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Irish Socialist Party internal debate

The issues should concern us all

10 March 2019

The publication of internal documents from the Socialist Party has led to a gleeful attempt to rubbish the left by the Irish press and by an outbreak of gossip on social media.

In neither case has there been any real discussion of the issues arising in the SP's internal debate. This is a pity, because the documents highlight key strategic contradictions for the Irish left that are not being addressed.

The areas of dispute are; feminism, relationships with Sinn Fein and the overall strategic direction of the reformist left in terms of a ”broad left party” and a “left government.”

The Irish organisation is criticised by the British group for opportunism in the abortion referendum. That is the claim that they simply supported what young militants already believed and made no attempt to introduce socialist policies. Both sides of the argument are hampered by distorted ideas of what a socialist policy would be. For the critics, it is an orientation to the working class, by which they mean speeches in dusty trade union halls. For the Irish group, it was moving the front group ROSA to a more radical position focused on the right to choose.

The Irish SP were quite right to make this demand, wrong to use it to recruit to their own organisation rather than fight for it in the broader repeal movement. The right to choose is a democratic demand, there are no extra bits that have to be added on to make it socialist. What socialist have to do is argue that full rights for women and the extension of rights to all classes cannot be achieved under capitalism and that the broadest and most democratic structures should be built to allow for workers to organise and to put forward their own demands.

This did not happen in the repeal movement. Leadership was left to bourgeois feminists, to NGOs and to representatives of the trade union bureaucracy. Repeal on it's own was in practice acceptance of the quite limited and restrictive proposals of the government and there was no real challenge to that position in the movement.

The real importance of challenging reformist leaderships and fighting for democratic structures is that that struggle allows for ongoing organisation. As it was, the Repeal movement demobilised immediately after the Yes referendum. Limitations on legislation, guerrilla war by the right in the health service, collaboration between government and the church to hand over hospitals to the clerics, none of these have led to a remobilisation.

The dispute around Sinn Fein inside the Socialist Party between Paul Murphy and the majority represents a much greater division than simply debates on feminism. Unfortunately that debate is poisoned at source, with both factions agreeing that Sinn Fein is a sectarian party.

What this means is that Paul Murphy, the advocate for a softer line, defines sectarianism as:

“trying to coerce the protestant working class into the southern state via a border poll”
The policy of the party is that a democratic majority vote for a united Ireland would be sectarian and coercive because it might provoke loyalist paramilitaries to violence. The extreme unionism of their position does not stop there. They routinely see far right loyalists as legitimate representatives of Protestant workers.

So at a fundamental level members of the Socialist Party exhibit a deep hostility to a unified Irish democracy. What then divides them? Paul Murphy is in effect pointing out that their policy, brought to the fore, will alienate workers and limit their electoral appeal.

All this has happened before. The programme of the Socialist Party is rather narrow and restrictive and it operates a vicious internal discipline. Like a hermit crab it lived for decades in the British and Irish Labour parties and patiently burrowed into lower level of the union bureaucracies to win positions. Today the union leaders, locked in partnership with capitalism, are content to front protest activity led by communities and activists. This gives an area of intervention to the SP, but if the struggles are big enough they challenge the fixed ideology of the group.

So the bin changes campaign of 2003-2004  saw an electoral boost for the Socialist Party but also saw the expulsion of their national secretary and Joan Collins standing as an independent TD.

The household charge campaign of 2011 brought  another boost in the SP's electoral fortunes but also the expulsion of one of their most prominent figures, TD Claire Daly.

Now today their involvement in the water charges and the abortion constitutional repeal campaigns has led to the biggest fissures the group has seen.

Any perspective of the Socialist Party becoming a mass party seems to be negated by these  internal contradictions.

From a different angle similar contradictions face Socialist Workers Network/People Before Profit, the SP's partners in a loose parliamentary alliance. It's  In the discussion document it is clear that any sort of merged party is out of the question. PbP leader Brid Smith is contemptuously dismissed for opportunist collaboration with right-wing feminists. Many would share these criticisms of SWN opportunism in many political arenas. PbP members seem to lack any of the political education provided to SP members not are there any hurdles to membership beyond embracing "people power.”

But if joining PbP is easy, so also is departure. The group is entering the coming local elections two councillors short. In Dublin one councillor does not see why the loose political programme should allow the leadership to issue orders. In Letterkenny the councillor believes it easier to win votes outside PbP. Tellingly, his election programme is based on the promotion of local small business rather than anything to do with socialism.

Polls show AAA/PBP at between 1 and  3%, with the margin of error 3%. However they pour endless resources into electoral work because this unlocks substantial state funds and builds their own organisations.

To be fair to both groups, neither one argues that a mass workers party would come from recruitment to their own organisation. Both agree that a new mass left party, a left government, represent the way forward for the working class.

It's here that the SP face the most acute difficulty. Their proposals envisage a new and improved labour party based on the trade unions. This notion is contradicted from the right and the left. The right, represented by SIPTU and the major unions, want to rehabilitate the existing labour party, disgraced by their repressive role in the last coalition government, and continue decades of collaboration with the bosses. On the other hand the left unions who directed the water charge protests want a populist left party whose core would be Sinn Fein.

The Socialist Party faces down two roads and both lead to destruction. Any turn to old labour is impossible, yet their description of Sinn Fein as a sectarian party leaves them utterly isolated in the left milieu.

This would appear to leave the Socialist Workers Network in a strong position. They have advocated broad left formations for decades, including groups such as the Green Party and Labour who went on to membership of austerity governments. When the left unions tried to set up a populist human rights electoral coalition around Sinn Fein PbP indicated support, even though they did not follow through.

The problem is that the Socialist Party are correct when they say that Sinn Fein is a capitalist party and Paul Murphy is wrong to suggest that working class support in Dublin or hostility from other capitalist parties in any way modifies he nature of the group. What defines the nature of a party is it's programme and Sinn Fein is capitalist. In fact, it's role in administration in the Northern state makes it a pro - imperialist party.

If you accept this then any form of electoral alliance is impossible for socialists. Endorsing a “left government” with Sinn Fein would simply be providing left cover for capitalism and a flat betrayal of the working class.

For the sake of completion we should include the populist “People's Parties” advocated by the Communist Party. Typically they propose different groups both sides of the border. These proposals have lukewarm support from some trade unionists but appear to go nowhere.

So this appears to rule out any advance for workers. Yet such an advance is possible. The Irish bosses claim economic recovery but austerity continues - the repression of the workers is what drives recovery. The two major areas of conflict are wage rates and exploding property prices. Both have seen major mobilisations, with the recent past seeing a major strike by nurses and national demonstrations around housing. The nurses strike involved a straight sell-out by the bureaucracy, linked in partnership with the government. On the housing issue the unions are simply marking time to allow background lobbying of government. The left groups never confront union leaders and their attention is focused on upcoming elections.

Marxist theory allows us to analyse the current alignments as examples of the popular front. The argument here is the goal of maximum unity forces militants to avoid challenges to the right. United front theory argues the opposite - we should march together but strike separately - join in and build common action while always advancing a working class programme and putting extra demands for more effective action on the right wing of the movement.

Many sniggered at the use of Marxist theory in the Socialist Party's internal debate. It's true that it was somewhat turgid in places and self-serving in others. But it structures the debate around ideas that are themselves the fruit of many decades of struggle by the working class. The alternatives are private conspiracies or endless hopping from campaign to campaign, with nothing learned. Used properly these theories are a powerful tool for analysis of movements and construction of revolutionary strategy.

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