Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Why has the Brit-left forgotten about Ireland?
The silence from the British left about the recent elections in Northern Ireland has been somewhat deafening. It is as if the Brit left has a play list like Radio one, and only the top ten issues can be discussed. Both the Socialist Party, and the SWP reported the results only in terms of the votes that their own candidates achieved, and neither provided any substantive analysis in the lead up to the poll, or indeed afterwards.
What do we learn from them? According to the Socialist Party: “What was most clearly shown by this election was the need for a new political force to challenge the right-wing sectarian parties and represent the united interests of working-class communities on both sides of the divide. While there is very little in the Assembly vote that points to the potential for a new party of this character to emerge, the results do not tell the full story. ... the votes, although still small - 248 votes in South Belfast and 225 in East Belfast - were up on the last Assembly election. The party got a very warm response in working-class areas during the election and now has a good platform to build for mass non-payment of water charges in these communities.”
According to the SWP: “Socialists Eamonn McCann in Derry and Sean Mitchell in Belfast stood to provide an alternative to communal division and neoliberalism. Eamonn McCann received a substantial vote in the Foyle constituency, getting 5 percent of first preferences with 2,045 votes, while 19 year old student Sean Mitchell got 2.3 percent with 774 votes. Sean said, “It is a reflection of the support that we had on the doorsteps. When you are talking about water charges, poor housing and poverty, there are no lines on the map that cannot be crossed. ”
The British reader would therefore conclude that these were elections where the water charges were the most significant issue. And the only structural obstacle to achieving class unity between catholic and Loyalist workers is that no one has ever thought of it before. (Indeed the sigificantly higher vote for Mccann than any of the other left candidates proves the opposite, as he also stood on a platform made of the thin gruel of water charges and Iraq, but got a big personal vote because of his past assossiation with anti-imperialism)
But hang on. Weren’t these elections about the restoration of self rule through Stormont, informed by the surrender of Provisional Sinn Féin over the issue of policing? Didn’t the left groups notice this?
Just two months ago the Police ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, issued a report following a £2 million pound investigation, concluding that the RUC had colluded with loyalist death squads, protecting them while they carried out 10 murders and 72 other serious crimes, including 10 attempted murders, 10 punishment shootings, 13 punishment attacks, a bombing in Monaghan, in the Irish republic, and 17 instances of drug dealing, as well as criminal damage, extortion and intimidation. Bear in mind that the Northern Irish Police Service (NIPS) is supposed to have been “reformed” since then, but the truth is revealed by the fact that “up to six officers at the level of assistant chief constable or detective chief superintendent in the Special Branch refused to cooperate [with the inquiry]. They either did not reply to requests for interviews or their lawyers sent letters on their behalf refusing to take part.”
It is in this context that the acceptance of the NIPS by Sinn Féin can only be interpreted as capitulation, but what have they gained for it? A step towards a 32 county republic? No – the restoration of Stormont with Ian Paisley as First Minister, and as the indispensable Splintered Sunrise blog explains: “The other significant concession … was that the actions of ministers would be subject to the approval of the Assembly, as opposed to the virtual autonomy ministers had under the Good Friday Agreement. Taken together with the provision for weighted voting, this means the DUP – with 36 of the 108 seats, but the majority of unionist MLAs – can not only veto legislation, but also non-legislative actions of ministers. It doesn’t take a genius to foresee that the DUP would vote against any proposal of a Provo minister, even one they agree with, just out of badness. In other words, we will have the content if not the form of majority rule.”
There is no mention at all of these issues in the Brit-left press. What is more, there is a clear shift from the SWP. It has been the traditional position of the Socialist Party (Millies) to argue that if they ignore the question of imperialism hard enough then oppressed Catholics in Northern could achieve workers unity with the bigoted prods who hate them. Historically the SWP had opposed this class reductionism, for example in 2002 Socialist Worker reported: “The problem stems from the top of society. The reason sectarianism is flourishing is because we still live in a sectarian state where the British have divided people and Catholics are oppressed.” Quite right - but now, Sean Mitchell is parroting the Millies’ line: “When you are talking about water charges, poor housing and poverty, there are no lines on the map that cannot be crossed. “There are no ‘no go’ areas for these issues.”” Again, Socialist Worker argues: “when workers fight back together – as they did a year ago when Protestant and Catholic post workers united against their bosses – there is a possibility for real change”
We socialists have to have a dream, so I can see that the prospect of saving £50 on your water rates will easily overcome the legacy of 900 years of oppression and occupation, and as a procession of Orange bigots marches through your area with bowler hats, sashes, pipes and drums, raging with hatred against you, you can look at them and say – “hey they aren’t paying their water rates either”.
Actually there are a lot on interesting things that could be said about the Northern Ireland election, that are relevant to Britain, and the British left.
In the lead up to the election some 500 former republican prisoners signed a letter published in the Irish news expressing distaste for the recognition of the PSNI and urging support for independent Republican candidates. Given 30 years of sacrifice by these brave men and women this is not suprising, they didn't fight a war just to get crumbs. In fact the vote for rebel republicans was smaller than might have been expected, but two factors may explain this: i) the rebel republicans are not offering anything new, and no one wants to go back to the war; ii) the election was a pro-ordained coronation for Paisley and Adams, as a precondition for the continuation of Northern Ireland’s mini-economic boom subsidised at the expense of the British tax payer.
