Well, that was a nice little musical interlude, but of course what many of you come here for is the sectariana. “Since you’re on the ground in Belfast,” the broad masses cry, “why don’t you tell us what’s going on with the local Swips?”
The first thing I’d say to that is, there’s still quite a bit we don’t know for certain, as the official SWP is taking the “nothing to see here guv” line, while the dissidents have been maintaining radio silence. What we do know is that it isn’t just the three musketeers who find themselves outwith the organisation. Others are being mentioned, including younger people who had joined in recent years, and long-term sleepers – which is to say, people who are basically inactive but retain a loyalty to the organisation and would turn out for a big event. I have heard talk of there being both expulsions and resignations, but given the party’s disdain for formal procedures that will probably be a matter of perception. As for the official org, that’s supposedly down to a small circle around the putative candidate – and I’m not actually sure that young Seán is even in town at the moment, it’s been ages since I saw him about – but what’s certain is that organiser Dónal, having been imported from Dublin, is running around like a blue-arsed fly putting up posters for public meetings with high-profile speakers. One senses a big push on from the centre to rebuild the branch.
There’s a political aspect to this too that may not be immediately apparent, but first I’ll go on a bit of a digression about republicanism.
You see, there is an interesting coalescence in what might loosely be termed non-Provisional republicanism. The dividing line doesn’t break down in terms of left and right, but in terms of your attitude to armed struggle. There is, and there probably always will be while partition lasts, a smallish constituency for physical force republicanism. Of this the most cohesive exponents are the Contos, who can offer you the Provisionalism of 1971 only on a much smaller scale; there are the Real Republicans if you like your militarism more or less neat, with only a little dash of politics to taste; and we don’t even want to get into small groups of yahoos like the “ÓNH”, who don’t even pretend to have a political aspect and are really just armed Celtic supporters. Not to say that the physical force constituency is totally insignificant – it may be small, but it repays attention – but it’s very much a minority pursuit, and there’s nobody there really rallying much support.
What’s probably more interesting is the significantly larger constituency, what we might term soft republican, which is critical of the peace process but unwilling to countenance a return to war. This constituency hasn’t asserted itself till now, but it is there, there’s a potential for some tendency to gain traction there, and it could easily grow. There’s éirígí in the first instance, who may be a mess of contradictions but who are growing and seem to have a little momentum behind them. The interesting thing is that the people in Dublin who set up éirígí are relatively straightforward – their politics is essentially Dublin PSF of five or six ardfheiseanna ago, and their main criticism of Gerry was that he was insufficiently socialist. But as they’ve expanded into the north, they’ve brought on board people who have more traditional republican concerns. Breandán Mac Cionnaith is a case in point, and I was struck when Cllr Louise Minihan of Dublin defected that her statement stressed the republican aspect more than the socialist one.
Be that as it may, it’s the case that éirígí, as a wholly political group with no armed wing, has a definite appeal to that segment of the Provo base that’s disgruntled but is not attracted by the idea of rerunning the Troubles. Certainly in Belfast, the PSF hierarchy seem more worried by them than the armed groups, because they have at least in theory the potential to get a populist bandwagon going. And I’m sure that a similar consideration came into play for the IRSP, and their announcement of the standing down of the armed wing and commitment to a totally political path – messy as it was – had to do with detoxifying the IRSP brand in order to make a play for some popular support. Upcoming elections to the new Derry-Strabane supercouncil will figure here.
That’s also, I suppose, the reasoning behind the IRSP’s unity offensive of the moment. On paper, an IRSP-éirígí lash-up would seem to be the most logical outcome – both groups have a liking for populist agitprop, in particular – but that’s not going to fly in the foreseeable future. (Some IRSP members at least regard éirígí as a nest of Provos, and it seems the suspicion is mutual.) However, a number of discreet meetings have been taking place involving an interesting cast of characters from varied socialist and republican backgrounds – more I cannot say at the moment – and it is not impossible that some sort of alignment might emerge.
Which leads me circuitously back to the Swips. It has been said that the disagreement here was about the minor tactical issue of who to run in the elections and where, and that this manifested itself in a division between the west and the south of the city. There’s more to it than that, but in an untheorised way – by which I mean that there are underlying political issues beneath what looks like a minor tactical issue, but those are largely unstated, almost certainly haven’t been discussed systematically, and the protagonists may not be fully conscious of them.
First we have to consider that the SWP is not a programmatic party. The Socialist Party has a programme, and a fairly rigid perspective – which can sometimes be a disability, but from the SP’s point of view keeps it on the straight and narrow. The SWP is different in that it doesn’t work to a programme, it works to a regularly shifting perspective. From the outside this can look like breathtaking opportunism, from the inside it’s perceived as an ability to be flexible and creative while being firm in your core beliefs. Sometimes it works well, sometimes the results are not so good. But there are two elements here, inherited mainly from Cliff, which I think are often unhelpful. One is the tendency to be distracted from long-term work by the glimpse of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The other is the theory of corrective exaggeration or “stick-bending”, allegedly derived from Lenin although Katy seems to have it sussed. It may be that the British group, in dealing with the Füredite voluntarism of the Left Platform, could get a grip on these tendencies, but they’re very much part of the organisation’s culture.
