By Frank Connolly
The Syriza victory in Greece has its foundations in the polarisation of that society following the collapse of the economy in the great financial crash of 2008/2009, and since. It is rooted in the implosion of the traditional parties, and in particular of Pasok, the social democratic party that dominated the Greek left, and many governments, in the post-dictatorship era. The emergence in a few short years of an alliance of former communists, euro communists, radical economists, trade unionists, community organisations and cultural groups to displace the traditional Left, and take political power, has now inspired similar movements across Europe, notably with Podemos in Spain, but also now in Ireland.
Its plan is to renegotiate its huge debt burden by swapping it for bonds linked to growth, among other anti-corruption and tax-raising measures. Hardly revolutionary and well short of burning all bondholders, but enough to bring the wrath of the austerity-mongers in the ECB, on to the charismatic Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis.
On the commemoration of his death in January 1947 of that great socialist and subversive, Jim Larkin, the president of SIPTU, Jack O’Connor, recently told the crowd assembled in Glasnevin cemetery that it was an opportune time, in the wake of the welcome and dramatic Syriza victory, for the Left in Ireland to cultivate and harvest a similar ambition, a year ahead of a general election and the centenary of the Easter Rising. He also set out the parameters of a possible charter of principles and policies which could underpin a Left platform on which different parties, organisations and individuals could combine to offer an alternative government.
“Dramatic possibilities are now opening up here in Ireland as we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising. At this extraordinary juncture, history is presenting a ‘once in a century’ opportunity to reassert the egalitarian ideals of the 1916 Proclamation which were suffocated in the counter-revolution which followed the foundation of the State. It is incumbent upon all of us Social Democrats, Left Republicans and Independent Socialists who are inspired by the egalitarian ideals of Jim Larkin and James Connolly to set aside sectarian divisions and develop a political project aimed at winning the next general election on a common platform, let’s call it ‘Charter 2016’. This would entail the most difficult and challenging intellectual and political task because, when the moment arrives, t the proportion of the electorate who will decide the outcome will demand to know what we are for, as distinct simply from what we are against, and we have to be able to answer the question comprehensively”.
O’Connor set out the challenges facing those with different perspectives and positions on issues ranging from taxation and spending to stealth charges, sustainable economics, industrial policy, social welfare and Europe that could easily scuttle any such project at birth. He warned that having a wish list of demands would not suffice and that any proposals would be scrutinised in forensic detail by those who will claim that such a Left alliance could never present a viable taxation and spending programme. You can’t rebuild the health service, eradicate housing lists, provide proper pensions while abolishing all the unpopular taxes and charges at the same time, he said.
But he also argued that where there is a will, and more importantly a necessity, to provide the hard-pressed citizens – arguably the majority – of the country with the prospect of a radical, Left-leaning government, then there must be a way.
“What the first Left of Centre government in the history of the State could do is to reassert the interests of the common good, shifting the balance decisively in favour of working people and those who depend most on public services”, he said.
Welcoming his call, Declan Kearney, the national chairperson of Sinn Féin (which will almost certainly comprise the single largest left-wing bloc in the next Dáil), said: “There is an obvious need for a democratic, inclusive and politically non-sectarian discussion among all those genuinely committed to opposing austerity, supporting equality, social solidarity, and the protection of citizens’ welfare. Those who recognise the need for an alternative political and economic vision and strategy across the island have a responsibility to discuss how that can be brought forward”.
Kearney had earlier called for the opening of formal discussions between “ourselves, progressive independents, the trades union movement, grass roots community organisations, and others on the Left in Ireland, North and South….on the ideas and strategies which will ensure the future election of a Left coalition in the South dedicated to establishing a new national Republic”.
Crucially, he acknowledged that, while Sinn Féin wants to be in government to advance republican objectives, it cannot achieve this without “a new critical mass for change” that “presupposes increased unity within progressive, Left, national and democratic opinion”.
The challenge is to find areas of common interest and agreement rather than focus on differences, and there are potentially many. The future of Europe, the North, climate change, environmental, foreign policy, corporation, water, property and other taxes and charges, democratic reform, gay and reproductive rights, migration, local government funding, are just a few.
Over recent months and years others on the Left, in the various progressive think-tanks and trades unions and through the media, have elaborated the broad principles and strategies, including detailed economic, spending and taxation, and jobs- and-investment proposals that could underpin such a Charter for change. There is no need to reinvent the wheel in this regard, only to find agreement on workable solutions and proposals that do not pander to the dogmatic or the egocentric.
There is an urgent need, however, given the imminence of a general election, for those who share the ambition for a government of the Left, and who recognise the opportunity presented by the national and European political climate, to act. It is evident that the likely headcount of left-wing TDs after the election, based on current trends, and including SF, Labour and independent socialists will not be close to the numbers required.
With a coherent platform, agreed by those political forces in concert with an alliance of trades union, community, cultural and progressive economists and social scientists, it would be possible to generate a dynamic for change that could propel a significant number of new progressive men and women into the Oireachtas, and to build a social movement that advances the ideas and policies required for real change.
Those policies, particularly on taxation and the economy, will need to withstand the forensic scrutiny and the inevitable outbreak of frenzied fear that will be unleashed by the political right through the mainstream media. Further, those involved will have to create their own voice, through an independent range of traditional, online and social media initiatives that must adapt the necessary journalistic, marketing and digital skills to the task, and raise the significant resources required to fund it.
Most of all, however, it will require a leap of many imaginations deploying the creative talents of our young and old, of women and men, of workers and intellectuals, artists and actors and those who believe that a better country is possible. After all why should those who wrecked the place, and forced so many to leave an unequal, corrupt, polluted, indebted and underdeveloped shambles of a place, be the ones to decide how our future is re-built?
As Antonio Gramsci once observed, when “social classes become detached from their traditional parties”, the situation can become “delicate and dangerous”. Delicate because it offers the prospect of radical alternatives; dangerous because, as we see across the continent, they can be of the wrong, xenophobic and neo-liberal variety. The Irish people, like the Greeks, the Spaniards and others are in that moment. Failure to act is not an option. •
Frank Connolly is Head of Communications for SIPTU