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A bird's eye view of the vineyard
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Where Were The Protests Going Before They Were Gone?
Friday June 18, 2010 02:53 by Diarmuid Breatnach - Personal capacity
The weekly protests at the Dáil didn't last long -- but where they headed and how did the main players interract with them?
Why didn't the weekly protests build up to a "Mass Protest" as one organisation called for? The Right to Work Campaign, the Anti-Capitalist Bloc -- what were they about? This analysis from a political activist and witness not aligned to any of the political groups looks at the context and the way in which the protests were organised, how the organisations interracted with each other and what, in his opinion, is needed to resist the attacks of capital here in Ireland.
INTRODUCTION – THE HISTORY OF THE SERIES OF PROTESTS
The Tuesday weekly protests against the plans of the capitalists and their government to make the workers pay for the capitalist financial crisis have now ended. Although short-lived they are worthy of analysis for there is much that we can learn from them about the the Irish Left and a little about the Irish State.
In May, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Socialist Party held a meeting about how to respond to the financial crisis and the plans to make the workers pay for it. They agreed to hold a protest demonstration to initiate a campaign called “The Right to Work”. At some point Sinn Féin came on board – an unlikely alliance but not the first to be made during the campaign. The march was also sponsored by the trade union Unite.
The first protest was on Tuesday 18th May. After listening to speakers outside the Garden of Remembrance, a wet, bedraggled but militant crowd of around 1,600* marched through torrential rain to the Dáil. It was there at the gates that a short struggle ensued between a small section of the demonstrators and a small force of Gardaí in which the latter drew their batons and hurt some of the protesters. The media reports of this incident, albeit confused and contradictory, gave publicity to the campaign that it would otherwise probably not have gained.
Among the crowd could be seen, as well as those of the main organisers, banners and flags of anarchists, Republicans who were not Sinn Féin, Labour, some smaller socialist groups; however, there were many non-aligned people there too. After speeches to the crowd from various people, including representatives of the trade union Unite, People Before Profit and Sinn Féin, the SWP activist acting as MC announced that there would be another protest the following week. Apparently this came as a surprise to their SF allies (and possibly others), who had not been consulted on this decision. The protesters proceeded in an apparently unplanned march of approximately 1,000 to the GPO, where they dispersed.
Despite or because of the media hysteria, the numbers on the following week’s protest numbered no more and perhaps even a few less than that of the first week. However, there was an interesting development: an unlikely alliance of the anarchist Workers’ Solidarity Movement and the Irish Republican group Éirigí had formed an Anti-Capitalist Bloc and invited others to join them at the Wolfe Tone monument at Stephens’ Green. They were joined there by non-aligned anarchists, socialists and republicans, as well as by small detachments of the 32-County Sovereignty Movement, Republican Network for Unity and the Irish Republican Socialist Party.
The ACB (Anti-Capitalist Bloc) were treated to a little piece of street resistance theatre, some speeches and then set off to join the demonstration down at the Dáil. The mounted police moved in an apparent attempt to impede them and in the tussle some of the demonstrators were hurt. However they made it to down to Molesworth Street to join the other protesters.
The incident had given the media, hungry for some sensation, more material and this made it on to TV news and newspapers (where it was again incorrectly reported). Another brief scrimmage as a small group of protesters later tried to get through the police lines to the Dáil added to the material. There had also been an apparent attempt to raise the temperature by some elements in the crowd in Molesworth Street, who let off two fireworks during the event. This time the demonstration ended where it had started, without any further march.
The third week’s protest passed without excitement: one group met in Molesworth Street, the other at Stephen’s Green, which then marched down to join the others. During the speeches, the SWP announced that when the rally was over, the Right To Work campaign would be marching to Dublin Castle, the site of many financial and political corruption inquiries. Before that took place however, the flags and banners of the WSM and of Éirigí could be seen moving towards the rear and then disappearing.
The fourth week, the twenty or less of us who gathered at the Wolfe Tone monument stood around waiting for the WSM, Éirigí and others, but they were nowhere to be seen. Police numbers in attendance were across the road and also very low, suggesting that even if some of the supporters of the ACB were unaware of its cancellation, the Gardaí were not. Eventually these protesters trickled down to join the others at Molesworth Street. The protest there was much smaller, even taking into account the decamping of the ACB and it seemed that the end of the series of protests was imminent. Indeed, it turned out to be the last. And the actions of the Israelis in attacking a humanitarian relief flotilla the previous night had given many of the main actors another focus for activity.
THE RECENT HISTORY OF THE FINANCIAL CRISIS AND RESPONSES TO IT
The context in which these protests took place was an Irish financial crisis fuelled by speculation, greed for profits and political favours, taking place at a time of an international crisis created by similar factors in other countries and on the international stage.
