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The silent retreat of the ULA

At its formation The United Left Alliance appeared to represent a new resurgence of the Socialist Movement in Ireland. It brought together a number of different socialist groups, obtained a significant number of votes and representation in the Dail and put forward an uncompromising revolutionary position with the call to repudiate the debt – that Irish workers would not pay to save capitalism, to save bankers and speculators.

Politically and organisationally it has retreated from that early promise. The first convention in June was large but politically confused and the main economic discussion centred on a return to the punt rather than repudiation of the debt.  Its energy was dissipated in workshops while the real decisions were made elsewhere.  Attempts to build a mass demonstration against the budget  in September led to a relatively small demonstration subordinate to the trade union bureaucracy. Early attempts to build a rank and file movement were replaced with much more moderate and apolitical calls to reclaim the unions. Attempts to increase   ULA  representation by   campaigning  for  Ruth  Coppanger in the Dublin West by-election were stymied. The major attempt to build a mass campaign around the household charge was not organised by the ULA – indeed a section of that campaign insisted that it was non-political and demanded that the ULA be invisible.

However a statement by the Socialist party ruling out the possibility of the ULA being the vehicle for a new party set a sharp brake on the project.

The mid-January statement said: 

“Moving to establish a party without the actual involvement of significant numbers of ordinary working class people, would lead to it becoming an irrelevant political sect. The ULA is not the new party, nor is it likely to just become the new party at some future date.
The ULA is an alliance that fights on issues, outlines a left and socialist alternative and crucially popularises the idea of a new party. A new party will most likely come from the likes of the ULA combining with community and workers campaigns and struggles.
The Household Tax campaign can involve thousands of people in political activity up and down the country, creating the potential basis for a new party. ULA members should get fully involved in this struggle”. 
The statement ended with a call for activists to join the Socialist party.

Yet in truth the ULA was not operating as an alliance. The level of co-operation between the constituent groups is at a much lower level than that, with each group running their own campaigns: the SP and a referendum campaign and a partitionist trade union front in the North, the SWP and their “Enough” campaign. The groups compete for recruits, convinced that they themselves will be the new party of the working class.

The alliance has in fact established itself as a brand name or franchise.  It has established an effective website that carries a flood of statements from TDs, without any coherent connection between them. Its operation is through an ad-hoc “steering committee” which raises questions over the democratic credentials of the group.

Many of these weaknesses are recognised and acknowledged by activists inside and outside the ULA.  What is not so clearly seen is that there has been a political retreat by the socialist movement on the basis for a workers resistance. 

The problem is that the ULA, in a December budget statement, had retreated from a wholesale call to repudiate the debt to the much more limited call for a halt to all payments related to paying for the private debt of the banks. The major thrust of the statement, not open to general discussion by the membership in advance of its publication, was a thoroughly reformist call on the capitalist government to invest for growth – something totally impossible for a government committed to austerity, to the bailout and under the control of the troika. The effect is to put the ULA alongside the trade union leadership who claim that there is a better fairer was for capitalism to operate, while in practice actively implementing the austerity.

The ULA steering committee has now agreed a conference at the end of April. It appears that diplomatic agreement has been reached to include individual branches in the steering committee and to some extent increase the level of democracy inside the alliance.

In the view of Socialist Democracy this is not sufficient.  The ULA cannot balance between an organisation with individual members and branches on the one hand and an alliance of existing groups on the other. 

Much more important is the need for a working class programme.  It is time to stop pretending that the coalition and the troika will adopt an investment for growth programme and stop pretending that the union bureaucracy’s “better fairer way” has any meaning. We must stop ignoring the fact that the country has been occupied by the ECB and IMF.

Our focus must be the working class.  We must call on the workers to repudiate the debt, to wage unremitting war against cuts and closure, to set up new organisations independent of other class forces, to seize control of resources and capital abandoned by the capitalists.

People can unite or not unite as they choose.  They can build any sort of organisation. What they must do is try to represent the interests of the working class. This is the burning issue.


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