Is Ireland's New Left-Wing Alliance Actually Going to Change Anything?

Community activists are worried that playing politics will detract from the grassroots anti-austerity movement.

by Norma Costello
Mar 24 2015, 10:00pm

Protesters against the water charges showing their support for the left-wing government in Greece. Photo by Will Hederman

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Fed up with crappy political parties, a growing class divide, and the privatization of the country's water, Ireland's unions and grassroots activists are set to wade into the quagmire that is Irish politics.The anti-austerity energy created by the water charge protest movement has made political parties keen to cash in on the anti-government sentiment in time for the next election, which needs to take place before April 3, 2016.

In that context, the five unions behind the Right2Water campaign are holding a "Platform for Renewal" conference on May Day, when they'll unveil a 12-point policy plan agreed on by a loose conglomeration of community activists, members of the established political left, and trade unionists. Some of them are likely to run as independents in the next election.

It's uncharted territory for conservative Ireland, a country once famed for "doing the right thing" by agreeing to whatever austerity measures the Troika enforced. The question is, is this new left-wing electoral project going to bring about lasting change? Or will it just collapse into insignificance?

Certainly, Ireland is miserable enough for something drastic to happen. Since 2008, the country has been ravaged by waves of emigration, mass unemployment, and a dismantled public sector. There are 504,500 people receiving social welfare—a sizable chunk of the 4.5 million population—and whoever runs the government next will have to deal with a battered health service and a housing crisis along with the fallout from the unpopular decision to privatize the water supply.

The country also has another of the components that saw Syriza leap to power in Greece and Podemos rocket in popularity in Spain. Namely, the collapse of the center-left party—in Ireland's case, that means the Labour Party, which in December earned its lowest poll numbers ever.

One of the central figures in this new left-wing alliance is trade unionist Brendan Ogle, who seems to scare the shit out of the Irish media and the country's conservative forces. After asking electricity workers to strike over Christmas in 2013, the outspoken Marxist received death threats from people pissed off their tree decorations wouldn't light up over the holidays.

Ogle is emerging as the clear leader to Ireland's new union-backed alliance, which he claims will not evolve into a fully-fledged political party any time soon. But he made it clear in an interview with me that he wasn't going to throw in with Labour either.

"The Labour Party is finished in Ireland," he said. "Only the unions affiliated to R2W and others now working with us can rescue the labor movement. The Labour party have shamed and disgraced the movement. It's about people and our communities. That party deserve the humiliation the next elections will bring."

Professor Paul O'Connell, of SOAS University of London has been involved in the community movement against water charges in Ireland. He said the countrywide protest movement that stated in a working-class area in Cork took Irish political forces by surprise. "Ultimately the movement against water charges grew out of the self-mobilization and self-organization of working-class people and communities," he said. "Since then there has been much in the way of revisionism, with various parties wishing to claim that they led the movement from the start, but that's simply not the case. Most of the established political actors—party political as well as unions—were caught by surprise with the emergence of the movement."

So what will come out of the Irish left's May Day meeting? The unions have invited 180 people to their policy conference: 60 from the grassroots community movements—the people blocking the meter installations—60 from Ireland's left-leaning political forces, and 60 from the unions.

They're saying it's just a platform for discussion, but a source told me that the unions will bankroll certain candidates from the communities who want to run as leftist independents in the next election. That move would be pretty seminal in opening up the Ireland's political playing field to a host of new contenders.

O'Connell, however, is skeptical that this is the smartest political move. "The proposals for the new broad left alliance in Ireland—the Irish Syriza or Podemos—result from a desire to capitalize on the energy of the community movement and the developments in other European countries," he said. "It seems, however, to be very ill-conceived. There are massive historical, cultural and organizational differences between the milieu that gave rise to Syriza and Podemos, and the conditions that exist in Ireland today."

He's not wrong. Ireland has no history of radical left politics in government. The Greek Communist Party is nearly 100 years old and has formed governments. Ireland has stuck to centrist politics since the inception of the state.

O'Connell worries that this means an electoral project is not the savviest political move. "The community led movement in Ireland needs more time and space to develop it's own structures, ideas, and organization, and if it's sucked into an electoral alliance at this stage with existing parties, the danger is that we end up with an entity that is less than the sum of all of it's parts," he said.

Those concerns are shared by members of the grassroots movement. I spoke to Bernie Hughes, a grandmother and grassroots activist who was recently thrown in jail for breaking a 20-meter exclusion zone during the installation of water meters around the country. Bernie's imprisonment pissed a lot of people off, with people setting up "The Regime Just Locked Up Your Ma" Facebook pages.

She said it is vital the communities retain their independence from any political strangleholds. "The communities have come out strong as leaders in this movement now it's about politicizing people. A lot of people think 'I'm not into politics' but what they're doing is very political like coming to protests or stopping the meter installations," she said. "They're going head to head with the establishment and that's political. People just aren't into party politics. Any new movement that comes from this will have to take its direction from the communities. We can't have the politicians jumping to the front. This is a people's movement."

Follow Norma Costello on Twitter.

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