United Action is Key to Way Forward

By Eoin Ó Murchú

When the Labour Party was established in 1912, it was in order to give political effect to the trade union movement, and it was in that context that James Connolly, Jim Larkin and William O’Brien presented their proposal in Clonmel that year.

It is obvious that that is no longer the party’s view of itself. At the recent Magill summer school, party leader Brendan Howlin argued that “the Labour Party must dare to imagine a better form of capitalism – one that serves the many, and not just the few.”

And the key former adviser to ex-tánaiste Joan Burton, Ed Brophy, has argued that Labour’s future lies in being the voice of social liberalism.

This is in keeping with former Éamon Gilmore adviser, Mark Garrett, who suggested that the party should break any connection with the trade union movement.

That connection was not formally broken, but Labour’s participation in the Fine Gael government of 2011-2016, and the vehemence with which it promoted the austerity agenda, shows that trade union political views were of little if any account.

SIPTU’s Jack O’Connor may argue that things would have been worse under a single-party Fine Gael government, but Labour – and Brendan Howlin as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform – enthusiastically implemented all of Fine Gael’s agenda, and never even looked for a price that would even guarantee employment rights for Irish workers.

Now, of course, as it seeks to claw back the electoral support it has lost, Howlin argues that “our people have endured too long a sacrifice for the last eight years”.  He calls for the Irish economy “ to meet the needs and aspirations of our people” and declares that it is work, and the rights of those in work, which has been our raison d’etre since our foundation”.

It is hard to read this nauseating and dishonest hypocrisy without throwing up, but just in case anyone gets taken in by it, Howlin also adds the boast that “any fair-minded observer will have to admit that we left the country in a better state than we found it”.

That’s a clear message that if Labour had it to do again, it would do the same as before.

Yet massive numbers of workers are seriously angry at what has happened, at the austerity unjustly imposed upon them and the continual subordination of the rights and needs of the majority of our people to the country of the bankers, speculators and business interests.

Trade unionists cannot realistically look to a Labour Party that refuses to acknowledge it was wrong to implement austerity, and that cannot produce even a single voice to denounce this wrong, to advance trade union interests in the future.

A new party could be an answer, but there are other parties of the Left already with a Dáil presence – Sinn Féin, the two Trotskyist parties, perhaps even the Social Democrats, and, of course, the seven or so independents grouped in Independents for Change.

We don’t really need more squabbling between parties claiming to speak for the workers, we need the actual organisations of workers to be brought directly into political activity.

Political committees within trade unions can present their demands of all political parties, and link them with demands coming from community organisations (residents and tenants), and single purpose campaigns.

These could ultimately come together if necessary in a new party, but more productive at this point would be to enable all these forces to combine together.

The template for that, which needs of course, to be expanded, exists already in the Right to Change idea.  But that needs to have greater cohesion, and commitment from its constituent parts, to enable its potential to be reached.

And what politics should determine this work?  Anti-austerity, the defence of workers’ rights and the shifting of the burden of economic crisis onto the better off – these are absolutes.

But we cannot either ignore the elephant in the room: so long as we remain members of the European Union we are bound by its constitutional imperatives which insist on neo-liberal free market rules.

We cannot have state-led economic development – an essential in the fight to give full and proper employment to our people – without refuting these rules.

We must face the fact that the EU cannot be “reformed from within” because any proposals to rewrite the existing treaties would require unanimous consent of all continuing member states.  In other words, it would require the simultaneous victory of progressive forces in every member state. In the light of the uneven development of capitalism, such a wish is totally illusory.

Equally, we cannot ignore the fact that imperialism has partitioned our country, leading as Connolly predicted to a carnival of reaction North and South.

But partition will not be overcome by urging Protestant workers in the North to fight to stay subject to EU neo-liberal rules!

There will be differences of emphasis at least on these issues, so some flexibility in the co-ordination of all elements is essential.

But in the absence of a popular front of the kind argued for here, workers will be left dependent on business parties that will continue to squeeze us.

All the revolutionary rhetoric in the world will not change that, unless we unite together to fight for a common cause.

Contribution to a debate organised by trade union activists in Dublin on July 28, 2016, on the theme: Does the Trade Union Movement Need a New political Arm and What Should it Look Like. Other contributions from the meeting are currently being written up and will be posted here.