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A Corbyn moment in Ireland?

Not soon.

John McAnulty

26 September 2015

Can the Corbyn phenomenon be repeated in Ireland? Can we look forward to an explosive moment and the arrival of a new, popular socialist movement? The evidence is that we cannot expect such a movement immediately, nor will it copy the British experience.

For Corbyn himself Ireland has proved something of a stumbling block. John McDonnell has apologised for former support for Irish resistance to British rule. The new leadership support the Irish peace process and that has meant endorsing Sinn Fein economic positions around the Northern crisis that are far to the right of the British movement. 

Move to the right

In any case simple observation shows that, where a section of the British working class has moved left, the direction of political travel among Irish groups is to the right.  The Labour party, for example, historically had a role in government as a minor partner to the far right Fine Gael party, is to the forefront of the austerity offensive and has now signed off on a vote transfer deal with the right in the forthcoming elections.

The Irish labour party is finished as any sort of social democratic formation. It will either be wiped out completely in the coming election or survive as a depend appendage of the right.

The core of Irish discussion is the "Programme for a Progressive Government" produced by the Right2Water union group. It is partly an attempt to produce a broad lobbying platform based on nationalism, partly an attempt to mock up a replacement to Labour (Sinn Fein) as a conduit to government and above all a serious attempt to divert a large section of the working class opposing water charges from direct action or confrontation with the state. This programme completely discards any elements of socialism, advocating more transparent democracy and constitutional change as the way to defend the workers.

Popular Front

In addition to the programme itself there is the question of a progressive Government to implement it. The unions, copying a long-held Irish Communist Party position, imply that a coalition of the left - defining left as not the far right - could win the next election and form a government. That would involve sections of the labour party who imposed austerity, a small recent Labour party split, Sinn Fein, Greens, independents and the socialist front groups.

The response to the union initiative has been election fever accompanied by sharp shifts to the right.

The Communist Party, masters of the popular front method of jamming left and right together in paper unity, are campaigning for a "second republic" that, as with the union proposals, leaves out any mention of socialism.

The socialist front organisations, People Before Profit in the case of the Socialist Workers Party, Anti-Austerity Alliance in the case of the Socialist Party, have united to form a common movement. This is less impressive than it seems, being directed more towards obtaining resources and parliamentary rights in the Dail and vote-sharing in the coming election than building a working class party. Politically they have retreated sharply to the right. The SWP formula is a reformist programme with a revolutionary background but, as they support the Union positions, the practical policy will fall a great deal short of reformism. The SP have signed up with expressions of concern, but this is because they oppose Sinn Fein from the right on the basis of the Provos former support for military struggle.


In the meantime Gerry Adams has pulled the plug on all the grand plans of a left government by announcing that Sinn Fein is open for business to form a government coalition with all parties of the left or the right.

The situation in North is even worse. The pro-unionist NILP collapsed decades go at the first hints of the civil rights movement and the political situation today is dominated by sectarianism, sponsored by the British state.

In the South we can look forward to a chaotic electoralist battle around a confusion of reformist and populist demands that will make Jeremy Corbyn and his modest social democratic policies look like V.I. Lenin!

In the North there are frantic calls from trade union leaders to save the sectarian Stormont Assembly, even though successful talks will immediately mean the introduction of new levels of austerity. They quietly sponsor anti austerity candidates in the hopes of a left toe in the colonial assembly.

Material base

There are material grounds for the differences between the two countries. Ireland never completed its democratic revolution. The outcome of the war of independence was partition and a divided and weakened working class.

The welfare state in Britain is in part the creation of Social Democracy and also creates the mass base of public sector workers that holds it up. That welfare system was imposed on the North in the face of unionist objections. It is strong enough to support a trade union movement based on the public sector, but has not build a working class party, nor have the unions gone beyond capitulation to sectarianism.

In the South a mass welfare state was never built. The trade union leaderships capitulate to the dominant ideology of a dependent nationalism and join Irish capitalism in joint attacks on the workers and joint programmes of capitulation to the Troika and international capital. The socialists hold tightly to the coattails of the union bureaucracy and thus find themselves constrained with the limits set by the Troika.

These bonds are not fixed. Their hold weakens and strengthens with the movement of the class struggle. However the Irish working class have been driven back. The mass strikes of the past have been replaced with the silence of social partnership. The wide radical milieu that gathered around republicanism has retreated, fragmented and dispersed. In the North the British are seen as kindly facilitators and the task as seeking a peaceful balance between sectarian groups. There is however great potential. Many working people have taken to the streets, burning with rage at the burning austerity and the blatant corruption of the ruling class. Northern workers express contempt and hatred at the mirror corruption to be found in Stormont.

Decay of reaction

But there is no mechanism by which the Corbyn phenomenon can be transferred to Ireland. There is no valid social democratic kernel on either side of the border. Sinn Fein claims to be a party of the left are entirely spurious and they are responsible for the collapse in the broad anti-imperialist that was a central feature of political life. The dynamic within the unions veers between lobbying capitalism and collaboration with austerity.

There is however a way in which the battle around Corbyn will effect Irish politics. Up to this point the shifts to the right and the absence of any socialist policies have been justified by an appeal to the model of "broad left parties" such as Syriza. That appeal has become unsustainable just as Corbyn comes unto the stage with a programme based on a form of socialism and a direct appeal to the working class.

Where Britain has had a relatively gentle ebb and flow of class struggle, in Ireland the rhythm is explosive, swinging quickly from utter reaction to revolution. What we can say now is that, even without a serious political challenge, the current of reaction weakening the Stormont initiative is clearly failing. Any new Dublin government will be weaker and more unstable than the current one. 

The wind is shifting, and that will aid a socialist revival in Ireland.

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