Thursday, July 7, 2011

In Ireland, a necessary discussion of crisis and opportunity

United Left Alliance Convention report

30 June 2011

The United Left Alliance Convention took place last Saturday (25 June) at Liberty Hall in Dublin. It took the form of a number of plenary sessions on broad themes interspersed with workshops on specific issues. The event drew around four hundred people over the course of the day. Below we carry a series of reports from SD members who were in attendance.

The Left Response to the Crisis

The first plenary session was on the left and the crisis. It was addressed by a number of platform speakers. First up was Terence McDonagh, an economics professoer at NUI Galway. He put forward a number of proposals which could form the basis of an alternative economic programme. There were five measures which he described an “Irish big bang”. One, default on the debt. Two, leave the euro. Three, create a public bank. Four, introduce a state backed jobs guarantee. Five, nationalise the Corrib gas field. Terence went on to expand on these. He said that Ireland would have to default because a debt of €200bn cannot be paid. In any case the debt did not belong to the Irish people; it had resulted from bailing out the European banking system. This default could be facilitated by Ireland leaving the euro. Once the state had restored its national currency it could pursue polices to inflate the economy. This would not deter investment as the likely fall in the value of the Irish pound would make the economy more competitive. The creation of a good public bank would force the private banks to face the consequences of their failures. State support for private banks would be withdrawn and they would be forced to close. There would be a deposits guarantee, but those deposits would be nominated in Irish pounds. Any assets would be transferred to the public bank and the liabilities left to the bondholders. Under a state backed jobs guarantee everyone would be offered a job. An expansion of the money supply would facilitate the employment of people and activate unused resources in the economy. The nationalisation of energy assets would enable Ireland to be self sufficient and also to reduce its energy costs. Terence said that overall this was a positive programme based on debt forgiveness, national sovereignty, job creation and energy self sufficiency. While he conceded it was still a long way from socialism, for him it would send out a positive message that the Irish people were taking their fate into their own hands.

The next speaker was Kevin McLaughlin of the Socialist Party. He started by saying that it was important to clarify the economic alternative offered by the ULA. He also said that such a programme could only be implemented by the election a government that represented the working class or through a mass uprising. Kevin then went on to sketch out the nature of the economic crisis, highlighting the credit fuelled boom and bust that had happened in recent years. He said it was not automatic that the capitalism system would recover from this crisis; it could continue to stagnate and decline. He claimed that capitalism was at an impasse. Kevin then took on the myths that were being propagated by the ruling class. The most prominent of these was that Ireland was dependent on foreign investment and that a recovery in the economy would be export led. To counter this Kevin referred to the fact that foreign investment in Ireland has actuality been falling off, and also that the multi-national sector had a minimal impact on the domestic economy, particularly in terms of job creation. Despite foreign investment Irish capitalism remained backward and incapable; it had failed to develop an indigenous manufacturing sector. Kevin said that the ULA had to expose these myths and propose public ownership as an alternative. He said that the ULA should have a programme which has workers control of the economy at its centre, and which should be explicitly socialist. For the Socialist Party the focus of such a programme would be on nationalisation rather than taxation.

The final speaker was Kieran Allen of the SWP. He stated off by saying how the conventional discourse on the economy was formed by business news and the commentary of economists. However, these just served to mystify the workings of the economy. For him economics was not about technicalities but about class and politics. He cited the last budget, whose measures impacted most heavily upon the poorest, as an example of this. Kieran then moved on to the international context, citing the Arab revolt. He said that this was a revolt against neo-liberalism which was spreading into southern Europe. This international revolt was similar to that of 1968, but was happening at a time when capitalism was much weaker. He said that the programme of the ULA had to challenge the logic of capitalism by demanding a cancellation of debt. Kieran also claimed that the Irish capitalist class were engaged in an investment strike in order to sabotage the economy and drive down living standards even further. He said that the level of savings in the Irish economy was an indication of idle capital. For him the ULA had to look to anti-capitalism for its programme; socialism didn’t have to be explicit but could be explained as the vision behind immediate demands. Are the centre of this programme would be public ownership. This was not the same as state control but about self management. Kieran concluded by saying that the ULA had to make demands that key into public sentiment and also pose alternatives.