Given the utter failure of the left in England and Wales to build even a half way credible alternative to Tony Blair, despite ten years of neo-liberalism from New Labour, we know that just because something is objectively necessary does not mean it will happen. Traditional republicanism cannot provide the answer unless it relates to the changes in Irish society and the economy – across the whole 32 counties. Appeals to the spirit of 1916 simply won’t cut it. Of course the left are a step ahead, they appeal to the spirit of 1917 instead! But there is utterly no prospect of the left advancing in Northern Ireland unless is does so on the basis of anti-imperialism - not in Iraq but in the six counties. This may be a long haul, but at least it could connect them with an actually existing progressive base. Unfortunately there seems no prospect of this, as the Irish left are infected with the same weaknesses as we have in Britain, either the mind numbing dullness of the Socialist Party, or the get-rich-quick pyramid-selling schemes that the SWP is addicted to.
But a very interesting aspect of this situation is the willingness of the British government to bankroll the whole deal with a mini boom paid for by London. Given this “peace dividend” it would simply have been impolite for Irish voters to turn out for parties opposed to the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements, and much of the dispute between the NI parties was about how this largesse should be spent. According to Splintered Sunrise even the SWP got in on the act, arguing that more youth clubs would be the answer to policing (I am not convinced about that, if I was burgled I would rather have a police force I trusted than a scout hut where 15 year olds were playing ping pong)
Only this week the Department of Trade in Northern Ireland announced that the colony has “the highest number of jobs on record, while the unemployment rate remains below the UK average. Seasonally adjusted figures from the Quarterly Employment Survey estimated that there were 708,880 employee jobs filled in December 2006, representing a net increase of 2,810 over the quarter and an increase of 10,810 over the year. The overall increase over the quarter was driven by rises in Service Sector jobs (+2,440) and Construction jobs (+300), while manufacturing jobs remained static.”
So a familiar picture of the growth of the state sector and a property boom, with a stagnant manufacturing sector. Don’t you love Gordon Brown – the illusion of prosperity based upon huge personal debt, while no-one actually makes anything.
Which feeds into another very interesting aspect of the Irish situation, which is the economic boom in the 26 counties. During the 1980s, Irish SWP supremo Kieran Allen floated the idea that the 26 counties was no longer subordinated to the British economy and British political interests, a somewhat premature judgement I thought at the time. But since joining the Euro the economy in the 26 counties has significantly out performed the British (certainly so if we look at the real economy rather than finance capital), and most significantly this has included manufacturing growth and development of export markets independent of the UK. In 2005, Ireland supplied 46 per cent of its exports to the EU, 19 per cent to the US, 17 per cent to the UK and 18 per cent to the rest of the world. As Cambridge economist, Donald Adamson observed: “In the debate on whether Ireland should join the euro, an editorial in the Irish Times in March 1998 argued that failure to join would be tantamount to, “Ireland reclassifying itself, effectively, as a UK dependency.””
The logic of this is very interesting, as even Ian Paisley’s DUP is now arguing for Corporation tax harmonisation with the republic, cutting tax on business from 30% to 12.5% . So the unionists want to see an all Ireland tax rate, in recognition that economic integration of the 32 counties is more beneficial than linking the six counties economy to London! Nor are they the only unionists to think this, Scotland’s First Minister, “Union Jack” McConnell, wants to join the gang.
The response from the UK treasury underlines the colonial status of Northern Ireland, according to the Scotsman newspaper: “Last night, one government source in London insisted that there had never been any question of a tax cut for Northern Ireland, and said that Mr Brown would oppose such move because of the risk of encouraging calls for fiscal autonomy for Scotland.” So Northern Ireland’s economy is subservient to the interests of Britain’s, and its real material interest of greater economic integration with the 26 counties is vetoed for reasons totally extraneous to Ireland.
All this has some interesting implications for British relations with Ireland.
Firstly, the bowler hated bigotry of the Official Unionists was overlooked by the British media, and they were presented as misunderstood Tories, whereas Paisley has always been presented in Britain as a bulging eyed mad paddy. Given that it is around fifteen years or more since the last bomb went off on the mainland, perhaps the British tax payer’s subsidy of a Northern Ireland jointly run by Ian Paisley and Provisional Sinn Fein might become a political issue here. In England there is very little interest in maintaining the union with Northern Ireland – sorry Ian, your love is unrequited.
Secondly, the current constitutional settlement between Hollyrood and Westminster is unstable and inevitably at some time Scotland will become independent. There will likely then be a dispute between Dublin, London and Edinburgh about what happens to the six counties – unless they get their act together it doesn’t seem likely the left or republicans will play any part in deciding the outcome of that.
(On the claim that the SWP has offered no analysis: SWP blogger, Snowball, has pointed to the following article in Socialist Worker , but actually this doesn’t contradict my thesis, because although there is mention that Catholics are oppressed it puts the emphasis on there being two sectarian camps, as if the problem derives from Ireland, rather than British imperialism being the engine of sectarianism. As Liam Mac Uaid says in the comments below: "It's a peculiar sort of "analysis" of the north of Ireland that makes no reference to the imperialist victory or even the role of imperialism in Irish society. A lot of Alliance Party members would find those two pieces uncontentious and they are liberal pro-imperialists.")