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Issues-driven socialist. Michael Smith interviewed Richard Boyd Barrett

Michael Smith interviews Richard Boyd Barret TD

Richard Boyd Barrett is TD for Dun Laoghaire for the Trotskyist People Before Profit (PBP) Party. He is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and will stand for the alliance of that party with the Socialist Party (SP), to be called AAA-PBP in next year’s general election. He is the son of eminent thespians, Vincent Dowling and Sinéad Cusack. He was adopted and grew up in Glenageary, attending St Michael’s School.

He is issue-oriented and self-effacing though usually eloquent and has managed to avoid personal scandal throughout his time in politics. Boyd Barrett has a long record of campaigning for improved local services, social housing, youth and community amenities, workers rights and jobs.

I met him in his huge office in Agriculture House on Kildare St. The size is no doubt in proportion to its distance to some other accommodations actually in Leinster House, perhaps reserved for politicians closer to the beating heart of government.

He is friendly, original, clever and bright-eyed, though in a rush this morning.

I wonder what his background is. “I grew up in the Dun Laoghaire area from a middle-class background, with no particular intention of getting involved in politics but started to get involved in it through the music scene, it was all about music and clothes, and I was involved in punk”.

I ask if he was one of the Dun Laoghaire Shopping Centre gang and he actually admits it. “I spent a lot of time there. It was great fun”. I don’t say that I remember getting into a scrap with a horde from there in 1978 and finishing up with a pint of gob on my neck, a pint which in my mind’s eye remains as fresh and green as when dispatched. Richard is probably too young to have been behind this, I reflect, and try not to think about it any more. Plus he’s chair of the Irish Anti-War Movement.

He says punk was great fun. He had the punk hair, “Statue of Liberty hair, tartans, bondage jackets”. It was political. “There was a political dimension: anti-racism, anti-nuclear, all that“. He got involved in politics initially while a student. He studied English, Philosophy and Psychology in UCD and got a Master’s in English Literature. He’s a big fan of James Joyce, and has given talks about him. And he’s very passionate about “Shakespeare and romantic poetry and you know, everything”. He still reads fiction and poetry.

He says his political philosophy is “Socialist” and I ask how important is equality and what does he mean by it. “I dunno that’s sort of technical jargon to me”. He sighs. “Equality is when everybody has the same access to resources, services, opportunity and the income capable of giving them a decent and dignified existence”.

To what extent to you have to compensate for the disadvantages of birth? “I want to remove the disadvantage, to change the conditions that lead to it. That’s what being a Socialist is about. If you begin with less resources you should be compensated to bring about an equal playing field”.
I note that he’s just given a speech about equality-proofing the finance bill and ask what the best measures of equality are – eg the Gini Coefficient – but it’s not his thing. He’s good-natured about this. “If you don’t have proper housing, decent services and infrastructure you’re at a big disadvantage”.

When asked he says that his first actions if he were Taoiseach would be to deal with housing. He’s more interested in the manifestations of inequality than the theory of it. “The practical battle for equality”.

So what does that mean? First of all he’d take housing, health, education and basic services out of the private sphere and provide them as a right, not for-profit, speculated on and commodified. He’d have participatory direct democracy.

I suggest taxes should rise. Because of the concentration of wealth over the last decades in the hands of a few he envisages wealth taxes. And financial-transaction taxes and taxes on higher incomes.
He says he’s “not majored” on Capital Acquisition and Capital Gains Taxes, which seems to me like an error: “Our strategy is to capture it through a wealth tax”. It would be on assets over a million euro, not on the family home”. He’s determined to acutely distinguish the family home from property assets.

I suggest that just as income is an impure but useful indicator of wealth because some people have debts or maintenance commitments, that a valuable family home is an impure but useful indicator of wealth, and therefore should be taxed, but he will have none of it.

“There are huge anomalies – and all the reports including Credit Suisse’s show there’s a connection between wealth and high income”.

I suggest there must be a correlation between having a big house and wealth but he insists: “not particularly. In my area, Ballybrack and Sallynoggin, working-class areas, houses have a high value and it’s the same for the rest of Dublin and urban centres generally”.

I suggest that if it’s legitimate to tax to redistribute to promote equality that it’s also legitimate to tax for other progressive policies such as reducing pollution or unhealthy eating. His answer is strong if unfashionable. “I don’t subscribe to the neoliberal view that tax can be used to incentivise behaviour. Taxes are to achieve redistribution of wealth”.

Bluntly he does not think property and water taxes are a good idea in principle or otherwise. “No-one should never be charged for water. If you do, privatisation will inevitably follow. So I’m against it for that reason. It’s a basic need not a commodity”.

I ask him for his political heroes and he volunteers Connolly, Larkin, Marx and, when probed for someone (fairly) contemporary, John De Courcy Ireland – “a big local influence”, maritime historian, founding member of Irish CND and and one-time member of tbe Labour, Workers’ and Socialist Workers’ Parties.

Non-political heroes? “I’ve mentioned Joyce”. He laughs: “Jeez you’re really catching me on difficult questions!. Current authors? “John Le Carré, I love”.

