The Socialist Party initiated the United Left Alliance along with the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) and the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA), just over two years ago. In recent months the problem of the ULA’s slow progress has been added to by important political mistakes and the withdrawal of WUAG. Now, as things stand, the Socialist Party has major differences with the position adopted by others in the United Left Alliance on a number of important political issues, and on the operation of the ULA itself. This article will outline some of the issues.
There have been problems regarding how the ULA has approached the vital issue of abortion, an issue which has been catapulted to the top of the political agenda.
Abortion rights – a vital struggle
The key issue now is how best to translate the changes in consciousness on the issue that have taken place over many years but have now been pushed on further by the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, so that the most comprehensive abortion rights possible are established in this state.
In considering this, the Socialist Party didn’t oppose in principle the retabling of the same bill on X, during the ULA’s Dail Private Members Time at the end of November, that been defeated last April and we recognise that legislation for X would constitute an important, albeit limited, step forward for women in this country.
However, we argued that legislation on X wouldn't have been enough to guarantee that Savita would have received the termination that she asked for, because X says that there has to be a probable, real and substantial risk to the life of a woman in contrast to a risk to her health, before an abortion can be performed.
In advance of the motion being re-tabled, the Socialist Party argued that it would have been better if the ULA had brought forward a bill that not only legislated for X, but that went further and as a minimum catered for the situation that Savita was in and included a risk to a woman's health as a basis for an abortion.
By doing this, the ULA could have played an important role in expanding the debate on what grounds abortion should be available. This is vital as the Government and the so-called pro-life lobby are trying to narrow and restrict the debate in order to ensure that whatever is implemented is less than the Supreme Court ruling on X, twenty years ago.
Predictably, the resubmitted bill was defeated and it didn't create a decisive moment in exposing the Labour Party. The fact that the report of the "expert group" which had just come out basically advocated that X be legislated for, also diminished the significance of reintroducing the same bill.
Alternatively, if the ULA had put forward a bill that included the risk to health as a basis for an abortion, that would have been a new factor in the situation. Yes it would have been defeated, but it would also have received a lot of publicity and in addition the ULA would have really taken the lead and reflected the latest developments, forcing the debate forward.
Maximising the X legislation
People are concerned that, as there are severe restrictions on the grounds for abortion due to the 1983 Amendment to the Constitution, that whatever can possibly be legislated for now, is legislated for now. We completely agree, but overly concentrating on X actually makes it more likely that a lesser position will be achieved out of the current process. The best way to get legislation that maximises what X can mean is by a campaign that wins public support and builds pressure for even broader grounds for abortion rights, as it is only such real public pressure that will force the political establishment to concede most.
The position of the Socialist Party was confirmed by the opinion poll of 2 December, which indicated that a massive 82% support risk to health as a basis for abortion.
An over focus on X by the new campaign that is being established, can actually wrong foot activists and the campaign itself. The government is going to act at some point. If they legislate for X and that is the main thing that the campaign has focused on, there is a real danger that a campaign will de facto be demobilised and an opportunity to push further on the issue could be lost. If X constituted a major step forward then such a result would likely spur a campaign on, but X equals only limited change and doesn't deal with the issues in Savita’s death and people are aware of this.
It is more likely that a bigger number will get involved if the campaign, while dealing with X, also focuses on the need for broader abortion rights and a broader vision. Such a campaign will also find it easier to maintain activity after the government implement whatever proposals they decide on regarding X.
After the defeat of the bill in November, the Irish Times quoted Clare Daly saying that she will introduce the same bill for a third time. This brings us to the main problem that the Socialist Party has with regard to the operation of the ULA on the abortion issue.
Democracy decisively undermined in the ULA
Clare Daly made the statement about putting down the bill for a third time without reference to the ULA itself. Just like in the case of the resubmitting of the bill in November, there wasn't any discussion within the ULA about the idea of the introduction of the same bill again. Unfortunately we can only conclude that there has been a wilful undermining of democracy in the ULA and that is unacceptable.
In fact, the developments around the resubmitting of the X Bill in ULA Private Members Time at the end of November, the positions adopted at the recent ULA Council meeting and subsequent developments all raise whether or not the ULA is now a democratic alliance that stands for a principled approach to building the left and socialist alternative.
