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The Fight for Left Unity In Ireland : The Interim Committee for Socialist Unity

The Interim Committee for Socialist Unity (ICSU) was initiated in the autumn of 2000 by three socialists currently not aligned to any left grouping in Ireland. The committee's object was to help bring about political and organisational unity among the various components of the Irish left. Inspired by successful left alliances in Europe and by the rise of the movement against capitalist globalisation, it intended to see a socialist alliance operating in Ireland.

The ICSU's first initiative was a conference on the theme 'Left Unity-Can it happen in Ireland?' in Dublin on 25 November 2000. Speakers from the Scottish Socialist Party, the London Socialist Alliance and the Fourth International discussed the international experience. The possibilities of left unity in Ireland were discussed by platform speakers from the Socialist Workers' Party (SWP, affiliated to the International Socialist tendency) and the Socialist Party (SP, affiliated to the Committee for a Workers' International). Except for anarchists and some tiny groups, the organised far left in Ireland is composed of just these two organisations, which are comparable in size and influence. The Regional Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union also spoke from the platform. Representatives of other left groups and many independent socialist activists contributed to the discussion.

A clear difference of opinion between the two largest organisations emerged. The SWP declared that they were in favour of a socialist alliance being established immediately. The SP stated that, for the time being and with the political forces then involved, they did not intend to join a socialist alliance - although they would advise support for its candidates in certain circumstances.

The refusal of the SP was a real setback, but the ICSU eventually decided to press ahead with the project as an alliance of the SWP, independents and two very small groups including the Irish section of the FI. At a meeting in February 2001 it was resolved to establish a Socialist Alliance that would stand candidates in the next general election. A steering committee representing the various tendencies was elected, which provisionally drafted a programme for the Alliance.

Though the founding conferences were well attended, the first full meeting of the Alliance took place in April with an extremely small attendance. The draft programme and structure was before this meeting for discussion. The SWP reported that they had set up a separate alliance in the North of Ireland, which had its own programme. Concern was expressed that this was done without the involvement or knowledge of the national steering committee. The SWP argued, for the first time, that the Alliance had no jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. (However, the two other groups in the Socialist Alliance, who were almost entirely Northern based, were never brought into the foundation of the new Northern alliance.) The SWP then proposed (for the first time - the draft programme before the meeting was largely an SWP product) that the programme be only a discussion document, from which local alliances could adopt their own. Concern was expressed that this was a constitutional change in the Alliance which would break it up as a national organisation.

Despite the disquiet this caused, the argument was not pressed. The members were more concerned with fighting against the Nice Treaty in the referendum of 7 June. The Alliance planned a socialist campaign against the treaty, focussing on the neo-liberal agenda of the EU and the threat of the Irish state being dragged into the EU's military plans.

Although the SP remained outside the alliance, the ICSU tried to ensure a united left campaign against Nice. An all-left press conference was organised. The Alliance succeeded in getting an SP speaker at the main Alliance rally, and an Alliance speaker at the main SP rally. An SP member was asked to speak at an Alliance activists' meeting on the implications of the treaty. She did speak, but only after the SWP demanded an emergency meeting of the steering committee to oppose this. In contrast, most Alliance activities organised by SWP members were, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable from SWP activities.

The rejection of the Nice Treaty was largely due to a radical mood within the Irish working class, opposing the Europe of the rich and especially its military ambitions. Many of the opposition forces clearly gained strength through the Nice campaign: the Greens, Sinn Féin, peace and third world activists. But this radical mood passed the Socialist Alliance by, as it emerged from the campaign with no more members or supporters than it began with.

After the referendum the SWP organised a Public Forum on the results as an SWP, rather than an Alliance, event. The SWP then dropped any reference in their publications to the Socialist Alliance. Since the referendum the Alliance has been entirely inactive.

It seems clear now that the current attempt to unite Ireland's left has failed. In the opinion of the ICSU there are, among others, primarily two reasons:

· The Socialist Party refused to join the Alliance from the word go. This rejection can only be put down to the SPís refusal to ally with the SWP. The SP had recently but unsuccessfully attempted to form an alliance in Ireland with others outside the marxist left, and have generally co-operated with others on the left on limited issues. Their position on the Socialist Alliance would seem not to correspond to recent affirmations by the CWI internationally that they are prepared to co-operate with other forces on the left.

The Socialist Workers' Party agreed to join the Alliance, but failed to act as members of an alliance. They behaved as if the Alliance and its activities could be run in the same way as their own organisation. They fought against attempts to draw the SP into co-operating with the alliance. This resulted in a situation where the Alliance was seen -rightly- as no more than 'the SWP plus a handful of others', and therefore many good socialists refused to get involved. This would seem to contradict the commitment of the IS tendency to the alliance model in Scotland, England, Australia and elsewhere.

During its very short life the Alliance also failed to actively involve enough independent socialists, though there were, and are, clear signs that, given a real, open and active alliance, individuals and groupings would be attracted.

While this current attempt has failed, the need and desire for unity on the Irish left has not gone away. Even SP and SWP members have privately expressed dissatisfaction with their leaders' approach. The ICSU intends to continue its efforts to bring about socialist unity. But there can be no denying that a sea change is necessary on the left in Ireland if it is to break out of its narrow patterns of thought and activity.

John Meehan
Des Derwin
James Monaghan
Interim Committee for Socialist Unity
November 2001



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