interviewed by Michael Smith
Brid Smith grew up in Nutgrove, Rathfarnham, and went to school there and in St Anne’s Milltown where she was a couple of years above Miriam O’Callaghan. She went on to Rathmines Tech, to study journalism but dropped out. She then worked for five years for the Corporation’s library service in Ballyfermot, getting sacked for refusing to pass a picket line. After a fuss she got her job back in another library but couldn’t stick it and went travelling around Germany. In the early 1980s she was on the National Committee of the Hunger Strike campaign. She was the first female shop steward in Dublin Bus and remains an activist in the union, Unite. She supported the campaign for abortion rights after the X Case and was to the fore in the early-1990s anti-bin-tax campaign, for which she was jailed. With Richard Boyd Barrett she fronted the Irish Anti-War Movement which protested against the Iraq war. She has supported the Shell to Sea campaign and works with the Traveller Community. In 2009 she was elected to represent Ballyfermot/Drimnagh on Dublin City Council where she has played a leading role in Campaigns against the Household Charge and the Property Tax. She is engaging, honest, very warm, funny and sometimes, unusually for a politician, attractively hesitant and self-doubting.
What was her introduction to politics? “My parents were Republicans and they helped provide shelter to people who were either in need or on the run. Martin Forsyth [a 19-year-old IRA activist who was shot dead by undercover RUC officers in Belfast in 1971] stayed with us the night before he died. It was shockingly real to have met a lovely young guy and then he goes home and he’s killed by the RUC”.
Does she think the IRA campaign was justifiable? “At the time I thought it was justifiable and was outraged by the repression of both the British and the Irish States. If you’re looking for me to say that it was morally just to kill 3,000 people, on one side or morally just to kill 2,500 on the other, I’m not going to consider it in those terms”.
So, why did you join the SWP rather than Sinn Féin? “My Dad founded a Sinn Féin Cumann and I joined it for a while. I was involved in the National H-block Committee with Bernadette Devlin and Gerry Adams. That’s when I first met the SWP (the SWM at the time) – people like Éamon McCann were very supportive of Bobby Sands, yet critical of the armed struggle, of nationalism and republicanism. I debated and learned a lot from Sinn Féin, but I was convinced in the end that actually armed struggle won’t deliver socialism”.
Her political philosophy is “socialist, I believe in revolution, not violent revolution but people power like the Arab Spring and the mass movements we’ve seen in Spain and Greece”.
So, how important is equality? “Very. Otherwise why would you be motivated?”.
Does she mean equality of opportunity or of outcome? “Yes, I think people are entitled to equal rights. I think real rights are fundamental to equality – equal access to health and education, housing, legal protection”. In practical terms she says she’s “just secured the motion for travellers to have recognition as an ethnic minority in the city council. In an ideal world I think everybody should have the same income and the same wealth, but it’s not something that you would just sort of legislate for”. Why wouldn’t you?” Because people wouldn’t accept it. I would like them to accept it because they have learnt that it maximises happiness. Revolution would hopefully lead to the establishment of absolute equality”.
So, she wouldn’t describe herself as a Trotskyist? “I don’t use that term, but I don’t say, ‘Yeuch, how dare you’. I’m not a communist. I call myself a socialist or revolutionist; and a Marxist more frequently a Trotskyist. So it’s not particularly modern as in 21st Century, but it’s modern as in the history of the human race”.
Does she think the most meaningful division is between workers and the rest of the population or between people of different levels of wealth and income? “I think the main division is between those who control wealth and those who don’t”.
Is it not a problem with more than 1% – going down to 10% and 20% and 30%? “There is a tiny elite at the top that control everything, global corporations, policy and Government, EU policy”.
She says she hates the free market: “I think it’s a terrible idea because I don’t think it fulfils the needs of the planet or the human race that lives on it”.
Does she have heroes? “Bernadette Devlin. James Connolly. Jim Larkin”.
“What class would she describe herself as? “Working class”.