On Wednesday 14 November, the Steering Committee of the ULA proposed a process for deciding what issue would be best to deal with in ULA Private Members slot on 27 and 28 November. On the initiative of the Socialist Party, it was agreed that something on abortion would be most appropriate and that the Steering Committee asked Joe Higgins to co-ordinate this with the other TDs. On Thursday Joe duly emailed the other TDs suggesting a discussion and Joan Collins replied suggesting that the discussion take place on Tuesday 20 November.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Joe suggested that the abortion issue should be proposed but that serious consideration should be given to including damage to the health of the woman in the bill in order to advance the public debate on the issue. However Clare Daly stated that a decision had already been made that the bill presented in April would be re-tabled and that this had already been submitted to the Ceann Comhairle. This was done without any reference to the Steering Committee or to Joe Higgins TD, notwithstanding his email five days earlier seeking a discussion.
A poor political reflection on the ULA
The fact that a discussion took place "after the event" at this meeting of TDs on the Tuesday and that three of the four TDs didn't have a problem that the bill had already been submitted, doesn't mean that democracy had operated in some retrospective way as some tried to say at the ULA Council meeting. What happened was completely undemocratic and nothing can negate the fact that the full text of the bill (not just notification that a bill would be forthcoming), was already submitted and that the decision had already been taken somewhere else and by someone else.
It was also said at the ULA Council that at the meeting of TDs, Joe was told that he could circulate his proposed amendment to the bill to include risk to health to the TDs for consideration, but that he didn't. This was said to create the impression that Joe didn't utilise his democratic rights, that that's what the problem was.
This is a smokescreen to hide the truth. The bill had already been submitted and the other TDs had all said explicitly that they opposed Joe's proposal so there was no basis to circulate an amendment. The mentioning of this idea was just pretence at democracy. The attempts by Clare Daly at the Council meeting to actually justify the approach taken as democratic, illustrate just how serious the problem is. There wasn't democratic discussion or decision making in the process of deciding the Private Members Time.
This type of approach should be alien to the workers’ and socialist movement in general, and particularly in an alliance of groups and individuals. Whether people thought that the same bill should be resubmitted or not, is not the point and shouldn't be used to excuse what happened. The issue is the thoroughly undemocratic way that the decision was arrived at.
It is simply incredible that none of the different entities in the ULA, apart from the Socialist Party, nor any of the members of the Steering Committee, nor anyone at the Council meeting registered any serious opposition to the approach adopted, or to the subverting of democracy in the ULA. What does that say about the ULA? - it can only be considered a very poor reflection.
No political connection with Mick Wallace – the farce
In the end when moving the bill in the ULA Private Members Time, it became clear that it wasn't a ULA bill at all as in proposing it Clare Daly said; “I do so on behalf of Deputies Wallace, Joan Collins and myself, with the support of the United Left Alliance".
On numerous occasions over the last weeks, Clare Daly has also politically linked herself, and therefore the ULA, to Mick Wallace, particularly on the issues of abortion and penalty points.
In early September, the Steering Committee agreed that the following statement to be made by ULA TDs if asked about Mick Wallace - "The ULA has no political connection to Mick Wallace and will have no political connection to Mick Wallace in the future." We understand that in discussion with some members of the Steering Committee, Clare Daly supposedly accepted this position.
The Socialist Party re-tabled a motion detailing the issue of the political connection with Mick Wallace for the ULA Council meeting on 25 November, similar to one we had withdrawn from the last Council meeting at the end of September.
We did this because within a week of September’s Council meeting, Mick Wallace in a wide ranging interview with Marian Finucane had linked himself with people in the ULA, namely Clare Daly and Joan Collins and also attempted to sully Joe Higgins good name by falsely claiming that Joe knew of his tax evasion before it became public.
A couple of days later, when being interviewed on TV3 by Vincent Browne, Clare Daly on the one hand tried to undermine her ULA colleague Joe Higgins, and on the other, spent considerable time defending Mick Wallace, including defending his non co-operation with the Dail Committee on Members’ Interests, regarding his tax evasion.
The basis for the retabling of our motion on Mick Wallace was clear, but was given additional weight by the constant promotion by Clare Daly of Mick Wallace in the abortion debate and by the nature of the moving of the bill for ULA Private Members Time, quoted above. The political position of the ULA on the issue of Mick Wallace is a farce. It makes the ULA look ludicrous and is untenable.