What class is he? “I want to be live in of a classless society. Now I don’t regard myself as part of any class”. He laughs again.

The Labour Party: He thinks it’s failed in its mission, come a very long way from its founder, James Connolly and will suffer accordingly at the next election. “They always promise to be one thing and turn out to be something else every time they go into office”.

Sinn Féin: “a mixed bag because they’re nationalists. You get people of the left and people of the right. I totally disagree with how they’ve capitulated in the North to austerity. But we think it’s right to co-operate with them on specific anti-austerity campaigns in the South. People want those on the left to work together where they can even if we don’t agree with their wider philosophy or entirely trust them sometimes”.

The Socialist Party: “They’re fantastic campaigners and principled hard workers so we’ve come to an arrangement with them for the next election because on a lot of stuff they’d be close to us. PBP feel tactically it’s better to work with people even if they don’t agree with every aspect of our socialist doctrine if we can find common ground and without being opportunistic”. The SP does not. He is optimistic for the AAA-PBP and feels maybe the ULA was too “structured”. Now they’ve more flexibility and can be involved with others such as the Right2Change, which the SP are not.

The Socialist Workers party has campaigned as People Before Profit. Boyd Barrett is central to both. The SP has become increasingly known as the Anti Austerity Alliance. PBP and the SP were both part of the United Left Alliance that came together before the 2011 election and won six seats, one short of the magical seven that allows speaking and other rights in the Dáil.

In the 2016 election they will form a “pact”; jointly campaign, and register as a political party as AAA-PBP, earning them a place in some televised leaders’ debates and inclusion as a separate entity in opinion polls. In some constituencies, there will be two candidates. The party will have a rotating leadership arrangement, with Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy alternating for big debates, and in the Dáil.

The Social Democrats: “I don’t really know what they are. I’m not excited about them, though it’s good to see a bigger presence of people who see themselves as on the left. Are they radical left or a repackaging of Labour politics?”.

How would he gauge success for the radical left? “Ultimately it’s about our capacity to deliver real change on issues. None of us on the radical left are in it for personal gain or ambition or would go into government for its own sake. Whereas mainstream politicians are driven by the desire to be a Minister or Taoiseach”. He considers, for example, that Syriza in Greece were not corrupt but rather naïve in believing that the EU was open-minded. “They should have threatened to leave the EU, and been prepared to do so. Of course we’d like to see a left government capable of implementing change”.
What was the alternative to austerity? “Wealth redistribution. Civilisation is at its wealthiest in history. There’s no shortage of the things we need – it’s reallocation”.

He does get frustrated by bureaucracy and slowness of service in the public sector but has a particular take on it. He thinks “bureaucracy” is usually because of under-funding. “We need more public service”.

As to corporation tax, at an absolute minimum they should pay the 12.5%.

How’d he solve homelessness in five points?
An emergency programme building. I suggest this is underway but he strongly disagrees. “They’re not proposing it and modular homes are only the answer in direst circumstances. We need a State building programme like that from the post-War period. In fact the government is outsourcing”.

And rent controls, extra resources and specialists to deal with issues like addiction and mental health problems for the homeless. And in the short term community welfare officers should be told to give whatever rent supplement is necessary for people to be able to find an affordable house in their area.

Abortion on demand? He doesn’t like the phrase but feels women should be entitled to choose.
He believes there is less corruption in the current body politic than 20 years ago but notes that this could be naïve, and suspects brown envelopes have been replaced with informal jobs for the boys for the vested interests you help.

Priorities in his constituency include: “housing, protection of the seafront harbour as an amenity, renovation of the baths next year as a public amenity (unfortunately without a pool) and preservation of local bus services”. He doesn’t worry too much about the erosion of green land in places like Cherrywood. “People need to be housed but we should plant more trees, create more green spaces as part of development”. He’d like to see more “forest cover” and “local forest and energy co-ops”.
He doesn’t think we’ll avoid runaway climate change. “We need a massive move away from fossil fuels: investment in public transport, insulation, afforestation”.

What does he think of the unions? “They don’t fight hard enough for their members. The ones close to the Labour Party have really let the side down in recent years. Some more left-wing ones now are beginning to break to fight on things like the water tax”.

Does he think the Unions are a force for equality or is it not arguable that they’re now promoting better pay for groups that are already being paid significantly better than the average in society? “Where you don’t have unions or they are weak inequality is always greater”.

Is he a Federalist? He wouldn’t turn Europe into the USA, he’s an internationalist and this extends beyond the borders of Europe.

He wouldn’t say he enjoys the job but notes it’s “interesting” and “aspects” of it are enjoyable.
“When you’re doing something that makes a real impact, most of which takes place outside of parliament, it’s rewarding”.

I ask if there’s anything he’s not politically correct about. He doesn’t know what the term means – “it’s invented by the ideological right in the US”.

Given that he’s so ideologically driven, does he ever bore himself? He’s amused. “O yeah. I get sick of talking, of arguing politics, and wish I was doing something more interesting”.

Then he’s off – to a picket line at the art college in Dun Laoghaire and then to a parent–teacher meeting.