Tell me about the evolution of the Socialist Workers Party, People Before Profit and the United Left Alliance? “In 2005, arising from the anti-war, Shell to Sea and anti-bin-tax campaigns we formed People Before Profit. That was an important lever on the Socialist Party and the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, because it at least has worked very well together”. “It wasn’t pitched to the Greens, Sinn Féin and the Labour Party mainly because of their willingness to go into coalition with the right. We were all delighted when the United Left Alliance was formed, but it imploded. Unfortunately it didn’t really operate as the United Left Alliance outside of the Dáil structure”.
So who’s standing for the United Left Alliance now? “We (People Before Profit) are still part of it. Clare Daly, Joan Collins and Richard Boyd Barrett are the three TDs who are still in it. Joe Higgins and Seamus Healy pulled out. Separately, Clare Daly left the Socialist Party and Joan Collins left People Before Profit. Those two joined together to create new party called the ‘United Left’ so, it’s getting a bit nutty”.
Do you think that the radical left works together enough to be effective? “I think that it needs to work together much more. I think People Before Profit works very well as an alliance”.
Is it only oppositionalist or is it ever constructive? She instances the campaign with the Woodlands League to stop the sell-off of Coillte, though it seems to me it’s better described as successful than constructive, even if you support it. “Getting the status of Travellers recognised in Dublin City Council and getting noise barriers erected by Irish Rail in Ballyfermot. We stopped cuts to respite care in Cherry Orchard Hospital”.
The current Government
Has austerity been implemented fairly? “No. The ESRI Reports for example are very interesting on the growing gap between rich and poor”.
Does she think that history will absolve the Government from austerity and its economic approach? “No. When the Chinese economy implodes due to the property bubble there, the world won’t have time to remember that this Government did good or bad. I believe Capitalism is going to implode again”.
Is there corruption in the current Government? “Yeah! Look at what’s going on with the gardaí, that’s corrupt”.
Does she think that there’s a need for public-sector reform? “At the top”.
Can incentivising people through bonuses etc can ever work to improve their efficiency? “I can’t see how nurses could possibly work harder, but the managers above them might get bonuses. If you gave bonuses to the lads who collect the bins, who all work for the private companies who are making a fortune, how could they work much harder? They’re racing round the place working awful hard and paid crap ,as it is”.
She’s concerned about tendering out Community sector services, for things like drug-addiction services and care of the elderly and in the Department of Social Protection generally: “they’ll eventually push it all into the likes of G4S. (We’ll know the results of the tender in April)”.
Does she think there’s scope for any privatisation? “I’m really opposed to the trend and speed of privatisations. I would be very worried about the privatisation of water, for example – probably by the next government if it’s not a left one. I know the creation of Irish water is on the basis of 51% public ownership, but I think you’ll see global companies like Veolia and Bechtel moving in”.
As to the property tax, she says “it is a hated tax because it’s seen as a measure of austerity that’s extremely punitive on people who have the least. You could own a mansion in Mayo and you’d be paying less property tax than I am in Ballyfermot”. In this context she denies that property is wealth, “I have to have a home, I would happily rent a place for the rest of my life, like my pal does in Berlin, but you can’t do that here because there’s no rent controls, and landlords are not forced to maintain proper services and give you a place for life. So, you’re forced to either buy a property or go on the housing list”.
However, she says she is “absolutely in favour of taxing wealth. I think the one that People Before Profit suggested in the last budget was about 5% of a wealth tax, annually”.
What is her view of the water charge? “So, this morning for example I had an autistic mother on the phone, ‘What the hell am I going to do when they bring in the water charges because my child is calmed by being in the bath 4 or 5 times a day. So, am I going to be penalised because I’m an autistic mother?’”.
But I note that the alternative is more income tax – they have to raise it one way or the other. With taxing income, some people have debts or they have extravagant partners – but you don’t make exceptions. You help autistic kids through services and grants, not by excluding a water tax. Smith replies: “Water’s essential to life. What the hell are we paying our income taxes on if we’re not getting essential services?”.
Is it not legitimate to tax for environmental purposes? “Now, I agree people should be environmentally conscious, but if you want to conserve then start by doing something about the 40% of clean, treated water that’s leaking. After that you could retro-fit houses with grey-water systems”.
Do you disagree with the plastic bags tax? “No I don’t but they should start with producers of plastic bags, not with the consumers”.