In words, the ULA and Clare Daly may have no political connection to Mick Wallace but all of the many working class people who are disgusted with Mick Wallace's tax evasion and with the attempts to rehabilitate him by portraying him as a victim and as a man of the people, when he's a significant property developer and businessman, will not believe that there is no political connection to Mick Wallace.
Ongoing damage to the ULA
How could they when Clare Daly is routinely in the Dail beside him when he is speaking or when she is speaking; when in practically every media slot or speech on the abortion issue she mentions him and then uses the time of the ULA in the Dail to put forward a bill in part on his behalf; or when trying to raise the issue of penalty points in the Dail, Clare Daly and Joan Collins chose to combine and have an alliance with Mick Wallace and Luke Flanagan?
The current penalty points issue has seen many articles where Clare Daly and Joan Collins have been connected to Mick Wallace. This was the inevitable result of the decision by Clare Daly to consciously bring Mick Wallace in on the issue as they have a political alliance and she is determined to try to rehabilitate him through various political initiatives. When dealing with this issue the Irish Sun on Wednesday 12 December even referred to Mick Wallace as a ULA politician.
If this is the ULA having no political connection to Mick Wallace, then words have lost their meaning and value. This is deeply damaging to the integrity of the ULA as a principled left force and its impact is not in the past, it is current and it has an ongoing and corrosive effect.
Issues of principle
There are important issues of principle at stake on this issue. Representatives and parties for working class people, that are genuinely socialist or left, do not have any connections with business interests of any kind.
In this instance, Mick Wallace himself is actually been posed positively and elevated by those on the left. It is not the business of the ULA to be promoting someone who, not only supports the capitalist system, but is a capitalist himself. For the left and the socialist movement there can be no confusion on this. There is a conflict in the interests of ordinary working class people and those from the capitalist class. If this is blurred, it inevitably will bring into question the class basis and left/socialist position of the groups involved.
Add into this that Mick Wallace was found to owe the Revenue Commissioners €2.1 million in tax and penalties, having falsified tax documents and it is clear that no one connected to the ULA, or striving to build a new and principled left in this country, could possibly have any political connection to Mick Wallace. The Socialist Party's motion on this was defeated at the ULA Council by 19 votes to 11 votes.
Again incredibly, apart from the Socialist Party, none of the different entities in the ULA, including the Socialist Workers Party, none of the members of the Steering Committee or anyone else present at the Council meeting registered any serious opposition to the clear and continuing political connection that exists between the ULA in the form of Clare Daly and Joan Collins, to Mick Wallace. What does that say about the ULA?
Not a basis to try to build a new mass party of the working class
Can a new broad left be established on a sound basis if at its heart there isn't a principled defence of a working class and left political position and a genuinely democratic way of operating? No, in our opinion, and of deep concern is not just those who are taking such positions, but those who are allowing this to happen without any serious opposition or struggle.
The Socialist Party has major problems with the political positions and approaches being adopted in the ULA at present. We have communicated to the Steering Committee that we don't see any real or productive basis to pursue our serious concerns in the ULA at this point, particularly given the positions argued and adopted by the different elements at the last Council meeting.
We have limited resources and are mindful to try to use them so we can best assist the struggle against austerity. So while remaining part of the ULA, we feel we must particularly prioritise the battle against the household and property taxes over the next while and therefore will not be as active in the ULA, including at the level of Steering Committee, as we have been up to now.
Differences in ULA on the significance of CAHWT
In fact the differences in political approach within the ULA also extend to the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT) itself.
The latest figures show that the level of non-registration and non-payment of the household tax are quite exceptional. Just under 50% of all ordinary households in the country have continued the boycott.
This indicates that the mood and attitudes against these taxes is strong and it is because of the huge success of 2012’s non-payment campaign that the government are bringing in legislation that allows for the Property Tax to be deducted at source, whether that be from wages or benefits etc.
This is a significant alteration in the tactics of the government and needs to be met with a very firm response. The CAHWT must get fully organised in all areas so that the very maximum political pressure can be exerted against the tax but also against the legislation that empowers the state to rob this austerity tax directly from people. There will be huge opposition to this measure, which is more akin to a financial dictatorship, and we must aim to mobilise that opposition so that the measure is dropped before 1 July.