The financial crisis in Ireland was intended to be managed by bailing out the banks and developers with public money, part of which was to be paid for by cutting social expenditure, increasing unemployment and by cutting wages and conditions of workers. In order to facilitate this, a wide but artificial discourse was started to pit the private sector workers against the public sector. This would have not only the effect of distracting attention from those to blame for the crisis but also of attacking the largest group of workers (i.e. the public sector) and also those most represented by collective bargaining, therefore providing the largest returns on investment of effort – providing their trade unions could be made to comply.
The capitalist representatives in the public domain and media and their politicians also created another discourse: that we all had to share in the pain in order to get out of the mess. Leave aside that the capitalists hardly ever share in the pain of crises; leave aside that even if they did, taking a cut in a rich lifestyle is nowhere near the same as taking a cut in a marginal or near-marginal economic existence, even without losing one’s job; the fact remains that there was no reason on earth why the workers should share the pain with those who had created the crisis. Not only were the workers not to blame for the crisis, they had hardly gained anything but employment from the boom before it.
Right from the beginning, the leaders of IMPACT and SIPTU, the two major unions in the state, and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ leading officers, undermined the workers’ position. They did so ideologically, by saying that the pain “must be shared fairly”. The inference was clear, they would lead the workers in making sacrifices, in return for some concessions from the capitalists and their government.
But when the government appeared unwilling or unable to grant any concessions, the unions adopted a militant stance and called for industrial action. On one day alone, at least 100,000 trade unionists marched through Dublin in protest and the ICTU announced that they would be calling for a one-day general strike. In the ballots, SIPTU got a significant majority for the general strike while IMPACT, with a large majority for the strike, nevertheless fell just short of the percentage needed by their constitution to carry the action. But clearly the leadership had no stomach for a general strike and where it might lead them; they had not campaigned vigorously for a “Yes” vote and now they used IMPACT’s results to abandon the general strike and to go back into negotiations with the government. Those talks ended eventually with the “Croke Park Deal” in which the union leaders actually agreed to some of the measures attacking the workers, such as wage cuts and pension deductions, with quite nebulous promises of alleviation from the government in return.
There was some resistance from groups of trade unionists trying to defend their wages and conditions but they were without cohesion, without a leadership which could unite the workers across sectors and the country and set a standard of resistance. The revolutionary socialist groups of the SP and SWP were the only ones who even made a show of trying to provide this (apart from in the teachers’ unions, where the anarchists had some presence).
Several meetings for left-wing trade unionists to set up a united network were convenend during the HSE funding crisis and then with the general attacks of the capitalist class but all foundered on the usual aspects notable in these situations: jockeying for position, promotion of one’s own organisation at the cost of joint working, attacking one another, exclusion of individuals seen as problematic, manipulation, setting short-term targets which when not achieved left the movement with no follow-on strategy, never mind tactics.
When the Right to Work campaign was announced, whatever its sources and their credibility, it seemed to many that “here at last was something”, some kind of resistance on a public level, and that on that basis alone it was to be supported. ‘Where to afterwards?’ was, however, always going to be a problematic question and a great many who supported the protests were well aware of that.
POLITICAL AND TACTICAL ANALYSIS
The early actions of the State exhibited a certain degree of ill-preparedness, weakness, and panic. Insufficient forces at the Dáil gates (who could possibly dare to storm the Dáil?) led the Gárdaí to feel they had to draw their batons or face the shame of having let protesters break through their ranks into the alleged centre of Irish state power. The use of police horses the following week against the ACB was an overreaction. Both actions drew media attention which in turn drew the attention of potential supporters of the protests. Somewhere, someone “had a word”: henceforth, the police numbers would be adequate to resist an attempt to break through until reinforcements (hidden nearby) could reach them; also the protesters would be permitted to march and to picket until they got tired of it.
From a revolutionary socialist point of view, the naming of the campaign Right to Work was not unproblematic. The “right to work” is most often quoted by strike-breakers or by employers opposing effective picketing; saying that workers have a ‘right to work’ can be interpreted as saying that they have a right to be exploited. These criticisms were levelled at the SWP when it had that campaign in Britain in the 1970s but since they were able at times to attract large numbers there they were able to ignore the criticisms of opportunism in slogans and, of course some people would say that what appears in the SWP in Britain will eventually appear in the SWP in Ireland.
Both the SWP and the SP’s slogans criticised the bankers being bailed by public funds and attacked the capitalists, especially the bankers and developers, also the Government. The SWP’s slogan of “They say cutbacks – we say fightback!” captured the need to resist the capitalist state’s attacks on the working class. However, one of the party’s slogans, “No ifs, no buts, no Fianna Fáil cuts!”, was also deeply problematic, in that it targeted the current capitalist government and majority political party, leaving open the inference that some other capitalist party might do better, might be acceptable.
