By Frank Connolly.
The megaphone diplomacy involving prominent voices on the Left has brought some clarity to the task of preparing a common platform around which progressive parties, independent TDs, trade unions and other organisations and groups could unite in the months before a general election.
At the Labour conference in Killarney there was a not unexpected but unhelpful and open hostility from the leadership towards Sinn Féin, the party most likely to dominate any such left formation or alliance in the next Dáil.
The presentation of the James Larkin ‘Thirst for Justice’ Award to Belfast woman and rape victim, Mairia Cahill, was cringe-inducing, according to many of those in attendance, because of the overt politicisation of her trauma. Her case has been a cause celebre for many months for Independent Newspapers in its less than subtle political campaign against Gerry Adams, an irony not lost on many of those present.
However, the overt criticism of Syriza by some Labour cabinet members was even more confusing for many delegates who might have thought that its historic election victory and forceful engagement with the EU over bank-debt restructuring could only be in Ireland’s long-term interests. Instead, prominent party figures have joined forces with the European centre-right as they seek to make domestic political capital out of the Greek crisis.
The Labour Party appears to be in denial about its election prospects and is desperately clinging to the life-raft of potential Fine Gael transfers to save itself from oblivion. That may be the only strategy it has to emerge with more than 10 seats (from 34) but it has managed to alienate a large swathe of its left-wing support, internally and otherwise, in the process.
In a wide-ranging speech to a fringe conference meeting SIPTU President, Jack O’Connor, enthusiastically welcomed the Syriza victory and suggested that its political agenda was not unlike that of Labour in Ireland over the past four years in government.
O’Connor called on the party, of which he is a member, to pursue a progressive agenda for a society “in which all the services that are essential for the maintenance of a decent life, from healthcare to eldercare to childcare, through education, training, housing and the quality of the environment are available to citizens free at the point of use and funded through collective endeavour”.
He called for the replacement of the Universal Social Charge with a social solidarity contribution that is spent on necessary health services, free third-level tuition, a greater role for public enterprise in job creation, and a referendum to prevent the privatisation of water, among other measures. He also called for dialogue with the Right2Water campaign, hundreds of whom protested in the rain outside the conference venue, an accelerated housing programme and a re-distribution of the burden of taxation from the lower paid to the wealthy.
A day after the conference adjourned, Reform Minister Brendan Howlin proposed a new, public forum to consider proposals for pay, tax and spending as the economy recovers and preparations begin on Budget 2016 and for “an inclusive, societal debate about what a functioning modern economy looks like”.
However, the outcome will be dictated by negotiations within cabinet and by what Fine Gael, and the wealthy people it represents, will seek in terms of tax cuts. Labour will be hoping that continuing economic recovery will allow for significant concessions to lower and middle income groups in the run in to the election.
Either way, its leadership will have no truck with calls by O’Connor and Gerry Adams, as well as other voices on the Left, for a common anti-austerity platform, at least this side of the election. But for many members and supporters a return to the traditional values of Connolly and Larkin may be the only guarantee of the long-term survival of the party.
As Sinn Féin delegates assemble in Derry this weekend (6th/8th March) they will also be tempted to reciprocate the attacks on their party in Killarney. For its leaders, the challenge of the coming months is the most significant since it opened the way to parliamentary participation in the south in the mid-eighties. To achieve their stated aim of a left-wing, or left-led, government Sinn Féin needs allies among the other independent left TDs, smaller parties, trade unions and progressive economic, cultural and non-governmental organisations. Time is pressing.
Those who recognise the responsibility of the Left to provide an alternative to 90 plus years of centre-right-led administrations know that radical policies must also be credible ones, that every spending plan requires a source of revenue. It would be helpful if these could be worked out in a spirit of co-operation and dialogue among those who are serious and up for the challenge.
Let’s see what happens. •
Frank Connolly is Head of Communications for SIPTU