Pro-Life Fianna Fáil Mayor of Dublin elected with the support of the Greens and Social Democrats

At a special meeting of Dublin City Council, a pro-Life Fianna Fáil Mayor, Tom Brabazon, was elected on 24 February 2020 with the support of the Green Party and the Social Democrats. Picture of the front of City Hall, Dublin, with a blue Dublin City flag flying above the building. It is a grey day with a white sky above the pale stone building.
At a special meeting of Dublin City Council, a pro-Life Fianna Fáil Mayor, Tom Brabazon, was elected on 24 February 2020 with the support of the Green Party and the Social Democrats

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 abortion.

Tom Brabazon in a blue suit, wearing the Mayoral chains of office for Dublin City and while wearing a smile, looking a little uneasy, with clenched right fist and hunched shoulders.
Tom Brabazon, Lord Mayor of Dublin from 24 February 2020, thanks to the votes of the parties in the ‘Dublin Agreement’

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.

A screenshot from 12 February 2020 from People Before Profit's Facebook feed, with the headline: Form a Left Minority Government - Mobilise on the Streets.
On 12 February 2020, People Before Profit posted on Facebook that it was their duty to join with Sinn Féin, Greens and Social Democrats in forming a left minority government

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.

What can we learn from election 2020 and the Dublin Bay North results?

Inside the RDS stand a group of Independent Left supporters, smiling, fists raised, many of them wearing red 'Vote No.1 John Lyons' T-shirts. In the centre, in a blue coat, is John Lyons. On his left is Niamh McDonald. Behind them is a yellow placard from the RDS count centre saying: Dublin Bay North.
Independent Left had a vibrant and energetic campaign in Election 2020, Dublin Bay North

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.

A list of candidates from Dublin Bay North and the details of all fourteen counts of Election 2020. The top candidates, in order of their first preference vote, were Denise Mitchell, Sinn Féin (21,344); Richard Bruton, Fine Gael (11,156); Cian O'Callaghan, Social Democrats (6,229); Aodhán Ó Riodáin, Labour (8,127); Seán Haughey, Fianna Fáil (6,651); David Healy, Green Party (5,042); John Lyons, Independent Left (1,882).
Fianna Fáil failed to get a quota in Dublin Bay North and Haughey staggered over the line only by being deemed elected on the elimination of the Green Party

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.

A photo taken of the large screen at the RDS on the day of the count, 10 February 2020, for Dublin Bay North and the transfer of Sinn Féin Denis Mitchell's surplus. Highlighted in red boxes are three candidates John Lyons, Independent Left, who gained 1,823 votes, Bernard Mulvany, SPBP, who gained 1,960 votes and Michael O'Brien, SPBP who gained 1,193 votes. Between them the socialist left could have won a seat on these figures had they not split the vote.

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.

Eóghan Richard Ó'nia  in a red, 'Vote No 1 John Lyons' t-shirt is on the left, one hand raised, explaining to a journalist while another journalist watches and a third films with a camera, that the two party political system in Ireland is over.
Eóghan Richard Ó’nia of Independent Left, explaining to the media why the two-party system is gone for good

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 join us.

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 government.

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.

‘After Repeal’: analysis and discussion of the ‘Repeal the 8th’ campaign

A black book cover with white writing: After Repeal: rethinking abortion politics. Edited by Kath Browne and Syndey Calkin.
On 31 January 2020 an important new book discussing a wide range of topics around the repeal of the Eighth Amendment was launched in Dublin: After Repeal edited by Kath Browne and Sydney Calkin

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.

Sydney Calkin (L) and Kath Browne (R) at the launch on 31 January 2020 of their edited book, After Repeal. Kath Browne is at the podium, microphone in front of her. Behind them both are shelves of books.
Sydney Calkin (L) and Kath Browne (R) at the launch on 31 January 2020 of their edited book, After Repeal.

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.

Niamh McDonald, Independent Left and Chair of Dublin Bay North Repeal the 8th Group at the launch of After Repeal. She is standing at a podium, microphone in front of her. In the background are shelves full of books. She is holding up 'After Repeal' in one hand, the bottom of the book resting on the podium.
Niamh McDonald, Independent Left and Chair of Dublin Bay North Repeal the 8th Group at the launch of After Repeal

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 rights.

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:

An exchange of Tweets showing John Lyons giving his full support to the ongoing struggle for reproductive rights for women in Ireland in response to a question to all candidates in Dublin Bay North by DBN Repealers
John Lyons giving his full support to the ongoing struggle for reproductive rights for women in Ireland in response to a question to all candidates in Dublin Bay North by DBN Repealers

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.

A bar chart labelled Climate Score shows Fine Gael (2%), Labour (32%), Aontú (50%), Fianna Fáil (60), Sinn Féin (69) and the Green Party, Social Democrats, Solidarity-People Before Profit and Independents 4 Change all on 100%. Compiled by www.notherenotanywhere.com these percentages are of votes for action on climate change.
Analysis of Dáil voting records on climate issues by Not Here Not Anywhere shows the parties left of Labour have just as good a record as the Green Party

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.

