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Saturday, 6 January 2007

Leftist peace process?

Sectarian polarisation in the Six Counties may be as bad as ever, but we can at least offer would-be optimists a small example of détente among the North’s tiny far left.

The upcoming Stormont election has galvanised Eamonn McCann, the Irish SWP’s best-known public figure. Over the past few years Eamonn, via his vehicle the Socialist Environmental Alliance, has stood in several elections and pulled in a respectable if hardly earth-shattering personal vote in his home city of Derry. But Eamonn is not content with Derry, he has been mooting a left slate across all 18 constituencies. The limited resources of the SWP – a mini-branch in Belfast and frig all anywhere else – will clearly not do, and allies are needed. Therefore Eamonn has issued an appeal to the SWP’s deadliest enemies, the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland (P. Hadden prop.).

Up until now, the SPNI has reacted to such calls with lofty disdain. Partly this is due to historically different stances on the North – although both groups support the peace process, the SWP has a history of sucking up to the Provos, while the Millies have established themselves as the Marxist wing of Ulster unionism. So the last time Eamonn made a pitch for an alliance, SPNI spokesman Ciarán Mulholland responded with a long-winded article denouncing the SWP/SEA’s “left republican” programme. This immediately called to mind Jack Dee’s Happy Hour (“it isn’t happy and it doesn’t last an hour”). Likewise, Eamonn’s programme was neither left nor republican. The SPNI then added insult to injury by publishing election “analyses” that boosted their own tiny vote, pretended the apolitical Dr Kieran Deeney of Omagh was some kind of radical, and ignored Eamonn.

The excuse for a new lash-up is the imminent introduction of water charges in the North. The SWP and the SPNI have both been banging the drum for non-payment, although, despite total agreement, they still can’t bear to be part of the same campaign. But, in the light of the water charge issue, and bearing in mind the precedents of Tommy Sheridan and Joe Higgins, the SPNI have hatched a Cunning Plan. It goes something like this:

1. Peter Hadden won’t pay his water bill.
2. Peter will be sent to jail.
3. The broad masses will rally around Peter and elect him to Stormont.

The SWP also have a Cunning Plan. Can you tell what it is yet?

Like one of Baldrick’s Cunning Plans, the far left perspective is so shot through with holes it’s hard to know where to start. In the first place, if the election takes place on schedule, it will happen before the water bills start arriving. Secondly, a government resort to the Small Claims Court or the Enforcement of Judgements Office makes it unlikely anybody will be going to jail. Thirdly, proconsul Hain has been cute enough to introduce the charge in stages. In the first year, only a third will be payable, making £30 for the poorest households. Who, except for an ideologically motivated far-left activist, would risk jail for the sake of £30?

Most importantly, this election, like all elections in the Six, will be a referendum on the peace process. Both left groups, who are planning a single-issue campaign, reckon they can ignore this and turn it into a referendum on water charges simply by declaring it to be so. As if!

And will the unity call succeed? The most likely scenario is that the SPNI(PHP) will tell the SWP to feck off, as they usually do. There is however a faint possibility that they might agree to a paper alliance, as long as the SWP stay 70 miles away in Derry and the Haddenites don’t actually have to talk to them or work with them.

And where do I stand on this? Idly by is where I stand. I don’t take either of these sects remotely seriously, nor do virtually the entire population. I’m much more interested in the possibility of a dissident republican slate than a far left slate. In fact, I would go so far as to say that 500 votes in Derry for Gary Donnelly is worth 2000 for Eamonn McCann. I say that not to boost Gary or do down Eamonn – in terms of formal politics, I’m much closer to Eamonn – but simply to state that a dissident run would challenge the Provos. A single-issue run by the far left, either united or separately, won’t represent a challenge to anyone.


Anonymous said...

This looks like it could be an interesting blog, so I hope you stick with it. That said I think that this post, filled as it is with all kinds of politically sectarian slurs, ungrounded in any serious analysis of the groups being slurred, exemplifies much of what is wrong with the Irish left.

There is no "Socialist Party of Northern Ireland", only an organisation called the Socialist Party which operates on both sides of the border. Describing it as the "Marxist wing of Ulster unionism" is both dishonest and malicious given that it stands for a united socialist Ireland.

It is very unlikely that the SWP want Eamon McCann to go to prison, given that he has been in poor health for some time now. It is even less likely that the Socialist Party want Peter Hadden to go to jail for electoral reasons, given that he hasn't been a candidate of their's in any of the last two or three elections and he isn't likely to be a candidate in the next one either. In the very unlikely event that he does end up standing it could be taken for granted that he would be a much lower electoral priority for the SP than their existing candidates.