The participation of Sinn Féin in the Right to Work campaign was unusual in that they chose to formally ally with the SWP and SP. SF’s own programme to deal with the crisis called for more government funding to aid the unemployed, for training, to fuel the economy etc. but did not call on the workers to “share the pain”; however, nor did it call for the capitalists to be made to pay in total.
The Labour Party’s line was always some variation or other, depending on whom one spoke to, of the workers shouldering a “fair” share of the burden of the crisis arising out of negotiations with the trade unions.
Both the Labour Party and Sinn Féin, it must be remembered, stood a chance of being part of some Irish government in the near-enough future. The Labour Party had been in coalition government before – in probably the most reactionary and politically repressive government in the 26 Counties since the 1930s.
The slogans of the ACB on the other hand were uncompromisingly and unmistakeably against the banks, the Government and the capitalist class. “Make the rich pay” might be somewhat populist but in the circumstances was a clear call for the workers to line up against the capitalist class and their government, as was “Break the connection with capital!”.
In calling for a campaign against the capitalist class and their government without inviting representatives of all the possible forces to sit down as equals to hammer out a plan of campaign and a maximum position of unity, the SWP, who were clearly the initiators of the Right to Work campaign, left themselves substantial room to maneouvre. However, in doing so they also potentially closed the door to an alliance along unequivocally anti-capitalist lines. The SWP may have wished for a broad alliance of revolutionary and social-democratic forces (under their leadership, of course) but in the event they only got the semblance of that, with SF going along with them, some elements of Labour hanging around their margins and the SP muttering and doing no promotional work for the campaign but attending the protests. Of course, the way in which the SWP decided things and then told their partners later was bound to alienate them from SF sooner or later.
The initiative of the WSM and of Éirigí in calling together a separate grouping at a separate rallying point, even though it was to join up with the protest a little later, might have seemed somewhat splittist. Calling it an “Anti-Capitalist Bloc” could be seen as an insult to the those rallying in Molesworth street, an inference those were not anti-capitalists.
However, the tactic of creating a revolutionary caucus within a movement or organisation has a respectable pedigree (as well as a disreputable one). It is argued that revolutionaries have a right to set up a standard and to work to win others over, as do people advocating one tactic or form of struggle against those advocating another.
The ACB initiative, slogans and banners did represent a more unequivocally anti-capitalist stance than that apparent in the equivalent signs of the Right To Work Campaign; also it was a broad front and the numbers were not an insignificant consideration. For those reasons I supported it, both with my physical presence and in discussion with others.
But I could not support the tactics of Éirigí and WSM in withdrawing from the rally in Molesworth Street before it concluded and in absenting themselves from the march to the Castle. Whether the SWP decided to march without consultation and whether it was a useful action or not was beside the point: it was a march through a busy part of Dublin, displaying resistance to capitalist plans to make the workers pay for the crisis and the absence of the ACB deprived the march of unequivocally anti-capitalist slogans. Nor could I support the way the WSM and Éirigí just stopped going to the protests, neglecting to inform a number of their supporters (although the Gardaí seem to have been notified) and giving no public explanation for their position, never mind consulting their supporters.
In the end, Éirigí and the WSM seem to have acted in the same way as those other organisations on the Left that they have often criticised: arrogantly, using their organisational power to positional advantage, ignoring non-aligned individuals and smaller groups and refusing unity when it seemed not in their organisational interests (as distinct from the needs of the class).
WHAT WE NEED
What we need from those offering revolutionary leadership to the working class is maturity, inclusiveness and the ability and willingness to analyse the needs of the class and to put those above their own organisation’s needs.
However, it does seem unlikely, even had the protests been conducted with exemplary revolutionary broad-front unity and effective tactics, that the protests could have “Escalate(d) to (the) “Mass Protest” that the SWP were openly calling for and that most participants were hoping for. This is because although most workers have little or no faith in their bourgeois politicians, they have perhaps even less faith in their alternatives. The union leaders have, for the most part, let them down badly and the revolutionary left seems, well .... irrelevant.
If effective organs of resistance are to be built among the working class, it would seem that one absolute requisite will be a genuine broad front solidarity network which will work to build democratic and participative groups in workplaces and which will reach out to give support when industrial struggles break out – especially when they are inadequately (or not at all) supported by the union leaders. However, these groups need to be built continuously, not just to try to cobble them together whenever industrial action occurs.
It also seems that a non-sectarian broad forum for discussion will be needed, with strict rules on conduct, which will allow activists to voice their opinions and to test them in argument, both before they get the opportunity to test them in practice and in the midst of that practice too. Again, this forum needs to be built now, not just created in the midst of some campaign, much less to be dominated by and to serve the needs of some particular political group.
I am ready to help with either or both of those projects. In the absence of either, I will attend this or that demonstration, this or that picket, knowing that all I am doing is contributing to some visible sign of resistance. But ultimately, will that contribute much more than
upon a wall,
a slanted scrawl
proclaims to all
“Kilroy was here”?