Thursday October 25 2012

ULA Ireland: Sectarian self-annihilation

The United Left Alliance has gone into destruct mode. Anne Mc Shane reports

Happier Days: the four remaining ULA TDs with SP councillor Ruth Coppinger

With a draconian December budget looming, the Irish government is gearing up for yet another onslaught on our class. The necessity for strong working class leadership is critical in the struggles to come. There could not be a worse time for the United Left Alliance to go into meltdown. But it has.

You may not be surprised. The project was built on very shaky foundations, being yet another ‘halfway house’ of professed revolutionaries, including the two largest left groups, and a minority of reformists. The aim of the organisation from the outset was precisely to accommodate itself to the right. Being no exception to the rule, it has been the revolutionaries of the ULA who have reinvented themselves as tame reformists. Inevitably crisis ensues, as predictably one or another leading member is tempted too far down the road of populism. The Socialist Party’s crisis is close to home in the form of Clare Daly, long-time (now ex-) member of the SP and a ULA member of parliament (TD). The Socialist Workers Party meanwhile has seized the moment to make an even more marked turn to the right with the relaunch of the People before Profit Alliance (PBPA). As resignations multiply and splits develop, there is chaos, confusion and deep demoralisation.

As I have described in previous articles, the ULA programme, drawn up behind the scenes and presented as a fait accompli, was limited to the most minimal of reformist demands. The SWP refused to allow even the word ‘socialism’ to appear in the 2010 election programme or any document since. A number of very important social issues did not get a mention either. Abortion rights, a central question in Irish society, was avoided, no doubt because of concerns that it was a vote-loser. It has only been this year that the ULA has taken a stand, when to her credit Clare Daly and fellow ULA TD Joan Collins presented a bill to legalise limited abortion rights. Ironically the other main signatory of the bill was Mick Wallace, maverick independent TD and former property developer, who has been the apparent cause of Daly’s controversial exit from the SP.

Another problem from the outset was the determination of both main founding organisations, the SWP and SP, to restrict democracy. Both were deeply hostile to the prospect of organisational fusion, with the SP being the most reluctant. Therefore all decisions were made in private by the unelected national steering committee - after a tug of war between the two groups. It is only since April 2012 - when a group of non-aligned members was formed with the right of representation on the committee - that minutes have been circulated.

Behind the rhetoric of unity, the only thing which really brought the SWP and SP together was the prospect of advancing their own separate projects amongst the mass of discontented workers. They wanted to take advantage of the social discontent and found it convenient to picture local groupings such as the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) as the reformist wing of the ULA. But the WUAG has now resigned from the ULA, along with its TD, Seamus Healy, and a number of councillors. Reasons given were comrade Daly’s cooperation with Mick Wallace and the narrow factional activity of the SWP. Its press statement argued that “the SWP has prioritised recruitment to the SWP over building the ULA ... Our efforts to persuade our allies to desist from this approach have been unsuccessful.” The press release goes on to say that is “regrettable that our allies have refused to prioritise the building of the ULA at a time when working people are being subjected to unprecedented attacks and the betrayal of workers’ interests by the Labour Party is being ever more clearly exposed.”1

By February of this year, the SWP seemed to have already decided that it was all over for the ULA. In an internal bulletin SWP members were told that a critique explaining the collapse of the ULA would soon be produced and little effort should henceforth be made to sustain its existence. The PBPA was relaunched on October 5, in a bid to “recapture the early dynamism that the United Left Alliance displayed”. One hundred people at the national relaunch were addressed by Richard Boyd-Barrett, who has recently stopped describing himself as a ULA TD. We are told that, while the PBPA is still part of the ULA, it “offers a very different model of how to organise in the present situation”. Rather than “start with the purity of its programme”, it “urges activists to focus on campaigning that can draw in new forces to the left”.2

The implication that the ULA has a ‘pure’ or dogmatic approach to programme is staggering. The SWP and the SP themselves made sure that it was a case of exactly the opposite. It is an indication of the depth of the SWP’s own opportunism that it cannot even be saddled with the most minimal of reformist demands.

