The conference of 270 activists entitled "Another Ireland is Possible" in Dublin's Mansion House on 4th of November was marked by a plethora of speakers and topics ranging across the globe.
However it quickly became clear that the conference, organised by the leadership of the Right2Water unions, did not have as its purpose a discussion on future strategy but rather to present the outcome of a strategy already agreed amongst themselves.
The strategy quickly became crystal clear. The task was to construct a political vehicle for the left unions within the narrow confines caused by the failure of their own past policies and actions. A clue was given by the title. “Another World is Possible”, “Another Europe is Possible” are slogans put forward by the left to avoid the task of fighting for socialism on unfavourable terrain. It is a mechanism that has failed time and time again as the groups move steadily to the right.
The central task was set in the afternoon session by Mandate chair John Douglas, who chastised the audience for cheering the collapse of the corrupt Labour Party. In his view the absence of a viable Labour Party was the main problem, unconnected to its implementation of austerity. The problem was amplified by the fragmentation of the left which made it impossible to endorse a single party.
Strategy of acceptance
This statement needs unpacked. The trade union leadership have been inside social partnership for many decades. They have largely abandoned industrial action except for rare shows of strength which lead straight back to the Workplace Relations Commission and another dirty deal.
The overall strategy of the unions has been to accept the crippling banking debt, accept and implement the crushing austerity, accept privatisation, and lobby for concessions within the narrow limits allowed by the European Central Bank and the Troika. Before their collapse, the target of campaigns was the Fianna Fail party, but when that party was decimated they collaborated with the even more right wing Fine Gael, using government coalition partners in the Irish Labour Party as cover.
Not surprisingly, anger at the union leaders and the Labour party grew, leading major figures in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to avoid demonstrations and to the Labour Party, in its turn, to suicide at the polls.
The left union leaders faced two problems: building the reputation of the unions and constructing a political vehicle through which they could lobby government. The solution to the former was their endorsement of the "Right2Water" mass mobilisations. The attempt at the latter was demobilising "Right2Water" in order to form "Right2Change" in advance of the 2016 elections.
The Right2Water campaign drew on popular outrage at the endless charges, taxes, wage and pension cuts associated with the austerity. A water charge in a country where it rained endlessly was seen as a step too far.
The government has withdrawn water charges and offered refunds, but because the campaign never went beyond the issue of charging, or the method of lobbying the Dail, the Irish Water company and the pricing and privatisation processes remain in place.
The Right2Change campaign was a disaster. It was an attempt to build a new political movement with Sinn Fein cast as the new Labour Party and with the reformist parliamentary left groups providing cover. The programme advanced was sheer tripe, essentially arguing that if every need was cast as a human right and written in as an article of the constitution then the capitalist class would be bound to respond.
None of the groups involved had any real political agreement and those that linked to Right2Change did so only on the basis that it might attract extra votes. The populist programme attracted little full-hearted support outside of the Communist Party.
The mobilization around Right2Water has been thrown back and the elements of the campaign have fragmented.
There were three elements to the response at the November conference:
The first was to showcase campaigns currently endorsed by the left unions, with the centrepiece given to community groups supported by them.
The second, central, role was given to researcher and author Conor McCabe, who was tasked with providing a political philosophy and goal for a new movement.
The third element was a smorgasbord of international movements, offering a vision of different forms of populism.
The overall problem, summed up the community campaigns endorsed by the unions, is that their aim is not the independent organization of workers but simply a local extension of the lobbying strategy that the unions already employ.
The international presentations raise more questions than they answer. All shared with Right2Change the firm declaration that the way forward was through a reformed and improved capitalism. The U.S. speaker, Winnie Wong, was right to claim that Bernie Sanders had helped to popularise the idea of socialism, but wrong to ignore his role in herding youth towards Clinton. The British speaker for momentum Professor Cecile Wright, ignored its undemocratic structures, acceptance of a witchunt against vice-chair Jackie Walker and its failure to oppose the right wing of the Labour Party.
Most questionable was the speaker, Emma Avilés Thurlow, for the Spanish 15 M movement. At times she sounded like Donald Trump, decrying not only socialism but even reason and logic. Organization was best achieved through feeling and emotion - by raw populism. She claimed no direct connection with Podemos and the meeting was too polite to question her about the crisis in Catalonia or the utterly reactionary role of Podemos there.
An Irish Commonwealth?
However the centrepiece of the conference was the presentation by Dr Conor McCabe. It set out a model of exploitation in Ireland and a model of a new movement of opposition.
