Lisburn redux


Part the first:

I don’t usually pay much attention to Pat Cox, but the stresses in his reaction to the Lisbon 2 result were revealing in a sense. First we must realise that the biggest activist force on the No side was PSF – maybe, as some observers suggested, they weren’t as active as might have been expected, but they could still turn more people out by far anyone else. Next in line, although several degrees of magnitude smaller, was probably the Socialist Party, and after that you’re into the alphabet soup.

So, was Cox celebrating his victory over the socialists and subversives? No, he was not. In fact, he loudly proclaimed victory over Libertas, UKIP, David Cameron and News International. This may seem on the face of it to be a bit churlish, failing to recognise those on the No side who were actually much more to the fore in setting the tone. But maybe it wasn’t quite.

It may be, you see, that an opposition of republicans and Marxists, distasteful as that might be to Pat Cox, wouldn’t be entirely unwelcome on realpolitik grounds. Joe Higgins is an excellent public representative, but the Dublin establishment could certainly cope with an opposition consisting of Joe and his mates – Joe is a fixture in Irish politics, he is popular enough to get elected, he can make speeches that make the government look shifty, but short of a great proletarian upsurge, he’s not about to pose a serious threat to the Irish state, and in the absence of such an upsurge, his programme remains on the pie-in-the-sky level.

Chairman Ganley is another matter. He actually does have an alternative programme for Irish capitalism. Now, this might be counter-intuitive for those on the left who reckon that the EU is all about neoliberalism. There’s been quite a bit of that in the post-Maastricht period especially, but it’s equally possible to argue that the EU’s predominant economic model is actually mercantilism. To get your head around this, you need to break from the idea that neoliberalism is the only contemporary mode of capitalism – and also to realise that mercantilism, which is state-driven but doesn’t involve expropriation, is not the same thing as state capitalism. The American right’s critique of the EU has been that it’s a mercantilist cartel, and if you’re a banana grower in the West Indies, it certainly looks a bit like a mercantilist cartel. Is it insignificant that the Lisbon text, on the insistence of the Sarkozy government, left out the traditional reference to free trade?

This, then, is the difference between Ganley and, say, Mick O’Leary. The latter is a classic mercantilist capitalist, in that his business relies on the exercise of political clout to get the state to give him stuff. Ganley is much more of the swashbuckling capitalist of legend, which is where his small-state instincts come in, in a way that’s very un-Irish. No doubt I’ve said this before, but while I don’t think The Irish Industrial Revolution stands up to scrutiny, there is definitely something in the old Workers Party concept of the lazy Irish bourgeoisie. Yes, the Irish bourgeoisie love their mercantilism.

And this brings us back to Cox. It’s like the way the coverage of the Lisbon debate in the Irish Catholic completely ignored the communists and atheists in the No camp, training its fire on Cóir – because the Catholic ultras challenge the hierarchy on its own turf. Ganley challenges Cox on his own turf, which is why Cox sees him as a much more immediate threat.

Part the second:

Let’s now take a look at what political conclusions we can draw from the No. Some observers might take heart from the majority of the swing being a matter of increased turnout on the Yes side, might point out that there was still a substantial 600,000 votes, or 32%, for a No position that finds no expression in the political establishment. But let’s not overstate this. In a referendum, you can usually find 30% or thereabouts who will vote against the establishment on any issue at all (the Albanian referendum on the Good Friday Agreement was exceptional), and I’m not sure that the No expresses a general alienation rather than an alienation on this particular issue. But if we frame this more modestly, there are some points worth considering.

As you’ll probably have noted, the breakdown of the referendum results by constituency has a very clear sociological pattern. The south Dublin triangle of Dublin South, Kingstown and Dublin South East (the richest three constituencies in the state) were, as with Lisbon 1, at the top of the table, this time with Yes returns of around 80%. (Which perhaps raises a question over the persuasive powers, as opposed to the likeable personality, of Richard Boyd Barrett.) These three were then followed, to a large extent, by the commuter belt. On the other hand, the two constituencies to return a No majority were the two Donegal constituencies; next in line was Dublin South West (essentially Tallaght); there were four other relatively plebeian Dublin constituencies in the top ten, plus Cork North Central, Louth and Mayo.

Now, you can’t tell everything about the social makeup of the No votes from the pure geography, but it is suggestive, and what it suggests to me is this. We can almost certainly say that the majority of the working class voted Yes, and we know that the No vote was far from being exclusively working class or on the political left; nonetheless, I would suggest that the No vote was a preponderantly working class and small farmer No. The higher No votes tended to be in poorer parts of the state; they also, not coincidentally, tended to be in areas with a socialist or republican presence of some significance.

To digress for a moment, over on Cedar Lounge there’s a discussion of Cóir’s mooted transformation into a political party. For reasons that are gone into on that thread, I can’t see this being successful. Mark P mentions the failure of outfits like Muintir na hÉireann or the National Party to take off, while the CSP, despite having commendable persistence, has racked up a uniformly dismal set of electoral results. There is nothing even on the scale of Aiséirghe in the 1940s, nor (thank the Lord) is there a personality of the ilk of the late Oliver J Flanagan. It is a curious thing that, in an overwhelmingly Catholic state, there is no Catholic party, doubly so when you consider that 20 or 30 years ago all three of the main parties were basically Catholic parties.

