had to be a greater orientation towards the trade union movement.
The Iraqi exile, Nuria Mustafa, was the most downbeat of the speakers. She related stories from friends and relatives in Iraq about the miserable conditions of people living under US/UK occupation. She said that although Iraqis were relieved by the fall of the Baathist regime, they viewed the US/UK as occupiers and wanted them out. However, Nuria also conveyed the sense of powerlessness among the Iraqi people that the right to overthrow the dictatorship themselves had been taken away. She also placed the invasion of Iraq in the wider context of the Middle East, emphasising the importance of Palestine. Nuria expressed her support for the people who had taken direct action at Shannon and urged the anti-war movement to continue to expose the Irish government’s complicity in US expansionism.
The final platform speaker was Kevin McLoughlin of the Socialist Party. He said that the war and occupation of Iraq had been a disaster for its people, but that the anti-war movement offered an alternative, as shown by the historic demonstrations of 15th February. Kevin emphasised the capitalist nature of the war, and placed it in the wider context of globalisation and the neo-liberal agenda. He advocated that the IAWM make this link, pointing to the experience of Italy and Spain where strong anti-war movements had grown out of ongoing struggles against neo-liberalism. He said that while there should be solidarity with the people of Iraq there should be no support for political Islam. For him the short-term priorities of the IAWM were to defend Irish neutrality and increase its activity within trade unions.
Following the platform speakers, the forum was opened to contributions from the floor. Many of these highlighted the question of Palestine, linking to the war against Iraq. Others spoke of the success of the anti-war movement in bringing through a new layer of activists especially amongst the youth. A speaker from the Catholic Worker group emphasised the importance of direct action, and was critical of some of those in the IAWM who had distanced themselves from such acts. He urged the anti-war movement to support a campaign of civil disobedience centred on Shannon, using as a model the opposition to the Faslane nuclear naval base in Scotland. Later the speaker called on the campaign to support the civil disobedience of five protestors at a coming demonstration. This clearly revealed the elitist and moralistic approach of some direct action activists who also ignore questions of programme and strategy and who substitute themselves for a movement. Another speaker made the criticism that the IAWM always had the same people on the platform.
Responding to some of these points, Kieran Allen of the SWP stated that although those who engaged in direct action should be defended, the strategy of the IAWM must be mass mobilisation rather than direct action. He emphasised the importance of the schools students’ walkouts in response to the war and contrasted this with the limited response from work places. For him this was a demonstration that the political consciousness of school students was ahead of that of organised workers. One of the more pertinent contributions came form a Green party activist who said that the people who came out on demonstrations, especially the large one on February 15th, did not see themselves as part of the Irish Anti-War movement and did not care for some of the left concerns being expressed at the conference.
The Assembly then broke up into three separate workshops on the themes of globalisation, Irish neutrality, and the media. These workshops were supposed to facilitate discussion and produce resolutions that would move the movement forward. These were to be discussed and voted upon in the final session of the day. It was heavily emphasised that these workshops, after introductions by prominent speakers e.g. Patricia McKenna of the Green Party, Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party and Kieran Allen of the SWP, were to discuss practical proposals only. They were not for political discussions or for any reflection on the past performance or future strategy of the movement. In effect therefore questions of politics had been left the exclusive property of the leaders who introduced the workshops.
In the neutrality workshop an attempt by Socialist Democracy supporters to prevent the workshop being split into four tiny meetings was only partially successful when it was agreed that it would be split into two. It therefore became practically impossible for anyone to address all those who had heard the introductions of Patricia McKenna and Joe Higgins either to challenge or agree with their remarks. Any attempt to raise political points at these smaller meetings was rejected in favour of ‘practical proposals.’ The underlying assumption, not up for debate, was that the political basis and strategy adopted so far was successful and that the key for the future was some particularly smart activity that could move things forward.
The final session of the Assembly was probably the most disappointing, turning out to be no more than a restatement by the platform leadership of what had been said earlier. The way the motions from the workshops or directly from the floor were handled was farcical, with fifty-five being brought forward to be discussed in one hour! Needless to say there was no discussion of any of them with one very short speech for and against being the most that was allowed. Many of them overlapped or were contradictory, or had little relevance to the task of building IAWM. They ranged from bizarre to the ridiculous or irrelevant. Thus one called for forms demanding the arrest of Bertie Ahern to be handed in to Garda stations across the State.
