On 24 February 2020, Raheny Fianna Fáil councillor Tom
Brabazon was elected Lord Mayor of Dublin at a special meeting of Dublin City
Council. His victory came in a vote of 34 to 26 (three absences) against
independent candidate Anthony Flynn. In 2015, Tom Brabazon let slip an
extremely conservative view of women, when he wrote an article for the Northside
People against gender quotas in politics and said, ‘we should want real
women with real life experience of the education system, the workplace, childbirth,
childcare…’ He went further on the Sean O’Rourke show on RTÉ (9 March 2015),
saying that women who had actually given birth were best placed to discuss
Immediately, this drew a huge reaction from women who considered themselves perfectly real without having to give birth or raise children.
Slapped on the wrist by Micheál
Martin, Brabazon issued an apology and retreated to the extent that he said he did
not intend to be hurtful. The new Lord Mayor did not, however, revise his core
conservative beliefs in regard to women and this became apparent during the
Repeal campaign. On 5 October 2015 and again on 6 March 2017, Brabazon voted
against a DCC motion that called on the government to hold a referendum to repeal
the 8th amendment of the Constitution. During the campaign he put his name to a Pro-Life
statement in support of the ‘No’ position.
Independent Left’s Niamh McDonald said, ‘As the chair of Dublin Bay North Repeal group I am disgusted that such a man was voted in as Lord Mayor. His past history and comments have shown him not to be in favour of women’s empowerment or women’s equality. Dublin constituencies voted overwhelmingly for women and pregnant people to have reproductive choices and if our new lord Mayor had his way this would never have become a reality.
‘What I feel is a real betrayal of the Repeal movement comes from those parties such as the Social Democrats, Greens and Labour who were active in the Repeal campaign in Dublin Bay North and beyond, who have now agreed to Tom Brabazon’s nomination and who have voted him in. These parties won votes from the Repeal campaign in order to get elected and have now used those votes go against this movement.
‘Repealing the 8th was only half of the battle to ensure everybody has reproductive justice. Our current legislation is too conservative and narrow, it excludes many in society who are already marginalised. At a minimum, we need exclusion zones and to end the three day waiting period.
‘We have a review of the current legislation in less than two years and we need representatives who are willing to stand up to those who want to remove the gains we have made and also who will fight for more.’
Brabazon’s conservative family values
fit with his connections to the previous generation of Fianna Fáil politicians.
A strong supporter of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, Brabazon tried to
challenge the popular perception of Haughey as corrupt by proposing that Dublin’s
port tunnel be named in Haughey’s honour: ‘You would like to
think that somebody whose public life was dominated by goodness would have a
memorial,’ said Brabazon in 2006, apparently without smirking.
Why did the Greens and Social Democrats vote Fianna Fáil?
After the local government elections of 2019, Fianna Fáil did a deal with Labour, the Green Party and the Social Democrats to get control of Dublin City Council. “The Dublin Agreement 2019 – 2024” is the excuse that the Greens and the SocDems (Labour don’t seem to feel the need to excuse voting for Brabazon) are now giving for their support for Tom Brabazon as Lord Mayor of Dublin. The agreement itself is ten pages of dry, well-intentioned phrases. But the practical action arising from the document does not serve the real needs of the people of Dublin, nor our desire for urgent action on housing. This agreement allowed the sell-off of public land like O’Devaney Gardens and the wasting of millions on a white-water rafting facility.
Many people who voted for Green and Social Democrat candidates in general election 2020 just cannot understand why these parties would support Fianna Fáil in general and an anti-woman figure in particular. The vote on 24 February 2020 in Dublin’s council chamber seemed to completely contradict the spirit of ‘vote left, transfer left’ that swept through working class communities in the general election. It would have been easy, in the light of the general election results, for the Greens, Labour and the SocDems to leave the Dublin Agreement, saying that it was clear there was now a mandate for change. No doubt far more of their supporters would have agreed with such a stand than will agree with their vote for Tom Brabazon.
The explanation for the apparent contradiction in the behaviour of these parties is to be found in their history and their politics. Elsewhere in Europe, Greens can be found who are definitely on the left and side with working class communities but in Ireland that has never been the case. The Irish Green Party is a particularly conservative one, highly networked to Irish business (Ciaran Cuffe is a millionaire who notoriously held shares in General Electric, Chevron Texaco, Merck, Citigroup, Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson before this information became public). With honourable exceptions, they have often been hesitant on the struggle for abortion rights, preferring silence to leading the way towards change, and while their decision to run David Healy, a candidate with pro-life views, in Dublin Bay North was terrible, it was their attempt to escape the issue when it was raised that is the real indicator of their weakness in this regard. Although the general election campaign raised hopes that the Green Party had changed since its shocking, anti-working class performance in coalition with Finna Fáil 2007 – 2011, essentially, it has not. Its commitment to helping run Irish and international capitalism as a context for its policies means that even on issues to do with climate action, it will do little more than provide cosmetic, trivial changes.
As for the Social Democrats, they were born from a split from the Labour Party and have the same politics as Labour except with a pleasant purple colour-scheme and a lack of support from trade unions. They too start from a premise that they must be ‘responsible’ in respect to the economy and that any changes on behalf of working class communities can only be introduced insofar as such changes are acceptable to the wealthy and the owners of businesses and property. This attempt to mediate between us and the rich wasn’t particularly successful for Labour even in times of prosperity, where there was a certain amount of space for improved spending on housing and health. Sitting on the fence can be tricky and it is particularly difficult to be on a fence that is wobbling. In the 2020s, politics is highly polarised, such as is evident in the vast difference in beliefs between Bernie Saunders and Donald Trump in the USA. And what the vote for Dublin Mayor demonstrates is that when forced to come off the fence, the Social Democrats (just as with Labour) will jump down on the side of the elite.
What does the Dublin Mayoral Vote show for the future of Irish politics?
At the time the vote for Mayor of Dublin was made, the national picture was unclear, with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael looking to form a government that excluded Sinn Féin, one that would need a willing partner or two from among the smaller parties. While the Social Democrats ruled out joining that particular combination, they conspicuously did not rule out joining with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael in a different alignment. The Green Party are equally willing to participate in government alongside one of the right wing parties. Whatever combination of parties eventually emerges to create the Irish government (or, if there is another general election), we can draw a number of conclusions from the vote for Tom Brabazon.
Firstly, the exciting and positive vote for change in general election 2020 is only the beginning of a process of a widescale move to the left in Ireland (and especially in working class communities). As people who want decisive and urgent action on climate, housing and health see that the Social Democrats and Greens (and Labour) won’t take that action, it’s likely that parties to the left of these will grow.
Secondly, even if we had a left government that was trying to tackle these challenges in a manner that – for once – favoured working class communities, the Greens and the Social Democrats would not make for reliable partners. Probably, a government reliant on them would face the same issues that Syriza in Greece faced in 2015. When international pressure from businesses and powerful politicians came to hammer down on Greece, the left government caved in and backtracked on all its radical ideas. If the Greens and the Social Democrats can’t even bring themselves to stand up to Fianna Fáil in Dublin City Council and ditch the Dublin Agreement and a pro-Life Mayoral candidate in favour of a housing activist (Anthony Flynn), we aren’t going to see Che Guevara-style t-shirts being worn of SocDem and Green Party leaders. They are bound to give in to the demands of landlords and business.
Thirdly, on a smaller point but one that might prove important in the long term, the results of the election led to a difference in approach on the socialist left. While People Before Profit considered it a duty to enter a left government alongside the Greens and Social Democrats, the Socialist Party and Paul Murphy (RISE) were, quite rightly, more cautious. Supporting such a government from the outside is much better than being part of it. As soon as even a small strike or protest breaks out against the government, if you were outside of government you’d have your hands free to support the protest. If you were inside, you’d have to bring the government down, which might not be the worst outcome (the worst outcome would be if you sacrificed the cause of the protestors to your presence in government) but it would make it look like you were dishonest in your negotiations around the program for government.
Finally, and the most important
conclusion for us in Independent Left, is that the campaigns for change that
are bubbling away in Ireland, such as over childcare, pay equality and housing,
must continue. It doesn’t matter that there isn’t a government. Even a ‘left’
minister might fail us, while the caretaker ministers and the senior civil
servants can be forced by successful strikes and protests to implement the
changes we need. Waiting for a Sinn Féin-lead government could take months and ultimately
could lead nowhere. In the meantime, we can use the boost provided by the
election and especially the demoralisation among Fine Gael and their supporters
to galavanise existing campaigns and launch new ones.
Fine Gael called this election and rubbed
their hands with excitement. Full employment, Leo Varadkar looking great in
dealings with Boris Johnson over Brexit, property incomes soaring. What could
possibly go wrong?
Pretty much everything that can go wrong
when you live in a champagne bubble and have no insight into the struggle of
those on medium and low incomes. You speak with complacency and in ignorance,
you are contemptuous of the electorate and you think, ‘a future to look forward
to’ is a clever slogan.
Ireland has 78,000 millionaires in 2020 and
they certainly have a future to look forward to. For the rest of us, unless
something changes, we can only see more pain over the fact our incomes are
eaten up by mortgages and rents; more difficulty accessing health services our
families need, with longer waiting times; and more deprivation and anti-social
activity in our neglected communities.
There was a roar of anger released in this
election and it was channelled behind Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin are a working class
party in the sense that their activists are generally drawn from the working
class and they know the challenges working people face. So their policies and
their articulation of that roar led them to becoming the lightning rod for our
fury at Fine Gael and also at Fianna Fáil. We hadn’t forgotten who landed us
with massive tax burdens by bailing out their banker friends and who backed
Fine Gael with ‘confidence and supply’.
Understanding the rise of the Sinn Féin vote
Our class found a way to lash out at Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and it was through Sinn Féin, whose spokespeople did a great job of expressing how we felt and offering well-informed refutations of right wing lies (remember how Leo Varadakar said during a TV debate that the rent freeze in Berlin hadn’t worked? It has been agreed but hasn’t come in yet). Even though the large newspapers and television stations did all they could to hammer down the Sinn Féin vote in the last days of the campaign, the electorate in working class areas wasn’t budging.
Some of the tallies as the boxes opened
were incredible. Eighty, ninety percent Sinn Féin and just handfuls of votes
for the right wing parties.