Democracy

A lot has been lost along the way. The launch meetings of the ULA in January 2010 attracted new forces, eager for the opportunity to build a political alternative. The subsequent election of five TDs stimulated confidence among layers of the workers - and the hope of a strong working class party. But that proved illusory. Both founding groups concurred that there could not be revolutionary unity in Ireland today - they could not countenance the prospect of being in the same party as their fellow socialists. They could conditionally come together around a minimalist, social democratic programme, but revolutionary ideas had no practical application for leftwing unity. Those who insisted otherwise were dismissed as sectarian crazies.

From the outset there was little or no democracy, despite rhetoric from the top table at those launch meetings. SWP leader Kieran Allen pledged in 2010 that the ULA would be a vibrant, membership-led organisation - we would have no more of the old bureaucratic diktats. In fact the opposite turned out to be true. In Cork the SP and SWP rallied to prevent the setting up of an email discussion list for members. They argued that it would be dominated by leftists, who would engage in endless criticism and polemic. The working class needed only simple solutions which could be provided by occasional leaflets on fighting back against the cuts. Arguments at meetings and email debates would put them off.

Of course, the reverse happened. New members who had initially supported the SP against the left found that the leadership also denied them a voice. Frustration at the lack of openness and the cynical ‘on-off’ attitude to the ULA caused them to leave in droves. Today branch organisation in Cork is largely defunct.

The ULA conference in April was a frustrating, stage-managed affair. Debate was allowed, but there were no motions or voting. The membership had no actual role in deciding the direction of the organisation or holding either the leadership or its TDs to account. Policy groups set up as a concession to the membership showed little sign of functioning subsequently. The conference promised for this November has been postponed until January at the earliest - rumours are that it will never happen.

There had been rumblings for some time about splits at the heart of the organisation. The Phoenix magazine reported “warfare” and “fratricide” on the steering committee.3 Things reached crisis point this September when one particular savage row spilled into in the pages of the bourgeois press. It was the first that many ULA members had heard of the dispute. The SP went to the media to air its grievances over the problems it was having with Clare Daly.

Resignation

On September 1 the national press led with the news that Clare Daly TD had quit the SP “following a row over her political connection with independent TD Mick Wallace”.4 Although Daly declared that her resignation was due to the low priority being given to the ULA by her own party, the SP insisted that the problem was her connection with Wallace, who had allegedly evaded payment of €1.4million in VAT. The SP said it had insisted that she break her political connection with Wallace and she had refused and resigned. This had led to the “complete breakdown in the political and working relations between her and the Socialist Party nationally, in the Dáil, and between her and the branches of the Socialist Party in the Dublin North constituency”. Worse, her political orientation had moved significantly to the right and she had gravitated towards non-socialist “independent members of the Technical Group in the Dáil”.5

Daly responded that such allegations were absurd and that the only reason she had not called for Wallace’s resignation was because the Socialist Party itself had not done so. It is true that her fellow SP/ULA TD, Joe Higgins, had earlier refused to call for Wallace to resign, despite calls from Seamus Healy and Richard Boyd-Barrett for him to do so. Daly said she personally was entitled to half of the Dáil allowance paid to the SP, now that she was an ex-member. Higgins refused to pay her any money and said “he would be asking the department of finance to only pay the party the amount of allowance it is entitled to and to return the difference to the exchequer”.6 He chose to give it back to the state rather than to a fellow leftwing TD. Bitterness indeed.

SP members on the Cedar Lounge email forum insisted that things had been bad for some time, with Daly refusing to accept their organisation’s discipline. One contributor argued that her “resignation brought an end to a very difficult period where the NC of the Socialist Party bent over backwards to try and facilitate Clare Daly in dealing with the political difficulties she created for herself, the SP (and the ULA ... in the wider context). Her resignation brought these difficulties to an end and the SP has moved on.”7 An SP statement of September 3 insisted that she be vetted before being allowed to stay on as a ULA TD: “Issues or questions over Clare Daly’s status in the ULA can quite easily be resolved if Clare breaks her political alliance and connection with Mick Wallace TD, and the Socialist Party sincerely hopes that that is what she does. Asking Clare to do this isn’t unreasonable: it’s a political necessity.”8 The determination to push her out of the ULA is undeniable, even though the SP responds with mock horror at accusations of a witch-hunt.

