From Protest to Politics: How Can We Get a New Republic?


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This is the first of two articles addressing the current political, economic and social crises in Ireland and the development of citizen-led political alternatives.  It is hoped that the articles contribute to the emerging conversation about the necessity, and possibility, of a New Republic for the people of Ireland.

The first article is by Rory Hearne and the second by Ronan Burtenshaw. 

An important question that those opposing the water charges, austerity, growing inequality and those looking for an alternative to the establishment political parties are asking is; what exactly are we looking to achieve1 and how are we going to do it? There are immediate changes needed such as getting rid of the water charges and Irish Water, reversing austerity and cuts and standing up to Europe (and with Greece) on the immoral debt. There are also more profound changes being sought such as achieving the right to housing, health, education, decent jobs etc for everyone. These will require the creation of a real Republic of equality and a genuine democracy where people are treated with dignity and have a real say in the running of their community, their country and Europe. But the most important change is already happening; that is the active participation and empowerment of the (extra) ordinary citizens at the grassroots who are changing their world by standing up for themselves through protest and political action.

It is becoming clear to more and more people that a government dominated by the establishment parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour, Renua & other ‘fake’ independents) will not achieve these necessary radical reforms. Ordinary people have to do it themselves by creating a government that is made up of the people’s representatives – without any of the establishment parties involved. A people’s government would be anti-austerity, anti-establishment, rights-based, and progressive. Let us learn from previous mistakes and understand that it is not sufficient to be a minor player in government – for real change the people’s representatives must be the government.  To do this anti-establishment and anti-austerity groups and parties will have to convince the majority of people in Ireland (particularly the undecided voters from a wide breadth of societal groups) to vote for anti-establishment candidates. The task then is not just to protest and resist but also to try win the coming general election. In order to win we must believe that we can win and we must plan to win. But winning is not just changing the faces in government, it is bringing about a New Republic – a real democratic transformation by an empowered citizenry.

This means that electing an anti-establishment government is only one part of a process of empowerment of ordinary people to transform Ireland. That process must also take place in communities and workplaces, creating new forms of socially caring and enterprising employment that can make solidarity and cooperation the key values of any New Republic. It also means that election and government processes should be led by the citizens, communities and ordinary people. It should continue the new wave of citizen empowerment from the water movement. This also means that if anti-establishment opposition do not win the coming election at least we will have been further empowered to pressure whatever new government is elected to take these issues seriously. Importantly, it will ensure that a solid foundation is put in place to be the major opposition (in the Dail and on the streets) and to be in a much better place to win in the subsequent election, which could come much sooner than expected, and to continue to protest and campaign on a wide range of issues.

Convincing a majority of the population to support an anti-establishment political alternative is going to be extremely difficult and challenging. Multiple approaches and strategies are required. None of the anti-establishment groups, the trade unions, independents, Left political parties, or the communities can achieve this on their own. Therefore, unity and coherence is required amongst as many of these as possible in order to offer a clear alternative to people in the election. This will show people that we are serious and that there is a credible, serious and coherent alternative that is worth voting for.

That is not to say everybody has to be part of the one organisation or alliance. There is the opportunity for multiple organisations to be part of a new alliance or there might be a number of alliances and parties co-ordinating together. There will be some who do not wish to be part of any of these and that should be respected just as the desire for those who want to work together on this new alliance should also be respected. The politics of new alliances must be inclusive and respectful of each other and the principles or plurality and diversity. If we are not trying to be the very change we want to see in the world then we have failed from the start.

One idea could be to form a new umbrella alliance or political movement like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain or the SNP in Scotland. This new alliance could be made up of some of the Left parties, new movements, independents, communities, trade unions, and individuals. Let’s call it the Movement for A New Republic for the moment. In the election the people would have a real choice between the Movement or the establishment parties. The Movement for A New Republic would say to the people ‘we are standing for election to become a government of the people that will not involve any of the establishment parties’. This new political movement would aim to represent the ideals and vision of the 1916 Proclamation- in a meaningful way – for a sovereign, democratic, New Republic, New Ireland of equality and social justice, based on the protection of the vulnerable, community and fairness and assertion of the rights of all.