The main motion from the steering committee had already been announced in the first session and called for another demonstration outside US Embassy on the 4th July; to invite high profile anti-war figures to speak at a public meeting; and for a proper national conference in September. It also called for the adoption of a statement of principles for the IAWM. The obvious question was why it had been operating without such a statement for so long and why this was not the subject of a session in itself. It thus appeared as a technicality involving no underlying political considerations.
Most of the other motions centred on technicalities such as the need for a national newsletter. Others were formally correct but devoid of any strategic context such as the proposal to get trade union affiliations. Others were expressions of symbolic support to existing initiatives by others such as supporting an aid convoy to Iraq.
The farcical nature of many motions was highlighted by the question of boycotts, with calls for the boycott of this or that country’s goods. As more and more of these were passed it became clear that there were very few goods that were not being boycotted. One person suggested, only half in jest, that if these were followed people would be walking around half-naked. Thus the call to boycott US goods was passed but when a separate motion also included UK goods this line of proceeding was challenged by one speaker who said that we were now moving from boycotting 50% of the world’s goods to 75%. Earlier a speaker had pointed out that it was the UN who had enforced murderous sanctions on Iraq. Neither she nor anyone else seemed to draw the embarrassing logic that we should boycott everyone’s goods! Nor did anyone seem to notice that the line was being drawn when opposition to British imperialism’s goods was being proposed.
The majority of the motions were from people trying to get endorsements of their own pet campaigns rather than trying to build the anti-war movement. They were routinely voted for with no thought to implementation or their priority. One resolution was not read out because the person on the platform could not read the handwriting! The leadership will be able to pick and choose which resolutions they want to implement. All of them cannot and it was impossible for the conference, even if it showed any inclination of wanting to, to indicate which it regarded as most important.
Before voting a member of Socialist Democracy (SD) got the opportunity to speak. He emphasised the need for an anti-imperialist understanding of the war rather than reliance on a humanitarian impulse. This he said explained the phenomenon noted by the Green Party speaker, of the nature of the February 15th demonstration, that it had a mainly humanitarian concern that left it subject to demoralisation when the war started.
The example of the Bush visit was used to further illustrate the limitations of a humanitarian anti-war stance, with many people unable to link the Irish peace process with the war in Iraq. This allowed Bush to parade as a man of peace with the Irish peace process as his protection. Where else in Europe would he have been able to so effectively strike such a pose? The accusation of inconsistency or hypocrisy on the part of Bush levied by some anti-war figures failed to recognise that his positions on Ireland and Iraq are both part of a general imperialist offensive around the world.
It was also pointed out that the other aspect of imperialism that the IAWM refused to address was the threat of economic sanctions; calling on Irish workers to take action but ignoring the fact that many are employed by US companies. Another speaker, after a struggle to speak to her resolution, emphasised the need to orientate towards the trade union movement, giving the example of activists getting Iraqi exile Nuria Mustafa to address delegates at the TUI conference.
The National Assembly reflected the weakness of the anti-war movement in Ireland. There was a large audience for the IAWM, as evidenced by the demonstrations on February 15th, but the movement had nothing to say in terms of politically educating and trying to advance the consciousness of those who protested. There was no real movement for these people to join. The existing movement is composed mainly of a steering committee that is a diplomatic alliance of two left groups and the Greens. The assembly did nothing to rectify this democratic deficit.
The small numbers in the movement that was identified as the key problem was not adequately understood as the result of failure and not its cause. If it were its cause we will always fail because we will always start small. This is merely seen as a technical problem, to be solved by technical adjustments. The superficial answer from the SWP, which went unchallenged by others in the steering committee, is to get more activists. So the problem of building the movement is a problem of building the movement and the solution to building the movement is building the movement. To get more activists we need to get more activists and to become big we must become big. Nothing is answered in this schema because nothing is questioned. Nothing is questioned because the movement was a success although Irish collaboration in the war was not prevented or stopped and the movement became smaller as the war went on.
All this fails to see that activists have to be won on a political basis that goes beyond the lowest common denominator of humanitarianism. For the IAWM to maintain itself over the longer period, it must develop a stronger political perspective that has at its core an understanding of the imperialist nature of the war, and a strategy based on mobilising the working class to oppose it. Without this the anti-war movement is likely to fall dormant again, as it did after the Afghanistan war, and only be reactivated when the threat of war is imminent again. The experience of Iraq shows that this will fail.