The Coming Of The New Left

Writing for Socialist Unity, the Independent Workers Union activist, Tommy McKearney explores the potential at this juncture for the Irish Left to develop.

Fianna Fáil continues to support the Fine Gael-led coalition in spite of having done a U-turn on water charges.

Its move against Uisce Éireann was more than simple opportunism. On the one hand it certainly did indicate a party preparing for the next general election by endeavouring to clear as many obstacles from its path as possible. Equally so — and this is important — Fianna Fáil populists have recognised that there is a changed political climate in the Republic. They may not have realised, though, that it is more than a passing phase. The financial collapse of 2010 and subsequent leeching of the 26-Counties’ people by the Troika has revealed a powerful socio-political constituency at odds with the status quo. What is not obvious, though, is the direction in which this movement is heading.

Politics in the south of Ireland was dominated until recently by three conservative political parties; and no matter how much some of us despaired, the people appeared content with the arrangement. No longer though. Fianna Fáil’s somersault actually went some way towards underlining this fact. Thanks in no small measure to Mícheál Martin’s Pauline conversion, the fate of the water tax is sealed for the time being, and few of its opponents can have failed to recognise this.  

In spite of that, last month saw one of the largest protest demonstrations in Dublin this year. Thousands took to the streets demanding the definitive abolition of a virtually defunct tax.

How does such energy remain in a campaign that is seemingly won? The reason is that something profoundly different and important has undoubtedly happened. A goodly proportion of the population is deeply uncomfortable with the existing model of governance, epitomised by the major parties that have held power over the decades. After several years of austerity and the bailing out of bankers, we are now witnessing the bizarre and offensive spectacle of a Dublin government refusing to collect €13 billion in tax from the world’s wealthiest corporation.  

Working people are understandably angry—so angry, indeed, that the Irish Independent reported that the Gardaí closed off Molesworth Street for a day in September, apparently fearing that “angry protesters would strike again as the Dáil resumed recently after its summer break . . .”

Even allowing for Indo hype or Garda overreaction, this is a remarkable situation, with a government seemingly frightened by its own citizens. Nor is this a localised Irish phenomenon that may exhaust itself through the granting of limited concessions. Similar sentiments are being expressed throughout Europe and North America. So disenchanted have people become with the working out of contemporary capitalism that even powerful representatives of the global elite are openly concerned.
Their worries were summarised by a recent editorial in the Financial Times that stated that:

supporters of open markets and liberal values are acutely aware that they are facing a political backlash that threatens the current international order . . . Christine Lagarde spoke of the ‘groundswell of discontent’ felt in many countries with growing inequality in income wealth and opportunity.

The article went on to mention other concerned members of the global elite, including the EU bosses Donald Tusk and Mario Draghi. Needless to say, the moneyed people’s newspaper only offered free-market solutions.

This belief in free-market economics, long shared also by social democrats, is now being challenged to a greater extent than at any time since the 1930s. Events in England, with the consolidation of Jeremy Corbyn’s position at the head of Britain’s Labour Party, are further proof of what is happening.  

Developments within that party are instructive, exciting even, and surely to be welcomed in the wider context, in spite of their limited social democratic agenda. They have, nevertheless, the potential to be somewhat misleading, in the sense that under Irish conditions there cannot be an exact replication of the Corbyn campaign.  

As a result of extensive nineteenth-century industrialisation and the growth of the trade union movement there has existed in Britain a mass working-class party (albeit centre social democrat and bourgeois-led) since the early 1900s. There is no similar mass organisation in Ireland, and we would do well to recognise this. For well-known historical reasons, the political left of centre in Ireland is not dominated by any one party, as it is in Britain. Nor has the modern Irish working class a shared folk memory identical to that which still influences many British working-class communities.

Ireland’s history of anti-colonial struggle, coupled with what for decades was a predominantly rural population, has helped shape its grass-roots political movements, resulting in several schools of thought. Consequently, the strong radical constituency that has emerged over the last few years is influenced by a number of different currents, as evidenced by those participating in the recent Right2Water demonstration. Without question it is a predominantly working-class movement with a healthy trade-union contribution, an obvious socialist and republican participation, and a non-party community involvement. While this is clearly a healthy and progressive development, there is minimum consensus on a shared programme, how it might be implemented, and by whom.

Agreement around a limited programme such as the Right2Change principles is a useful first step but has weaknesses when inevitably faced by major issues such as membership of the European Union, the rejection of finance imperialism, or partition. And let us be honest with each other: these are important issues that cannot be ignored and will eventually either split a movement or prevent it unifying. Republicans, for example, will continue to reject partition, and socialists will remain hostile to EU membership.

Until there is agreement on these contentious but vital issues it is premature to talk of a new mass political party of the working class. On the other hand, ignoring these questions in an attempt to maintain a façade of unity will at best result in creating the type of compromised and flawed entity that is SYRIZA.