The transformation of the Irish political
landscape in election 2020 is exciting for those of us on the left and
humiliating for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
In Dublin Bay North, as elsewhere, at first it seemed as though the socialist voice of the working class was going to also be swept away by the growth of the Sinn Féin vote. The Green vote too, might have been a challenge for socialists (although it was more of a challenge for Labour and other middle-ground and middle class parties). But as the counts went on, the transfers from Sinn Féin were strongly to the left, much more so than had been anticipated, although there were some losses to the presence of radical socialists in the Dáil and as activists with the advantages that being a TD brings to helping organise campaigns. We were sorry to see Ruth Coppinger and Séamus Healy lose their seats but delighted that after a difficult looking start, on the whole, the socialist left held their ground. In fact, we should have gained a seat in Dublin Bay North and at the expense of Seán Haughey of Fianna Fáil, who before the election had been a twenty-to-one favourite.
It must have come as an unpleasant shock for Fianna Fáil that far from winning a second seat, Seán Haughey was down at 6,651 first preferences and ultimately, even after 13 rounds of transfers, couldn’t get a quota. Our own first preference vote was a disappointment, at only 1,882 for our candidate Councillor John Lyons. This seemed to be at odds with the very strong energy for change we’d been encountering on the doorsteps but the transfers of poll-topping Denise Mitchell for Sinn Féin clarified what had happened. There was indeed a massive vote against the establishment and for the left but it had first found a channel in Sinn Féin.
The split left vote saved Haughey’s seat
Elsewhere, the huge Sinn Féin transfers were bringing in candidates of the left and that should have been the case in Dublin Bay North too. Except that that the nearly 5,000 transfers for socialists got split three ways. Instead of one candidate reaching around 9,000 votes and pushing Haughey into sixth place by the end of the election, the Fianna Fáil candidate got lucky. Inevitably, transfers get diluted: even between members of the same party, 50 – 60% is typical. So around half of the votes expressing a desire by working class communities to vote Sinn Féin then vote left were thrown away and in the end, John Lyons, the best placed of the socialists, went out on the thirteenth count with 6,421.
In advance of the next general election, there needs to be a good-faith conversation among the potential left candidates about local government and Dáil seats, in the hope of avoiding this situation arising again.
Positive outcomes for Independent Left from GE2020
Despite the fact that John Lyons did not win Independent Left’s first ever Dáil seat, there are a lot of positives from the election for our small party. With no national presence, financial support, media presence or infrastructure we ran a fantastic campaign which in other circumstances would have brought about a shock for the right and a terrific victory. It helped that our election material was absolutely in tune with our audience. Our theme was ‘a tale of two cities’ and we both listened to and helped articulate the feeling that while the very rich and the landlords were getting richer, the rest of us were being left behind.
We got energy too, from the Childcare
Strike and the Teachers’ Strike, which we connected to in Dublin Bay North with
a lively contingent on the childcare march and support for the picket lines at
the schools around the constituency.
Another big positive for us was meeting new
people who have joined Independent Left and have added to our mix of
socialists, environmentalists, trade unionists, parents, students, young and
old. We are still a project that is evolving but it was really interesting to
see how the joint effort of the election brought out a variety of skills and
expertise among us and also bonded us in the common effort. Modern socialist
parties can be a lot more freeform, dynamic, lively and conversational than the
traditional model of a small, centralised handful of people with years of
expertise directing everyone else. Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, etc. allow
for everyone to have an opinion and – in our case – a lot of laughs too. If you
have been supporting Independent Left in this campaign, you’d be welcome to
What will happen next in Irish politics after GE2020?
Nationally, a discussion is taking place about government formation and it
seems that Sinn Féin are positioning themselves to enter government with Fianna
Fáil and a smaller party or two. Probably, there is a huge debate within Sinn
Féin about this and we hope that the anti-Fianna Fáil voices win. Why? Because
Fianna Fáil might well offer a border poll. they might even allow Sinn Féin to
introduce a rent freeze, which of course would be very welcome. But the price
for these would be too high, because the wealth of the very rich and especially
corporations would be untouchable, because it would be business as usual in every
other regard. Worse, it would disillusion those people who made the effort to
vote for change. While Independent Left have been offering hope, diversity and
solidarity within working class communities and trying to direct the alienation
people feel against the real causes of this, the system we live under, there
was a far right presence in this election who offered despair, division and a
violent, racist and homophobic turning inwards of our communities. They will
try to capitalise on the sense of betrayal if Sinn Féin backed a Fianna Fáil
But isn’t the alternative a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael government? Wouldn’t that be worse? Actually no, it wouldn’t. Because the ability of any government to impose policies that harm working class communities is set by the willingness of people to stand up and organise and resist the government. We defeated the water charges and with a popular Sinn Féin party in opposition, we can not only throw back anything the government brings at us, workers can push now for pay equality, pay increases, while working class communities can challenge for more resources. This is a much better scenario and one that has a very strong prospect of leading to a left of centre government next time around, than one where for the sake of a few policy gains the excitement currently alive in working class communities subsides into apathy and disillusionment.
Regardless of how the political consequences of election 2020 develop nationally, Independent Left have emerged from the election as a stronger force in Dublin Bay North and we look forward to playing our part in the campaigns to come.
Message from John Lyons to his supporters after the count for Dublin Bay North on Sunday 11 February 2020.
The Repeal of the 8th amendment on 25 May 2018 was a seminal moment in Irish history and an amazing moment, one that starkly illuminated the fact that we are no longer a country dominated by the Catholic Church. The dazzling victory felt even stronger than that of the same-sex marriage referendum. It was a hard-fought result, one that couldn’t have been achieved without mass participation in the repeal movement. Everywhere, but especially in urban and working class areas, the issue of abortion was discussed and women shared their experiences.
This was one of the crucial differences compared to previous efforts to liberalise Ireland’s severe abortion laws. The atmosphere of shame and silence that prevented the reality of the need for safe and legal abortions from being expressed was shattered by women having the confidence to speak out in a fashion that was unprecedented for Ireland. With sincerity and conviction, canvassers swayed those who held reservations into voting for repeal. As one of the canvassers in Dublin Bay North put it:
Personal stories and individual experiences that weren’t readily available on television or even on the web were key to the success of the campaign.
Editors Kath Browne and Sydney Calkin invited a range of contributors to write for an anthology that analyses the campaign and also the implications of the result for Irish society and, indeed, the international struggle for reproductive justice.
Different perspectives on the politics of Repeal are offered by Theresa Reidy, Linda Connolly, Fiona de Londras, Máiréad Enright, Sydney Calkin, Elżbieta Drążkiewicz-Grodzicka and Máire Ní Mhórdha. For analysis of the campaign itself, the book draws on Mary McGill’s reflections of events in rural Ireland and the Repeal story within the Irish language community is covered by a chapter from Lisa Nic an Bhreithimh. Lorna O’Hara discusses the power of the iconic ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural, while Eric Olund’s research is in regard to the press. The aftermath of Repeal and its potential consequences both here and internationally are discussed by Richard Scriven, Kath Browne, Catherine Jean Nash, Noëlle Cotter, Lisa Smyth and Dorota Szelewa.
Dublin Bay North during the Repeal the 8th campaign
There is something of an academic flavour to the book, but the editors are to be commended on their inclusivity and in particular the publication of ‘Campaigning for choice: canvassing as feminist pedagogy in Dublin Bay North’, a chapter by Niamh McDonald, Kate Antosik-Parsons, Karen E. Till, Jack Callan and Gerry Kearns. The framing of the chapter suggests that its value is in providing a case study of successful feminist pedagogy, but really, there is wealth of more general lessons that can be learned from the experience of Dublin Bay North Repeal group, ones that are important for wider campaigns and, indeed, our own socialist project. It helps that Independent Left’s own Niamh McDonald is a contributor to the chapter. Niamh was Chair of the Dublin Bay North Repeal the 8th Campaign and with her voice, along with others, we hear from working class women who shaped the outcome of the referendum.
One of the challenges facing the group was in how to maximise the energy of
the many people new to political activism with the experience of those who had
years of experience in trying to bring about reproductive rights for women.
They solved this with a number of strategies: there was a ‘buddy’ system, to
team up those new and less confident about knocking on the doors of strangers
with those who were familiar with such activity; they avoided a potentially
patronising and top-down stultifying effect by placing an emphasis on the empowering
of the new voices; the internal social media conversations were egalitarian and
encouraging (i.e. were not heavily controlled by moderators); decision-making
was transparent and democratic; activists with a political background were
welcomed but no one party was given a pre-eminent role, finally, respect was
reciprocal. Newer activists might say,
My buddy had been knocking on doors for months, and gave me great advice, and boosted my confidence. It also made me feel safe.’
While the more
experienced activist could recognise that the enthusiasm of the new activist
was encouraging and helped lift her, ‘on bad days.’
All in all, the campaign
provides a model, not just for feminist pedagogy but a methodology for creating
an inclusive grass-roots campaign. The success of this approach, the fact that Dublin
Bay North Repeal retained members and grew to the point that 80 – 100 canvassers
were assembling and knocking on doors every day, was decisive in bringing about
one of the largest votes for Repeal in Ireland. Overly hierarchical organisations
inevitably stifle people who want to express themselves but are not used to
doing so. To win the argument around Repeal it was absolutely critical,
however, that women of our community, of the working class, got to speak and
got to be heard. As one canvasser summarised the situation: ‘our arguments were
based on compassion and real life experience’. Real life experience was heard
by canvassers, was brought into the campaign and shared, and working class women
as canvassers themselves reflected the reality of the necessity of abortion
Dublin Bay North Repeal
activists were self-aware enough of the importance of their achievement that
they consciously strove to preserve the lessons of the campaign by issuing a
survey to members in the aftermath of the vote and with 125 responses, obtained
essential feedback from which the lessons of the campaign could be drawn. Very
much to the credit of the editors, these lessons have been included in After Repeal.
Some twenty-percent of the Dublin Bay North campaign members were male and among them and one of the founders of the group was Councillor John Lyons. The launch of the book during the election campaign is very timely, firstly because, as John Lyons put it in answer to a question on Twitter to all candidates from the @DBNRepeal account, there is still a lot to achieve:
It took a huge effort to get the referendum and win it, but we aren’t done. We have a legislative review this year, people still travelling, maternity hospital ownership, we need exclusion zones, a countrywide service with no barriers to access. I want to see all goals achieved.
