Republicanism and socialism at the parish pump

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Many years ago, the then unionist majority on Belfast City Council was getting a bit of stick for its exclusivist regime. This was sparked, if memory serves, by the annual ritual whereby the unionists would parcel out the plum jobs of Lord Mayor, Deputy Lord Mayor and High Sheriff, together with all the aldermanships and chairs and vice-chairs of committees, amongst themselves, with nobody of the Catholic persuasion getting a look in. Then some razor-sharp wit on the unionist benches – and they do have their moments – came up with an imaginative solution. First, veteran Workers Party councillor Jim Sullivan was appointed chair of the water services committee. Then they abolished the committee.

When I’m talking to Dubliners, I often have terrible trouble explaining the ins and outs of Belfast municipal politics. This is largely an issue of whether or not you’ve been on the ground much. Outsiders don’t have the advantage of prolonged exposure to city fathers like Sammy Wilson, Jim Rodgers, Shughie Smyth, Fred Cobain or Big Frankie Millar (though they may know his son, Wee Frankie), men who you would need to have observed first-hand rather than had described to you. This is especially so because of all the true stories about goings-on at the council that invariably make the narrator sound like a shocking liar. What I would say is that, if you watch The Wire, you’ll be at an advantage in grasping the atmosphere. You can pick up further invaluable detail by reading Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s book on the Dome of Delight, or alternatively you can ask Eoin Ó Broin, who I don’t think has ever recovered from his stint as a Belfast councillor.

And this is probably why I have trouble grasping the detail of Dublin municipal politics. The broad sweep, yes, I can get that, it’s just the detail. As far as I can make out, if there are a dozen constituencies on the city council, that means a dozen miniature battlegrounds, each with its own cast of characters, its own psychodramas and its own obscure feuds. So I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of the Christy Burke affair, because there are people closer to the action who are much better informed than I am. But there are a few issues from the broader outcomes of the locals that I’d like to ponder.

It’s probably best to start with the PSF performance, which is interesting for a number of reasons. Chris, as sharp as ever, has some useful thoughts on the matter – I don’t share Chris’ partisan loyalties, or therefore his starting point, but he hits a number of nails on the head. I’ll deal with the political issues rather than the strictly technocratic ones. The first question is to ask how it is that PSF candidates did well in areas of relative weakness, getting a foothold in Limerick, for example, but lost votes in some areas where they had done well last time out, particularly having a shocker in Dublin. There was, it’s true, a pincer movement in the capital, between the Labour surge and the sprinkling of victories for the small far-left formations, as well as the loss of a layer of activists, but those considerations don’t apply in, say, Donegal. It’s very obvious from this that they have not been making the best possible use of their existing council mandates.

The question, I think, is to ask what the party is for in the south, and there are a few different aspects to this. One is that, as with any all-Ireland party, the logic of partition can be disorienting. There’s clearly a mass base in the north for a party that aggressively represents the nationalist community, and there’s also – and this has always been true, and demonstrably so since Clann na Poblachta – a significant sociological base in the south for what we might loosely term a party of republican labour. But these are not the same thing, and can often be contradictory. This isn’t, by the way, just a matter of Belfast-based leaders being hazy on the details of southern politics. It’s something that Eoin Ó Broin talks about in the conclusion to his new book on left republicanism, although Eoin shows the requisite diplomatic reserve.

By way of illustration, there is the occasional discussion of coalition options. Some of the Nornies seem to be fascinated by the notion of an FF-SF coalition bringing together the big republican family, and by having Sinn Féin ministers on both sides of the border, the idea being that this would somehow bring the republic closer. This is not necessarily welcome to those activists who are trying hard to cannibalise the Fianna Fáil base. On the other hand, sometimes Gerry likes to float the idea of a left alliance involving Labour. This has some sort of coherence behind it in terms of building a centre-left pole in southern politics. But again, go and ask Martin Ferris if he got where he is today by making a historic compromise with Dick Spring. Besides, if you want to be radical there’s nothing wrong with hunkering down for prolonged opposition.