I note the effect of all the campaigning is to teach government that it is safest just to tax income. The Government is given a free pass on a wealth tax. “No, no. On global corporations and on wealth”. Okay, what effective tax rate do you think multi-nationals should be paying? “At the moment they’re paying 12.5%. I think it should be increased to 16%. It’s still the lowest in Europe”. Why not more? “Because, what you want to do is get a consensus, so an incremental increase would be far more sensible”.
What about the developers who are either bankrupt or have been through NAMA seeming to resurrect themselves? ”It is pretty disgusting. They get an easy ride from the media. I think there’s too much consensus about resurrecting these people in society. I remember reviewing a movie on the John Murray show once. The former head of Bank of Ireland started going on how awful the situation was and I just turned around and said, ‘You were one of them that caused the problem’ and he was totally mortified – there was a big gasp. Why isn’t everybody speaking the truth?”.
Did you never experience any greed at all during the boom with all the temptations? “Me? I’ve probably drank too much sometimes, but I never, I never wanted to go out and buy a sportscar”.
As to the recent Garda controversy, she thinks there’s a problem with accountability and transparency. Indeed she says she has video evidence she was herself beaten up by the gardaí during the Shell to Sea protests, though the complaint was thrown out. It was the very first complaint to GSOC.
So, what does she think of the unions? “I’m ashamed of them at the moment; I think they’ve let the people down very badly throughout these years of austerity”.
What sort of bank guarantee was appropriate? “I really don’t know enough about it, economics just baffles me. I don’t know if any bank guarantee was appropriate under the circumstances, but then maybe the whole system would have come collapsing down like a deck of cards”.
Shannon? ”Troops out. US troops out”.
The City Council
“The big issue at the moment is the future of Dublin Fire Brigade. I’m not in favour of HSE taking over the Ambulance Service. We should be really concerned about the water workers and the future for water in the city, but we’ve no control over it anymore. Housing and evictions are massive. We’ve over 24,000 people on the housing list.”
Do you think anybody should be evicted from their home in any circumstances? “I don’t have that much sympathy for say Jackie Lavin; I’m defending people who’ve literally nowhere to go”.
How about high rise? “I don’t really mind it is designed well and positioned well, though I did vote against it”.
She considers “the Mayoralty at the moment is a farce, and I think a directly-elected, accountable Mayor is a good alternative”. Still, she’d be concerned lest “they get control over waste management and water and housing and transport, that we don’t even have as Councillors at the moment”.
How important is climate change? “I’m quite scared for the future of the planet. There’s no evidence that those who control the world have a real passion for stopping runaway climate change happening”.
What have you done about it? “Directly, not much except fight for environmental change in my own area. So, I’m quite worried at the amount of manufacturers’ waste, the amount of plastic that we use is contributing to that”. That’s not the same as carbon emissions. ”No, it’s not, but you’re using oil to produce plastic”.
She is “fully in favour” of a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage.
Is she worried about the EU-EC Trade Agreement? “Yes, I think that could be dodgy – for workers’ conditions in particular.
Do you think that the EU should become a federation or Union in the same way as the United States? “I think it’s too centralised and too damaging. No, I’m not a nationalist, but I also don’t believe that we should have no control at all. For example being able to deflate our economy would have helped with the crisis”.
Did she vote for any of the European treaties over the last forty years? “I was passionately involved in a party that campaigned against the militarisation of Europe. I don’t have a problem with us having joined but I don’t think we should pull out. I’m not a Euro-sceptic, though I think that it would be legitimate for people to leave the Euro so that we could control our own economy”.
What three things does she want to achieve as an MEP? “Cancel the debt. Stop European militarism. Reverse the water directive which forces countries to retrieve the full cost of the distribution of water”.
Might she leave the job before 5 years? “Yes and my replacement would have to be a fighter, but it’s still horribly anti-democratic”.
Does she lack the relevant experience, and knowledge of economics, to be an MEP? “No, If I’d said that coming into the City Council then I would have been total inept, but I’m one of the best – effective and vocal – Councillors up there. I think experience of bureaucracies could be a hindrance because you just become part of that whole system. I can address my deficit of economics. I don’t think everybody that has a passion for changing the world is or has to be an economist”.