By imposing this measure, the government are gambling on the mood. They hope that the vicious nature of the proposal will cause people to feel powerless. However, the opposite can also happen and this combined with the other measures in the budget may create the raw material for an explosion of anger and struggle.
The Property Tax campaign could be vital in terms of building opposition to austerity and in politicising and radicalising the working class and young people. So the Socialist Party, in trying to help build a fightback through these and other issues, will at the same time be helping to build up the forces of active working class people who will be the necessary backbone for the establishment of a new left party.
How to build fighting campaigns of the working class
In trying to build the CAHWT as a fighting campaign and establish it as a focal point for the struggle against austerity and political radicalisation, we are finding ourselves in conflict with our fellow members of the ULA, the Socialist Workers Party.
By facilitating the DCTU and elements in trade union officialdom to, in effect, take over the leadership of the pre-Budget demonstration on 24 November, the SWP undermined the potential to use the demo to strengthen the campaign, but also undermined the struggle to build a new independent and political movement of the working class.
The price of a hook up with the DCTU was a dropping of any mention of the Property Tax in the official advertising and media promotion of the demo. Similarly, the CAHWT, despite bringing the main forces to the demonstration, was also relegated in the media and was barely mentioned at all.
Undoubtedly the trade unions brought numbers to the demo but that shouldn’t be overstated. It was not a serious trade union mobilisation and the CAHWT component was clearly the working class heart of the demo.
Unnecessary concessions - CAHWT and Property Tax get the chop
The best approach, and one which could have resulted in an even bigger turnout, would have been if the demonstration actually had been jointly organised by CAHWT and the DCTU around a fighting programme against austerity that included resisting the Property Tax.
Could this have been achieved? We don’t know definitively how much better of an approach could have been achieved because the SWP refused to engage in a struggle for such an approach with the DCTU. But if the components in CAHWT had operated in a united way in the discussions, it is entirely possible that the conservatism of the DCTU could have been challenged and frustrated, and that a joint demonstration in practice, not just theory, could have been achieved.
It’s unjustifiable to jettison the centrality of fighting the Property Tax for the sake of an alliance with the hollow entity of the DCTU and other elements of trade union officialdom who will not fight austerity in any way. Then, even the pretence of a joint demonstration was dispensed with as time went on and the DCTU felt it could exert its full control over things as was always likely, given the approach taken.
Whether conscious of it or not, the approach of the SWP diminished the campaign and diminished the potential to use the demonstration to prepare the fightback on these issues. The emergence of a vibrant, fresh and independent struggle of ordinary working class people through the household and Property Tax issues would also be a huge boost to the struggle to build a new broad left party.
An alliance with the rank and file, not trade union officialdom
Rather than trying to allow such potential to begin to unfold, that was pawned for the prayer that the current trade union leadership could be cajoled into mobilising and fighting. This approach is a cul-de-sac.
The reality is that an independent and fighting movement on the household and property taxes is what is needed, but that is not acceptable to the trade union officialdom.
But such a fighting movement would be very attractive to ordinary rank and file workers and would also assist the struggle to transform the unions themselves. Such a movement could be formative in politicising and radicalising many young people and workers and really create the basis for a new vibrant left-wing in this country.
Some may argue that with the proposal to deduct the tax at source, we have no alternative but to appeal to the trade union movement to act, as clearly trade unions and industrial power is the way to fight such a measure. Most certainly, industrial action could play a crucial role in fighting the Property Tax, but is there any prospect of such industrial action as things currently stand? Again, the answer is no.
The only way that such action could become a reality is if the campaign itself first builds up a huge pressure in society generally and in the ranks of the unions in particular, and forces the unions, under threat of a rank and file revolt to finally act. That is the struggle that the campaign must spearhead and in this we will have to fight a number of union leaderships who actually support this Property Tax, so out of touch are they.
So any approach that de facto says that the campaign and the independent action of working class people play second fiddle to the DCTU and the current trade union leaderships is not at all helpful.
ULA should see significance of Property Tax in building a new mass left
For the Socialist Party, the battle against the household and property taxes is a priority, and it will take more of our focus and work and as mentioned, in that context we will be diminishing our participation in the ULA.
However, in doing this we are not in any way stepping away from the struggle to help to build a new working class party on a principled basis. That is precisely what can happen in an organic way, by fighting on these issues which can potentially bring thousands of ordinary working class people into activity, which is essential if a new mass working class party is to be built.
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