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A Left divided

Practical efforts to unite the radical Irish left are now going nowhere.

Talks held between the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance, the Socialist Workers Party and Seamus Healy’s South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, with a view to forming a “Left Slate” for the upcoming local elections have failed.

Last July, spurred on by calls from the Irish Socialist Network, left-wing groupings of all shades of red met to discuss the possibility of a united front.

Initial discussions involved all parties active on the left and Republican left, although Sinn Fein and the Labour Party were notable absentees. With the former implementing a policy of classroom cutbacks up North and the latter having advocated a ‘Yes’ vote to Lisbon, both were deemed to be the running dogs of the free market and, despite having many leftwing activists at grassroots level, neither party was invited to participate.

As talks were due to begin, the left was still sunning itself in the warm rays of post-Lisbon success, a campaign which saw the left unite for a common cause and help deliver a knockout blow to the political elite.

People Before Profit Alliance activist Richard Boyd Barrett saw that victory as the perfect opportunity for the left to seize momentum. Quoted in The Irish Times, Barrett said: “The Lisbon Treaty vote clearly demonstrates the need for a new left because the entire political establishment, including the official left in Ireland – the Labour Party – backed an agenda for Europe which was rejected by the majority of Irish people.”

But it wasn’t long before differences between Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party kingmakers became evident. In the same Irish Times article, former Socialist Party T.D. Joe Higgins sounded a more cautious note than his would-be party comrade: “Unless the conditions are correct, it would be wrong to launch a new left party. We always co-operate in campaigns with groups from the left… In the run-up to the elections next summer, we will discuss the possibilities of co-operation”. Talks have now ended and the status quo remains. It appears that the fundamental stumbling block to a new all-embracing party is the question of how it should come about; should it be a spontaneous call from the people or should it be a vanguard party?

Socialist Party councilor for Tallaght, Michael Murphy believes that call should be made by the demonstrators on the streets and not from the various parties’ committees. He does, however, concede that the local elections would have provided an ideal base from which the seeds of a new party could have grown. Speaking to Village, Boyd Barrett claimed the Socialist Party’s conditions didn’t go far enough: “The local election slate was too limited. In reality, all it was designed to do was for each party to call for votes for the other, which is a situation that already exists. What we need is not an election pact, but a new left movement that will offer a viable alternative to voters,” he said.

At this dépasse, “unity” has become a buzzword amongst those on the electoral left. Many see the current global economic crisis as the perfect opportunity to make inroads into the political establishment, as voters continue to lose confidence in mainstream parties and look for an alternative.

And with Local and European elections, the Lisbon Treaty rematch, at least two by-elections and the possibility of a General Election, 2009 looks set to become the year of the ballot box.

Perhaps Irish socialists could look to their comrades in Germany for inspiration. The German party, Die Linke, which translates as ‘The Left’, has shown that the seemingly impossible is possible and has succeeded in uniting the left under one umbrella.

Die Linke, which incorporates the old Party of Democratic Socialism and Labour and Social Justice Electoral Alternative – was formed in 2007 after marathon negotiations, having initially made an electoral pact for the 2005 German federal elections and are now fully integrated into the one party, making electoral gains in west Germany whilst consolidating its support in the east.

But it is absolutely unclear whether the Irish left can ever end decades of division and follow their German counterparts’ lead.