Secondly, it has emerged that the Green candidate, David Healy, is pro-life, voted against Repeal, and endorsed pro-life social media posts. It took some effort for this information to become public and it would be tragic if Dublin Bay North returned a majority of anti-choice TDs after such an inspiring campaign. Yes, climate change is a very urgent issue, but as Not Here Not Anywhere have shown, the left in the Dáil have just as good a record as the Greens on environmental issues and its therefore possible to express support for radical action on climate and the continuation of the struggle for reproductive rights in the general election.
Kate Antosik-Parsons, contributor to the Dublin Bay North chapter in After Repeal expresses why she is voting for Councillor John Lyons in the general election of 2020.
On 4 February 2020, hundreds of second-level schools closed as a result of a strike by 19,000 teachers, members of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI). These teachers voted by a massive 92% to 8% to engage in a campaign of industrial action. The issue driving teachers to strike is a simple one: people doing exactly the same job should get the same pay. Yet this principle is violated throughout the public sector as a result of savage cuts imposed by the Fine Gael / Labour government that formed on 25 February 2011.
A two-tier pay system was put in place that punishes those
who took up jobs from 1 January 2011 onwards, as a 10% reduction in basic pay
was imposed on new teachers and all new entrants were obliged to start on the
bottom point of the pay scale regardless of previous teaching experience.
Additional cuts to certain allowances meant new teachers lost up to 15% of
their pay. The pay
gap in starting salaries between post-2011 teachers and those employed
before 2011 is over €4,000 a year even when not taking into account the fact
that before 2011 teachers started on the third point of their scale.
Unity among teacher unions is the way to win pay-parity
There are three teaching unions in Ireland, the TUI, the ASTI (Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland) and the INTO (Irish National Teachers’ Organisation), while the latter focus on primary education, they too have been trying to achieve pay parity, by taking a court case to the European Court of Justice, claiming discrimination on the grounds of age. This case was lost so now the hope of INTO members will be that their colleagues in second-level schools win their strike and therefore pave the way for all teachers to win back equal pay. The INTO should also now ballot for strike action on the issue.
For the ASTI, the situation is similar, in that these teachers
too consider the issue of ending
the two-tier pay system an urgent one, the union describing it as a ‘shocking
stain’. Unfortunately for teachers as a whole, the ASTI and the TUI have, up to
now, not stood together in tackling the issue. The ASTI went into battle on the issue in 2016
and were knocked back, having to retreat with only small gains and having incurred
punitive costs. The government imposed penalties on ASTI members for having ‘repudiated’
the public service agreement and these penalties amount to some €15million in
lost increments and other benefits.
Naturally, ASTI members have a great deal of bitterness about this situation but Independent Left urge them to direct that bitterness at the government not their colleagues. Now is the perfect time to push forward on this issue. This is not so much because of the election – although there is no harm at all getting candidates to commit to restoring pay parity – but more because right throughout the public sector there is a growing mood for action on this issue. The nurses who struck in February 2019 made some gains and, perhaps more importantly, the government was sufficiently worried that they didn’t try to repeat the punishment of imposing penalties. They know public sector workers are much closer to a major revolt across the board than they were in 2016. Since the ASTI took the lead on the issue, three years of rising rents, medical costs, child care costs and a general increase in stressful living has changed the mood of other workers.
ASTI members should be proud of being the first into this battle and welcome the fact that reinforcements are now joining the cause. Ideally, all three teacher unions should co-ordinate strike action on this issue for the same day. At a minimum, teachers have to respect one another’s picket lines.
The ASTI, TUI and INTO leadership cannot officially call for members not to cross picket lines as it is illegal to do so (highlighting the importance of the demand by Councillor John Lyons, who is standing in Dublin Bay North for General Election 2020, that the 1990 Industrial Relations Act be abolished). Independent Left have no such constraint and as we take inspiration from the lives of James Connolly and Jim Larkin, we appreciate how essential is solidarity and respect for picket lines to winning strikes. Moreover, the ASTI have said:
the union will support any member who does not pass a picket should disciplinary action be threatened or taken against them.
They have also asked members not to undertake any duties
performed by TUI members and this alone should be sufficient on health and
safety grounds to cause many schools to close, even where the numbers of TUI
strikers are small.
Independent Left support the TUI strike on 4 February 2020
Probably, over 400 schools will be closed by the strike of 4 February 2020, including the 260 Education and Training Boards’ schools. This strike is a powerful way to bring the campaign for pay parity forward and regardless of who forms the next government, the new cabinet will inherit real pressure to make concessions.
From the point of view of parents, having to come up with a contingency arrangement for our children is a challenge. But it is very much in our interests to support the teachers. For one, the low pay in the sector is leaving schools short-staffed. Over ninety percent of secondary schools report difficulty filling posts. More generally, education is in desperate need of an injection of funding. And, of course, the demand of the teachers is an entirely fair one.
This is why Independent Left members went to the picket lines on 4 February to show our support for the striking teachers and we encourage parents and the public to do the same at future strikes.
Our education system discriminates against working class communities
Supporting teachers in the struggle to win parity of pay and, indirectly, to improve recruitment and retention rates is just one facet of a radical overhaul of the education system that is needed. As John Lyons highlighted in his election 2020 campaign as candidate in Dublin Bay North, we still have far too many schools under church control. My son goes to one where the principal circulates material against same-sex relationships, material which sees diversity as a plot by the UN to reduce population growth! John Lyons also is drawing attention to the need for meaningful supports to be put in place to allow all children equality of access. Although the government boasts of increase employment for SNAs, the fact that SNA hours have been reduced and the number of children requiring support has increased means the overall service is a long way behind that of 2013, when the Fine Gael – Labour government slashed SNA hours. The recent changes to the resource allocation model of NCSE is a particular disaster for visually impaired children.
Just looking at the school buildings in different parts of the city and your intuition will tell you something is wrong in Irish education. If you stroll past Wesley fee-paying school, for example, you’ll see two resurfaced hockey pitches, two cricket pitches, another for soccer. No less than four for rugby and if you got a glimpse inside you’d see two basketball courts a major hall and a gym. In 2018, Wesley obtained €150,000 from Shane Ross from the Sports Capital Programme to for those resurfaced hockey pitch. And for our kids on Dublin’s north side? Typically they play soccer on tarmac or, as in my son’s school, in a car park.
Research by Gerry Kearns, Professor of Human Geography, Maynooth University allows us to visualise the bias in education in Dublin. As he puts it:
There is a wedge of privilege extending southwards from the city centre. If we map the proportion of people going from school to college, the districts with the schools most likely to send students to college form a coherent band on the southside (Dublin postal districts 2, 4, 6, 6W and 14, and the local authority of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown).
This discrimination can be overcome, but not without a challenge to decades of neglect for our schools from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail and their coalition partners.
Nine days into the campaign, how does the picture look for
When senior Fine Gael members took the decision to dissolve
the Dáil on 14 January and began campaigning for a general election campaign
they were feeling complacent. The other parties were looking towards a May date
and were caught without election materials to hand, while Leo Varadkar had his
posters up before the election had officially begun. The timing seemed right,
not least because Fine Gael anticipated benefiting from the fact that Varadkar
appeared impressive beside Boris Johnson in the negotiations around Brexit and the
Northern Assembly was up and running again, with the Irish government having
played a part in this.
Moreover, in the champagne bubble that surrounds Fine Gael,
the world looks extremely positive: the number of millionaires in Ireland has
increased by a third since 2013, to 78,000 and these millionaires are paying
income tax at the same rate as people earning the average wage. Many of
Ireland’s wealthy are landlords (a third of Fine Gael and Fianna Fail TDs are
landlords) and are enjoying a growth in their incomes from tenants who are
desperately squeezed. In North County Dublin, average rents rose by 5.6% in
2019 to €1,728, having risen by 11% in 2018.
With unemployment below 5% and economic growth levels relatively
healthy compared to the rest of Europe (around 5% in 2019 and a predicted 4%
for 2020), Fine Gael strategists rubbed their hands and set out for what they
assumed would be a very good election for them.
In fact, it is going to be a very bad one.
The problem with elections, from a Fine Gael and Fianna Fail
point of view, is that you have to go outside the champagne bubble and listen
to voices that don’t normally concern you. And while the 78,000 millionaires
are powerful voices and highly networked to these parties in the day-to-day
running of Irish society, they are vastly outnumbered when an election takes
Fine Gael suffering a backlash in Dublin Bay North
By now, Fine Gael have discovered that there exists a huge
body of people who far from enjoying increased prosperity are suffering
enormously. For the majority of people in Ireland in 2020, life is extremely
stressful. Yes, we have jobs. But the money we earn disappears into rents and
mortgages, into childcare, into bills, including medical ones when the services
we need urgently aren’t there. Everywhere, there is pressure on our living
standards and obvious neglect of public services, especially health, education
and transport. And alongside these very immediate causes of stress is the wider
issue of a planet that is getting distinctly warmer and jeopardising our
futures and that of our children.
Not one person has mentioned Brexit or the Northern Assembly
in our canvassing. We hear awful stories of long waits for health services,
which bear out the figures that, for example, that Dublin North has 2,400
children on the waiting list for speech and language therapy (in contrast to
the waiting list of 10 for Dun Laoghaire, and 0 for Dublin South East).
The anger at Fine Gael is palpable and while Richard
Bruton’s seat is safe (Dublin Bay North has its affluent areas and in a
constituency that voted heavily for Same Sex Marriage and Repeal, the
government might get some credit for those referenda), he won’t be able to
bring home Catherine Noone.
Fianna Fail share the blame for deprivation and neglect in
parts of the constituency
A lot of the same anger is directed at Fianna Fail too, understandably
given the ‘confidence and supply’ agreement that meant Fianna Fail propped up
Fine Gael. It’s very common to hear a mistrust of politicians all together from
those we canvass. And for communities in Dublin Bay North that have experienced
far more than a decade of neglect such anger is entirely justified. In the
circles that Fine Gael and Fianna Fail move, there is no consequence for
creating pockets of real poverty, desperately poor services, feeble civic amenities,
or schools deprived of facilities. For the rest of us, an approach which has
favoured the wealthy has resulted in very severe consequences. There has been a
rise in drug use and in the appeal of criminal gangs for young, disenfranchised
people. Many people have said they are afraid to go out of their homes and
there are parents in parts of Dublin Bay North that simply cannot let their
children run out and play, instead they take buses to get to safer areas. And
since Fianna Fail are as complicit in the creation of these circumstances as
Fine Gael, they are not likely to be able to bring in Deirdre Heney, though
Sean Haughey is certain to keep his seat.
