Around this time of year, one’s thoughts turn to moonlighting. Perhaps it’s the tennis. You go home of an evening, tune in to Wimbledon, and what do you find? Billy Idol, discussing the day’s play with Inverdale. Right enough, Billy is an engaging and knowledgeable tennis pundit. But the striking thing is that, presumably for contractual reasons, when he’s doing his tennis thing he puts on a funny accent and gets everyone to call him Boris.
Nor is Billy alone in this. Thom Yorke, for instance, has a nice little sideline playing cricket for England. However, the lugubrious Radiohead frontman, when he’s wearing his cricketing hat (or helmet, I suppose) hides his shame by calling himself Ian Bell. That’s why I was tickled to learn, during the recent New Zealand series, that the Kiwis have a batsman bowler (my bad, thanks Daphne) called Chris Martin. Unfortunately it turns out to be a completely different bloke who just happens to be called Chris Martin.
Which brings me to the current Phoenix. A couple of people have asked whether I wrote the profile of Richard Boyd Barrett. The short answer is, no. But it is uncanny that I agree with Goldhawk on pretty much every point. Or possibly he agrees with me. Anyhow, it leaves me feeling a bit like Graham Greene when he would check into a hotel only to find that Mr Greene had just left.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. We have here quite a good portrait of
Dún Laoghaire’s answer to Che Guevara – without the gun.
The qualifier is important. Besides, although they both come from comfortable backgrounds and can cut a dash on a black-and-white poster, if by some chance Richie plays golf or smokes cigars he keeps sensibly quiet about these vices. Che liked to do both, sometimes simultaneously.
We then go on to an account of how Richie’s articulacy, media friendliness and position as spokesman for multiple SWP front organisations has catapulted him into the spotlight, to the point where he seems a good bet for taking a seat on Kingstown council next year. It may be that Joe Higgins and Patricia McKenna are still the recognised public faces of Irish leftism, but our poster boy is coming up on the rails.
Then a little bit of history, going back to the Dublin far left of the early 1970s:
As the north imploded, the energy gradually went out of the project as the more serious ones disappeared into republican groups while others made their name in journalism and other professions. At least three senior Irish Times editorial executives belong to this latter group.
I may point out that no fewer than three entire leaderships abandoned the SWM, although that also had something to do with Cliff’s habit of playing silly buggers with the Irish section. Many of these people are still in public life, in the media or the law or academe in particular.
Today, surviving far-left groups appear to have discovered a new lease of life as the northern conflict recedes – none of these groups had a clue about how to relate to the upheavals there – and as the southern establishment takes on some of the appearances of a neo-liberal ruling class.
Or, to put it another way, as Ireland has come to more closely resemble Britain. Regular readers will know that one of this blog’s occasional recurring themes has been that Anglocentric tendency in the Irish left that believes that Ireland is Britain, or if it isn’t that it should be. Alex Callinicos once accused me of being an Irish exceptionalist, to which I reply that any Irish leftist with a brain is an Irish exceptionalist.
I will cut the Socialist Party a little slack here as their frame of reference is the British labour movement, which has close enough ties to its Irish oppo to lend them some plausibility. The Swips, on the other hand, really are the Marxist wing of the Irish Times. They may disagree on conclusions, but they share the same cognitive universe – I more than once heard Swiss Toni argue that the big problem with the D4 agenda was that D4 didn’t have the clout to win it. This might help explain Richie’s vote in Kingstown as being a little more than just Save Our Seafront plus the celebrity factor. Not to mention those not inconsiderable transfers from Fine Gael and the PDs.
We come now to the post-Lisbon unity drive, which is a recurrence of the Dublin left’s regular unity drives, and typically of the Dublin left means every group running its own separate unity drive.
He [RBB] faces a political Everest in this ambition. First, he must persuade his SWP comrades not to plunge any joint socialist forum into a bear garden by treating unity simply as an excuse to assert themselves over other left tendencies.
Yeah, good luck with that. Because their record really inspires confidence, doesn’t it? Moving on, we arrive at a useful discussion of the structural problem facing the left’s electoral ambitions:
The real problem, of course, for all these groupings is that the holy grail of proletarian support for their brand of socialism is rendered almost impossible by Sinn Féin, whose traditional mix of Republicanism and left of centre politics ensures more working class support in any one constituency than the rest of the left can in the entire country… The far left is to Sinn Féin what the Labour Party is to Fianna Fáil and both leftist groupings suffer accordingly in that they cannot secure and hold working class support.
