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Socialist Party meeting - The crisis of unity

John McAnulty

21 March 2005

The INTO teachers’ conference in Derry was a bad day for social partnership. The INTO leadership took a beating at the hands of their invited guest, education minister Barry Gardiner, essentially marking an end to the partnership illusion from the right.

A Socialist Party fringe meeting at the conference, addressed by NIPSA executive member Padraig Mulholland, showed with perfect symmetry the corresponding failure of the Socialist Party’s ‘unity’ strategy, aimed primarily at the trade union bureaucracy.

At the meeting the NIPSA member detailed the horrific level of cuts aimed at education and library boards by the Blair administration, designed to force major job losses and direct cuts in services. This was uncontroversial, given that the 12 delegates attending the meeting all expressed opposition to cuts.

A sour note was a complaint of limitations on resistance by a right-wing leadership. The outcome of the recent elections was in fact a left majority, limited in effect by political sectarianism between the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party and by the limitations of the strategy both are following.

A second sour note was the suggestion that the UUP and SDLP were now very sympathetic to fighting the cuts whereas before the DUP and Sinn Fein had been more sympathetic. The Socialist Party clearly did not draw the conclusion that this was because all the pro-capitalist parties were hypocrites and that it would be misdirecting workers to lobby these groups. If proof were needed then the 21st March decision of the SEELB to bring in the cuts, following adoption of a cuts agenda by the NEELB, should have been sufficient. All the political parties (and some trade unions) would have been represented on the board.

A third sour note was the suggestion that the attack was being held at bay by the threat of industrial action. We have just come out of a confrontation between NIPSA and the government in which limited industrial action was deployed and failed utterly. There is no sign that NIPSA have a strategy for building the much wider action required.

In as much as such a strategy exists it is an appeal for unity and solidarity aimed at the union bureaucracy. The effectiveness of such a strategy was questioned by the intervention of INTO head Frank Bunting, supporting amalgamation of the 5 boards. In the context this call, later supported by an INTO conference majority, gave a green light to the government to press ahead with cuts.

The fact is that a small scale left unity is possible within INTO, but it would be a unity against the bureaucracy. A proposal to heckle Barry Gardiner was not followed up, but it would have given a strong signal that some teachers opposed the cuts. A more united approach to fighting standing orders would have given the leadership a bloody nose. When the left did come together briefly, on the issue of opposition to private health insurance, it came very close to winning a majority.

The current situation spells the end to left illusions of unity with the bureaucracy. Even at the very beginning of the latest Blair drive against public services the union leaderships stand poised to betray. The only possible alternative is a rank and file unity that opposes the union bureaucracy alongside opposition to the cuts.


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