Another Ireland is Possible – but socialism is ruled out


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.

Political disaster

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.

New campaign

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.

Many problems

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.

Future explosions?

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.


The Workers' Struggle at Iarnrod Eireann

This article is from Social Democracy, Nov 6, 2017.  It discusses the role played by SIPTU in the Iarnrod Eireann dispute in particular but generally describes Irish Trade Unions as bureaucratic structures that demobilises grassroots self empowerment.

"To retain their control the bureaucracy carefully maintain a division between different groups of workers by staggering and delaying ballots, and will only ever expand their area of operations, and then only temporarily, when they are threatened from below as they were with water charges, a campaign they notoriously washed their hands off initially and then demobilised through their R2W intervention."

James Larkin, O'Connell St, Dublin.  Original photo by Oisín Kelly

James Larkin, O'Connell St, Dublin.  Original photo by Oisín Kelly

The Workers' Struggle at Iarnrod Eireann
Another attack on the working class!

6 November 2017

Workers at Iarnrod Eireann have held the first in their planned series of strikes on Nov 1st   with more to follow on the 7th, 14th, 23rd, and December 8th. Their request is modest, a raise of 3.75% over three years in line with other transport workers. But after 10 years without a pay rise and with record numbers of passengers using the railways the company is now seeking to impose changes in line with those demanded from Bus Eireann workers; closure of some rail lines; outsourcing of work; forced re-location; freezing increments; adjustments to pensions and performance management. This comes on top of a reduction in staffing levels of 20% with the resulting increased workload shifted on to the remaining staff.  The company offer of 1.5% and the conditions attached to it represents an assault on real pay levels and working conditions which contains eighteen different changes to the workers' contracts. It is this and the the arrogant dismissal of the drivers claims that has caused outrage among the workers and prompted the strike action.


This attack on the rail workers is more than just a sectional dispute it is part of a general coordinated attack on the working class that has gone on since the banking collapse. In this particular instance it comes as the culmination of talks that have run on for four years with the leadership of the unions missing opportunity after opportunity to strike when other workers were going out. All of which begs the question; why did Siptu and the rest of the bureaucracy not think of launching this campaign when Iarnrod Eireann workers were willing to support the Bus Eireann workers strikes against cuts and privatisation in the spring of this year or during the many strikes by Dublin Bus against cuts and the privatisation of routes going back to 2013?

Being aware of the union leaderships' refusal to co-ordinate resistance, and their avoidance of opportunities to broaden the fight against austerity, the Iarnrod Eireann management “Torpedoed” the talks at the last moment leaving the negotiators nothing to show after a concentrated five weeks of talks. The joint statement by the unions involved referred to the management's attitude as “contemptuous”.  They are undoubtedly correct!

The State employers hold the union leadership in contempt because after a decade of
compliance with acute cutbacks they know that they will agree to anything that provides them with a fig leaf irrespective of the cost to the broader layers of rank and file union members. It is this knowledge that gives them the confidence to be so “contemptuous” as to embark upon a €20'000 fishing trip while demanding that workers surrender their modest pay claim and their working conditions.

Absurd request

Following the arrogant dismissal of the pay claim by Iarnrod Eireann management Paul Cullen of Siptu has described the National Transport Authority as the “elephant in the room”. His comments were an appeal for them and the minister for Transport Tourism and Sport to intervene, but these bodies are the facilitators of cutbacks and privatisation, not disinterested arbiters and after the outcomes of the Bus Eireann dispute and the Dublin Bus route privatisations Siptu know that. The call on Shane Ross to “intervene” is an absurd request for the State to intervene to stop the management implementing changes that are in line with government policy.

This isn't going to happen. If Ross did intervene it would have only one purpose, that of bolstering the will of the management if it quails or to stave off a decisive workers victory by offering a few crumbs and diverting it in to further arbitration. The bureaucracy's great hope however is that such an intervention, for instance the release of funds overdue for routine maintenance, no matter how disappointing for the workers, may save a protracted struggle and put the issue quickly to bed.

A struggle within a struggle

Industrial struggle is fraught with difficulties for the union professionals. For the full timers a prolonged or acute struggle presents the danger that the workers will become confident in their own organisational abilities and develop positions that are beyond the bureaucrats' control. On the other hand they fret that their credibility with the workers will suffer when their prolonged negotiating and lobbying strategy fails so obviously that the bosses disdainfully dispense with their services and will not condescend to meet with them. This is what happened with the Iarnrod Eireann management which preferred to torpedo the talks in the certain knowledge that it will not be long until the union leaders find a way back to negotiations that contain no meaningful new concessions.

As the bureaucracy mediates between the management and an angry workforce they must allow the workers to show that anger through industrial action, just enough to re-convince a disdainful management that they need their services again but not enough that the workers action promotes a growing self-confidence and leads them to think that they can manage their own affairs without a caste of full time and ineffective bureaucrats.

The union bureaucracy's privileges are based on the hundreds of thousands of sub paying rank and file trade union members over which they have a highly secure control but during periods of heightened class struggle when they are caught between the workers and the bosses their control becomes unstable. However, in the complete equation it is only the rank and file workers that are not consciously organised as an independent force for themselves.

The Usual Pattern?