Again, the SP is a partial exception, in that Joe and Clare’s strongholds are areas with relatively weak PSF votes, due not least to the fact that Joe and Clare got on the scene first. On the other hand, I don’t think we’ve yet seen the full potential of the southern Shinners – if they can professionalise their organisation, get some more presentable candidates (Donegal’s Piaras Ó Dochartaigh seems to be the coming man) and, importantly, if Gerry lets them have their head, rather than trying to run southern campaigns from Belfast.
But yes, RBB sort of proves the point. As the article points out, the poster boy not only has his base in the most affluent constituency in the state but more particularly in the most affluent parts of that constituency. He can, and probably will, win a council seat from Dún Laoghaire town, but on the other hand my friend Eoin Ó Broin reckons he, Eoin, can corner the proletarian vote in Ballybrack, and I don’t see why not.
Let’s move on to the conclusion:
With his greatly heightened profile in the Lisbon referendum, Boyd Barrett is certain to become a councillor next year, although it will be as a candidate for People Before Profit Alliance rather than the SWP given the lessons learned at previous elections [i.e., that the SWP was unelectable under its own name].
Having digested this political truth, the real question for Boyd Barrett is whether he sticks with the sect that is the SWP, which takes its politics straight from the British left and will never break into mainstream politics in Ireland. The undoubtedly sincere Boyd Barrett is currently in the limelight but without a more durable base he will remain as a radical but impotent voice on the fringes of Irish politics.
Older and more aware Trots like McCann enjoy the lifestyle that such harmless and radical posturing amounts to, but Boyd Barrett may come to realise that he must make a choice between this leisure activity and serious politics. He may conclude that he has to make the plunge into mainstream politics, either as an Independent like Tony Gregory or Finian McGrath, or with one of the larger political parties.
There is quite a bit to unpick here, so I’ll start with the far left’s traditional sniffiness about “clientelism”. Once again, there’s a partial exception for the SP, which might rail against “clientelism” but whose trade union cadre understand the value of constituency representation and patient spadework. The SWP, on the other hand, don’t really do patient spadework. What they excel at is agitprop. And agitprop is great for raising your profile, even to the point where you can get elected, but it doesn’t do you much good in terms of consolidating a base.
Let’s take Belfast as an example. The young and extremely articulate Seán Mitchell is, in my opinion, quite a catch for the SWP. He’s energetic, has loads of contacts and has enough populist street savvy to become quite a formidable agitator in coming years. On the flip side, he’s also of an age where he can find Kieran Allen impressive, but he’ll grow out of that. I have no doubt he could make a fine councillor, although for which party remains to be seen. But let’s compare him for a moment to Sue Ramsey. I’ve no doubt that Seán could argue rings around Sue about Iraq or Zimbabwe or the neo-liberal agenda. But would he have a clue how to sort out somebody’s housing benefit? I think not. And that’s why Sue is in Stormont and Seán isn’t – she may not entirely convince as a parliamentarian, but she’s very good at providing the kind of service her constituents want. If the SWP were really serious about building a base in West Belfast, they would open an advice centre in the middle of Andytown and do this basic clientelist work. But of course they won’t.
McCann is a similar case. If he had stood in the Bogside at the last council elections, there’s a reasonable possibility he might have got in. But instead he chose to stand in the mainly unionist Rural ward. There was some chest-beating about putting up a full slate across Derry, but I’m afraid it gave the impression that Eamonn didn’t want to be elected. Not that you could blame him – sitting on Derry council and listening to the gripes of pensioners with leaky roofs would be a lousy way to spend your old age. I can see that Eamonn is an attractive candidate, but he’s always had a pronounced streak of the ham actor about him. One gets the sense that putting on the performance is at least as important as getting a result.
And so, mutatis mutandis, we can apply this to Richie. I’m actually a little sorry he didn’t make it into the Dáil last year. For one thing, we’ve been deprived of the spectacle of Swiss Toni making a regular beeline to Leinster House to tell him what to say. But, more to the point, Richie would have had to make a decision as to whether to be a sensible and useful public representative or whether to remain a loyal SWP apparatchik. The two are not necessarily compatible. Above all else, there are the demands of revolutionary agitprop. Joe Higgins, it’s true, sometimes feels the need to get arrested, but Joe usually restricts it to once or twice a year. With Richie in the Dáil, there would have been considerable pressure on him to carry out some madcap stunt every week, just to keep himself on the teevee, which might just have managed to publicly discredit the SWP for the next twenty years.
Happily, though, he didn’t quite make the cut, thus enabling himself to postpone the conflict between his electoral career and his organisation a couple of years more. But a day will come, and it won’t be long, when he won’t be able to duck the issue any more.