It’s clear that a party trading under the Sinn Féin brand has an identity to conjure with, in that it’s popularly identified with national unity and independence, and some form of social radicalism. Not unconnected to that is a very strong reliance on the protest vote. The question is therefore one of how you go beyond simply being a protest party. Chris mentions the need to get past the vision thing and put forward meaningful, concrete policies. It’s a no-brainer – while in the north you can get elected by being the Catholic party, in the south you need some kind of policies. Even Neil Blaney, though he was animated primarily by the national question, had detailed politics beyond that, mostly related to serving the needs of North-East Donegal. Now, you have a situation where Gerry is great at doing the vision thing – at least, he’s great at making speeches full of nice-sounding abstract nouns like progress, unity, ecology, feminism, equality – but he doesn’t really do concrete. Up here, he’s been banging on about the Acht Gaeilge for years, and I’m still not clear what would actually be in the Acht Gaeilge. That won’t cut much ice in the 26. At the risk of getting ahead of myself, it’s a bit like Richard Boyd Barrett explaining that he’s pro-working class, pro-abortion, pro-gay, and pro-immigration, only to leave you asking “Yes, but what do you want?”

This issue of identity is, I think, the core thing – the technocratic issues around structures and so on are secondary. If you settle for a more-or-less-radical leftish position – which is itself open to question, not least because of pressures in the north – then oppositionism and an activist-based politics should theoretically flow from that. If you’re rooted enough in activist politics, strong candidates should emerge. We shall see. I’m not a party supporter, and can frequently be heard inquiring, “Oh my God, have you seen what the Provos are at now?”, but I don’t doubt that there are talented and committed people there, and at least some of them are asking the right questions.

Let’s now skip over briefly to the left. There’s no doubt that the further left has had a good election. It’s also important, and I hate to say this but it’s necessary, to keep a sense of proportion, before we start reading articles about the Red Soviet of Dún Laoghaire. The left has done well in Dublin, though it’s by no means challenging for power, it’s still sketchy outside of Dublin and in most of the country it doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, an election at the height of an enormous economic collapse, with a deeply unpopular Fianna Fáil government, has provided a rare opportunity for all sorts of populist independents, and outside-the-mainstream political species far removed from the Dublin Trots. There’s probably a story in Ted Tynan being elected for the Workers Party in Cork, or indeed of Tomás Ó Curraoin for RSF in Conamara. More interesting, perhaps, is the deepening success of the Healy group in Tipperary, by some distance the most locally successful left formation in the state.

A good result of course for the Socialist Party, topped off with Joe Higgins getting elected to Europe. I’m very pleased at that, but also surprised, and I suspect there are people in the SP almost as surprised. My assumption was that Joe’s Euro run, like that five years ago, was about raising his profile and that of the party, gaining contacts city-wide, and putting down a marker for socialism. What seemed more likely was that Joe would cruise back onto Fingal council and use that as his platform for the next general election. That he could actually get into Europe is just a bonus.

I must say, though I disagree with a fair amount of what the SP have to say, I’m quite kindly disposed towards them in the municipal sphere, which gets them at their best. The trouble with being a councillor in the south is that the councils have very few actual powers – it goes without saying that there are fewer opportunities still to achieve anything if you’re in opposition on the council – and since Jack Lynch opportunistically abolished the rates, the councils have no revenue-raising abilities unless they levy regressive service charges. So the councillor becomes, in effect, a social worker, whose main duties are the fixing of leaky roofs, the procurement of medical cards and the making of representations on behalf of constituents. The SP have a knack for this because their electoral approach is devolved from their trade union approach, and they don’t have this terrible leftist allergy to doing boring, mundane constituency service. For better or worse, they have a good shot at consolidating themselves for the longer term.

I’ll also be interested to look at the future progress of the SWP, who made a small breakthrough under their People Before Profit/Save Our Seafront banner, because a whole different set of considerations apply to them. It’s true that in recent years, the SWP have made conscious efforts to overcome their vulnerability to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but long-term graft still sits uneasily on their shoulders. First you have to consider what the SWP is. Its members would say that they are a revolutionary Marxist party, which is the case in a formal ideological sense, but in operative terms they are almost a pure protest party. 95% of what they do is protesting about this or that. What’s more, they are even more addicted than Gerry to the big picture. Young Seán Mitchell up here can go on the wireless and be extremely articulate about Iraq, but he wouldn’t have a clue how to go about sorting your housing benefit, and I would be flabbergasted if he suddenly set up an advice centre in the middle of Andytown devoted to this unglamorous work. When you take this alongside the SWP’s anarchistic dislike of making positive proposals – they’re always happiest opposing something – you have the living manifestation of “down with this sort of thing” politics.