If the past is anything to go by this strike campaign will be faced immediately with a leadership desperate to re-enter talks and to quickly demobilise it, any recent campaign outlasting two or possibly three days of action counts as prolonged. The media, and the usual cacophonous gaggle of right wing politicos will intensify their campaign of vilification and complain furiously that the workers are in some way anti-social for preventing fans attending football matches or are cynically inconveniencing the public for entirely selfish reasons.

Following the usual methodology the LRC is likely to be brought in and the strike demobilised to facilitate talks. The most minuscule of alterations may be made using this route but the main issue of a pay rise of 3.75% will not be realised at all or possibly only partially but with a prodigious expansion of the score of caveats already attached to the 1.5% offer. The bureaucracy can probably expect to be granted cover for their cancellation of industrial action by vague promises for the establishment of a  joint committee which will be set up to look at all the contentious issues.

Break the pattern!

If events follow the usual pattern the union leadership will then once again face their members to denounce the minister, the management and the government and angrily regurgitate the old story that the deal they have negotiated is all that is practically achievable at present! Another couple of meetings will be set up to hammer out the details of the agreement they have just made, but are very unhappy with, and workers will be flattered by pats on the back and congratulations on their militancy as they return to normal service with  hollow promises that negotiations and consultation can halt the progress of the cuts. Anyone that has been a trade union member over the last decade, and longer, is familiar with this charade.

Sooner or later however, this pattern will break and for socialists consciously hastening the day of its demise is an imperative. For the working class the bureaucracy are not part of the solution, they are part of the problem but the well-worn path to surrender that they have trod for decades is becoming increasingly jagged. As the State ruthlessly reduces funding for services and pushes onwards to a low wage economy the bureaucracy have to struggle harder to control their increasingly angry members’ expectations. As a result the frequency with which disputes arise has increased. The last decade has seen repeated attacks on public sector workers in transport and each time opposition  has been demobilised with very little to show leaving the employers agenda intact. Pressure is building however and this time the Iarnrod Eireann workers have been described as 'enraged'. But that rage is not independently organised and notwithstanding spontaneous outbreaks, control, as things stand is conceded to the bureaucrats.

Socialist struggle

It doesn't have to be this way, but it will require a struggle. It is inevitable that the workers will try to fight back but it is not the role of socialists to act as passive observers. Socialists who describe themselves as revolutionaries should not be remaining silent, protecting their organisational base within the bureaucracy, and passively waiting for a revolt to arise spontaneously. They should be campaigning vociferously, making a conscious political intervention, condemning the antics of the bureaucrats and agitating openly and honestly for a self-organised rank and file response to sell out after sell out.

Calls, emanating from the centrist left, have been made on the bureaucracy for a “bold industrial strategy” and to “link” the issues at Iarnrod Eireann to “similar problems in Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus” but the bureaucrats they are calling on to “link'' the issues have been consciously and successfully keeping those issues separate. Not only are these “calls” totally ineffectual they serve only to reinforce illusions in the bureaucracy. We know this because it has already happened in the BusEireann strike in the spring. Balloting rules were used by union leaders as a delaying tactic preventing the possibility of action until it was too late. Then, once Bus Eireann workers were demobilised, the support strikes that had been balloted for, all on issues of serious concern in their own right, were cancelled also.

Spread the strike, it can be won!

As the strike campaign commences the Iarnrod Eireann workers cannot afford to leave it to the bureaucracy to achieve victory. In this they have indeed a task ahead of them but the anger and determination is there. It begins with confronting the contemptuous management of Iarnrod Eireann and their State backers and it continues with a fight to spread their industrial action in the face of the bureaucracy's opposition to class struggle methods. In effect they must stop the wheels turning and spread the strike to other threatened services, at first in transport. The events of last spring, however momentary, point the way forward; flying pickets and sympathy strikes are the most effective weapons in the workers arsenal.

This attack on the rail workers is merely the most acute point of an attack on the working class in general that is now almost a decade old. It involves the plundering of health, welfare, education, pensions, the ongoing attempts to privatise water and most importantly the point blank refusal to provide housing for working class people.

Resistance to this attack must be organised not just within the broadest swathe of austerity struck workplaces but also in the affected communities. It is the workers themselves through solidarity on the ground who must link these issues by immediate practical measures, not the bureaucracy. To retain their control the bureaucracy carefully maintain a division between different groups of workers by staggering and delaying ballots, and will only ever expand their area of operations, and then only temporarily, when they are threatened from below as they were with water charges, a campaign they notoriously washed their hands off initially and then demobilised through their R2W intervention.

Strike after strike shows that resistance to austerity has masses of trade union organised workers at its core but its potential is hampered by a compromising and bureaucratic leadership. To carry the fight forward that bureaucratic leadership's hand must be forced by a democratic and self-organised movement of rank and file workers.  Such a movement has the potential to both strengthen trade unionism and to take the struggle beyond the confines of 'industrial' issues to oppose the myriad aspects of this crisis ridden system's destruction of working people’s lives and to be the backbone of an anti-capitalist movement. This cannot be achieved without the most acute criticism of the union bureaucracy and their pro capitalist strategy which means calling for workers to self-organise against austerity and therefore against the bureaucracy and to fight back. All socialists must agitate for that outcome.

Victory to the rail workers!
No more bureaucratic sell outs!
Build a trade union rank and file movement!
All workers are under attack - broaden the resistance!