There is a legitimate debate taking place within what might loosely be called ‘the Irish left’ at the moment. It takes place within campaigns, within trade unions, in communities, online, in homes, and anywhere that concerned citizens meet.
The need for this debate is evident to all who take part in it. There is no argument or disagreement that the housing emergency is a policy-created disaster enabling profiteering and greed to feast upon human misery and suffering. There is no argument that, while headline job figures are spun positively, the precarious nature of work and the race to the bottom in terms of pay and conditions have created real and potentially lifelong ‘in work poverty’, and the current labour market is often debilitating to workers and their expectations of a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. There is no argument that public services like health and education have not recovered from the years of austerity. There is massive personal debt. Deprivation, particularly among children, is among the highest in Europe. We tax middle and lower income earners, we have average consumption taxes, but we are a tax haven for the richest and the greediest. We have a broken media completely controlled by the neoliberal ideology and refusing to engage in an honest debate on these issues. And yes, like much else, that ideology and its followers will still try to privatise our human right to water, our recent victory being just a temporary success that must be built on if we are not to lose in the end.
To those on the ‘left’ taking part in this debate these issues seem self-evident. So how do we address them? How do we move forward? That is the debate.
Well, first let us acknowledge that we are not starting from a good place. The issues listed above are issues derived from economic choices made by elected governments. And in Ireland we have only ever elected conservative governments. In our entire history since independence, every government that has been elected has been led by one of our two ‘Green Tory’ parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Elect right wing governments and you’ll get right wing policies. That’s the way it is.
And yet no party has built an alternative. No social movement, no community campaign and no trade union has succeeded in building an alternative. Historically, it was the role of the Labour Party to do so, the party that Connolly envisaged doing so anyway. But that responsibility was repeatedly given up by Labour every time the short-term option of entering a government was presented. This happened so repeatedly that the party created to deliver an alternative has only ever acted to prop up the status quo. Labour, over decades, went from being the potential solution to the problem of right wing hegemony to being a part of the problem itself. And it did so through its own choices and behaviours, all of which were dictated by short termism and a lack of vision and ambition (at least for our people, personal ambition is a quite a different matter). And, of course, it did so most spectacularly in the disgraceful far right government of 2011-2016 that battered ordinary citizens the length and breadth of the land in order to bail out busted and corrupt banks, property developers, unsecured bondholders, oligarchs and, in terms of banking debt alone, the EU itself.
While that happened, citizens within their communities, five trade unions and the members of some others, and a loose coalition of political independents and parties worked together for once to mount a fight back. And it worked. Not one but two governments got a kicking on a key component of their economic/privatisation agenda – water. There was a mass campaign of civil disobedience, people refused to co-operate to provide their data to a state agency, people blocked the installation of water meters and even removed them, and a massive non-payment campaign was supported by many of us as we refused to pay an unjust second tax on our water. Then there were hundreds of demonstrations in every city, town and even villages. Hundreds of thousands protested. Local campaigns were formed to debate not just water, but housing policy, health policy, tax policy, the nature of our democracy, the behaviour of our media and the very way in which our society is structured – and in whose interests it is so structured.
Is all of that the seed of a new emerging alternative to break away from our servitude to our two conservative parties, or is it just a massive once-off campaign that worked? That is, in essence, what the debate is now about. There is no ‘right’ answer. It’s all uncertain and subjective. This debate has no science or signpost to assured success that either side can rely on.
One side of the debate is constructed and acting around an analysis that an alliance of the best of what we currently have politically can be formed and maintained, and that such an alliance can pull the forces of conservative Ireland back towards the centre in policy direction. This analysis implies that the best that we can do is to ameliorate the worst excesses of the behaviour of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael in Government. It is precisely the argument – and it is put by some of the same people too – that was used to justify the decision of Labour to enter that disastrous Government in 2011. In fact, it is the argument used to justify entry to every disastrous coalition government it ever entered. And it is an argument that assumes, as Gerry Adams said in the Irish Times in January 2017, that there is no real left in Ireland anyway. Viewed like that, coalition with the right probably is the best that can be achieved.
And, you know what? It might be true. Maybe that is the best that we can do.
There are those however who hope, without any certainty of success, for so much more. There are those who think the past near one hundred years of conservative control and rule was possibly an inevitable legacy of centuries of imperial abuse of a people greatly divided, and savagely conquered. There are those who think it has taken time for the dead hand of the catholic church aiding and abetting the gombeen class to rule us, and to abuse, us to fade away. There are those of us who accept it has taken time for self-belief to emerge among our people, a belief emerging from behind the cloak and the crozier.
The water charges movement encapsulated an enabled citizenry growing in that necessary self-belief. What do we do now? Go backwards or forwards?
There are those who think the two conservative parties are now suffering an historic decline, and those who fear that in that context those who are prepared to coalesce with them run the risk of giving them new life, instead of killing them off. There are those who worry that mistakes haven’t been learned from, and that those who do not understand our history are doomed to repeat it. There are those who believe that, for the sake of our younger generation if not for us, we must do better and build a real alternative. There are no guarantees of course, and the ‘debate’ is often unnecessarily personalised and abusive, thus masking the fundamental choice in political direction that is really at issue.
But to me, I think we need to consider it in this way. It would seem to me that almost a century learning how the political and trade union representatives of an oppressed people working in coalition with the forces of the Irish conservative right should have been enough to demonstrate that it just doesn’t work. Except of course for the Irish conservative right, for whom it works brilliantly.
If that century of learning is long enough, then surely some generation has the obligation of building a real alternative. Surely it must begin somewhere. Even if it is hard, even if it takes a lot of time, even if it sometimes seems the biggest opponents aren’t ‘the right’ at all but ourselves, as a fellow trade unionist from Mandate put it at a meeting in Dundalk some time ago – ‘If not us who, and if not now, when?’
UNITE FOR A REAL ALTERNATIVE