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A new left in the North of Ireland?

Political opportunism reflects continuing illusions in Stormont

1 June 2017

The Assembly elections of March this year saw a frenzy of activity from the Socialist Workers Party electoral front, People Before Profit.  In what they termed "a riot at the ballot box" they made a determined attempt to increase their representation, stretching themselves to the maximum to stand candidates. In part this was as a result of the success of the electoral tactic in May 2016 but also was a major gamble on the background economism that informs their politics. Surely, given the size of the “cash for ash” renewable heating scam and the £500 million cost, the scales would drop from the eyes of the workers and they would abandon the Democratic Unionist Party and punish Sinn Fein for their cooperation with them?

It is a matter of record that a counter attack by Sinn Fein saw them beaten backwards. While Eamon McCann struggled with a decrease in the overall number of seats and a higher quota and was eliminated in the Derry count, both Sinn Fein and the SWP agree that the SWP support for Brexit, in the form of a call for left Brexit (Lexit) was deeply damaging.

The Westminster election saw sniping between the two groups continuing. The SWP now say that they oppose a "Tory" Bexit (while continuing to support Lexit in both Britain and Ireland) . Sinn Fein accuses them of U-turning and the SWP reply that this is the pot calling the kettle black. Their new policy is that they would take their seat at Westminster and work with "progressives" to fight the effects of Brexit.

The return of politics

In the heat of battle most have ignored a very significant issue. The political campaign that Sinn Fein ran in the March elections was much sharper than the vague populism of the SWP. The return of a Stormont executive was conditional on delivery of outstanding element of the St. Andrews Agreement. The SWP had no preconditions, bringing the political tone of their campaign closer to those of the old pro-unionist Northern Ireland Labour and moving them sharply to the right of previous positions

Faced with a revolt in its own ranks, Sinn Fein had reacted decisively to run a political campaign in March. Simple calls for a vote were replaced with demands for equality, for LGBT rights, against corruption and for an Irish Language Act. Beside these PBP posters decorated only with smiling faces stuck out like a sore thumb.

The Sinn Fein slogans were insincere. They allowed all these issues to fall in order to keep Stormont running, but now they put forward substantive policies that reflected the anger of their supporters. The peace agreement must finally live up to its promises. They would not support the return of an executive unless DUP leader Arlene Foster, enmeshed in the enormous torrents of money removed from the public purse by the RHI heating subsidy scandal, step aside as First Minister. In addition promises on an investigation of state killings and an Irish Language Act should now be honoured.

In contrast the SWP spoke of the corruption of an undifferentiated elite. The solution was to elect more PBP MLAs and have more investigations. Their position reflected their close alliance with the local trade union leadership and the Communist party, seeing the preservation of a local assembly as coming before other considerations. Formally the SWP opposed the mass austerity of the "Fresh Start" programme, but they promised to fight it "alongside their brothers and sisters in the trade union movement,"   who had already accepted Fresh Start in order to support the Stormont assembly. 

A distorted reformism

Overall the PBP campaign was a mixture of opportunism, populism and economism. The opportunism came in the form of slogans empty of political content; time for change! No to elites! They even had a 20 foot poster on the Falls Road as gaeilge that translated as "seize the opportunity!" 

The populism was self defined. A successful movement would be built on people power rather than on a policy that refers specifically to the role of the working class.

Economism is a long standing distortion of socialist politics. Basically it is an argument for "bread and butter" politics. At first glance this looks like common sense. In real life it involves patronising the workers and handing control of political debate to the capitalists.
Supporters of economism routinely believe that bread and butter politics will trump other issues and part of the frenzy of the Assembly elections was the conviction that the "Cash for Ash" scandal represented such a major theft of resources that working class voter would abandon the DUP and Sinn Fein.

An extreme example of this sort of thinking was shown by Eamon McCann's appeal to DUP voters on the eve of the assembly election. He saw no need to directly counter the reactionary programme of the DUP other than by assuming that deprivation by itself would be effective. 

Yet it is a form of thinking that relentlessly drives the thinker to the right. A popular slogan by PBP candidates: "we are neither Orange or Green, but Socialist!" is a form of neutrality that draws an equals sign between Irish republicanism, with its revolutionary and what Lenin called "generally democratic" content and the utterly reactionary and counter-revolutionary politics of Unionism, continued today by PBP links with the Progressive Unionist Party, mouthpiece of the paramilitary UVF.

As with their comrades in Dublin the SWP have evolved a parliamentary and reformist ideology, contradicting earlier claims that they would use the Dail as a platform for revolution and popular mobilization. However the reformist approach, applied in the North, has utterly bizarre results.  

The main example of a parliamentary and reformist approach to the local assembly was when Gerry Carroll and Eamon McCann drafted a bill to abolish anti-union laws in the North of Ireland. McCann went on to explain the rationale in some detail at a May Day demonstration. Union laws, he explained triumphantly, were a devolved matter. A local campaign could force the Assembly to abolish them and free the workers.

