Ireland: Shock, Austerity, Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance

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The following is taken from Des Derwin’s considerable analysis: Ireland: Shock, austerity, Sinn Féin and the United Left Alliance which was published recently on Links: International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

Eternal austerity

The Irish left was blessed (used ironically because of the doubled energy and expense needed) with two major issues at the same time, with barely time to draw breath between the household tax registration date and the calling of the referendum on the eurozone Fiscal Stability Treaty. The left unity that has, with occasional feuding, backed the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes was not repeated for the campaign for a “no” vote in the referendum of May 31. There were five referendum campaigns associated with the components of the ULA alone, plus others by other left organisations. The Socialist Party, the SWP, the PBPA — and the ULA itself — all had their own campaigns of one size or another. In Tipperary, WUAG distributed its own lively leaflet on the treaty without mentioning the ULA on it.

In addition the SP, the SWP and the PBPA had long been part of the broad anti-treaty campaign, the Campaign Against the Austerity Treaty (CAAT), which includes Sinn Féin and others. The joint left campaign (CAAT) was left to a few independents this time, while the left groups ran too many public meetings for anyone to attend. The result was some potentially large meetings, such as those organised for a group of visiting “no” MEPs, and for a Greek MP from Syriza, were poorly attended. You can get an impression of some of the array of leaflets here.

So severe is the “Austerity Treaty” that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) was unable to support one side or the other despite the personal “yes” position of its general secretary. The biggest member union, SIPTU, whose leadership is close to the Labour Party leadership, decided it would recommend the treaty if the government commits to an off balance sheet stimulus plan to create “tens of thousands of jobs“. Of course in theory the proviso could have been acted upon by the government, but wasn’t, right up until the polling stations opened. Hence SIPTU could dodge even advising a “no” vote. On the other hand four major unions strongly opposed the treaty and one, MANDATE, on the other side of Dublin’s Parnell Square from the ICTU, covered its entire building with an enormous anti-treaty banner.


As well as the strengths of Sinn Féin in relation to the ULA, going into the referendum Sinn Féin’s leading place in the “no” side raised it further as the main perceived alternative to austerity and to the establishment. This was partly a fair consequence of being the largest party opposed to the treaty and partly a less fair attention from the mainstream media. It suited elements of the “yes” side, in endeavouring to shape the discourse, to identify the “no” side with what they thought might be seen as discredited players, and also, for some, to avoid a complete identification of opposition to the treaty with the socialist left. This would not have suited the Labour Party or the “yes”-leaning trade union leaders. The strange neoliberal, eurosceptic millionaire Declan Ganley had no sooner entered the fray against the treaty than he was invited onto RTE radio with many more radio panels to grace before May 31.

But Sinn Fein had the resources to make a splash and the military discipline to push the same repeated message. They also had good performers in Marylou McDonald, Pearse Doherty and Eoin Ó Broin.

Not only could the ULA not match this machine, it was lining up beside a factory with a scattering of small workshops. Only the Socialist Party’s campaign based on Paul Murphy’s resources as an MEP made a comparable impact in Dublin and in the poster battle — and it was a Socialist Party campaign. Murphy was also, according to Irish Times journalist Deaglan de Bréadún (June 2) “probably the most articulate advocate on the No side”.

While Sinn Féin sang from the same “we can borrow without the treaty” and “jobs and growth” hymn sheet, the left offered varying and radical arguments around repudiating the debt and taxing the rich that were harder to concretise and more susceptible to journalists’ interrogation – reserved for the left only – of “where will the money come from?”

Nevertheless, the ULA will have had its boat lifted by the referendum campaign. The media impact was maintained and extended with valuable polemics and research from the SWP’s Kieran Allen and radio and TV appearances from TDs Joe Higgins (SP), Richard Boyd Barrett (PBPA and SWP) and Joan Collins (PBPA). Clare Daly TD (SP) was particularly strong in debate and she came with the kudos from heading up the “X case” bill with Joan Collins. Both the SWP and SP produced well-researched pamphlets from Kieran Allen and Paul Murphy, respectively. All elements of the ULA put in an exhausting effort on the streets and in the housing estates, and not only for their own groups’ campaigns, and contributed to the “no” vote attained and its concentration in the manual working class. The ULA had its own campaign too of course, good in the circumstances, though it had to compete for time with the groups’ own efforts. Non-aligned ULA members were at the cornerstone of the broad “no” campaign (CAAAT) to which all the left groups and Sinn Féin were nominally affiliated but which they effectively abandoned.

And the left groups outside the ULA also had their own campaigns too (with the exception of the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement, which considered the referendum a pointless exercise and a diversion from the household tax campaign.

There is some advantage in a rich diversity asking for the same “no” vote but it does dissipate the movement. The “yes” side had its own plethora of pleas but from a smaller range and it managed to present the impression of a united front. The first name in a full-page newspaper advertisement from business leaders, academics and other worthies was Billy Attley, the former leader of SIPTU. And the “yes” side had only one “argument” to make: the threat that without the treaty the country could not borrow from the European Stability Mechanism, a clause the government had agreed to insert in the first place.

So, while the result is set back for the left – though some will insist not – and a temporary boost for the hawks of austerity, the ULA is a bit better known at the end of it and Paul Murphy is better placed for the next European election by his face adorning myriads of SP “no” posters.

A “yes” blogger made some interesting remarks:

Before the conventional wisdom sets in stone, a few thoughts on the referendum campaign. First, win or lose, this looks to have been a good campaign for the left of the “no” side. The profile of key Sinn Fein and ULA spokespeople will have been raised significantly as will their political credibility in key sectors of the electorate… On an impressionistic level, it has been the left that has overwhelmingly dominated the airwaves and the street canvass, in contrast to most of the Nice and Lisbon campaigns.

It is probably unavoidable that after passing through a short period of surge to, and then disillusion with, the Labour Party in government, another stage is necessary for the same tidal flow to and from Sinn Féin. The ULA cannot hope to immediately draw away most of the support Sinn Féin will have gleaned from its opposition to austerity. One of the consequences of the solidification of partition is a lack of real political knowledge of cross-border politics. Despite Sinn Féin being a 32-county party with mass support on both sides of the border, Southern electors are not conscious of Sinn Féin’s administration in the North of the austerity it opposes in the South. It will probably take more compromises and a period in government by Sinn Féin for its support to transfer to a left alternative.

The ULA (and/or its components!) became the main political force in the Campaign Against the Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT) not just because it provided much of the activist motor there; not just because there was a broad united campaign that focused a fractious ULA in a way that the 57 varieties of anti-treaty campaigns could not: but also because the ULA, its components and others on the left laid down the CAHWT on the strict basis of refusal to pay the household and water charges.

Sinn Féin in another intimation of compromise, while opposing the charges, refused to endorse non-payment and automatically excluded itself from a new genuine mass movement. However some SF TDs declared they weren’t paying and Sinn Féin joined in the general rebellion, but without having a place in the organised campaign. There was no such impediment to Sinn Féin in the referendum drive and it went at it, and with the means to project a campaign larger than anything the ULA – divided up in any case – could hope to fashion.