Powerful teachers’ strike on 4 February 2020

A blackboard with thick white letters saying: STRIKE!
Teachers will be on strike 5 February 2020.
On 5 February 2020, 19,000 TUI members will strike and close over 400 second-level schools

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.

Councillor John Lyons talking to TUI pickets outside of Coláiste Dhúlaigh during the strike of 4 February 2020. John Lyons is on the left of the picture. Five teachers in thick coats and wearing wooly hats are holding placards: End Pay Discrimination Now, TUI Official Strike, Equal Pay for Equal work.
Councillor John Lyons talking to TUI pickets outside of Coláiste Dhúlaigh during the strike of 4 February 2020

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.

Councillor John Lyons joining the pickets at Coláiste Dhúlaigh during the strike of 4 February 2020. John Lyons is on the left, a male teacher is talking to him on the right, holding a green placard with white writing: end pay discrimination now. Behind him a female teacher is mid stride with a red placard and white writing: TUI OFFICIAL STRIKE.
Councillor John Lyons joining the pickets at Coláiste Dhúlaigh during the strike of 4 February 2020

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.

TUI members at Donahies Community School talking to Councillor John Lyons on the day of their strike for equality in pay, 4 February 2020. Three women teachers and one man in thick jackets are stood in a circle around Councillor John Lyons who is gesturing. Behind them is a wall with a railing on which is a banner for day and evening classes at Donahies Community School.
TUI members at Donahies Community School talking to Councillor John Lyons on the day of their strike for equality in pay, 4 February 2020.
A railing with a banner: Enrolling Now! Day and Evening Classes. Adult Education at Donahies Community School. Below the banner are three TUI placards placed by teachers striking on 4 February 2020.
Independent Left support the teachers in their campaign to overcome the discrimination in pay towards those recruited after 2011.
John Lyons, Independent Left candidate for Dublin Bay North is pictured on the right of a frame that is mostly text. Workers' Rights. Abolish the 1990 Industrial Relations Act and replace it with a Fair Employment Act that guarantees: the rights of union access to all workers; the right to union recognition; full collective bargaining rights. A four day work week to reduce stress and improve quality of life. Solidarity with the French workers campaigning to retain their retirement age at 62. No increase to the pension age in Ireland, with the goal of bringing it down to 62 also.
Councillor John Lyons supports the repeal of the 1990 Industrial Relations Act, which hampers workers attempting to organise strikes.
John Lyons, Independent Left candidate for Dublin Bay North is pictured on the right of a frame that is mostly text that has several demands concerning education and concludes: I support the Teachers Union of Ireland strike in secondary schools on 4 February 2020.
Councillor John Lyons, Independent Left candidate for Dublin Bay North in GE 2020 supports the TUI strike of 4 February 2020.

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).

A map of Dublin and adjacent counties, with the postal boundaries drawn. D24, 22, 12, 10, 8, 11, 17 and 5 are dark blue, signalling the lowest rates of progress from second to third level education. D15, 7, 9 and 13 are light blue, indicating still very poor rates. D1, 3 and 6W are light green, above average and D2, 6, 4, 14 and DLR are yellow, showing very high progression rates. Copyright Gerry Kearns.
From school to university based on Irish Times feeder data (showing approximately the proportion of the student body going on to third level) Please respect the image copyright. It will be published in due course in chapter by Gerry Kearns, on Dublin as a city arranged by class.

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.

Election 2020: the view from Dublin Bay North

Councillor John Lyons running for election in Dublin Bay North, pictured in the evening on a ladder, smiling as he lifts a post with a large poster of his head and shoulders, on which is written Vote No.1, Cllr John Lyons, Independent Left.
Councillor John Lyons is running for Independent Left in Dublin Bay North and has a real chance of a seat.

Nine days into the campaign, how does the picture look for Independent Left?

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 place.

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 his voters. 

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 North?

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.

A screenshot of a Tweet (in dark mode) which reads: I know that people are keen to support candidates with a good track record on Repeal. On my first canvass with @DBNRepeal, I was trained in by @CllrJohnLyons. His work on the #repealthe8th campaign was extensive & tireless. Lucky for us he's running in #DublinBayNorth #GE20
One of many tweets highlighting the pro-choice record of Councillor John Lyons of Independent Left, a candidate in the General Election 2020 in Dublin Bay North

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 Bay North?

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.

The Biggest General Strike in Irish History

A black and white photograph taken during Ireland's biggest general strike. Against a background of the Mountjoy Prison a crowd on the right is faced off against a line of British soldiers and tank on the left. The crowd are mostly men but there are many women, all are wearing caps and hats. Two boys have climbed a pole to get a better view.
Huge crowds gathered outside the Mountjoy Prison in April 1920 during Ireland’s greatest general strike.

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 Republican Army.

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?

A faded photograph taken outside the Mountjoy Prison during Ireland's great general strike of 1920. In the foreground are five British soldiers with characteristic Great War gear, including bowl-shaped helmets. They are facing away from the camera at crowd of civilians with animated expressions. Between them is a construction of wood and barbed wire.
Men and women strove to get past British troops and release hunger strikers from the Mountjoy Prison during the general strike of April 1920

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.