When the session was opened to the audience questions were raised over the nature of the programme, the implications of a default, ICTU’s Better Fairer Way and the benefits of having a national currency. The three speakers were then given the opportunity to respond. Terence McDonagh said it was not possible to leave the euro without also defaulting. He admitted there would be cost but it would not be a disaster. He said that we should not be opposed to the EU, but to a neo-liberal Europe. He also believed that the demands he presented would move the popular movement forward. Kieran Allen said that as bank and state debt had become mingled the demand now was for debt cancelation rather than burning the bondholders. He said that the ULA had to reduce the fear affect of leaving the euro. He concluded by saying that a programme was not about words but method and that meant linking immediate demands to the overthrow of capitalism. Kevin McLaughlin said that a programme had to point people towards the need for socialist transformation. He said that the ULA shouldn’t be reluctant to use the word socialism. To do so would be an unnecessary concession.

The Politics of Health

The workshop on the health service was addressed by a number of speakers. First up was campaigner and writer Marie O’Connor. She said that we needed a complete reversal of current health policies which favoured private insurers and were a charter for privateers. She criticised the Dutch system, which had been held up as a model by Fine Gael, for being very expensive. For Marie the best way to fund a healthcare system was from general taxation. It terms of immediate demands Marie called for the nationalisation of the so-called “voluntary hospitals” and the re-writing of the consultants’ contract. She said that charges should be imposed for the use of public facilities for private practice and the subsidy of private beds in public hospitals ended. Marie also highlighted the geographic aspect of health inequality caused by the closure of regional hospitals. She said that Ireland could not support the degree of centralisation and specialisation which had taken place. Such trends had been driven more by careerism than medical need. Marie then highlighted growing corporate influence as healthcare was subsumed into the economy. She said that services were being sold as packages, citing the National Cancer Control programme as an example. She also highlighted the fact that private hospitals make their money through overcharging. Marie concluded by calling for the abolition of the HSE and the restoration of regional health structures.

The next speaker was Seamus Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group. He started by saying that the health service should be funded form general taxation and that services should be provided on the basis of need. Like Marie he highlighted the impact of centralisation and privatisation, citing the employment of agency staff and the outsourcing of care assistance services. He maintained that it was possible to provide specialist services locally.

The third speaker was Dr Peadar O’Grady, a child psychiatrist and PBP member. He started by saying that Ireland had a two tier health system. He had strong criticism of the colleges who he accused of behaving like medieval guilds. Peadar also claimed there was a link between the deteriorating state of the health service and the IMF/EU bailout. He said that health policy should be about health not profits; for profiteering actually depends on deteriorating health. He also highlighted the link between cost cutting and privatisation, arguing that public services were being deliberately run down in order to justify privatisation. Peadar said that people were being forced to go private out of fear. Yet the reality was that private health care was neither cheaper nor better. For Peadar poverty and inequality were the major reasons for ill health as well as the way healthcare is organised. He said that the health service should be universal and comprehensive; free at the point of use; funded from general taxation and democratically planned. He also said that the emphasis of the health service should be on prevention. Peadar concluded by urging people to fight against every hospital and care home closure.

This workshop was probably the least contentious and the discussion was largely taken up with the experiences of health professionals and people who are campaigning to save local services. There was however, criticism of the trade unions poor record in defending health services. The three speakers were then given the opportunity to respond. In her conclusion Marie O’Connor highlighted how the 1970 Health Act was being re-written in a way that would result in a severe cutback in entitlements. She said that the return of elected representatives to health boards would be welcome. She also re-emphasised the link between centralisation and privatisation. Seamus Healy highlighted the poor provision of mental health services. He said that the HSE had no accountability and called for it to be abolished. He also criticised the Dutch system, claiming that it only provided the most basic cover. Dr Peadar O’Grady said that promises made by the HSE over the years never materialised, citing the promised expansion of primary care and care in the community. He supported the call to abolish the HSE, but urged people to think what would replace it. He said that the elite in healthcare had to be removed and the reasons for shortage of doctors practicing in Ireland addressed. Paedar concluded by calling for a campaign against cuts in healthcare that would unite staff and communities.

A radical plan for Jobs

The workshop on a plan for jobs was introduced by a speaker from the SP and SWP. The first outlined the severe problems facing the unemployed and especially those suffering from living with a mortgage worth tens of thousands more than the house is worth. Later on an unemployed construction worker said that he had lost his job and saw it re-advertised at one third of the previous wages! He literally couldn’t afford to go for it. The SWP speaker said that what was needed was a concrete alternative but this turned out to be campaigning against unemployment, not an actual ‘plan’.

The Socialist Democracy speaker said it was obvious we didn’t have a jobs plan but that this was not a great problem. We could start from socialist principles to construct one and the first such principle was not to rely on the State to create jobs. The role of the State was currently to attack workers, including through unemployment so that it could lower wages. Later in the debate Dermot Connolly of People before Profit announced that there was a research group working on this policy and invited people to join it.

