The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Left Right?
Eamonn McCann • June 18 2003

Q: The North is more polarised now than at any time in recent years. Doesn't this mean it a bad time to launch a socialist bloc?

A: It could equally be argued that it makes organised socialist intervention more urgent. One of the reasons for increased polarisation---not the main reason, but a factor---is precisely that the argument for class unity isn't heard where it matters most at the times that matter most. If all we achieved was to force the communal parties to respond publicly to a class-based campaign during an election campaign, it would be an advance. As things are, they rarely if ever have to react to socialist argument. Polarisation isn't the whole story, anyway. There is also rising class anger. Look at the response to the water charges threat, or the intensity of opposition to down-grading hospitals. Anyone involved in the anti-war movement will know there was immediate resonance when you raised the contrast between miserly rises in pensions and unlimited money for missiles. It's not true that Northern people don't relate to class issues beause they're so caught up in Orange-Green rivalry. What's true is that thinking on class issues isn't reflected in voting. A socialist slate would give us the chance to challenge the underlying assumption in this. There's a question of critical mass here. If we have people with sufficient credibilty standing in enough constituencies, I believe we can force class politics onto the agenda.

Q: But don't issues rooted in the national question divide even the people who'd have to form a credible socialist bloc. Some make endorsement of the "principle of consent" a condition for joining---but others would refuse to join if that were the case.

A: Even the Provos have accepted the principle of consent. It would be a bit strange if socialists were now to to see it as an issue to split on. Let's put this in perspective. You can be a member of one of the communal parties no matter what you believe on PFI, minimum wage, a woman's right to choose, etc. All that matters is to be sound on the border, policing, parades etc. Socialists should reverse this order of priorities. Defence of the public sector, support for workers in struggle, women's rights, gay liberation, opposition to racism and imperialism---these should be our make-or-break issues. I'd have no problem being part of a socialist bloc which included candidates who took a different line on the principle of consent. I'd argue that the class issues which unite us are more important than the "national" issues which divide us. What's more, it's only in the context of a raised consciousness of class that the differences with regard to community won't be make-or-break in the working class as a whole. To say we cannot have Left unity because there's no agreement on communal rights and rivalries is to get things the wrong way around.

Q: But, for example, how to relate to the PSNI is a practical question in working-class areas. In an election campaign you can't pick what to say according to which area you're in.

A: Policing problems here don't entirely arise from specifically Northern circumstances. You hear a big point made of the fact that there isn't a single PSNI member living on the west bank of the Foyle. But there isn't a cop living on the Shankill either. Nor a garda in Darndale in Dublin or a member of the Merseyside police in Toxteth or a Strathclyde cop in Easterhouse. There's a hostile relationship with the police in all deprived areas because the behaviour of the police is ultimately dictated by the fact that they represent the class behind the deprivation. The idea that the Bogside should support the PSNI in the interests of reconcilation with Protestants is ludicrous. So is the notion that the Shankill should accept further police reform so as to make the PSNI more acceptable in the Bogside. It's not the job of socialists to act as cheer-leaders for the police anywhere. We should be wary and sceptical of them and pledge, if elected, to hold them to account. That should be our position in every working class area.

Q: Different left parties have such diametrically different approaches to Orange parades that it's hard to envisage a common attitude.

A: The first thing socialists should say about loyal order parades is that we don't think working class people should be on them. It is the essence of socialism that workers should define their politics by the interests of their class, whereas the point of the loyal orders is to celebrate the supposed common interests of all Protestants. That's the reason every chapter of the long history of loyal order marches is filled with examples of sectarian excess. Socialists cannot be divided about the nature of Orangeism or our basic attitude to it when it's on the march. If we have that common starting point, it should be possible to contain any tactical differences in approach. We should also be arguing to residents' groups that opposition to Orangeism isn't the preserve of Nationalism, indeed that insofar as it's expressed solely in Nationalist terms it can become the mirror image of what it's opposing and a reinforcement of it.

Q: There are deeper ideological differences, reflected in the way we relate to the former Soviet bloc, for example. These differences are expressed in different slogans and perspectives. The various parties aren't going to dissolve these differences for the sake of electoral unity.