One aspect of unprogrammatic interventions coupled with a taste for stick-bending is that you often adapt to the milieu you’re working in. (Sometimes the leadership will think you’ve over-adapted and then bend the stick back. Eventually your stick may look more like a Curly Wurly, but such is the price to be paid for bold and decisive leadership.) To put it less uncharitably, if you decide you’re going to work in milieu X rather than milieu Y, that implies a different set of tasks. This applies in spades to whether you’re going to stand in West Belfast or South Belfast.
It will have impressed the Dublin leadership, who as noted have a de facto strategy of building around prominent individuals, that Seán Mitchell won over 700 votes at the Assembly election in West Belfast and did so at a canter, leaving open the opportunity of building on that base. They will also have noted that the SWP has stood previously in South Belfast and got a low vote, as indeed has the SP. Therefore, running Mitchell in West Belfast would seem to be a no-brainer.
And yet, and yet. There are certain reasons why your candidate might do better in West Belfast, notably because it has an unusual concentration of the flotsam and jetsam of northern republicanism and Marxism. Let’s say for the sake of argument that there are a hundred or so éirígí supporters in the area – and they’ve got close to that number on demos – who are they going to vote for? There may be a similar number of IRSP supporters. There may still be forty or fifty old-time Peoples Democracy types who don’t have anything they can support. There are a few CPI people; even a few ORM people, who I imagine would not be falling over themselves to vote Workers Party. There are always disgruntled ex-Provos knocking about, and there may at any given time be some restive Ógra kids willing to lend a preference.
Maybe none of these constituencies adds up to much on its own. But any of them might be in the market for a candidature that’s a bit socialist and a bit anti-imperialist. You wouldn’t even have to mobilise any of these guys – and, given their mutual contradictions, that might be as well – but if you avoided actively alienating any of them… you might be talking about 400 or 500 votes as a par score in the West Belfast constituency, and that’s before you get onto whatever positive appeal the candidature might have. Having a fresh banner (People Before Profit) without alienating historical baggage; a fresh, young and articulate candidate; a campaign with a bit of energy; and a leaflet that says as little as possible about the peace process – none of these things hurt. We may also note that the wee lad attracted strong transfers from Republican Sinn Féin and from the tallies would also have done from the Workers Party had they been eliminated earlier – which indicates to me that a general anti-establishment vote (or to some extent anti-Gerry vote) is at least as likely as 700 west Belfast people suddenly becoming convinced that the Soviet Union was state capitalist.
For the Dublin leadership, they might not be aware of these nuances. Even if they were, they might not give a crap. The thing to consider, from where they’re sitting, will be the possibility of 200 here or 700+ there.
The people who would give a crap would be located in Belfast. Even so, if it was just a pragmatic tactical issue, longstanding party diehards would be expected to go along with the decision from the centre. It comes to the implications for what you want to do, and what you’re comfortable doing.
An election run in South Belfast, probably with Barbara Muldoon as the candidate, would distinguish itself as progressive, cross-community, anti-racist, multicultural, maybe environmental. It would be competing for votes, effectively, with Anna Lo. A Mitchell campaign in West Belfast would be trying to take votes off Gerry Adams, and even if you didn’t call it left republican – a description the SWP would never accept for itself – it would need to be fought on left republican territory.
Perhaps more to the point, an attempt to build a base in West Belfast would be a bit of a reversion to what the SWM was doing pre about 1990, when the activity and the meetings were concentrated in that area and the perspective was to cannibalise the PSF base. Thereafter there was a shift – spearheaded by a couple of people who recently departed – to move to city centre activism, perhaps some thought about building in mixed areas, and promoting a cross-community (definitely not republican) profile. If that’s been your consistent background for years – augmented by movementist and NGO-type politics – to move back into the Wild West and try to appeal to nationalist youths in Andytown must seem like a regression. Doubly so when you consider the unwillingness of west Belfast people to leave west Belfast – Andytown localism is of a whole different order to the local politics the proponents of Save Our Seafront would be familiar with. Anything that looks like a greening of the organisation would face some resistance – and, although the McCann vote in Derry is distinct, it may not be coincidental that the big northern meeting at this year’s Marxism was Eamonn speaking (disingenuously IMO) on the SWP’s anti-Agreement credentials. Maybe that vote for Mrs O’Hara concentrated some minds.
Of course, there’s quite a bit of educated guesswork in the foregoing, and some of it may be wrong. But I would be surprised if these underlying local factors were completely absent. We also haven’t heard anything from the dissidents, who are keeping very quiet. This probably indicates they are discussing what to do next, which itself presents a problem or two. One is that, while tactical differences and problems with the regime are enough to get you kicked out of the SWP, they aren’t sufficient to justify a separate organisation. Another is that, even if you have enough members to give you some critical mass, being cut off from the material base in terms of money, equipment, speakers and so on is bound to cramp your style. And of course there’s a recalibration of perspectives, which may be something the Reesites in Britain have to face in due course – a perspective of being hyperactive in the movements may work if you have several thousand SWP members to play with, but you can’t do it with forty or fifty people, so other options would need to be looked at. The Belfast dissidents find themselves in that position now, on a micro scale. On the other hand, if John Rees fancies acquiring an Irish section at a knock-down price…