This is stupidity on a grand scale. Echoing the line of trade union propaganda, the unionists are seen as part of an undifferentiated elite who can be pressured by "people power" and Stormont as a neutral local assembly rather than as a sectarian and colonial chamber of imperialist puppets.

The nature of the DUP and the unionists as parties of the far right is ignored. As long as there is a unionist majority (essential for the institutions to survive) there is no parliamentary road to abolition of trade union legislation, which is in any case completely unused. The lack of working class action is not due to repressive legislation, but to unending collaboration and capitulation on the part of the trade union bureaucracy. Rather than a mechanism for freeing workers from repressive legislation the draft PBP bill confirmed the party as parliamentary stooges for the trade union bureaucracy.

The parliamentary idiocy continued after the assembly election, with Gerry Carroll demanding that MLAs lose their salaries if a new executive was not set up, clearly seeing the role of MLAs as providing unconditional support for an executive rather than representing their voters and the political programme of their party.   PBP were echoing the often repeated refrain of the trade union leadership and their full throated support of Stormont. Unfortunately the demand for an executive without conditions was the position of the DUP and the British.


The rivalry of SWP/PBP towards Sinn Fein and has entered new territory in the Westminster election campaign. Here Sinn Fein produced a blank manifesto, freeing their hands for horse-trading after the election.  The PBP went into political mode with their own slogans, unfortunately with a small "p" on the political. They now oppose a "Tory" Bexit without abandoning their original Lexit or support for an Irish exit from Europe. They call for an Irish Language Act, but if they oppose Sinn Fein in setting conditions for a new executive where is the pressure on the DUP to come from?

The PBP list of demands; LBGT rights, £10 an hour minimum pay, no cuts and so on are all aspirations. There is no indication as to how they would be achieved. As 95% of all their activity is electoral or inside the Assembly and councils, we can only presume that the institutions are to deliver. Yet again we have an ideology of unquestioning faith in the existing system to deliver reform, despite the constant failure of Stormont and all the evidence being against a reformist dynamic.

A key slogan of the new election campaign is for a socialist united Ireland.  Is this anything but a re-branding following fierce criticism of their previous position of neutrality between the reactionary ideology of loyalism and the generally democratic programme of Irish nationalism?

To understand the PBP vision of a socialist Ireland we need only look at recent election statements. PBP define a place "where we challenge the power of the bigots, where we challenge the power of the elites, and where we seek to create an economy that moves away from the failures of austerity". 

Nowhere in the PBP narrative is there any recognition of the imperialist dominion of Ireland or an acknowledgement of the material base of partition in armed bodies of the state. The Sinn Fein narrative, while mistaken, is at least coherent. A presence in government in the North and South would so impress the British that they would immediately withdraw from Ireland, they believe. Exactly how having PBP candidates in Stormont would lead to a united Ireland is far from clear, given their frantic support for the institution.

The canary in the coal mine

Many will be uninterested in the long evolution of the Socialist Workers Party. However, like the canary in the coal mine, their relentless opportunism  can teach us much about the political environment.

They tell us that there is a youthful left in the North of Ireland, but it is a left inside the institutions of peace.

The SWP will not win a seat in Westminster in this election, but they will retain a political base. That base is innocent of any thoughts of revolution. Drowning in identity politics, snared by theories of conflict resolution, they will find themselves operating in the structures and ideology of the peace process and among the lower echelons of trade unionism - mimicking the sort of leftism that operated in the North in the 1950s and was blown apart by the Civil Rights struggle. In terms of consciousness both the young nationalists who voted for Sinn Fein and the youth who voted PBP remain inside the model of the peace process.  The young Sinn Fein voters are at least expressing impatience with a mechanism that doesn’t work, but have some way to go before they conclude that it will not work.

This is not good news. After decades the hammer blow of the peace process is wearing off.  However it will be extremely difficult for the new and more youthful left to advance outside the confines of the imperialist settlement or even to recognize imperialist dominion. We look in vain to the republican groups, who have yet to produce a political programme that accounts for the collapse of the Provisionals.  A vote from eirigi members helped propel PBP into Belfast City Council. Active campaigning by Bernadette McAliskey helped propel them into Stormont.

Stormont has fallen, yet popular consciousness is still contained within the consciousness of the peace process that the parents of current activists voted for and which they grew up in. Imperialism does not exist. Loyalist reaction is simply the expression of culture. Endless corruption is the state bribing paramilitaries to adopt a more harmless sectarianism.

The biggest illusion is the illusion of democracy. It is true that there is a right to vote, but the function of local political and civic institutions is to preserve the colony and maintain an increasingly precarious sectarian balance. It is not designed to deliver progress. The chances of the executive being restored fade by the day. The decay of the peace process continues apace. Neither the Catholic populism of Sinn Fein nor the reformist populism of PBP represent any sort of answer to the new reality.

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