A side street near Mountjoy Prison (background) is filled with people looking away from the camera towards the bared windows of the prison. This was the situation on Monday 12 April 1920 when the biggest general strike in Irish history took place.
As news of the 1920 hunger strike in Mountjoy Prison spread, all the streets around were filled with men and women protestors

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

A black and white picture taken during Ireland's biggest general strike, showing a British soldier standing to attention beside an early-looking armoured car, which seems to be a truck with a circular body adapted for defence. Two soldiers are emerging from the centre of the vehicle.
Armoured cars were rushed to Mountjoy Prison during the great general strike of April 1920

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 large number of women fill a street near the Mountjoy Prison. One of them is holding a tricolour. Many of them have placards reading 'Mother of God Open the Prison Gates'. A small number of police look on from beside a wall on the far side of the crowd. Black and white, taken in April 1920 during Ireland's biggest general strike.
Cumann na mBan mobilised their members to carry placards and guard against the threat of violence by the British soldiers. Some of them were able to visit the hunger strikers and bring out valuable communications

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.

A sepia photograph of a large crowd in front of the gates of the Mountjoy Prison. All are facing away from the camera and most are men wearing cloth caps. Taken in April 1920 during Ireland's most radical general strike.
The streets around the Mountjoy Prison were completely blocked by crowds in April 1920

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

The telegram sent all around the country that had a massive effect and launched Ireland’s greatest ever general strike from 12 April 1920 (Source: National Library of Ireland, William O’Brien collection)

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:

Galway:

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 notice.

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 this Union

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 office.

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.’

A portrait of Lord John French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1920. An elderly man with thick, white, dropping moustache, he looks at the camera with a serious expression. Upper body and head pictured. He is wearing a military jacket and overcoat.
Lord John French was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland during the strike on behalf of the Mountjoy prisoners in 1920 and had to allow the men their freedom in a humiliating blow to British authority in Ireland.

‘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.

Was Ursula Le Guin a Socialist?

A review of No Time to Spare

Ursula Le Guin in 2008. She has short, grey hair, a white top, black tunic and trousers. Her left hand on a table, her right holds several A4 pages and she is speaking against a background of books. Ursula Le Guin was sympathetic to socialism.
Ursula Le Guin was influenced by anarchism, described herself as a feminist and had an interest in socialism

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 first edition cover of The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin. Her name is at the top in large yellow letters, then, smaller, the title in white. The entire background is orange with a figure of ambiguous gender silhouetted against a large orange planet, facing away from the reader, standing in a crater. In this novel, Le Guin began with the premise of an anarchist utopia.
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed explores a utopian world

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 interview.

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 this approach.

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 inequality.

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

The turquoise cover of No Time to Spare, a collection of blog essays written by Ursula Le Guin, which include her thoughts on socialism. Five leaves made of paper with illegible writing on them are drifting towards the bottom of the cover.
In No Time to Spare, Ursula Le Guin has essays that address her political thought, including socialism, anarchism and feminism

In No 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 societies.

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.

The yang-yin symbol, which for Ursula Le Guin is helpful in explaining dialectical interactions

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 thought.

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 and humorous.

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.

Ursula Le Guin on resistance and change

The UK election of 12 December 2019: what can the left learn?

A picture of Westminister Parliament from the south bank of the Thames, it is just after sunset and the building is lit up with yellow and orange light reflected on the water. This is where the Tory part will hold a majority in the light of the 12 December 2019 general election.
The results of the 12 December 2019 UK election were a huge blow for socialist ideas. What are the main lessons for the left?

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 decades.

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).

A black and white table with four columns, on the left, a list of parties, arranged by whether pro-Brexit or Remain. Then their 2017 vote, then their vote in the election of 2019 and the final column being the difference.
Between 2017 and 2019, Labour lost approximately 2.58m votes to Remain parties and 0.35m to Pro-Brexit parties

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 important theme 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.

Was 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’.

Fifty-nine 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 extraordinary.

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.

A map of the UK with constituency boundaries, which is nearly entirely red except for Scotland, mostly pale yellow, and a dot of green in Wales with some dots of orange. It illustrates the fact that if voters in the UK in 2019 had been limited to the 18 - 24 year old group, Labour would have won 600 seats.
The astonishing picture if voters had been limited to the 18 – 24 year old group is that the Conservatives would have been wiped out entirely by that generation.

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 off.

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.

Can the left revive after the UK election of 2019?

Easily.

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

Google and Facebook workers’ protests grow

On 1 November 2018, workers at Google’s HQ in Dublin struck

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.

The struggle for trade union rights at Google

At the 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.’

This 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.”

In 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.

To 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.

Google 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.

Facebook 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.

And what 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 ever.

Brexit: What Should Irish Socialists Say?

Short version: Independent Left advocate Remain.

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 approach.

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’ rights.

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 deeply so.

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 anti-racists.

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 Brexit’.

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 immigration.

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.

Hopefully these 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.