One single major political alliance or movement appears to be a key part of gaining majority public support for a new radical politics in Greece and Spain, rather than lots of smaller groups. The experience of other countries also suggests that the success of new political parties and movements is exactly that – that they are actually new and are not dominated by their past. A new movement that is clearly anti-establishment, standing for the ordinary people against the cronies and elite, made up of leaders that are new (or clearly independent from) to the political system, could gain significant additional support, and therefore, increase the possibility of an alternative government and a new politics in Ireland. This movement should also play a key role in representing the desire for a completely new politics in Ireland for the long term beyond the coming election.

Ideally then the Movement for a New Republic would include the broadest possible alliance from Sinn Fein to Says No Groups, trade unions, independents, communities and socialists, similar to the successful water movement. While there are many differences between these groups – the only realistic way an alternative government is going to be formed is to work together. Anti-establishment candidates should be supportive of each other against the common enemy of the establishment parties. There has to be an end to divisive actions and attacks on each other, and removing dogmatic approaches that alienate potential supporters beyond the ‘true believers’, and an agreement that we want to be in government and not just permanent opposition. There would need to be Movement candidates in every constituency in order to get sufficient TDs to gain the majority to form a government. The media will also be an important battle ground and, therefore, leaders and spokespeople are required who can represent the message of the new movement in a way that connects with the majority of people.

To get this we suggest a process of transformation through innovative forms of inter working between anti-establishment groups and the creation of parties and movements that can involve wider layers of those new to politics and activism. Ideally there will be agreement in constituencies of anti-establishment ‘lists’ of candidates that can be promoted. The election should not be a traditional election where people passively accept political parties’ predetermined election literature and then go vote and the parties agree a programme for government afterwards– it should be a process of involving ordinary people from the start in putting forward the issues that matter to them and through creating an alternative political, economic and social vision for Ireland. The election process should, therefore, be a new political movement in itself.

But let’s be clear also, no one party, individual or organisation, no matter how big or small should ‘control’ this new political movement or determine its path. Whoever is willing now to work together to create this new movement should just do it and those who currently do not agree with this strategy should not hold it back.

There is, despite the caricatures of division, much ground for agreement on policy amongst the diverse groups, for example, reversing water and household charges and austerity hitting the most vulnerable, standing up to the EU on Ireland’s debt, a write-down of mortgage arrears, a living wage, proper public health, housing, education and delivering human rights for all, direct democracy returning power to local areas and communities and a state and indigenous-led economic strategy away from overreliance on foreign multinationals, wealth taxes, expressing solidarity with Greece for a European debt conference and much more. There has been a lot of work done at a policy level in relation to such alternatives by various groups such as Unite, NERI, Anglo Not Our Debt etc and we need academics and policy analysts to work with the new movement to develop these further practically.

As the election draws near the media debate will be narrowed to who can provide a ‘stable’ and ‘responsible’ government that will satisfy Europe, the developers, the bankers, the wealthy and a government that won’t scare the bondholders or the markets. It will be all about figuring out what particular formula of establishment party and independent TDs will provide sufficient numbers to make up the government.

But through the creation of a new political alliance like a Movement for a New Republic there is the opportunity to change the entire nature of the election to make it instead about a new democracy – debating about what type of Ireland people want and what type of Republic exists. This can be done by involving those who don’t normally participate in voting or campaigning in elections – and rather than predetermined party manifestos that limit the nature of debate –we could make the election a referendum on why type of republic do we want – make it about austerity, the debt, water charges, and equality. Social media and on-line tools could enable local communities to develop the policy programme in the run up to, and during the election – so it is the people’s programme and the people’s Government. New ways to engage citizens are required as are candidates that will represent this new politics. The alternative policies of such a new movement could be determined democratically by the people at the grassroots.

The new movement could initiate community based forums and groups where people could identify their key issues that could be united around. Groups could work on hosting citizen’s forums in every constituency (and people’s forums in every town, village, community, work place) where ordinary citizens, the independents, unions, communities, could come together in a public way and develop a Peoples Charter for a New Republic. Candidates could stand on this charter. This could also create local forums where citizens could engage in the water movement, other protest movements and elections and provide accountability so that after the election these forums should recall and assess how their candidates have stood up to the promises. Any programme for government could go to these Citizens Constituency Forums before being agreed upon.