A: Nobody should be expected to drop distinctive ideas. A member of the SWP, the Socialist Party, the CP, the Workers' Party, whatever, standing as part of the bloc wouldn't hide his or her membership. If they tried, they'd only end up looking shifty anyway. Everyone would have to be free to spell out what's distinctive about their ideas. But the manifesto of the bloc across all constituencies would naturally consist of the things we have in common. And for a bloc to be meaningful it will have to be more than an amalgm of small parties, would have to draw in trade unionists involved in struggle, individuals from community campaigns against cut-backs and so on, women's rights, anti-war, anti-racist and environmental activists, left-wing independent councillors etc. It's not just a matter of small parties accomodating one another but a coming together of people many of whom aren't much enamoured of any of the Left parties. There's quite a lot of them about.

Q: Even so, the history of rivalry and argument between the parties makes it very difficult to see them working comfortably together. A united front campaign could turn into a bear-pit.

A: If we can't work together we will fail, full stop. The Left in the North is very small, both in terms of numbers and of implantation in unions and progressive campaigns. We often punch above our weight through super-activism. But we shouldn't entertain illusions on that account. Even if every available component of a possible socialist bloc came together, we still wouldn't be a mass organisation.Each of the individual parties is tiny. What's the real perspective of the "ourselves alone" socialists? That their party will increase by one and twos over the years until eventually it's of a size to shoulder its way centre stage as the sole authentic representative of the working class? What's their estimate, at their present rate of progress, of how long that will take? Or do they expect an apocalyptic moment of political truth and the masses suddenly recognising the correctness of their analysis and rallying to their particular slogans? The correctness of any particular socialist analysis will surely be borne out in the context of building a broad socialist current with others across unions and communities. In campaigns defending the public service, for union rights, against State repression at home or abroad, etc., etc., the crying need in all these areas is for coordination of the efforts of all the Left forces. If any individual party is convinced that it already has all the answers, won't they be vindicated in the course of operating alongside others in a socialist bloc?

Q: Both in the South and across the water, single issue candidates, on hospital closures, for example, have done well. Doesn't that suggest an alternative strategy---a more basic "defend public services" campaign, which wouldn't be socialist but in which socialist parties could play a part?

A: That could pose more problems than it solved. Take the case of somebody who's been a brilliant on a hospital closure and gets elected on that single issue. Then he turns out to be a racist pro-lifer---and socialists would have helped him onto the platform to amplify these views. That's not an abstract possibility. It happened in the North in the 1990s. Would we accept onto the ticket somebody who was 100 percent on defence of the NHS but supports the war on Iraq or wants harsher laws on immigration? I think we have to be audacious, to go for the maximum of what's practical.

Q: What's the relevance of the anti-war movement?

A: The fact that a largely left-led movement drew tens of thousands from all sides to the centre of Belfast on February 15th is relevant. For some of us, it spurred efforts to build unity on the electoral front. It showed that people here in large numbers can identify themselves in politics other than by reference to the religious community they come from, that given the chance and when imaginations are sparked, they are delighted to do so and feel better for having done it. The anti-war movement also clarified what imperialism means in this century. The idea that an anti-imperialist in Ireland is just someone who's against the Brits makes no sense when the main imperialism is made in the USA and Britain is a junior partner. We should take no nonsense from Republicans about class politics having to take second place to "the anti-imperialist struggle". That's just de Valera's "Labour must wait" in a new guise. When Bush was at Hillsborough the real anti-imperialists were outside protesting against political leaders including Republicans glad-handing th warmongers inside. I see the anti-war movement as a vital part of the base to build the socialist bloc on. When you looked out at the crowd at Belfast City Hall you had to think---If not us, who? If not now, when?




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



I have spent
many years of my life
in opposition, and
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- Eleanor Roosevelt

Index: Current Articles

19 June 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Andersonstown News: Voice of Banana Republicanism?
Eamon Lynch


A Gnat on the Back of an Elephant
Mags Glennon


In Defence of Eamon Lynch
Anthony McIntyre


Left Right?

Eamonn McCann


President-in-Exile in Jail

Pedram Moallemian


The Letters Page has been updated.


16 June 2003


Building an AntiWarMovement: Moving to Action
Davy Carlin


The Genealogy of Power: On Michel Foucault
Liam O Ruairc


Trade Union Bureaucrats Shaft Aldergrove Workers

Sean Smyth


The Supreme Commander

Anthony McIntyre




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