The ULA: What kind of party do we need?

The second plenary session was on the kind of party we need. It was addressed by a number of platform speakers. First up was independent councillor Declan Bree. He said that all the main parties had signed up the IMF/EU attack on workers and welfare. For him this was a clear indicator of the class character of the state. He said that ICTU was hopelessly lost and it was the time for an alternative. The ULA could be a new force if the left united and moved towards a new party of socialism. He said that the ULA is currently at the initial stage of the creation of a new party. However, it would take time and effort. He recognised that many in the ULA were reluctant to move in this direction. Declan said that the ULA had to develop a profile of its own. He also urged the ULA to adopt an all Ireland approach. In terms of structure he said that people should be allowed to join as members, but that the components should also be allowed to retain their own organisations. He also said that as far as possible decisions should be made on a consensus basis. Declan said that the ULA should be looking to draw support from disillusioned labour supporters. He believed that the current government wouldn’t last long and that there would be another general election within two years. He warned that failure to build a broad left in this period could allow the right to continue to dominate.

The next speaker was Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party. He said there was a critical need for a mass party of the left in order to fill the vacuum created by labour and social democratic parties to the right. According to Joe financial capitalism was diseased and didn’t contain any solution to the crisis it had created. The left had to develop an alternative economic policy based on socialism. There also had to be an orientation towards the working class based on the mobilisation of the unions and communities. The role of the ULA was to offer leadership. It should adopt a principled approach. For Joe this meant never joining a coalition or doing deals with the right. In the next part of his address Joe set out how the ULA should relate to other parties. When it came to Sinn Fein the ULA should be highlighting the inconsistency of opposing cuts in the south while implementing them in the north. Joe said that Labour TDs should not be invited onto platforms. He also criticised the technical group, of which the ULA is a component, for lacking clarity. He urged people to work for the launch of a new workers party. For him the growing activity of workers and youth would provide the best backdrop for the launch of such a party. However, now was not time for this. Instead the ULA should continue to build as an alliance and possibly broaden its steering committee. Joe concluded by saying that we were only at the beginning of the devolvement of an opposition to the current government. There will an increasing audience for the left that most likely would be around opposition to household charges. Joe saw this happening over a period of years rather than months.

The third speaker was Richard Boyd Barrett of PBP. He started by hailing the convention as major success that showed there was a great opportunity to build the left. While he conceded there were debates and differences within the ULA for him this was not a weakness but a reflection of its structure as an alliance. The basis of this alliance was diversity and putting the emphasis on what unites groups rather than their differences. Richard said that the majority of Irish people were opposed to the bailout and austerity. The ULA project was to win over this majority. He conceded that the ULA was not yet big enough to lead any struggles. The task was to build the ULA as fast as possible as a broad movement. What was holding this back was that the people were not convinced that there was an alternative. The left therefore had to answer concrete questions in order to break the fear factor over cancelling the debt or taking banks into public ownership. Richard concluded by saying that there should be no barriers between the party and people. This required the left to reject old jargon and slogans.

The final speaker was Seamus Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group. He said that the task was to build an alternative to Labour, and that this would be done through building the ULA on a national basis. Seamus said that the EU/IMF bailout was a rip off and that Irish taxpayers were being made to pay for the financial crisis. The alternative to this was a debt default; forcing losses on bondholders; and taxing wealth and assets. The ULA was a vehicle to promote an alternative. Seamus said that a movement had to be built both incise and outside the Dail. He believed this would be done through involvement in campaigns against household charges.

The contributions from audience members brought up the issues of independents within the ULA; the obstruction of the trade union leadership; the need to establish local branches of the ULA; and the example of left parties in Europe. In response Seamus said that members had to control the organisation. He reiterated his belief that the ULA would be built through campaigns. Richard said that it was important to develop braches. He said the ideal structure for the ULA would be branch delegates elected to a steering committee. He too said that the ULA would grow through campaigns and opposition to the EU/IMF bailout. He concluded by declaring that socialism was about deeds rather than words. Declan said it was necessary to build the ULA and to create a structure that could accommodate individual members. Joe said that it was critical to reclaim the unions for members. He believed that September would see an intensified period of struggle provoked by another austerity budget. He re-emphasised his belief that the main focus of opposition would be around service charges.

What is Socialism?

In the afternoon an SP and SWP speaker spoke on what was socialism? They both agreed that it was working people taking over the running of society – becoming its ruling class. The Socialist Democracy speaker reinforced this by saying that ownership by the capitalist state was not socialism. The ULA should not therefore call for nationalisation as a solution to the economic crisis as in the case of the banks this was simply the way of making workers owners of the bankers’ debts. Calling for ‘workers control’ did not substantially change this especially when, as usual, the left never said what this workers control was required to do. Another speaker said that ‘expropriation’ was a better word for what socialists wanted to do to capitalist property.