There is a need to understand that this process of change will not happen overnight. That it might take the election after the next one, or the one after that, but what we are aiming for is to get power – to become the government – to change the state institutions and public services to serve the people. We are going to make the economy serve the people of Ireland. We are also aiming to deepen and extend democracy. Therefore, the past mistakes of the Left and the traditional parties should be avoided. This means all the processes should be inclusive, respectful, using the language of the people, democratic and citizen and community led. 

The May Day conference being organised by the Right to Water unions is a really positive step in this direction. Hopefully a common vision and policy platform for the elections can be developed and it can help form new political movements and alliances to enable the involvement of citizens in the election and wider process of change.

There is the potential and opportunity for a radical change in Ireland given the extent of the current crisis and emergence of the water protest movement, the Says No groups, equality and pro-choice movements, independents, the Left parties, new trade union action etc. Since the foundation of the state Ireland has always been led by one of the two centre right parties (FF or FG). But now there is a real possibility of an anti-establishment, or ‘citizens’ government of equality, the Left and social justice, that could begin a more profound processing of creating and facilitating the development of a New Republic of Equality, Social Justice, Democracy, and Rights. The possibility of this is shown by how communities, ordinary citizens, and smaller trade unions, in alliance with the left political parties in the water protests have created the biggest popular movement in Irish history. Most significantly, the Right to Water campaign has shown that the ‘left’ and anti-establishment groups, so often caricatured by their division, can work together.

However, if we do not create a political alternative many disenchanted voters will either not vote or they will return to the establishment parties because of the lack of a viable alternative. Furthermore, independents (under pressure from localism) could be swayed/bought into supporting a government led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. Austerity, water charges, neoliberalism, inequality, and privatisation could, in fact, be strengthened in the coming election if the independent sentiment is captured by a new party of the right, such as the Renua, or even independents supporting Fine Gael to remain in government or put Fianna Fail back into power. This would also be continued through a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael coalition, which is also a possibility.

Clearly there is a need for much more serious thought and analysis to be given to the challenge of how a new political movement could be developed to represent and strengthen those protesting against austerity and looking for radical political reform. There is a lot of further thinking required on how the new impetus for change can be translated into real political transformation. Movement leaders, activists and progressive academics are playing an important role in developing new ideas and approaches in similar movements such as Podemos in Spain. Similar approaches are required to think and theorise the development of alternative policy and political practice of transformation for Ireland.

The process of creating a New Republic has to go beyond the elections to empower people at the local, national, urban, rural, and in workplaces, schools, the media, universities by creating a new citizen engagement in a true democracy. Nothing is inevitable about this process of change – the outcome depends on whether we can amass enough popular support behind an alternative political movement that can become more powerful than the elite and establishment parties. Our power is the power of ordinary citizens and therefore they must play the central part.

The media and establishment will make the case that an alternative government will wreck the economy as bond markets won’t lend to Ireland and corporations will leave. But the fact is that other countries are turning to alternative governments, and radical alternative solutions are required to address the crisis of the people of Europe. The political system is fracturing across Europe and this is likely to continue in the coming elections in the UK and Spain. People are looking for alternatives and if the progressive forces who believe in equality and social justice do not provide a people’s alternative then other more sinister and conservative forces such as right wing anti-immigrant groups like UKIP will stand up and represent the disillusionment and growing disgust with traditional politics and Europe.

If we do not do present a real alternative then our biggest fears will come true – that the incredible hope, determination and idealism of the ‘Risen People’ in the water movement will become disillusioned, cynical and return to the old Irish order of a colonised and oppressed people and and the moment of opportunity for radical change in the interests of the majority will be lost for generations to come.