The most hypocritical aspect of the Socialist Party stance is its defence of the use of the mainstream press to air its differences. One supporter on the Cedar Lounge debate demanded to know: “How exactly do you suggest that the Socialist Party communicates its views to ULA members in a way which won’t immediately end up in the public domain? Through some sort of psychic link?”9 Such sarcasm belies the depth of the problem. The concept of openness through our own press is alien to the SP. This is an organisation which believes in keeping all debate internal until the time comes for a split - at which time venom and acrimony is divulged to the lackeys of the bourgeois media; to an Irish press notorious for its virulent anti-socialism and attacks on the left.

The idea that the working class, never mind just ULA members, has a right to be kept informed of and be involved in such important political debates does not occur to the SP. The working class should be kept ignorant of all differences - lest it becomes confused. And this even goes for the membership, as was demonstrated by the opposition to the creation of a simple email discussion list. The only thing the membership should know is what picket line or protest meeting to go to.

As things stand, Clare Daly continues to deny any wrong-doing in respect of Mick Wallace. She and Joan Collins, rumoured to be about to split from the PBPA, are believed to be working together. Neither has published any programmatic or theoretical differences and, beyond accusing the SP of not prioritising the ULA, Daly has said little of consequence in public.

Where next?

Unaligned members of the ULA have been in discussions over the future of the project. A meeting will take place on Saturday October 27, which Clare Daly has been invited to address. Elections will also take place at the meeting to agree new representatives on the steering committee. However, with the ULA disintegrating around us, non-aligned members need to thoroughly debate out the political issues, rather than clutch at straws. Resuscitation of the project through the efforts of a couple of dozen individuals is not a serious option. The ULA was important because it brought a significant section of the left together, because it offered the possibility of a party. It is the question of party which must be debated and developed.

The most important lesson we need to learn is the fundamental necessity of democracy. Without openness, transparency and the free exchange of ideas, any socialist project is doomed. You would have hoped that the left had learned the lesson of the Soviet experience, but unfortunately it has not. I have not seen any recognition of this fundamental question in either of the election statements submitted by Alan Gibson and Eddie Conlon, who are both standing as reps to the steering committee. Indeed comrade Conlon proposes that the steering committee continue “decision-making by consensus”, because “one vote at this stage would lead to permanent competitive mobilisation by the founding organisations against each other.”10 It seems to have escaped Eddie’s attention that this is precisely what has happened anyway under the undemocratic system he proposes to continue. Bureaucratic methods do not stymie dictators: they assist them. As one email contributor remarked, “decision consensus = veto”.

And, while comrade Gibson quite rightly argues for a revolutionary programme, he too misses the point. He makes no argument for democracy, working class or otherwise. The larger questions of how we transform society are inextricably linked to our methods for doing so. Contrary to what he argues, we should not be out to “salvage” the ULA - we need to transcend it. As a first step we need our own press (printed and electronic) and an open online discussion list.

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Notes

1. www.politics.ie/forum/united-left-alliance/197403-wuag-healy-withdraw-ula.html.

2. www.swp.ie/content/people-profit-conference-important-step-forward.

3. The Phoenix February 10 2012.

4. www.rte.ie/news/2012/0901/clare-daly-socialist-party.html.

5. www.independent.ie/national-news/td-clare-daly-lashes-out-at-party-criticism-on-resignation-3216989.html.

6. www.rte.ie/news/2012/0902/row-over-daly-resignation-continues.html.

7. http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/socialist-party-statement-on-clare-dalys-involvement-in-the-ula-monday-september-3rd.

8. www.socialistparty.net/component/content/article/3-newsflash/1034-statement-from-the-socialist-party-on-clare-dalys-involvement-in-the-ula.

9. http://cedarlounge.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/socialist-party-statement-on-clare-dalys-involvement-in-the-ula-monday-september-3rd.

10. http://revolutionaryprogramme.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/eddie-conlans-election-statement-for-non-aligned-rep.

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