Last Saturday the Socialist Party (SP), member of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), posted an article on their website announcing the end of their membership in the United Left Alliance (ULA). This was one of the least surprising political events of the Irish left, as the Socialist Party had been steadily moving away from the alliance for over a year.
The SP have given two reasons for leaving the alliance. Firstly, its unhappiness with ex-Socialist Party Teachta Dála (TD) Clare Daly’s continued political relationship with Mick Wallace, a left leaning populist who became embroiled in a tax evasion scandal. Clare Daly had been closely allied to Wallace in the promotion of an abortion rights bill and most recently in the exposure of a practice where privileged members of society were being cleared of driving charges—something brought to the TDs by whistleblowing members of the Irish police force. Clare Daly herself had resigned from the Socialist Party (and re-designated herself as a ULA TD) some months ago, citing the Socialist Party’s lack of enthusiasm towards building the ULA.
While both sides on Clare Daly’s resignation were technically correct, the respective positions fall short of offering a clear picture as to Clare Daly’s dramatic move away from the Socialist Party leadership, something neither side has elaborated on. The highly personalised split was something the already weakened ULA was not ready for. The SP also cited a weakness on the part of the independents in the ULA and the Socialist Workers Party in tackling Clare Daly on the issue of alliances with Mick Wallace, quickly forgetting it was the Socialist Party (while Clare Daly was still a party member) who prevented the ULA taking a clear position when the scandal first broke the previous April. The Socialist Party representatives on the steering committee vetoed the motion for the ULA to call for Wallace’s resignation that had been proposed by the independents and supported by all other the other factions. Rightly or wrongly, independents in the ULA found the SP’s sudden obsession towards Daly and Wallace’s relationship many months after the initial scandal to be more about politically attacking the ex SP TD than anything else. A particularly ham-fisted ‘us or her’ attempt by the SP to ambush Daly at a delegate council meeting before Christmas failed to win any support, and probably finished the SP’s participation. The fact that Clare Daly’s profile rose immeasurably over her (and Wallace’s) earlier stance on abortion—catapulting her into the headlines after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar (a woman living in Galway who was refused a termination and later died)—didn’t help matters, leaving no time for things to settle between the parties.
The second reason given by the SP leadership for the failure of the alliance is that the ULA was unsuccessful due to the objective conditions of the political and social situation. Although Ireland is in the throes of a devastating recession, political consciousness and struggle remain at a relatively low ebb. Due to these factors, according to the SP, the ULA didn’t attract sufficient numbers to be a viable project. There may be some basis to this argument, though there is an underlying assumption that uniting already existing left forces would not be a positive factor in itself.
For the independents in the ULA, the objective conditions are not the only factor in this narrative. The subjective factor, that is the leadership shown by the component parts, is also of importance. While applauded for the initial initiative, the two major factions of the alliance (the SWP and SP) have come under some criticism. It is felt by many that the Socialist Party was conservative in developing the alliance. The Socialist Party rank and file membership never really engaged with the ULA as individuals, nor took part in its activities; the SP was represented in the steering committee by leadership members with little or no involvement in political discussion by the rank and file SP membership. From early on only full-time party workers and party officers attended ULA-related activities or meetings. Even this low level was reduced well over a year ago (and long before the SP-Daly split) when the SP pulled back from any ULA activity outside of parliamentary work.
Around that time (January 2012) the SP’s general secretary Kevin McLoughlin wrote an article proclaiming that the ULA is not a worker’s party, “nor is it likely to just become the new party at some future date”, dealing a severe political blow to the project and indeed begging the question as to why anyone would join at all.
On the streets and in protests the ULA never had any profile as the two main components continued to exclusively organise and recruit separately. On one occasion the two groups even managed to organise a meeting on education cuts (following a teachers’ protest) in the same hotel and at the same time—where a single ULA meeting would have made sense. In the Dail (the Irish parliament), the TDs never gelled and acted more as independent politicians, sometimes collaborating but more often not. The lack of strategy by the TDs offices was apparent from early on, especially between the SP and SWP. Of course the SP are not the only component who have come under criticism—the SWP launched a front organisation ‘Enough!’ within weeks of the 2011 election in which the ULA had won five parliamentary seats. Early in 2012, the SWP went on to relaunch the People Before Profit Alliance as a direct rival to the ULA .
At the beginning of the process many cynics maintained that the SP and SWP would not be able to work together after decades of intense rivalry. Unfortunately, as the SP rank and file didn’t engage with the ULA, these sectarian barriers were not broken down. A more nuanced view might be that the SWP viewed the alliance as a ‘popular front’ to recruit from, while the SP viewed it as solely an electoral alliance, with neither wanting the ULA to develop into a party as such. Another view is that while the components were serious about the initiative they were so at different times. Another is that the Irish left was not ready for the alliance and that the ULA won TD positions too early and had no strategy of what to do with them. On social media there are arguments between Socialist Party members who say they never wanted the ULA to develop into a party, and independents who feel that the SP at best were ambiguous in the early recruitment drive and around elections. Certainly Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins gave many speeches in the early days of the ULA which very clearly suggested the development towards a party.
The SP may well be correct that the objective conditions were not ripe. On the other hand, there is the possibility of the self-fulfilling prophecy of a leadership who were not quite ready to share political power. On a more positive note, the SP leadership believes that the current anti-home and water tax campaign has the potential to become a mass radical campaign and could form the basis for a new working class party. Critics have pointed to the obvious inconsistency in that while the objective conditions are seemingly impossible for the ULA, the same objective conditions are favourable to a new formation on a much lower political level. The party thus far has not dealt with this critique. There is also no guarantee that the kind of problems that beset the ULA will not reappear or that the SP and SWP will be able to overcome their decades of competition. Nor is there any guarantee that single issue election candidates, or indeed membership, will favour the building of a mass left workers’ party. The campaign is further complicated by new laws which allow Irish revenue to collect payment directly from wages (replacing the voluntary tax, which was successfully boycotted by the campaign). At the moment it is the only serious national resistance to austerity policies.
The future of the ULA is uncertain at best. Even the basic notion of non-aggression has already collapsed as the SWP, in a highly sectarian manner, are targeting ULA TD Joan Collins’ seat, while the SP are said to be planning to run a candidate against Clare Daly. While the SP challenge will probably have little affect on Daly (and they have made no formal decision), the SWP is running a serious candidate that could easily split the vote and lose the seat. The remaining independents are due to meet with Clare Daly and Joan Collins to discuss a way forward on the second of February, but it is unlikely that Collins and the SWP could remain in any form of alliance with the SWP threat hanging over her. Whether ULA independents are ready to continue in the husk of the ULA is an open question.
One of the positives of the ULA experiment has been the coming together of a wide layer of left independents, and every effort must be made to keep this network together in some form or other. If it is the case that the SP and SWP lack either the drive or the innate ability to build a new workers party, it may be time that attempts are made in that direction by the independents.