Is there a seat for Independent Left in Dublin Bay North?
With both Finian McGrath and Tommy Broughan retiring, the consensus among the political correspondents of RTE and the Irish Times is that this will boost Labour and the Social Democrats relative to everyone else. Yet from our canvassing and from what we can learn from the 2016 election, it seems like Councillor John Lyons of Independent Left is currently best placed to appeal to those who voted Tommy Broughan and has a lot to offer those who voted Finian McGrath. The two independents were very different of course. Tommy Broughan was a Labour Party TD opposed to coalition with Fine Gael and who – quite rightly – on 1 December 2011 stood firm on the issue of not extending the ruinous bank guarantee scheme. As a result, he was expelled from Labour and subsequently worked with left independents like Joan Collins, Catherine Connolly, Clare Daly, Maureen O’Sullivan, Thomas Pringle, and Mick Wallace, with whom he formed the Independents4Change technical group in the Dáil.
On a whole range of policies around housing and health and
especially on the principle of not going into government with Fine Gael or
Fianna Fail, Tommy Broughan is far more closely aligned with John Lyons than
Aodhán Ó Ríordáin (Labour) and Cian O’Callaghan (Social Democrats). A
consistent theme of Tommy Broughan’s political career was the need to challenge
the two main parties of the right and this has to be reflected in the values of
By contrast, Finian McGrath obviously did believe it
worthwhile to join with Fine Gael in government. It’s not at all clear,
however, that his voters would agree that this was a success. Not only has
Finian McGrath to share responsibility for the housing crisis and the failure
to reduce hospital waiting lists, but even in his own remit, as Minister for
State for Disability Issues, his record cannot be considered a success. The one
section in Irish society for whom employment did not rise under the Fine
Gael-led government is that of people with disability, two-thirds
of whom do not have jobs. In primary and secondary education, while the
number of SNA employed has risen, their hours have been reduced, and along with
the fact that the number of children in need of support have increased, the
situation for children with special needs is worse than at any time since the
savage Fine Gael-Labour cuts to their service of 2013.
From the transfer patterns of the 2016 election, it is
likely that many of Finian McGrath’s voters would be disappointed in his
decision to join a Fine Gael-led government and his record when in cabinet.
Only dribbles of transfers came his way when Stephanie Regan and Naoise Ó Muiri
of Fine Gael were eliminated and there was no obvious gain either for Finian
McGrath from the elimination of Deirdre Heney of Fianna Fail. His former voters
certainly seem likely to favour the non-government parties but it’s not clear
at this point that they will focus on Labour and the Social Democrats, more
likely is that they will spready fairly evenly, also coming in part to John
Lyons, Denise Mitchell (Sinn Féin) and David Healy (Green Party). Which brings
us to the Greens.
Have the Green Party made a terrible mistake in Dublin Bay
Given the surge in support for the Green Party in Dublin,
it’s understandable that Paddy Power would make David Healy a 2/9 favourite to
win a seat in Dublin Bay North. David Healy is the Green Party’s spokesperson
on climate and that is definitely an important issue for people we have been
talking to. Our own view is that the Green Party will not deliver a radical
enough solution to significantly alter Ireland’s contribution to global warming.
Partly, this is because they are ready to go into coalition with Fine Gael or
Fianna Fail, despite some internal
opposition, but also because their big idea is a heavy carbon tax, which is
not going to be a socially just way of tackling climate change. Even so, the
Green Party are set to do well as an expression of people’s concern about the
state of the planet.
Yet the candidate they have selected for Dublin Bay North is out of line with the official Green Party policy and with voters here in one very important way: he was against the Repeal of the Eighth amendment, voted ‘no’ and expressed support for the ‘no’ position at the time. Dublin Bay North had the second highest turnout in the country for that referendum and with 74.69% yes, was one of the strongest regions for repeal. By contrast with David Healy, John Lyons assisted in the formation of Dublin Bay North’s Repeal the 8th campaign, and, as one person put it on Twitter, was tireless in working for that campaign.
Kate Antosik-Parsons of the Dublin Bay North Repeal the 8th Campaign explains why she will be giving her number one vote to Councillor John Lyons.
The Green Party had other potential candidates for the
constituency of Dublin Bay North and ought to have been set to take a seat at
this point in the campaign. Now, however, there will be hundreds of voters who
are unsure about returning an anti-choice candidate, no matter how supportive
they are of other Green policies.
What is the likely result in general election 2020 in Dublin
The constituency has five seats. With Sinn Féin running a
strong campaign nationally and having just the one candidate in Dublin Bay
North this time, Denise Mitchell will consolidate her seat. Richard Bruton
(Fine Gael) will do well and be elected after the elimination of Catherine Noone.
Sean Haughey will probably improve on Richard Bruton’s 2016 performance and
take the top spot, not only because of the indication of the national polls,
but last time around Avril Power took some of the Fianna Fail vote.
There will then be two seats left and our estimate is that
three candidates will be close: John Lyons, David Healy and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin,
with Cian O’Callaghan a little bit off the pace. The main difficulty Aodhán Ó
Ríordáin has is not only the awful record of Labour when in government, which
people haven’t forgotten, but the fact that the national party is so anxious to
position itself as respectable and responsible, that they have policies to the
right of Fianna Fail, who cynically know when to make promises on housing and
health that they won’t deliver on.
Whereas Independent Left have no fear of offending
developers and those pushing for privatisation of health, or those on high
incomes who we would tax for the resources that public services need, Labour
are looking anxiously over at these same people in the hope of appeasing them.
For that reason, we are backing ourselves to win a seat and for the Green Party to edge out Labour, despite the fact that David Healy was on the wrong side of the Repeal referendum.
Thomas Daly of Darndale FC, endorsing Councillor John Lyons for Dublin Bay North in election 2020.
On Tuesday 13 April
1920 a general strike took place in Ireland that was by far the greatest strike
in Irish history. All over the country there was a complete stoppage and not
only that, in some regions and towns the workers took over the running of society,
declaring ‘soviets’ and workers’ councils to be in charge. The aim of the
strike was to secure the release of prisoners being held by the British
authorities in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin and, after two days, the strike ended
with a complete victory.
In the early part of
1920, an intense conflict was taking place – the War of Independence – between
the imperial authorities of the British government and the vast majority of the
Irish people. A radicalised Irish population had defeated the threat of conscription
at the end of 1918, had voted overwhelmingly for Sinn Féin in the elections of December
that year (a party that was determined to bring Ireland out of the empire), and
were engaged in a mass popular undermining of all the systems of British rule,
through strikes, boycotts and support for the guerrilla campaign of the Irish
On the other side,
Britain was still at this time determined not to lose an inch of soil in
Ireland. When it came to the conflict in Ireland, the main fear of the British
cabinet was that should Ireland achieve independence, this would have
disastrous consequences for the rest of the empire.
To quell the mass disobedience of the Irish population, the authorities began a campaign of repression and ‘reprisal’. As part of this campaign, sweeping arrests had resulted in over a hundred men being imprisoned at the Mountjoy without any charge or legal process being directed against them.
The Hunger Strike at Mountjoy Prison, April 1920
A determination sprang
up among these prisoners to embark on a hunger strike in protest at their treatment.
On 5 April 1920, a core group of thirty-six men refused food. These men were
trade unionists, socialists and republicans, sometimes all three combined.
Among them was the revolutionary socialist Jack Hedley, who had been arrested in
Belfast (with a pamphlet by Lenin in his pocket). The Manchester Guardian’s reporter interviewed a participant of the
hunger strike and described him as follows:
A young man, normally engaged as a trade union organiser and he may be taken as a type of the small but rapidly-growing band of idealists to whom the name of James Connolly is constant inspiration… he is as keen that the Irish nation should become a workers’ republic as that it should be a republic at all.
The next day, 6 April,
thirty more men joined them as the republicans in the jail promoted the hunger
strike. Each day, more prisoners took part, so that five days after the protest
had begun there were 91 men on hunger strike in the Mountjoy prison.
Theirs was not just a passive campaign: while they had strength for it, the men broke all the furniture they could, including the doors, and damaged the interior walls. The IRA ordered their more experienced men who had been sentenced (and were in ‘A’ wing) to wreck their cells and bore through the walls from cell to cell. This was a ‘smash-up’ strike and the point was to ensure the hunger strikers could mix together and not be prevented from acting in unison by being locked into their cells. The participants were handcuffed and moved to ‘C’ wing, which they managed to damage significantly also. Those men who had not been identified and sentenced joined the hunger strike but not the smash-up strike. To keep morale high everyone sang socialist and rebel songs, concluding with the ‘Red Flag’.
It wasn’t long before a huge public reaction surged up in response to the hunger strike and it was one of determination to help the men. On Saturday 10 April, people thronged the jail, where an unsuccessful attempt to set fire to a tank took place and the same night the crowds tested the gates to the jail, which withstood their efforts to push against them.
Workers join the protests in large numbers
The following evening, Dublin’s dockers – who were in the middle of their own radical action, a refusal to export food to avert a possible famine – were joined by postal workers and others at the jail to once again attempt at a break-in to free their suffering comrades. British soldiers fixed bayonets and fired shots over their heads but the crowds did not move back. Ireland was on the cusp of witnessing a Bastille Day. Socialists were present, distributing leaflets appealing to the soldiers, urging them not to attack the demonstrators. A critical moment was approaching. Would the crowds succeed in breaking in? Or would the British soldiers open fire, even at the cost of taking many civilian lives and the consequent political backlash that would accompany such an event?
The Dublin District Historical Record
described the scene:
Rapidly constructed obstacles were soon trodden down by the leading ranks … being pressed from behind; even tanks were no obstacle. The troops thus found themselves in the unenviable position of either being overwhelmed or having to open fire on a somewhat passive, but advancing crowd of men and women.
