By Conor McCabe
The Irish radical left is an uneasy and somewhat contradictory assemblage of Marxist-republican, Trotskyist, and anarchist thought. This is not purely by choice, of course, but rather a reflection of the history of the island itself.
The ideas that infuse the Irish left are framed by a truncated national independence, a shared language, geographical closeness to Great Britain, and a neo-corporatist labour movement swaddled in the blanket of Catholic social teaching. In more recent times, a growing number of local working-class groups have developed that were never asked to become democratic partners in a radical left movement and, not surprisingly, show no burning desire to do so now. The radical left finds itself with a new problem as it tries to corral the austerity-radicalized grassroots into one or other of the proposed national political movements for change: that is, the Socialist Party, People before Profit, Right2Water, and Sinn Féin.
The problem is one that is common to all radical left movements in times of social and economic flux: how to build upon the past while at the same time escaping it. The tactics and overall strategy cannot help but carry the weight of what has gone before, yet must also speak to the unfolding situation in a way that is both relevant and new.
The beauty of Gramsci’s famous dictum of the time of monsters is that it can be used equally as an analysis and an excuse.1 It may be the case that we live in a world where the old is dying but the new cannot be born; it may also be the case that the new has materialized but unfortunately we do not have the talent, skills, and vision to use it to our advantage.
Whatever the pros and cons of the objective conditions we find ourselves in – and only time and direct action can answer that conundrum – the issues which envelop the Irish radical left are immediate and historical in equal measure, subject to a tense relationality. One of the objectives here is to try to tease out those tensions in an effort to bring at least some clarity to the situation. It is not meant to be a ten-point plan or call to action, the type of which litter the activist ground like yesterday’s lottery tickets. Instead, what is presented in this article is a moment of reflection on objectives which are common to us all but which have to be built in a temporal, spatial, and intellectual reality that is unique to each movement. History, location, and ideas are the tectonic plates which shift beneath our feet. And here is where our reflection begins.
In 1989, the Irish Workers Party found itself on the edge of a parliamentary breakthrough. It had seven members of parliament (TDs), one member of the European parliament (MPE), and 24 local councillors, all of whom had stood on a Marxist-republican platform. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union gave energy to the social democratic bloc within the party, leading to a split in 1992. All but one of the party’s TDs left to form a new party, Democratic Left, which entered a centre-right rainbow coalition government in 1994 along with the Labour Party and led by Fine Gael, a right-wing Christian party aligned with the European People’s Party. In 1999, Democratic Left continued its rightward shift and merged with the Labour Party.
In contrast, the Trotskyist formation, Militant Tendency, which was expelled from Labour in 1989, formed the Socialist Party in 1996, winning its first seat in 1997 when Joe Higgins was elected as TD for Dublin West. The party currently has three TDs, although two other independent TDs – Clare Daly and Joan Collins – are former members of the Socialist Party. The smaller (though no less active) Trotskyist group, Socialist Workers Party (SWP), currently has one TD, Richard Boyd-Barrett, and 14 councillors.2 It operates under the banner of ‘People before Profit’, which was founded in October 2005.
For years, the SWP was active mainly in colleges and universities, although this has changed in recent years and it has become more community-based. This is similar to the Workers Solidarity Movement (WSM), a small anarchist group, which has held a steady presence in Irish left circles since its formation in 1984. It also has a number of members in community organizations, trade unions, and universities and, not surprisingly, favours direct action and education over representational politics. The Marxist-republican group, Éirígí, has worked with the WSM in the past, and is active mainly in Dublin and Newry.
The Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) is active in Dublin and Belfast. It does not have any elected representatives, and is focused primarily on trade union activism. The CPI runs the only radical bookshop in Dublin, Connolly Books, and in recent years has put a lot of emphasis on education and analysis from a Marxist perspective. It is also active in the various anti-austerity campaigns that have arisen since 2009.
The largest political grouping in the Irish republic with an avowedly leftist perspective is Sinn Féin. It has fourteen TDs, four MEPs, and 159 councillors. It is also part of the power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, where it is the second-largest party. It considers itself a radical left party, with a strong emphasis on equality and social justice, and is affiliated to the European United Left/Nordic Green Left European Parliamentary Group (GUE/NGL). Sinn Féin is not, however, an explicitly anti-capitalist party, and is treated with derision by the Socialist Party and ‘People before Profit’.
From 1987 to 2010, the dominant theme in Irish trade unionism was social partnership. This was a series of pay and tax agreements initiated by the then largest political party, Fianna Fáil (a Peronist-type party of big business and workers), the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), and the Irish Business Employers Confederation (IBEC). The main purpose was to impose wage restraint on the Irish workforce, with cuts in income tax as a substitute for pay increases – a quasi-Thatcherite campaign against the social wage but without the class conflict.3 The ultimate nature of the policy was masked somewhat by the effects of the so-called ‘Celtic Tiger’ – a ten-year credit-fuelled construction and consumption boom which came to a shuddering halt with the financial crisis of 2008.4 The social partnership model, despite being highly controversial, remains the dominant strategy among the leadership of the ICTU. This is due, in no small part, to the influence of the largest union in the state, Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), as well as the bulk of the public sector unions, which cling to social partnership with a belief that borders on messianic.