The summing up and replies to the points made showed that despite declarations as to what socialism really is the SP and SWP retain a conception of socialist strategy that crucially confuses building working class power with promoting illusions in, and reliance on, the capitalist state.

The Left in the North

If the workshop on health was the least contentious then the one on the north was probably the most contentious. It was addressed by a number of speakers. First up was Ciaran Mulholland of the Socialist Party. He said that the objective of the left should be to build working class unity in the north around a party that had the support of both Catholics and Protestants. He conceded that there was logic to the ULA organising on an all Ireland basis and cited the example of the trade union movement. He said there was a political vacuum in the north because workers didn’t have a party. However, he was optimistic about the emergence of a new left party. He believed that the cuts being implemented by the Assembly would give rise to class conciseness. He cited NIPSA delegates support for a motion calling for a new party as an example of this. However, when it can to the national question and sectarianism there were differences on the left. Ciaran said that the Socialist Party had a balanced position, and cited the party’s approach to parading, which recognised the rights of both communities, as an example. He said that the existing left was small and in his view coming together would not amount to more that the sum of its parts. He also said that political differences made unity unlikely. He believed there was a danger that a left party would fall into the camp of nationalism. This is why the Socialist Party was opposed to the extension of the ULA to the north.

The next speaker was Eamonn McCann of PBP. He said that the ruling class in Europe were much more united than the opposition. There was therefore a need for the left to unite across national boundaries. In these circumcises how could the north be treated as different. He admitted that sectarian divisions were important and that they set the framework for politics in the north. However it was not enough to hope that sectarianism would just face away; what was required was an active campaign against it. Eamonn conceded that a new left movement could not be built by one group. He then turned his attention the recent loyalist attacks on the Short Strand area. He said that such actions could not be excused by deprivation, and that the community in the Short Strand had a right to defend itself. In such a situation socialists could not take a middle position. Eamonn looked forward to developing struggles in the north providing the basis for constructing a working class party. He hoped that the debate that this would throw up would take place within the structure of the ULA.

The final speaker was Paddy Healy of the Workers and Unemployed Action Group. He started off by reminding the audience that when the Irish Labour party was formed in 1912 it was on an all Ireland basis. For him the acceptance of partition was part of the degeneration of that party. Paddy said that the working class needed to be represented on an all Ireland basis. For him a working class party had to be pro-independence and make no accommodation to unionism or southern capitalism. He said that liberation could only be achieved by the working class as whole. He said it was not necessarily the case that the ULA had to be extended to the north, but that people in the north should not be excluded form becoming members.

The discussion that followed largely revolved around the position socialists should take on sectarianism and loyalist attacks with some heated exchanges between Socialist Party members and others in the audience. In response Ciaron Mulholland said he welcomed the discussion on the left on how unity can be achieved. He warned that this could not be imposed but would emerge organically. Eamonn McAnn said that there were two tendencies competing in the north, one which saw people identify with class and another which saw them identify with community. He said that it was important for the left to intervene in struggles in the north. He also believed would not be confined to the north. He hoped that the differences over the north would not hobble the development of the ULA. Seamus Healy said that Irish unity and independence were not incidental, but were essential to the socialist revolution. He clarified he earlier position, stating unambiguously that his group were in favour of the ULA organising in the north. For him the exclusion of members from the north would be a redline issue.


Overall the ULA convention was positive. It showed that there is the potential for left groups to co-operate and appeal to a wider audience. But there were also signs of its limitations. Some of these relate to policies being put forward which don’t get much beyond liberal politics and Keynesian economics. However, the biggest problem with the ULA is not its polices (which in democratic organisation can be debated and changed) but its structure. As long as it remains a diplomatic alliance between different groups, primarily the Socialist Party and SWP, the potential for the ULA will be limited. These groups see the ULA has a means to build themselves rather than a broader movement. However, the success of the ULA in the general election and growth of the audience for the left is putting pressure on those two groups to move. It was clear from the Convention that there is a sizeable component within the ULA, made up of the smaller groups and individuals, who what to see the creation of a genuine party. This was reflected in the calls for the establishment of ULA braches and the production of a fuller programme. That the SP and SWP are compelled to make gestures towards this show that such calls do carry some weight. So the future of the ULA isn’t certain, but at this point we can at least say there is a dynamic and potential within it could see it develop into a new working class party.

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