Yet the pressure on
the authorities and the possibility of their being caught up in a disastrous
invasion of their prison was relieved by Sinn Féin members.
Seán O’Mahony was a
Sinn Féin organiser, businessman and hotel owner. He was a member of the Dáil
and Dublin Corporation. Seeing a number of priests at the demonstration,
O’Mahony got them to form a cordon at the front of the crowd and then pushed
everyone back from the entrance, while shouting, ‘in the name of the Irish
Republic, go away!’ This effort had the merit of avoiding bloodshed, but it
left the soldiers untested as well as serving to ensure a popular insurrection
against British rule did not begin that day. O’Mahony was no Desmoulins and he
took it on himself to sustain this role.
The following day, one week after the hunger strike began, Monday 12 April 1920, a crowd of twenty-thousand men and women gathered around the jail, which remained in danger of being stormed by these huge numbers of protesters. A thin line of troops with fixed bayonets, as well as an armoured car, a rock in a sea of protesters, and the political impact of Sinn Féin’s intervention were all that held back the crowd (see video). There was no hope of moving any traffic in the streets around the prison. Inside the Mountjoy, the authorities were totally cut off and could only reach their superiors by telephone.
The IRA and Cumann na mBan mobilise at Mountjoy Jail
Frank Henderson, a commandant in the Dublin Brigade of the IRA recalled that the British soldiers were provocative and there was a real danger that the crowd would be fired upon. Henderson was put in charge of IRA activities outside the prison, with orders to not allow the IRA parties to be provoked by the British military and restrain the crowd from provoking the soldiers. The IRA had brought arms, however, revolvers in their pockets, and were ready to fire back should shooting begin. ‘The spirit of the orders was restraint unless fire was opened by the British.’
A full mobilisation of Cumann na mBan took place and the women’s organisation was very active in parading with posters and providing ‘guard’ duty. On Tuesday 13 April, Marie Comerford obtained admission to visit Frank Gallagher and brought out news of the prisoner’s demands, information which was issued by Sinn Féin as a press release. But by Tuesday evening, the authorities had recovered their position by deploying an additional two tanks, a number of armoured cars, a great many more soldiers and rolls of barbed wire. They even had air support: the RAF flew close to the rooftops (in dangerous 50mph winds), to try to intimidate those filling the streets around the jail. These RAF missions were considered an innovation and a success, confirming to the authorities that, ‘aeroplanes could be used for clearing streets by dropping warning notices and, if necessary, using Lewis gunfire.’
The prison was safe.
Safe, but surrounded.
This was the context
for Ireland’s biggest general strike.
The Irish labour movement resolved the crisis by taking decisive action. With the attention of the country focused on the prisoners in Mountjoy jail, the executive of the Irish Labour Party and Trade Union Council (ILPTUC) called for a national stoppage. Earlier, on Monday (12 April 1920), they had sent telegrams to the organisers of the ITGWU and placed a manifesto for a strike in the Evening Telegraph. The railworkers of the Great Southern and Midland Company began the general strike by halting all trains after 4.30pm on that day, all trains, that is, apart from those which were bringing the announcement of the general strike to the rest of the country.
Ireland’s greatest general strike begins 12 April 1920
Tuesday, 13 April 1920 saw a complete shutdown of all work in Ireland, along with massive local demonstrations and in some places, ‘soviet’ power. The reports that trade union officials sent back to their headquarters really convey in their own words just how effective was the strike and how wholehearted was the workers’ participation:
Well, the Workers’
Council is formed in Galway, and it’s here to stay. God speed the day when such
Councils shall be established all over Erin and the world, control the natural
resources of the country, the means of production and distribution, run them as
the worker knows how to run them, for the good and welfare of the whole
community and not for the profits of a few bloated parasites. Up Galway!
Cavan Branch, ITGWU:
Wire received 6pm;
meeting held, strike agreed upon. Tues. –
Cattle fair dispersed; shops closed; protest meeting held; resolution protests
passed; red flags and mottoes ‘workers demand release of all Irish political
prisoners’ prominently displayed… strike committee formed. Town Hall commandeered
as headquarters …
Rathangan Branch, ITGWU
Our strike was carried
through with great success. All work was at a standstill. The only work that
was done was malthouse work. Myself and all our post staff was on strike. We
picketed the town. Had all the shops closed for the two days. We allowed them
to sell no drink, only groceries and provisions.
Castletownroche Branch, ITGWU
Acted on instructions
issued on the Press, 13th inst. Wire received at 9.30, 13th
inst. Flour mill men then out. Ordered them back to work – by great work I got
them to go. The whole Branch acted like one man. Paraded 200 members through
streets yesterday with the general public, under the Rebel Flag – and proud
were they. A monster meeting followed. Branch pledged themselves no going back
until their countrymen were released.
Tralee Branch, ITGWU
Your instructions re
strike were carried out splendid. All organised labour responded. Meetings of
protest were held. The Trades council was turned into a Workers Council who
took full control of everything. We had our own police who kept order, saw that
all business was suspended, issued permits for everything required. Pickets
patrolled the streets. In fact the workers controlled all. Workers showed that
they were highly organised and that they can carry out any orders at a moment’s
Kilkenny Branch, ITGWU
I received President’s
wire at 5.11 on Monday evening. I being the first to get intimation and as I
could not get in touch with either the President or Secretary Workers Council I
acted on my own and by the help of willing volunteers the strike was completely
made public at 7 p.m., not a single man going to work on Tuesday or a single
house of business opened either. It was really magnificent the response… I also
wired the different branches in the county as far as I can learn the stoppage
in those places also complete. As far as the public in this city state that the
whole success of the stoppage is due to the prompt action of the members of
Maryborough Branch, ITGWU
You may be interested
to know that so far as Maryboro was concerned the strike was a great success.
All our Branch members co-operated and we had a strike committee which
regulated the closing of shops and opening of same for sale of food. We stopped
motors and compelled them to get permits from strike committee. Also compelled
stock owners to clear off the fair on Wednesday; ten minutes to get off the
square. Our pickets allowed no drink to be sold, as far as we of the O.B.U.
were concerned here we did our best.
Virginia Branch, ITGWU
We had a very
enjoyable time in Virginia at the strike for the release of the Mountjoy
prisoners. The Transport members all struck work, and all other labourers
joined in with them. We got on to the business houses first. Got them all
closed, with which we had not much trouble. We then held a meeting and put a
picket on all roads leading to town and stopped all people pending special
business. We celebrated the release of the prisoners with a parade through the
town at 8 p.m., which over 100 took part, headed by the local Sinn Fein band.
Maynooth Branch, ITGWU
… It may be mentioned
that, with one solitary exception, the procession was composed of workers only,
which goes to show the sincerity of the mouthings of the bosses with Ireland a
nation… The procession carrying the Tricolour and Red Flags made a most
imposing display… Noteworthy by their absence on both days was the usual
bodyguard of Irish Ireland and Workers Processions, the R.I.C. who by the way
are now homeless in Maynooth.
Carrigallon Branch, ITGWU
You will be glad to
hear our strike took place on Thursday last, the 15th inst. Our
Branch, with Sinn Fein Club and Volunteers went out to a man. All trading and
business was completely suspended for the whole day, the banks, post office,
every shop in the town and all traffic was kept suspended. At 12 o’c. in
dashing rain one hundred men marched to our red banner and the tricolour
through the town and returning placed our colours on the high roof of the post
In Dublin, the Drapers’ Assistants’ Association was given information that several shops in Grafton street were attempting to remain open. They organised a sizeable flying picket, which went to the salubrious part of town, where they found that the information was incorrect. Everything was closed. All sailings from Dublin were halted. You could only obtain bread and milk from particular shops and vans which had agreed with the ILPTUC the basis on which they could deliver their goods, mainly for a limited period on the afternoon only. It helped alleviate concerns about hunger in the capital that boats returning with the day’s catch were obliged to just dump their haul on the North Wall and sell them off for what they could get.
The general strike of April 1920 leads to ‘soviets’ and workers’ councils across Ireland
In Waterford, reported
the Manchester Guardian, ‘the City
was taken over by a Soviet Commissar and three associates. The Sinn Féin mayor
abdicated and the Soviet issued orders to the population which all had to obey.
For two days, until a telegram arrived reporting the release of hunger
strikers, the city was in the hands of these men.’ The same newspaper also gave
a survey of the events of the day, ‘in most places the police abdicated and the
maintenance of order was taken over by the local Workers’ Councils… In fact, it
is no exaggeration to trace a flavour of proletarian dictatorship about some
aspects of the strike.’
Freedom summed up the general strike with this observation: ‘never in history,
I think, has there been such a complete general strike as is now for
twenty-four hours taking place here in the Emerald Isle. Not a train or tram is
running not a shop is open, not a public house nor a tobacconist; even the
public lavatories are closed.’
From Kilmallock, East Limerick, came a report that vividly describes what workers’ control of a town looked like:
A visit to the local Town Hall – commandeered for the purpose of issuing permits – and one was struck by the absolute recognition of the soviet system – in deed if not in name. At one table sat a school teacher dispensing bread permits, at another a trade union official controlling the flour supply – at a third a railwayman controlling coal, at a fourth a creamery clerk distributing butter tickets… all working smoothly.
It was much more
difficult for the strike to take hold in the north. The demand to release the
prisoners was going to serve the nationalist cause and significantly weaken
Britain’s ability to police the national movement if it won. Even so, in
certain strategic industries like the railways, the strike was effective.
Robert Kelly, for example, railworker organiser and member of Newry Brigade IRA
successfully built the strike in that town.
It is clear that the lrish
Labour Party and Trades Union Council (Labour and the trade union movement were
united at the time) were hardly exaggerating when they summarised that:
Probably never has there been so sudden and dramatic a strike in the history of the Labour movement anywhere… Local Town Councils in many towns handed over the use the municipal buildings to the workers’ committees.
The Manchester Guardian also noted the significance of the workers’ council:
It is particularly interesting to note the rise of the Workers’ Councils in the country towns. The direction of affairs passed during the strike to these councils, which were formed not on a local but a class basis.