However, there is no reason for despondency or lethargy. Significant progress has been made, and the conditions are favourable for positive advancement by the working class. What is required is to identify a vehicle that will allow for maximum co-operation while simultaneously facilitating and promoting intensive discussion and negotiation around the formulation and implementation of a programme for the establishment of a socialist republic.  

We already have Right2Change as a vehicle with a proven record of promoting co-operation. More, however, is required in the form of organisational and policy consensus. In this age of modern communications, with continuous on-line activity, among other helpful features, there is every opportunity to carry out the extensive political education and discussion needed to complete the tasks.

At the risk of echoing the afore-mentioned U-turners, significant progress made, but much remains to be accomplished.


  1. "Even allowing for Indo hype or Garda overreaction, this is a remarkable situation, with a government seemingly frightened by its own citizens."

    As it should be.

    "Their worries were summarised by a recent editorial in the Financial Times that stated that:
    supporters of open markets and liberal values are acutely aware that they are facing a political backlash that threatens the current international order . . . Christine Lagarde spoke of the ‘groundswell of discontent’ felt in many countries with growing inequality in income wealth and opportunity."

    The proles are revolting! Seriously though, who among us is not sick of hearing how immensely profitable multi-nationals shift profits overseas and rob local economies of much needed revenue? It's almost as if the politicians have been bought off. The same thing is happening here in Australia where the right wing are flogging off public utilities to private businesses, invariably with foreign ownership, who then proceed to hike up the price while not investing in infrastructure.

    Couldn't agree more with this article. Perhaps an open invite to all parties to discuss these matters is key, the vehicle being an open forum. Most parties share at least some common beliefs and have a common voter base. I would suggest doing it by city/county base. Set out the parameters so it doesn't just turn into a sh*tflinging exercise, and get agreement or at least understanding on the part of all participants.


  2. Interestingly, after these struggles there is no discussion about what sort of 'socialism' all this effort is in aid of. Nobody is asking the most important question – what do we mean by ‘socialism’?

    Should the country be ruled by a parliament, by workers' councils or even by a one party dictatorship? Should it be old-style left Labour or libertarian socialism? Should it be sympathetic to the regime in Cuba, or even to the totalitarian Stalinist dynasty in North Korea? Where would freedom fit into things?

    Anarchists have a good record of working alongside others to win whatever victories are presently possible and of using methods that encourage working class self-confidence rather than reliance on personalities or leaders.

    However when it comes to the proposals for ‘left unity’ we need to look at what is on the table – most immediately it’s an alliance for the 26 county local elections next summer.

    The failure of the left in the last century was, to a very large extent, that it adopted the political organisation of capitalism in promoting a system of choosing some person or party to govern the working class.

    This emphasis on leaders and parties is also a legacy of the failure of 20th century 'socialism'. Let us not forget that practically all of this left takes its inspiration from the Bolshevik party and its state capitalist dictatorship in the old Soviet Union. What we need today is not some sort of united front of existing minor parties, but rather a break with that whole methodology.

    Most importantly, real socialism is inseparable from freedom and direct democracy. Freedom to speak, to discuss, to travel, to organise, to take control of our own lives. All those effected by a decision should have the opportunity of taking part in making that decision. Any vision of socialism that does not explicitly oppose the division of people into rulers and ruled.

  3. I am afraid there isn't much in this article I agree with. It doesn't seem like Tommy McKearney read much of the counter arguments, of which there are many around one of the most important social and political issues in so call 'Republic of Ireland'.
    There is no 'pauline' conversion of FF, no somersault, only tactics, self interest with a right wing, European philosophy.
    The water charge issue has not been 'won' and it is not in the past. Imagine leaving it to the whims of FF, the party that brought the country to it's knees, prepared to hock it hook, line and sinker. Have we not learned anything about how the elite govern. Well maybe some have taken notice and mimic the deceptive practices.

    There is no 'healthy trade union' movement, instead we have self interested, purely monetarists led by well healed leaders with secure jobs. R2C did not promote co-operation, rather party political and trade union agendas and personal aggrandisement. Instead the R2W/R2C top down, manufactured opposition, a 'controlled opposition' of Sinn Fein, Dublin's Mandate and Unite trade unions. This was clearly demonstrated by way it was set up, controlled and run, epitomised by Sinn Fein/Unite/Mandat Union orchestrating the expulsion of AAA and the antics prior to and after the elections. There is not and never has been democracy, room for discussion, criticism. If anyone stepped out of line, or disagreed they were ostracised and demonised. Sound familiar?

    I think there is every reason for despondency and lethargy. We still have a Dail controlled by the right wing even after all that has happened. We have had the biggest protests this county has seen but unfortunately the people who marched the length and breadth have been let down by so called 'progressives' who have used them for their own ends. There is no proper analysis or even the willingness to investigate all the political and social avenues of what is the most important and cohesive social issue in this country