The call by SIPTU president, Jack O’Connor, in a speech on the anniversary of the death of Jim Larkin, for ‘Social Democrats, Left Republicans and Independent Socialists … to set aside sectarian divisions and develop a political project aimed at winning the next general election on a common platform’ is timely and important. And it has brought into the public forum that talks are already taking place between trade unions, Sinn Féin and independent left-wing TDs to agree such a common platform which he called ‘Charter 2016’.
Syriza’s victory in Greece last week, mentioned by Jack O’Connor, has demonstrated the vital importance of such left unity and the creation of an alternative project that is well researched, comprehensive and achievable. The SIPTU president’s speech mentioned the need for ‘intellectual engagement around policy formation’ so as to provide an answer for an electorate ‘that will demand to know what we are for, as distinct simply from what we are against.’ It identifies precisely what has been so lacking for so long on the Irish left.
Most on the left are likely to agree that fashioning a more robust alternative and building a broad left-wing consensus around it are vital, not just for the future of the left, but for the future of Irish society. The gross inequalities that so profoundly mark our society, the threadbare nature of our social services devoid of adequate funding despite dedicated staff, the reflexive instinct of our political elites to do the bidding of capital at every turn – all of these are the legacy of the long political hegemony of the right. This has to change.
O’Connor’s call therefore offers an important opportunity to open a debate about what is required for this ‘intellectual engagement around policy formation’ and how we might develop a common left political project for Irish society as has been fashioned by Syriza for Greece and is being fashioned for Spain by Podemos. For, if we are to be serious about this momentous challenge, we must openly acknowledge the profound weaknesses that for long have characterised the Irish left and that distinguish Ireland so strongly from countries like Greece and Spain.
First and foremost is the lack of a broad left-wing culture forged and battle-hardened through many many decades of very hard struggle. This is not to say that Irish society has not had its decisive struggles, but these have been informed much more by a bourgeois nationalism during the struggles for political independence and by a cross-class nationalist populism since. A serious left-wing presence has been very much a minority current within these struggles. Socialist values, a socialist imaginary, socialist culture, socialist creativity is weak at all levels of Irish society.
This fact that this also characterises our universities and our intellectual elites constitutes a particular weakness for fashioning the alternative that Jack O’Connor calls for. For example, the number of recognised intellectuals among the top ranks of Syriza, and now Ministers in the Greek government, contrasts sharply with the paucity of intellectual engagement with left-wing politics in Ireland. I can attest myself to the political debates that characterise both staff and student life on Spanish campuses, again contrasting with their almost complete absence on Irish campuses.
It is illustrative, for example, that UL has recently created high-level Bernal chairs in the natural sciences, named after a Nenagh-born biologist, John Desmond Bernal (1901-71) who worked at the University of London and was a pioneer in X-ray crystallography in molecular biology. But much more significantly, Bernal was a life-long member of the Communist Party and wrote a number of celebrated books on the social function of science and on science and Marxism. These topics are just as vital for today’s Ireland as is molecular biology, where public policy has been seduced by a narrow scientism devoid of any consideration of the social or political project for which scientific research is a means; yet, no one seems to have noticed the political significance of the Bernal chairs at UL.
Building a robust left-wing alternative in Ireland, therefore, requires that we begin to acknowledge the weak social capacity that exists for this major task, and address what can be done to strengthen it. Far too often, the focus is on left-wing leaders seeking to find some common agreement but, even if successful, this agreement is going to rest on very thin ice indeed unless backed by a mobilised left-wing demos (as in Spain and in Greece) and by an active culture of left-wing intellectual debate and writing.
I suggest that, much more important for Charter 2016 to succeed, is the need to fashion a coherent set of proposals for (to mention the more obvious):
- a redistributive taxation system that raises sufficient resources to fund decent public and universal services
- a welfare system that protects the most vulnerable, reduces poverty and inequality, and supports a culture of endeavour and economic revitalisation at local level
- an industrial policy that fosters dynamic enterprises serving Irish society
- an agricultural policy that moves us towards producing quality food with low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and weans us off extensive cattle-based agriculture
Far too much of political policy making on both the left and the right in Ireland is based on partial if any evidence, little robust analysis, and far too much sloganeering and pretence. Witnessing the Greek government with a robust project challenging the elites of Europe, reminds us how difficult and long-term is policy making, requiring an active culture of left-wing research, analysis and debate to give it depth and robust content. Jack O’Connor is right to make his call but it needs to galvanise action far beyond the sphere of party politics if it is to succeed.