In the face of this incredible working class militancy and with the prospect of it deepening, the British authorities gave in. The first offer the governor made to the prisoners was that of a transfer to Wormwood Scrubs, which, they were told, would be accompanied by their being given political status. This, the prisoners refused. The second offer was to give the prisoners political status in Mountjoy Jail. This too, the prisoners refused. Peadar Clancy (second in command, Dublin Brigade) rejected it on behalf of the Volunteers. ‘I know the risk I’m taking but there are men here who must get out before they are recognised… the Castle isn’t done by a long chalk, but they’re done for the moment. The general strike has them beat.’
The British authorities are forced into a humiliating defeat by the power of the general strike
The most senior
imperial figure in Ireland at the time was Field-Marshal Lord French. Seeking a
resolution to the crisis, French sent for the constitutional nationalist and Lord
Mayor of Dublin, Laurence O’Neill. O’Neill was visting the Mountjoy Prison at
the time and left for the Viceregal Lodge where he met the newly arrived Commander
in Chief of the British forces in Ireland, General Nevil Macready. It seemed
that Macready was the right man for the job the British had in mind. In 1910,
Macready had used the threat of shooting workers to prevent a miners’ strike in
Wales. As a result, he had earned the nickname, ‘strike breaker.’ At first
French and Macready presented O’Neill with a hard line coming from London. On
the Monday the British government had made it clear that the demand to release
the prisoners, ‘cannot be entertained.’ Bonar Law told the House of Commons: ‘A
decision has been taken by the Government and I do not believe that there is
any chance of its being reviewed.’
‘Why don’t they eat,’
shouted an MP, to general merriment. The British establishment was complacent.
Forty-eight hours later, however, with the powerful general strike underway and many towns in Ireland under the control of workers’ councils, the authorities were wavering and when O’Neill proposed that the prisoners be released on parole for good behaviour, Macready and French accepted the idea.
The third offer to the prisoners, therefore, was put them with O’Neill’s return to the prison at 3pm on Wednesday 14 April: they could all leave the prison if they signed the parole form. Once again and despite suffering from the effects of their hunger strike (some of the men were never to fully recover), they said ‘no’.
In a panic, with no help from telephone calls to London, from where the cabinet told him that he must decide for himself, Lord French contacted the jail and said that the prisoners could be released. Pathetic attempts were made to hide the extent of this defeat when the prison officials read the parole document out to each prisoner as he left. No one gave any pledge to recognise it and scornful of their warders, the emaciated hunger strikers were greeted with an intense surge of delight from the crowds, who although now allowed to come right up to the steps of the prison were careful to give the men room and assistance in reaching ambulances waiting to take them to hospital.
This was one of the most disastrous defeats ever experienced by the British authorities in Ireland and they were well aware of it. The London Morning Post described the scene as one of ‘unparalleled ignominy and painful humiliation.’ Subsequently, the official history of the Dublin garrison of the British army reported that the effect of the strike was to drive from the streets military and police secret services, who could now be identified by many of the released prisoners.
The release of the hunger strikers and the cancellation of policy… nullified the effect of the efforts made by the Crown Forces during the three preceding months. The situation reverted to that obtaining in January, 1920, and was further aggravated by the raised morale of the rebels, brought about by their ‘victory’ and a corresponding loss of morale on the part of troops and police.
What can be learned from the great general strike of 1920?
It is often argued that Ireland could not have been (and never will be) a socialist country because of the adherence of the population to national parties and to Catholicism. Typically, the events of 1916 – 1923, Ireland’s revolutionary years, are framed by narratives that make this assumption. What this misunderstands is the nature of revolutions. No revolution has ever taken place in which the revolutionaries started with complete independence from the values and institutions that they end up overthrowing. Always, it is a process of differentiation and development, of realisation, often of delighted surprise to the revolutionaries themselves (the reports from local trade unionists above have this quality). And this process is always uneven. In Ireland’s biggest ever general strike there were towns in which workers continued to offer a leading role in affairs to the clergy and to prominent nationalists and other towns, like Watford and Galway, where the workers unhesitatingly took the lead and referred to the language of the Russian Revolution in doing so.
Unfortunately for the radical workers of 1920, their own organisations and leaders were far from eager to lead the movement towards a socialist Ireland. James Connolly was dead and Jim Larkin was in Sing Sing jail, leaving a generation of Labour and trade union leaders in charge whose values were closer to those of the modern Labour Party and ICTU than their socialist, former colleagues.
Rather than urge workers to draw revolutionary conclusions from the general strike, Ireland’s labour leaders hurried to discourage further general strikes and to keep the subsequent enthusiastic workers’ movement within boundaries acceptable to Sinn Féin. It was therefore left to conservative newspapers to draw the most important conclusion from the 1920 general strike.
The Daily News put the lesson like this:
Labour has become, quite definitely, the striking arm of the nation… It can justly claim that it alone possessed and was able to set in motion a machine powerful enough to save the lives of Irishmen when threatened by the British Government and that without this machine Dáil Éireann and all of Sinn Féin would have beaten their wings against the prison bars in vain.
From 2010 to her death in 2018, Ursula Le
Guin composed blog posts for her website and a selection of these have been
collected into a wonderful book, No Time
to Spare. Many of the essays are beautiful accounts of moments in her life,
with, for example, a most intense appreciation of the art of eating a
soft-boiled egg for breakfast that serves as a lesson in mindfulness. Here,
though, I want to focus on the political ideas of Le Guin that are explicit and
implicit in many of the features.
In one essay where she addresses the
question of socialism directly, Le Guin does so in the context of a comment
about the alternatives to capitalism:
Some of the alternatives that existed in the past had promise; I think socialism did, and still does, but it was run off the rails by ambitious men using it as a means to power, and by the infection of capitalism — the obsession with growing bigger at all cost in order to defeat rivals and dominate the world.
Ursula Le Guin on socialism, from No Time to Spare
In this one, short paragraph are four
hugely important ideas. Firstly, that socialism still has the potential to
provide an alternative to capitalism. Second and third, that the reasons
previous efforts to create socialism have failed are a) the desire for power
and b) the infection of global capitalism. Fourthly, the gender of those who
ran socialism off the rails was male.
Of these ideas the first is essential.
Almost certainly the majority of people living on the planet right now would
agree that the current economic system is deeply flawed. Hardly anyone,
however, can agree on what the alternative should be. And this is largely due
to the fact that socialism has been discredited. Yet unless the idea of
socialism is revived our species is in great trouble, because anything other
than a fundamental, radical, reorganisation of the world by workers will
succumb to the pressures of trying to co-exist with capitalism.
The second, that it was the seduction of
power that wrecked previous socialist projects, is entirely consistent with Le
Guin’s core political beliefs, which were those of anarchism. Ursula Le Guin was
always wary of defining herself politically, not through fear of alienating
people by sounding too radical, but because she felt she lacked the expertise and
devotion to activism to be a political authority. Her main passion and her
decades of experience were in writing, both in composing beautiful works but
also teaching and analysing literature.
The setting for one of Le Guin’s early
novels, The Dispossessed, is that of
a utopian world. In order to research that world, Le Guin read widely into anarchism:
especially Kropotkin and a modern anarchist thinker, Murray Bookchin.
And it was the pacifist, rather than
destructive, element within anarchism that appealed to Le Guin the most, as she
explained in an
I felt totally at home with (pacifist, not violent) anarchism, just as I always had with Taoism (they are related, at least by affinity.) It is the only mode of political thinking that I do feel at home with. It also links up more and more interestingly, these days, with behavioral biology and animal psychology (as Kropotkin knew it would.)
In Jacobin’s obituary of Le Guin, the novelist is described as being a historical materialist but this is too much of a stretch. An anarchist emphasis on the importance of power in politics is very clear in Le Guin’s thought. Even here, in this discussion about whether Le Guin was a socialist, it’s no accident that she puts the issue of power before the question of structure in signalling what went wrong for socialism in the past.
As an aside, many on the left interested in
Science Fiction and Fantasy juxtapose the work of Le Guin, radical, feminist,
anarchist and Tolkien, who they see as conservative and anti-working class.
China Mieville, whose critique of Tolkien derives from the essay of another
anarchist fantasy writer, Michael Moorcock, has been the standard bearer for
In my view, it is utterly mistaken. Le Guin
herself was a huge champion of Tolkien and often spoke up for the literary
merits of The Lord of the Rings, a
book that despite enormous public enthusiasm, is usually under-appreciated by
critics. And in The Lord of the Rings
is a metaphor for the corrupting influence of power that is as pure as any in
literature. The One Ring is the ultimate test of character and only those wise
enough to reject it have any integrity, those who try to use it are doomed to
become hollowed-out husks of their former selves.
Having placed an emphasis on the question
of the destructive effects of the possession of power, which remains an
important issue for the left, Le Guin also sees global capitalism as a key
contributor to the failure of previous attempts to create socialism. This is a
vital observation for the future too. Any attempt to introduce socialism in one
jurisdiction is doomed: either pressure to compete in the world market or
direct overthrow will end the effort. Fortunately, today, our world is so
integrated globally that a socialist movement that really went down to alter the
fundamentals of society would have an immediate and massive international
impact, making it much more likely to transform the entire planet.
In unpacking Le Guin’s observation on the
previous failure of socialism, one more point remains to be made, which is that
she highlighted the fact that it was men who led the movement away from utopia.
This is an historical observation as well as a reflection on Le Guin’s ‘steady,
resolute, morally committed’ role in the feminist movement. She explicitly
defined herself as a part of second wave feminism — the struggles of the late
1960s and early 1970s — and her writings throughout her entire life, both
fictional and non-fictional, constantly returned to the subject of gender
It seems to me to be clear that Ursula Le
Guin was very sympathetic to all alternatives to capitalism and while more
inclined to describe herself as anarchist was definitely open to being
persuaded about socialism. The revolutions and socialist movements she saw in
her lifetime did not, however, provide a lot of evidence for the potential of
socialism to deliver utopia. Personally, I think that potential is evident in
all the great working class uprisings of the twentieth century, but you have to
really drill down to the detail of the particular variants of socialism active
in them to understand why, ultimately, none of them led to the disappearance of
capitalism in favour of a sharing society.