As a result, what Swiss Toni and his acolytes are best at is agitprop. Agitprop has its uses, it can raise your profile wonderfully – especially when, like the Rich Boy, you’re the chair of eight or nine protest movements simultaneously – and it can even get you elected, but it’s open to question whether it can keep you elected. My experience is that the punters expect to have fulltime councillors, and it will be worth watching the reaction of the broad masses of Ballyfermot, Clondalkin and Kingstown when they realise they have in fact elected fulltime protestors. Repeatedly getting arrested at one stunt or another would be a novel take on constituency service.

It doesn’t, of course, have to be like that. There’s no iron law that says RBB couldn’t be a useful public representative along the lines of the late Tony Gregory. He’s a better speaker than Tony, and he’s more personable. But it’s debatable whether he wants to go down that road, and even more debatable whether he could do so without shedding his party.

14 Comments

  1. Mark P said,

    June 13, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    I’m very pleased at that, but also surprised, and I suspect there are people in the SP almost as surprised.”

    That’s a bet you’d win.

    More gene rally, your piece is a pretty fair assessment of a few things. It will be interesting to see how the new PBPA councillors actually behave in office. Their man in Clondalkin, for instance, is chiefly known for (a) being a very nice lad and (b) getting done for spraypainting slogans about Palestine about the place.

  2. WorldbyStorm said,

    June 13, 2009 at 6:12 pm

    Well, whatever your implied caveats about not knowing municipal politics south of the border, I think your analysis is spot on…

  3. ejh said,

    June 14, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Repeatedly getting arrested at one stunt or another would be a novel take on constituency service.

    Not so novel that it wasn’t a major part of the activity of People’s Democracy or the Scottish Socialist Party when those organisations were in their pomp.

  4. Mark P said,

    June 14, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I’m not sure that the stunt-a-week period of the SSP is a part of that party’s history that anyone would want to emulate.

  5. ejh said,

    June 14, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Would it be snarky of me to ask whether that was your view at the time?

  6. Garibaldy said,

    June 14, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    Eoin Ó Broin always used his getting arrested – such as when he snuck up to the top of Belfast City Hall to put the tricolour – to get himself street cred.

  7. Mark P said,

    June 14, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    ejh:

    I’d like to be able to claim that this was because I had cleverly identified the problems of the SSP in advance and had realised that the focus on stunts was a symptom of a wider disorientation. Unfortunately that would be a lie. About the most I can claim is that I was rather vaguely of the opinion that some of their behaviour was a bit silly and that it probably wasn’t good strategy to turn your organisation into a sideshow.

    In retrospect, even if the SSP had managed to avoid splitting over thw world historic significance of Tommy’s tackle I think that they would have had a rough time of it in the last Scottish Parliament elections.

  8. ejh said,

    June 14, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    the focus on stunts was a symptom of a wider disorientation

    It is instructive how often we can trace errors of political tactics back to a fundamental failure to clarify one’s political ideas.

  9. Mark P said,

    June 14, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    Not actually the point I was making.

    I have little time for the politics of the SSP leadership as they evolved, as you no doubt know, but the wider disorientation I was talking about above was itself a broadly tactical one. Their central politics were much the same as they’d been a few years earlier, but the tactical approach had changed.

    The SSP and its predecessors had been built by hard graft in working class communities, (an approach which can be used by people with a range of different political positions). When they moved from 1 MSP to 6, the balance shifted towards Holyrood. They ended up with an army of full time staff looking after their parliamentary work and with an attitude within the party which increasingly looked towards the MSPs for direction. MSPs who were largely occupied with dressing up as Robin Hood or getting thrown out of Parliament in the desire to stay in the headlines. Despite having a much enlarged membership, that membership tended to be more passive and much of the previously continuous community based campaigning began to dry up.

    My understanding, by the way, is that the existence of such a shift and its negative consequences is one of the only things the two post split parties actually agree on.

  10. Ferenka Fred said,

    June 14, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    There’s a feature in the Sunday Tribune today on Sinn Fein’s southern travails.

  11. Ciarán said,

    June 15, 2009 at 4:58 am

    That Tribune piece is online (I’m guessing it’s the one you’re referring to): http://www.tribune.ie/news/article/2009/jun/14/the-partitioning-of-sinn-fein/

  12. Neil said,

    June 15, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    By the way Splintered since your so kindly disposed to the SP any chance of putting up a link on the blog to ourselves or the CWI? Even the mighty IBT get a look in and not us. 😦

  13. splinteredsunrise said,

    June 15, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    Surely I’ll do that. I’ve been meaning to make the links a bit more systematic anyway.

  14. Neil said,

    June 17, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    🙂


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