The presentation had many weaknesses. It correctly identified the role of finance capital in exploitation and the role of the Irish government in collaboration. He also pointed out that the payment of the banking debt would continue to bind the Irish economy until 2054. However the system is not identified as imperialism and that enabled the speaker to argue that we could "push back" against the housing crisis by persuading the government to build social housing. However this is not possible if we remain inside the "fiscal space" allowed by the Troika.
The failure to fully describe imperialist and capitalist exploitation enables a movement to be proposed which is not socialist and not revolutionary. The model proposed was of an "Irish Commonwealth" (apparently a 26 county commonwealth - despite the collapse of northern settlement, partition was not on the conference agenda).
The commonwealth was to be based on a political triangle of political parties, community groups and trade unions. This sounds suspiciously like what currently exists, where trade unions cooperate with selected community groups to lobby the capitalist parties.
This not a recipe for class struggle or for an independent movement of the working class.
The dogs that didn’t bark
It could be argued that any current organized by the trade union left can be a support for the working class, but this is true only to the extent that that the unions act in the interests of workers rather than those of the union bureaucracy. The limits of that intersection are shown by what is not covered by the conference.
Unsurprisingly, silence surrounded the whole issue of Lansdowne Road ll, agreed by the unions, even though this makes permanent speed-ups, pension cuts and a two-tier pay system. The deal essentially anchors the low wage, privatised economy on which claims of recovery are based.
A similar silence surrounds transport. Dublin bus, Bus Eireann, Ionrod Eireann, all ended in the Labour Court or Workplace Relations Commission with minimal settlements and imposed "modernisation" that marks out a path to mass privatisation of transport.
But it is around the issue of housing that the limitations of the left bureaucracy are most evident.
In December 2016 Brendan Ogle and the union leaders, under the banner "Home Sweet Home" occupied Apollo house in Dublin and moved homeless people in. The argument was that the property, held by the "bad bank" NAMA, had been paid for with public money and should be available for the homeless.
The campaign became caught in a scissors. The judicial system demanded an immediate vacation of the property with the possibility of imprisonment if there were any resistance. On the other hand, the occupation was greeted with wild enthusiasm by workers and calls for further occupations.
The leaders negotiated a settlement that found places for the individuals who had joined the squat and closed the occupation, promising to build a national campaign. After six months silence the funds collected were transferred to housing charities and plans to lead a national campaign abandoned.
Caution about the explosive nature of the housing issue remains. A week before the "Another Ireland is Possible" conference a new housing action campaign was founded. Given that the founding groups included the Communist Party, the Workers Party and Eirigi also attended the conference on the 4th, the assumption is that a firewall is being put in place to protect the unions.
The context of the "Another Ireland is Possible" conference is the aftermath of the water charges struggle. The left unions tried to build a political vehicle to represent their interests in the Dail and to reassure their members that the union leaders were not totally encapsulated in social partnership.
Almost all sections of the Right2Water campaign were looking after their sectional interests. No-one was concerned about the failure to seriously tackle the privatisation agenda. They were content with ad-hoc structures that prevented a democratic national campaign from developing.
Now Right2Water has disbanded and the various forces have fragmented. Sinn Fein is aimed at coalition in the next capitalist government. The left unions, their project having failed, are now constructing a narrower alliance. The socialist groups have reverted to frantic recruitment to their own organisations. The Socialist Party, usually the most reliable allies of the union bureaucracy, held a separate conference across town from the "Another Ireland is possible" conference. The Socialist Workers Party attended to promote their Marxism recruitment event. Both groups no longer pretend that their alliance in the Dail is anything more than a marriage of convenience.
The water battle has been disbanded, mainly due to the populism of the forces involved. However it did hobble Irish capitalism. Irish Water remains on the books as a government company. It’s expenditure is contained within the "fiscal space" left after debt repayment and thus limits the capitalist room for manoeuvre as it attempts to patch up decaying public services and offer sweeteners in strike situations.
The situation remains explosive. The downward pressure on pay continues, with settlements remaining below inflation. Not only has the housing crisis not been solved, it has not even been tackled. The government remains committed to protecting landlords and the vulture capitalists who now own large sectors of the Irish property market.
Despite the claims of recovery the Irish working class remain embedded in permanent austerity. This will eventually lead to explosion. The structures established in the wake of the water charges campaign are insufficient to meet the coming challenge. Only a revolutionary party of the working class can prepare for the day when the workers call quits on imperialism and native capital.