Ursula Le Guin on dialectics and Taosim
Time to Spare there is another subject that connects Le Guin’s intellectual
makeup to socialism and it is the question of dialectics. For socialists, to be
able to analyse political systems that are in motion and which can dramatically
hit transformative tipping points is essential and the tool for doing this,
dialectics, comes to us from a western tradition, originating with the early
Greek philosophers and being developed especially by Hegel and Marx. But there
is an even older tradition of dialectical thought rooted in ancient eastern
When Le Guin wanted to explain some underlying connections between utopian and dystopian societies in literature, she first needed her readers to understand dialectics and she helped them do so by drawing on her deep engagement with Taoism. A translator of Lao Tzu’s sixth century BC Tao Te Ching, Le Guin used the yang-yin symbol to illustrate her point that every utopia contains a dystopia, every dystopia a utopia.
In the yang-yin symbol each half contains within it a portion of the other, signifying their complete interdependence and continual intermutability. The figure is static, but each half contains the seed of transformation. The symbol presents not a stasis but a process.
In the many appreciations of Ursula Le Guin
that have been written since her death (22 January 2018) this aspect to her
thinking has usually been neglected, yet in my view it is fundamental to her
The presence of a powerful and playful mind
is evident throughout No Time to Spare
and always Le Guin’s writing is informed by a sense of development and change,
even in her own sentences as she formulates them. That’s why they are rich,
truthful, convincing. When reading Le Guin, you feel the presence of someone
who is not satisfied until she has expressed herself exactly as she intends. Someone
who weighs the meaning of every word, every punctuation mark even.
Le Guin’s dialectical way of approaching
any subject, even that of the behaviour of cats (she was a great cat lover and
if you are the same, you’ll read some of these essays with enormous pleasure)
means we never get a dry, linear, didactic essay. Always, they are rich, fecund
Was Ursula Le Guin a socialist? She was. And she wasn’t.
In 2014, Ursula Le Guin attended the National Book Awards in the US where she was the recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. During her speech she made a powerful point to those who feel there is no alternative to capitalism:
The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art and very often in our art, the art of words.
With the decisive victory of Boris Johnson
over Jeremy Corbyn, the left needs to come to terms with what was a crushing
defeat for a political agenda that on paper was much closer to a radical
socialist one than anything that has been on offer to the UK electorate for
In the immediate aftermath of the Tory victory in the UK election of December 2019, very many left groups rushed out an analysis. And often this analysis boiled down to one takeaway message: if only Corbyn had adopted our politics, he could have won. Thus, for those who favoured a ‘Lexit’, a left support for Brexit, the problem for Labour was that they moved away from a position that respected the June 2016 Brexit referendum result to one that argued for more negotiations and possibly a second referendum. For left parties that were for Remain (and Independent Left are among them) the analysis runs the other way. Labour would have done much better had it been clearly and unambiguously the party of Remain.
Thus, the pain of the defeat is eased and
the old certainties of these parties continue undisturbed.
It could well be that had Labour caved in
to the racism of the pro-Brexit side as figures such as Stephen Kinnock wanted,
it might have done better. It could also be true that had Labour more firmly
tried to rally the Remain population and say that it too would get Brexit done
– by killing it off – Labour might well have improved its performance too (with
Remain being the better option, both in terms of challenging anti-immigrant
racism but also in electoral terms, as @johnross43 showed on his Twitter post).
How strange, that two positions in apparent
opposition to each other might both be true. As is often the case with such
conundrums, they represent half-grasped insights into a deeper dynamic that
makes sense of them both.
What unites the two arguments (Labour
should have been more for Brexit / Labour should have been more for Remain) is
an electorate who desperately wanted an end to the protracted and painful
divisions over Brexit. By trying to steer a middle course on Brexit, Labour
offered months, if not years more, of a debate that to many was infuriating.
Back to the EU for more negotiations, then a second referendum on the result of
those negotiations. And no commitment to advocating for its deal in such a
scenario. This was a line that could only be drawn mathematically: by finding
the centre of gravity between competing forces and trying to balance them.
Sometimes, this kind of politics, of finding a position that doesn’t alienate
anyone too much, can work. De Valera was a master at it. But with Johnson
knowing full well how disenchanted large swathes of the public were with the
delay to Brexit, Labour’s position didn’t come across as far-sighted and
statesmanlike, it seemed cowardly.
In hindsight, the parliamentary manoeuvres
that prevented Johnson from crashing out in a no deal scenario do not look as
clever as they appeared at the time. Yes, Johnson was boxed in, but all the
time he was boxed in and being refused an election, he was gaining potential
energy from massive discontent with further delays to Brexit, so that when the
election came, he could spring forth, like a jack-in-the-box, crying, ‘get
Brexit done’ and release that frustration.
My conclusion in regard to Brexit, the all
of the election, is that Labour, by half-moving to Remain took a very
difficult position. To have won despite this sense that they were sitting on
the fence would have required the public to be more concerned about other
issues, such as the NHS than Brexit, which ultimately was not the case.
the Labour manifesto too radical in 2019?
Naturally, the right in the British Labour
Party and the Irish too, have been quick to conclude that the December 2019 UK
election proves that radical socialist policies are unelectable and that the UK
Labour party should move back to the ‘centre’ ground of Blair and Brown. For
‘centre’, read neo-liberal, austerity politics.
The reality seems to have been a public –
and especially working class communities — who much preferred Labour’s
manifesto to that of the Tories. As one Labour canvasser wrote:
Once I had made common ground with people, I encountered no prejudice, and little rugged individualism. I did this by talking the language of class, which is something the left have not done well, even under Corbyn. When I asked them about public services, about the Labour manifesto and its promises, they were very enthused, and yes, even those people who had voted Tory or who were abstaining because they ‘hated all politicians’.
percent of Labour voters said they: “preferred the promises made by the
party I voted for more than the promises of other parties”, the second most
popular reason for voting Labour (the first being that they trusted Labour’s
motives more). Whereas for the Tory voter, it was not about policy, it was
about Brexit. Labour’s policies were not vote losers, in fact they were
vote-winning, especially among younger voters. The graphic about this is
As @electionmapsuk on Twitter noted last year based on polls, the Tories would win no seats if the only voters were those aged 18 – 24 and the Ashcroft survey after the election of 2019 bears this out.
What hurt Labour beyond Brexit, was not the
policies as such, but the questions around them. How much would they cost and,
especially, how would Jeremy Corbyn deliver them? Wasn’t he just making
promises for votes, the same as all politicians do?
Here there was a difference between Corbyn
versus May in 2017 and Corbyn versus Johnson in 2019 and the difference was not
just a matter of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Tory leader.
Corbyn had the better of both in terms of debating issues that working class
communities care about. In 2019, however, he also bore the legacy of two years
of parliamentary games, during which time the sense that he was different wore
Of course, there was a horrible smear campaign against Corbyn from the UK’s media. They were worse in 2019 than in 2017 and on the issue of anti-Semitism, utterly hypocritical given that anti-Semitism in the Tory party is far more prevalent than it is in the Labour Party. What gave Corbyn difficulty in resisting the media attacks this time around was in part that over the intervening months he became normalised as a politician. That’s something which is very difficult to avoid if you are the leader of the UK’s Labour Party. It is also fatal for someone whose main strength in resisting the Tory-controlled media messages is that of being the outsider, the anti-establishment figure, the person who actually is sincere about causes and willing to fight them. In 2017, there was a sense that Corbyn was all these things and that rant and rave as the billionaire class might through its media channels, the people, and especially the younger people mobilised at massive, inspiring rallies by Momentum, could shrug it all off and sing his name with passion. Of course the media froth against Corbyn: he’s ours not theirs. He’s outside of the box.
In 2019, there were nowhere near the same
levels of turnout for mass rallies to take Corbyn to heart and use alternative
media to build a space for him that was free from control by the elites and one
which could spread to politicise wider numbers. Corbyn had, by the logic of his
role over the intervening months, to play the game of politics in the usual
way, among the usual public schoolboys, in the usual chamber from where the
voice of working class communities has largely been absent. He had become (and,
of course, to a large extent has been all his life) that despised creature, a politician.
In 2019, Momentum played a magnificent role
in terms of winning the battle on social media, even with a fraction of the
budget available to the Tories. And one positive from this election result for
all the left going forward would be to study Momentum’s productions and
campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and Instragram. Yet the higher level of
co-ordination and planning by Momentum activists in 2019 compared to 2017 was
met by a less passionate response. Gone were the chaotic but electric mass rallies
of the earlier election and in their place, much less inspiring events.
Labour’s 2019 manifesto was more left-wing
than that of 2017 but the context of a weaker mass movement around Corbyn
meant, with the exception of the promises around the NHS, it looked
unconvincing. My second takeaway for the left from this election is that advocating
socialist policies as a response to years of austerity is unproblematic. There’s
no need to rush back to the centre. What matters are our connections to
communities willing to be active participants in the process of winning the
goals set out in manifestos. One demand arising from a politicised working
class (e.g. abolish the Water Charges) is worth a dozen from a think-tank or
1930s transitional programme. And in the period between elections, if the left
have not been focused on whatever options to campaign exist outside of
parliament, then we do lack credibility if we suddenly promise a golden age of
socialist policies come an election.
the left revive after the UK election of 2019?
On the night, the UK election result felt like a terrible blow for the left. And it was. Once again, the right and especially the anti-immigrant racist feel triumphant. This is no light matter. Yet an election should be understood as a snapshot of feeling rather than a fundamental change in the social landscape. By which I mean, for example, that the defeat of the miners in 1984 – 5 was a far worse defeat than this election result. When the best-organised, most economically strategic group of workers are crushed and eventually laid off, it’s no wonder that in industry after industry, the axe subsequently comes down on workers’ incomes and rights.
An election result, even this one, where it
was so polarised, changes very little in terms of the capacity of workers to
mount campaigns and strikes. And when you consider that Labour was way ahead
among voters aged 18 – 44 even in purely electoral terms, that indicates a
comeback in the future.
Moreover, there are features of Johnson’s
victory that mean his position is not as stable as having a big majority of MPs
suggests. On his right, there is Nigel Farage. There is enormous mistrust and
outright anger from the hardline Brexiters towards Johnson. Tactically, they
had to retreat from challenging the Tories or split the vote and let Labour
into government but they hated doing so and will be seeking ways to ‘reapply
pressure’ on the Tories, as Farage put it soon after the election.