By the way, Joe Higgins was jailed over the bin tax in the South some five years after he was elected to the Dail, so I have no idea what "precedent" you imagine the SP or SWP want to follow there. And while I'm correcting your errors I might as well point out that the SWP have a small branch in Derry as well as the one in Belfast.

Moving on to the Water Tax campaigns, you put forward an internally inconsistent argument by saying that (a) nobody will be threatened with jail and that (b) nobody will risk jail by refusing to pay an initially small amount. Now you can have one argument or the other, but saying that the Water Tax campaign will gain no traction because nobody will be threatened with jail and at the same time that the campaign won't catch on because nobody will risk jail is to put it mildly a bit bizarre.

You say that the elections will automatically be a referendum on the Peace Process, while mocking the SP for paying attention to the election of the anti-hospital cuts candidate last time around. Surely the whole point of talking about the far from radical Dr Deeny's election is that in specific circumstances class issues can cut across the sectarian headcount. That's not to say that the water tax necessarily will do so of course.

There's plenty more I could say about the malicious asides in your post and the sectarian assumptions which underly it, but I'll leave for the moment with a brief comment about your welcome for a "dissident republican slate" in the next elections. One of the most prominent candidates connected to such a proposed slate in the press is former Sinn Fein leadership member Gerry McGeough. A man who makes Ian Paisley look like a secular, tolerant liberal.Are you seriously suggesting that Irish socialists should support the candidacies of people like that?

splinteredsunrise said...

Go raibh maith agat. As for your critical comments – the insulted amour propre, the barrage of pedantic factoids – do I detect the spoor of a Millie? I believe I do. In that case, I can’t blame you for being irritable. No matter, I will try to briefly address your substantial points, while leaving aside the stuff about unspecified “errors” and “slurs”, which is smoke-blowing straight out of the Peter Taaffe School of Rhetoric.

For the literally minded, which includes people who have been through SP cadre training, it may be necessary to point out that there is this thing called Artistic Licence. You seem to assume that I’m not familiar with the Six-County left – au contraire, I have been intimately familiar with it for a very long time, which is why I feel the occasional need to resort to Artistic Licence, the better to describe the beast. And if the linguistic turn in philosophy is too rich for your blood, I recommend Cliff Slaughter on the dialectic, especially where Cliff goes into the difference between appearance and essence. For instance, I don’t know who the SP candidates for Stormont will be, nor do I really care. I mention Peter solely because I know Peter, he’s the head Millie and he has been a frequent candidate in the past. The phrase “something like” should have been a giveaway.

The same thing goes for the entity which is registered at the Electoral Commission as, and appears on ballot papers as, “Socialist Party (Northern Ireland)”. I know very well that the SP in Ireland occasionally functions as a single unit, and also that the Six-County and Free State elements of the SP are pretty much autonomous most of the time. As for the SP’s left unionism – remember the “united socialist Ireland” slogan hasn’t been used in public in the North for 20-odd years – if you insist on an argument I’ll post more extensively about that in the future.

Ah, the water campaign… to be honest, I’ve been religiously following the Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay arguments, and have found them so incoherent and inconsistent that it’s hard to put a coherent counter-argument. That’s obviously not your perception. My basic point was that (a) it’s not necessarily foreordained that people will be imprisoned, and (b) even if it was, you would have to consider the likelihood of people risking imprisonment for the sake of £30. If a few highly motivated martyrs did go to jail, which is more likely: that the punters will be inspired to follow them, or that the punters will say, “Fuck this for a game of soldiers, it’s only thirty quid”? It strikes me that Peter Hain has been a fair bit smarter than our latter-day Lenins.

But I would like to say something about your argument that “in specific circumstances class issues can cut across the sectarian headcount.” There is a very strong trend in Irish Marxism called Economism, which basically holds that spontaneous unity on bread-and-butter issues will cause the scales of sectarianism to fall from workers’ eyes. History suggests otherwise, not least because sectarianism is not merely a reactionary ideology but has a material base. We’ve heard this argument in the water campaign, where both the SP and SWP have repeatedly said that the Rent and Rates Strike of the early 70s – a genuine mass campaign – failed because it was confined to the Catholic community, while the water campaign is unbeatable because it’s cross-community. The whole history of the North would tend to suggest that a cross-community campaign is dead easy to defeat.

Just finally on the dissident republican slate – I haven’t welcomed it, as you’ll see if you read my post on the matter. I have no firm position on it either way at the moment. I merely suggested that a dissident republican slate is inherently to be taken more seriously than a far-left slate, especially a far-left slate running on a single issue. As it happens, I’m not a great fan of Gerry McGeough, and if I lived in Fermanagh I would have profound difficulty with the idea of voting for him. But I return to economism – the fact you draw an equals sign between McGeough and Paisley, when the two represent completely different social forces, makes my point for me.