Tin Men discover Shangri-La

Sometimes the Irish left reminds me of nothing so much as the classic movie Tin Men. Surely you remember the stellar performances from Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as rival aluminum siding salesmen. Well, the SWP and the Socialist Party are a bit like that. Their day job may be purveying the ideological equivalent of aluminum siding, in subtly different brands indistinguishable to your average punter, but what they really enjoy is denouncing each other as liars, cheats and frauds. To be honest, sometimes it’s seeing the funny side that stops you getting altogether depressed.

Well, the brands may be similar to the naked eye, but that’s not to say they’re the same. You find the same sales paraphernalia of street stall, tabloid newspaper and petition, but a closer examination shows there are differences. Militant have always preferred to deal with bread-and-butter issues, preferably with a trade union connection. Often this shows them at their best, as with their current agitation around the completely worthy case of the sacked airport workers. The Swips, by contrast, get most excited around big international events.

To tell you the truth, I’ve been a little worried about the local Swips, as they seemed to have lost their spark of late. But last week none other than Swiss Toni himself was in town addressing the troops. I chose not to go, figuring that there were more fun things to do with my evening. For one thing, Kieran’s speaking style has always reminded me very much of Mike Banda, although he lacks Mike’s characteristic warmth and good humour. For another, he was speaking on the Crisis, which would be the same Crisis he’s been predicting for the last thirty years. All things considered, a nice cup of tea and some BA Robertson on the stereo seemed a better bet.

And lo, the Great White Chief seems to have invigorated his acolytes. On walking by Queens yesterday, my eye was caught by a large yellow poster bearing the legend “Free Tibet” and a photo of an oppressed Tibetan. On closer examination, this proved to be advertising a meeting under the rubric of “People Before Profit”, which is the Swips’ funny hat of choice at the moment. What this has to do with socialism or the class struggle is not immediately apparent – and the poster had no slogan other than “Free Tibet” – but I suppose it marks a return to the tried-and-true methodology of being the loudest advocates of whatever’s popular with the kids.

There may be a pitfall or two here. I hear that the Chinese community in Dublin are starting to organise counter-demonstrations. And I don’t know how many supporters of the Dalai Lama there are in the north of Ireland, but there are a hell of a lot of Chinese. Attracting Amnesty-type students is one thing, but do you really want to run the risk of attracting lots of angry Chinese?

On the other hand, these are the guys who not so long ago were running pro-hijab demonstrations outside the French embassy. The Swips’ love affair with the Muslims may have foundered on the rocks of factional politics in Respect, but could an alternative be presenting itself? Could Buddhism be the new Islam?


  1. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 15, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    Interesting you should say that splintered, during the last month in Dublin I noticed posters on Equality (of Women) and the thought struck me, ‘hey, have they given up on the Iraq War?’. Tibet? The new final frontier? Remarkable. Although in fairness I’ve (a bit) more sympathy for their line on that than I expected.

  2. Mark P said,

    April 16, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    In my view the interesting comparison is not between the SP’s agitation in support of the airport workers and the SWP’s preference for propagandising about Tibet. It’s between the approaches the two organisations took towards the airport workers. That actually reveals more about the two parties than the relative priority they give to workers struggles at home versus solidarity campaigning with movements abroad.

  3. WorldbyStorm said,

    April 16, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    There is that, of course. Still it’s like the jibe Frank Cluskey used to make about Michael D. Higgins, that given the choice between saving the Irish Labour Party and saving the world he took the easy option of saving the world…

  4. Redking said,

    April 17, 2008 at 12:06 pm

    “some BA Robertson on the stereo seemed a better bet.”

    ironic i know but mmmm still – I’m getting worried about you sir!!

  5. Andy newman said,

    April 17, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    I am pleased to say that after we ran the story about the Belfast hunger on SU blog, Tony Woodley’s email account was flooded.


  6. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 17, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    Why should BA Robertson be ironic? Bang Bang was a classic after all…

    Yes, the airport workers. I’m sorry to say, my old friend Jimmy Kelly hasn’t covered himself in glory over this.

  7. Mark P said,

    April 17, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Kelly himself isn’t really the issue. “Unelected senior trade union official not the firebrand once he was” is hardly the kind of shocking news item that editors dream of. There’s a long tradition of “left” bureaucrats acting in ways that aren’t all that different from the “right” bureaucrats they once battled.

    What baffles me is the SWP’s role. It wasn’t so long ago that the Irish SWP used to argue that its members shouldn’t seek election to senior union positions – that only changed around the time of the first Duggan campaign in SIPTU. Now it seems to have no problem with its members taking on appointed senior trade union positions.

    This in itself is a far cry from the rank and file approach that they would still probably nominally claim affiliation to. That doesn’t make it wrong necessarily, but it is to put it mildly confused to hold to a political position formally while working in direct opposition to that position in practice. What’s more, they don’t appear to have a problem with Kelly acting as a straight down the line bureaucrat.

    They certainly aren’t taking any action against him internally. Externally they maintained a complete radio silence during the hunger strike, not even going to the rallies, until right at the end they put out a truly weird press release. Check this out the “even-handed” weasel words:

    Unite members hunger strike in Belfast

    Written by Socialist Worker
    Friday, 11 April 2008
    The Socialist Workers Party believes that the Belfast airport workers did a great service for the Irish labour movement when they took their company to an industrial tribunal and won a case which set a precedent against sacking union representatives because they were political activists.

    The case arose because an anti-union firm had tried to rid itself of organised labour and used the classic tactics of victimisation to achieve that.

    ATGWU had let down these men when a union official went behind their backs and called off a strike against their company ICTS.

    The SWP welcomes the fact that the present leadership of UNITE (the successors of ATGWU) has agreed to meet the full legal costs of the

    tribunal case that the airport activists undertook. As members dues are at stake, the union has every right to fully examine the figures presented by the legal profession. But nevertheless the principle of covering costs has been accepted.

    We also understand that the union will also underwrite the legal costs of defending against an appeal mounted by the company.

    Both of these actions are important contributions to correcting past mistakes.

    The current dispute between the workers and their union concerns the issue of compensation for further campaign costs and hardship endured.

    The SWP believes that a process of mediation should be set up between the union officials and the victimised workers to resolve this issue.

    This should involve both formal and informal face to face discussions.

    If necessary, someone drawn from the ranks of organised labour should also be involved to mediate between both sides and so cut out further legal costs.

    We fully recognise the pain and suffering the airport workers have endured over these many long years.

    We urge them to come off the hunger and thirst strike so as not to cause themselves any more physical harm.

    We also urge the union leadership to move as quickly as possible to enter mediation on the outstanding issue in dispute.

  8. splinteredsunrise said,

    April 17, 2008 at 6:21 pm

    It’s not exactly the roaring leftist editorialising we used to see, is it? I would have much less problem with this approach if they were open and consistent about it, but of course they won’t be.

    It’ll also be worth keeping a close eye on the big chief’s campaign in SIPTU, which seems to have very little radicalism about it.

  9. Ed Hayes said,

    April 30, 2008 at 11:02 am

    I had assumed J Kelly was no longer a member when he got that job. Times have changed. You could barely go for a shop steward’s position in the old days and not be wanre dof the dangers of becoming a bureaucrat.

  10. Melissa said,

    May 3, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    If you want to read a great new book of poetry, including poems on Ireland, read this Poetry Book

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