On Johnson’s left, within the Tory party,
are those who do not want to make a dash out of Europe at the cost of severe
trading penalties. In 2018, 45% of the UK’s exports were to EU countries (and
53% of imports). This means there is a sizeable number of people in business —
the natural base for the Tories — who hate Brexit. They have come to terms with
it, though, as judged by the bounce in Sterling and the UK’s stock market after
the election. Given a divided consensus among the Tory party’s business network
and a UK population who will experience all kinds of unexpected hardships once
Brexit is concluded, there’s no doubt at all that the left will bounce back.
And it doesn’t have to be a matter of waiting five years until the next
election. Not only are there no shortage of issues for the left to campaign on
right now in the UK, the frustration of the younger worker and of trade
unionists as a result of this election mean that significant strikes and
protest movements are very likely to spring up in 2020
Back in the late 1980s, after the defeat of the air traffic controllers in the USA and the miners in the UK, a great many activists gave up on their hopes that working class people could lead a revolt against capitalism. Andre Gorz, for example, had written a book, Adieux au proletariat (Farewell to the Working Class) which became popular on the left. His argument was that the traditional working class had changed in such a fundamental way that we would never again have the power to lead a transformation of society.
What the book (and those influenced by it) failed to appreciate is that the working class is always changing. Industries rise and fall, with consequences for patterns of employment. But the fact that all companies exploit their workers to maximise profits is a constant. And it is a constant that means after a new company has been running for a while, its employees will try to organise themselves.
Take Google and Facebook, two very important examples of new workforces, especially for Ireland. Right now there is major unrest by staff worldwide in these companies along with a drive to unionise.
for trade union rights at Google
end of October 2019, a row broke out at Google over a new tool for Chrome that
automatically launches a pop-up when staff book a room capable of holding 100
people or more. Google says that it’s just a roadbump to stop unnecessary
invitations but employees anonymously leaked news of this tool with the allegation
that it was designed to warn management of attempts to hold organising meetings.
Workers have mocked the tool, circulating memes such as one showing Professor Dolores Umbridge teaching a defence against the Dark Arts class. Beneath her, it says: ‘Google decree number 24: no employee organization or meeting with over 100 participants may exist without the knowledge and approval of the high inquisitor.’ Another shows a bunch of male managers in suits laughing as one of them says: ‘and then we told them “we will not make it appear to you that we are watching out for your protected concerted activities” as we pushed a Chrome extension to report when someone makes a meeting with 100+ people.’
came shortly after a meeting, 21 October 2019, in Switzerland, where for
several months, over 2,000 Google staff had been attempting to organise a
meeting addressed by the trade union Syndicom. Management attempted to thwart
the meeting and at one point sent a message around to employees saying, “we’ll
be cancelling this talk.”
the end, some 40 workers insisted on their right to hear the union representative
and this issue is likely to culminate in a fierce battle for recognition.
some extent the drive to unionise was trigged by the massive walkout on 1
November 2018, a strike that was very well supported by Dublin Google workers
at the Barrow Street headquarters. Google employs around 7,000 workers in Ireland.
Over 20,000 workers in 47 countries held a wildcat strike to protest at massive
severance payments made to male executives accused of sexual harassment.
workers have recently leaked information on issues they feel are morally wrong
in the direction of the company, such as censored search engines for China; co-operation
with armies, or with the fossil fuel industry.
On 25 November 2019, the New York Times reported that it had seen a memo where four Google workers associated with organising their colleagues were fired.
has over 4,000 employees in Ireland and here too there have been leaks, not
least in regard to making contracts public. This has been an important
contribution to a legal case against Google contracts where the plaintiffs want end to compulsory arbitration
of workplace discrimination cases.
One Facebook worker described to Independent Left how the company started in Ireland in a non-traditional way, making an effort to create a team spirit through twenty-four hour, free access to a variety of food and drink, including a bar. But now, most of that has gone and the company manages its workers much like any other.
Life in Google and Facebook for workers is unrecognisable in the Hollywood versions of these companies (e.g. in The Social Network or The Internship).
What this discontent among workers in the giant
tech companies shows is that although the decline of old industries can indeed
shatter working class organisation and confidence for a few years, the rise of
new ones (and, indeed, the return of confidence to traditional ones) brings back
the fight to organise against exploitation and unfair practices.
this means for the big picture is that the potential for workers to lead a
massive, fundamental change to how the world currently works is as great as
At the time of
writing, there is still a lot of uncertainty around whether and under what
conditions the UK will leave EU. On Saturday 19 October, it seemed possible
that Boris Johnson would just about get a Brexit deal through the UK
parliament, only for him to be caught by surprise by an amendment (the Letwin
amendment) that postponed a vote on Johnson’s Brexit package until a Withdrawal
Agreement bill (WAB) was first agreed. The point being that MPs did not trust
Johnson: so long as WAB was not passed, there was a danger of a No Deal crash
out on 31 October.
Currently, even if Johnson does have the slender majority he needs to deliver Brexit in line with his agreement, there is still opportunity for UK MPs to amend the WAB, including by adding the idea that a second referendum has to be organised to endorse the deal. A new referendum was the demand of the huge (possibly as many as one million people) march in London on the same date.
What is certain is that if Brexit takes place – and especially if it’s the Johnson version – the UK leaving will be harmful for working class communities. In the UK itself, including Northern Ireland, Brexit would mean a rise in unemployment, a food and medicine crisis and an economic decline that some analysts anticipate will be worse than that of the 1930s. In Ireland, there are likely to be similar, if much less severe consequences. Here too, however, we are also going to face a government that will use Brexit, like it has used every crisis before now, as an excuse to strike down on working class people.
Remember how the
Universal Social Charge was introduced by Fianna Fail’s Finance minister Brian
Lenihan in 2010 as ‘a temporary measure’ to help Ireland cope with the
financial crisis? Well, Brexit will be used in exactly the same way: even now
Fine Gael are raising Brexit to justify their failure to properly fund
essential services. The most recent budget is just the latest example of this
For this reason alone, socialists in Ireland should advocate Remain. Moreover, there’s another way that the position of workers has already worsened as a result of the Brexit vote and that is because it has been accompanied by a rise in racism. Racists of all hues in the UK, including out-and-out fascists, greeted the result of the Brexit referendum with delight and there was an immediate upsurge of attacks on immigrants (a rise of 41% in what the UK police term ‘hate crimes’). In Ireland, we only experienced a ripple of this, but any growth in hostility to immigrants harms our ability to stand together and make progress on all the pressing issues that face us.
Does supporting Remain
mean supporting the EU?
On the whole, with the
important exception of Bernadette McAliskey, who quite rightly said, ‘politically
the Right wing of British and European politics along with anti-immigration and
naked racism has been strengthened by the Brexit victory,’ the Irish left were pro-Brexit
at the time of the first referendum. It is understandable why. We shocked the
establishment in 2001, when we were a successful part of the campaign against
the Nice Treaty (opposing it largely because the treaty undermined Irish
neutrality). The Irish conservative parties had to spend a lot of time and
energy in pushing through the re-run in 2002. Again, the Lisbon Treaty of 2008
was rejected, with the left in tune with working class communities who
mistrusted the proposed changes as likely to favour business over workers’
Given the EU had
bullied Ireland into taking on the debts of their banks after the crash of 2009
and then tried to insist on us having water charges to pay for these massive
debts, it’s no wonder that the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and many
others on the left assumed that being in favour of Brexit was the natural
continuation of an approach that – rightly – characterises the EU as being
dominated by big business.
They were mistaken and
Every referendum has
to be judged on its merits and understood to be taking place at a particular
moment in time. The UK one on Brexit had a very different dynamic to Nice and
Lisbon. It was rapidly taken up by the anti-immigration UKIP and small parties
even further to the right and then became all about immigration, particularly
after the murder of Labour’s Jo Cox. Jo Cox was a prominent activist against
Islamaphobia who was campaigning for Remain. She was killed by a man with
fascist connections, who shouted “Britain first”.
Socialists who had a
vote should have voted Remain, primarily in order to stand with the
There is no
contradiction at all in advocating Remain for these reasons and still holding
to a view that the EU is driven by big business. Because Brexit too is all
about a big business agenda: the Conservative Brexiteers can hardly wait to
tear up EU regulations protecting workers’ rights. They think realignment with
the US and the far-east will prove more profitable than staying in the EU.
The old Socialist
Workers Party that was, had a slogan, ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ to
indicate that in the Cold War it did not see it necessary to pick a side, when
both sides were racing to oppress and exploit their populations. That’s the
approach that socialists should take when the rows among a divided elite spill
over into a referendum. The Irish version runs: feck ye both.
We don’t have a side
between the EU and British businesses who think they are better off facing
towards the US. But we do take sides against racism and we are rooted in communities
that are going to suffer when Fine Gael wield the hammer, shouting ‘sorry, but
So Remain it is.
What should socialists
do now about Brexit?
The Brexit vote is not a defiant working class refusing to be pushed into a Lisbon-type treaty. It’s the opposite: an anti-immigrant, right-wing vote. On the other hand, the Remain vote had as its largest component exactly the kind of people who make up the natural constituency for socialist parties: trade unionists, community activists and especially anti-racists.
The Ashcroft exit poll
to the Brexit referendum was the most comprehensive poll at the time (12,000
people sampled). It shows that two out of three Labour voters voted Remain. A
majority of people in work voted Remain. 67% of Asians voted Remain and 70% of
Muslims. True, there were traditional Labour regions that voted leave, but no
one argues that they did so for any other reason than being anti-immigrant.
Their champion within the Labour Party, Stephen Kinnock, thinks Labour has to
emphasise, ‘the value of place’ and the legitimacy of raising concerns about
Trying to appease
racism never works. The more divided a working class community, the less able
we are to win campaigns on all the issues affecting us.
Probably, the penny
has begun to drop among Irish socialists that they have the wrong approach to
Brexit and they are alienating themselves from core supporters.
parties change their approach. Although they have no culture of doing so, it
would not harm these parties to acknowledge that supporting Brexit was a
mistake but now, in the light of developments, they are for Remain. No harm at
all. In fact, you win respect by honesty instead of evasive, never-wrong,
politician-speak. We need to have the humility to acknowledge when we make
mistakes, learn from them and move forward. No one is all-knowing, so we
shouldn’t pretend to be so.
For our part, we are
unambiguous. Independent Left are for Remain.