There is, I’m convinced of it, a conservative Catholic section of the electorate that is basically unrepresented by the existing party system, and largely ignored by the Leinster House establishment. The new blasphemy law is a blatant piece of tokenism aimed at this neglected section of the electorate (also in the context of Dermot Ahern positioning himself for the next FF leadership contest), and is remarkable mainly for its rarity as such. The only politician in recent years to have successfully appealed to that base is Kathy Sinnott, and the moral conservative element of her support was largely supplementary to her core support among that other huge and neglected constituency of the disabled and carers. Generally I think groups like Cóir, or YD back in the day, can strike a chord on single issues – specifically the abortion issue – and that helps Cóir have a certain impact in a referendum situation, but it would be much trickier to translate that into a broader party project.

On the other hand, we do know that there is a sociological base for what might be loosely termed a party of republican labour (as distinct from the Labour Party), should such a formation exist. You can trace this from Dr McCartan’s presidential campaign in 1945, through the rise and fall of Clann na Poblachta, the various electoral outings of the various incarnations of Sinn Féin and the Workers Party, to the more recent inroads of the small hard-left formations in Dublin. There’s even a traceable continuity there, for instance in how much of the Higgins vote in Dublin West built out of the former Mac Giolla vote.

Obviously this is not an uncomplicated business. I’ll probably touch on a few of these points in returning to The Lost Revolution (shortly, I assure you), but in the first instance there is the tension between republican and socialist versions of radical politics. (Sometimes this is, in the old Maoist terminology, a non-antagonistic contradiction, but it’s never a seamless fit.) There’s also a connected but not entirely coterminous tension between what sort of politics will fly in Dublin and what will fly in Mayo or Kerry.

Finally, there’s the subjective factor. You can say – as the Socialist Party does – that the decay of Labour in Britain creates a space for a new mass workers’ party, but the left forces who might favour such a thing are desperately weak, and Labour can limp on for quite a long time in the absence of any serious challenge. What we’ve got here to fill that gap are PSF – with all their inherent limitations and contradictions – and the small hard-left formations, with all their inherent limitations and contradictions. I think an alliance between PSF and the Marxist left can basically be ruled out, and so can any sort of wide-ranging alliance among the left groups. Mark Steel has a good gag about the British left, that Militant would talk about the SWP in such tones of horror that you would think that the SWP were the ruling military junta, while the SWP had an established approach towards Militant of publicly calling for unity and privately calling them a bunch of wankers. That’s been the general pattern with the Irish franchises, though they seem to have calmed down a bit in recent years.

Again, though I know I’m repeating myself, while being aware of the broader opportunities, my instinct is to avoid grandiose unity initiatives and look for areas of potential practical collaboration. (This also applies to Gerry’s calls for an alliance with Labour – in certain areas and on certain issues, collaboration might make sense, but Martin Ferris didn’t get where he is today by making a historic compromise with Dick Spring, nor do I imagine Seán Crowe is dying to be a sweeper for Pat Rabbitte.) EU referenda are one thing, but I’m also impressed by, for instance, the breadth of people who’ve signed up to the Seán Garland extradition campaign, a spectrum that would be hard to imagine ten or fifteen years ago. Perhaps, by making the targets modest and concrete, we might achieve more. Like Jagger said, you can’t always get what you want…


  1. sonofstan said,

    October 11, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    There is, I’m convinced of it, a conservative Catholic section of the electorate that is basically unrepresented by the existing party system, and largely ignored by the Leinster House establishment.

    Socially conservative, but not necessarily pro- any variety of capitalism. I know of people who moved from Labour to CSP and the like.

  2. splinteredsunrise said,

    October 11, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Quite so, and that’s something the left tends to miss out. I’ve heard SWP types in Dublin describe Kathy Sinnott in terms that would place her close to fascism, which completely misreads her whole base. And western republicanism is a whole other kettle of fish.

  3. Neil said,

    October 11, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    “There’s even a traceable continuity there, for instance in how much of the Higgins vote in Dublin West built out of the former Mac Giolla vote.”

    That’s only a part of the picture and a lesser one at that.
    My understanding is that when the new housing estates went up in Blanchardstown and Mulhuddert in the mid to late 70’s it was Militant members who built the first branch of the Labour Party there.
    Don’t forget Joe Higgins was originally selected to be Labour’s candidate in the 1992 general election but some bureaucratic manouevering from HQ saw him kicked off for Joan Burton to come in.

    When Joe was first elected in 1997 the Labour vote was cut in half and Joan Burton was forced to sit it out on the sidelines for a few years (the second best thing about getting Joe elected!) Getting Joe elected has always depended on the size of the Labour vote we can hoover up. In reality the Sticky (i.e. older voters in the longer established estates) vote tends to fragment between LP, SF and SP.

    Your making the same mistake SF made in 2002 in assuming there is a big republican left constitiuency in Dublin West. This led them to the quixotic decision to parachute Mary Lou into the area. I believe SF thought they could get the ex Sticky vote and make in roads into FF working class base (still considerable back then, SP got a surprising number of second preference votes from FF in Mulhudert). Not for the first time Mary Lou didn’t do so good against Joe Higgins.

    I’d also question whether there really is a big passive republican labour constitiuency in the South. It’s not a coincidence SF have run in to trouble precisely when there’s been an uptick in class struggle.

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