3 Responses

  1. Brendan Young, Eddie Conlon

    April 30, 2015 3:48 pm

    Like Rory, we and many others want a new political movement that will fight for an end to austerity and progressive social change and ultimately for a society not dominated by the dictates of the market and with the widest democratic control.
    We are in favour of all anti-austerity forces working together; and agree that we have to acknowledge problems where they exist. But we wouldn’t be having this discussion if not for the existence of the movement against the water charge – the actual embodiment of the struggle against austerity at present. So discussion on the creation of a new political alternative has to relate to that movement.
    It is now crunch time: the bills are arriving. To say that the movement is already successful is previous: if a significant majority pay by the June 30 deadline, the movement will be set back. It matters therefore, at this time of decision, that a call for non-payment – with social weight – goes out. So it is strange to be talking about the creation of a new political movement committed to equality and developing the empowerment of the existing water charge movement, while not discussing the role of the existing political forces in the possible victory or defeat of that movement.
    That said,we would pose a number of questions? How is a new political movement to be built – that is more than a simple extension of SF and the existing left – that draws in the people who are currently fighting the water charge, if the forces initiating a new political movement do not champion the non-payment demands of the water charge movement? Talk of empowerment is vacuous if a political strategy involves abandoning the mass movement to passivity, while waiting for the election of an administration committed to abolition – which may not happen. What if FG-Labour get sufficient bounce from budget handouts to get back in? Or why would those engaged in struggle today participate in a political movement that abstains on their struggle – suggesting similar abstentions in the future?
    Rory suggests that the problem in creating a new political movement is the dogmatism of the left. Clearly there are and have been problems in the way the Left works. Our political practice has not been characterised by dogmatism, nor an unwillingness to work with others, but our wariness of a broad alliance from SF to the Says No groups to the unions, the Left etc is not dogmatism: it is about what organisations say and do in the actual struggles of the day. When we are asked by people if they should pay the water bills, how should we answer? The SF position, according to Gerry Adams, is not for non-payment. The reason given is that non-payment in past struggles led to people getting big bills when the struggle was defeated – the same as Labour says.
    So rather than saying that the movement is much bigger this time, and that non-payment can win, SF is effectively saying “Good luck to ye, but ye are heading for defeat – and we don’t want to be associated with the fall-out”. If a party with 10,000 members is not prepared to call for a breaking of the rules on a relatively minor charge – where a call to break the rules would boost its support amongst working class voters – can we be confident that SF in government would break the rules and repudiate the bankers’ debt, or break the Fiscal Treaty requirements to pay debt? In our opinion these are not matters of ideological dogmatism – but concrete questions on what is to be done, and who’s side is taken. Syriza and Podemos grew out of actual struggles: a new political movement of similar impact here is unlikely to be built by abstaining on the major struggles.
    Coalition with the right needs further discussion. Rory talks about Movement candidates – including SF as part of that Movement – winning the election and forming a government. This would mean SF getting about 55 and the left – broadly defined – about 25. But no serious analyst – incl Frank Connolly – is predicting SF getting that number. As we have previously argued SF will only get into office at the next election if they form a coalition including FF and, variously, some Independents, some of the left or the rump of the Labour Party. The SF position is that it will not form a coalition with FF or FG unless SF is the bigger bloc. Coalition with FF or FG would be disastrous for any future movement that wants real change: neither party of the right will accept any real encroachment on the interests of the Irish rich or big business.
    Rejection of coalition with the right has to be a starting principle – but it is not that of SF. Whether the Left should support a SF minority government is a longer discussion. But glossing over these matters does not help clarify what we need to do to bring about the changes that Rory, we and others want to see.
    Finally we endorse the various suggestions that Rory makes in relation to building a bottom up participatory movement which draws new layers of activists into open discussion on the way forward. That’s why we have expressed, in our recent joint statement with PBP, AAA and others, concerns about the manner in which the RTW conference was convened on an invitation only basis. That statement said:

    “We welcome the initiative of the unions to organise events in May and June. But it is vital that these events do not remain limited and invite-only. Instead, they should become conferences involving all sections of the anti-water charges movement, anti-austerity groups and those active in fighting for democratic rights who favour taking a political initiative on an explicit anti-austerity basis.
    In advance of the 13 June event, we think there should be local open meetings or assemblies of everybody active in the anti-water charges movement or other active social movements, meeting to discuss the issues and to decide on delegates to send to the event. The meeting on 13 June should therefore be a much larger meeting than 200 people: as well as including trade union representatives and political representatives, it should include representatives of campaign groups across the country, selected by those involved in campaigning on the ground. On foot of this, the June gathering should be able to decide for itself the political positions it adopts and how to proceed – not simply endorse previously determined statements.”
    Therefore it would be significant advance for the building of a genuine grass roots movement if Rory supported this call and the proposal that the meeting on June 13 be opened out in the manner suggested above.
    Brendan Young
    Eddie Conlon