No less controversial and equally divisive is the 499 km border which separates Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland. The 30-year conflict known as ‘The Troubles’ involved Loyalist, Republican, British and Northern Ireland state forces, and had a profound effect on Irish radical left thinking, with UK and Irish Marxist writers and activists facing significant difficulties in trying to reconcile and overcome the very real divisions within the working class over issues of culture, identity, and political expression.5 The violent conflict served as a bulwark against Sinn Féin support in the Republic, and it is no coincidence that the party has slowly gained in size and stature since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.6 The ending of the republican military campaign has not led to any reconciliation between the Irish radical left and Sinn Féin and there is little chance at the moment for a SYRIZA-type coalition.
The twenty-year period from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to the crash of the financial markets in 2008 was marked in Ireland, therefore, by neo-corporatist social partnership agreements,7 a credit and construction boom (bank lending to households and non-financial firms was over 200% of GDP from 1997 to 2008),8 and a hollowing out of the social wage.9 It was a time of profound change in societal attitudes, marked by declining influence of the Catholic Church in public discourse,10 and one that saw the radical left struggle to make itself relevant when the long-term ills of unemployment and emigration were seemingly banished forever by the Great Moderation paradigm.11 The credit crunch, financial crisis, and the Irish bank guarantee12 soon put paid to those assumptions.
On 30 September 2008, the citizens of the Irish republic woke up to find that the government had volunteered the state as collateral for the crushing liabilities of six private banks. The country was now liable for approximately €400 billion in leveraged loans, and was in a recession, while sitting on top of a deflating property bubble.
The real break in terms of political formations came in November 2010 when Ireland was forced into a Troika program.13 The problem was not so much that the austerity package was for the most part a Fianna Fáil/Green government economic program, as it was the fear that Ireland was losing its economic sovereignty. Support for Fianna Fáil went into meltdown. The February 2011 election saw the party lose over 70% of its seats, dropping from 71 to 20. It gave Fine Gael the highest return in terms of seats (76 in total), but this was not enough for the party to form an overall majority. It went into government with the Labour Party, which itself had received a high return of 37 seats. The government majority – 113 out of 166 – was the largest in the history of the state. The relatively high Labour Party vote (19.7%) reflected its promise to protect citizens from the excesses of austerity. It has failed to do so, but nonetheless it shows where the Irish people were in their thinking at the time. It is only after 2011, when the faith they placed in the Labour Party showed itself to be misguided, that alternative forms of protest and organization began to take off.
The 2011 national election also returned a number of Marxist TDs to the Dáil (the Irish parliament). There are seven at the moment, all of whom come from the Trotskyist tradition, and all of whom have been active in the various anti-austerity campaigns such as the 2010 marches against austerity, the anti-household charge, and the anti-Irish Water campaigns.
The first stirrings of public dissent outside the electoral arena came with the Occupy phenomenon, which started in New York and quickly spread across the Atlantic. The summer of 2011 saw a number of Occupy camps in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, and Belfast, with the WSM and its bookshop, Solidarity Books (subsequently closed), providing ballast to the protest in Cork. At the same time, in Ballyhea, a small village in Cork, a weekly march against the bank bailout was being undertaken by the ‘Ballyhea Says No’ group. The people involved had no history of activism or radical politics; it was the first clear sign that something extraordinary was taking place at a community level in Ireland. Concurrent with this was a rise in the number of workplace occupations, the most high-profile being those at Calcast (Derry), Visteon (Belfast), Waterford Crystal (Waterford), Thomas Cook (Dublin), and 4 Homes (Cork) in 2009, Vita Cortez (Cork) in 2011, and Game shop (Cork), and La Zenza (Dublin) in 2012.14
The Occupy camps petered out over the summer, and in March 2012 the last one – on Dame Street in Dublin – was forcibly shut down by the authorities. By this time, there was a growing disaffection with the new government’s continuation of the previous government’s austerity measures, and a proposed property tax was used as a rallying point against austerity by the radical left. The protests grew strong on the back of a somewhat fragile, but nonetheless genuine, national grassroots network, culminating in a national rally in Dublin in March 2012 with around 4,000 delegates. The campaign was one of non-payment of the household property tax; while initially successful, the tactic itself was circumvented by the government once they gave the tax office additional powers to take the charge from wages and/or social welfare payments. Nonetheless, there were lessons learned and networks established. A nascent radicalism was taking hold, one that was fed by the continuing austerity programme and a growing, if somewhat inarticulate, class consciousness.
All these elements fed into the protest against the Irish Water Company. Irish Water was established in July 2013 as a standalone utility service. The water system in Ireland was funded through a combination of commercial rates and general taxation. The purpose of Irish Water was to introduce domestic water charges on a national basis. This has been fiercely resisted through a combination of mass protest, non-payment, and a campaign of actively blocking the installation of water meters in various working-class estates across the country. Those at the forefront of the campaign, for the most part, do not come from an activist background. Indeed, there is an ongoing tension within the campaign between those rooted in the communities and the more established radical left groupings.
Non-payment currently stands at around 57% of households (roughly 56% of the population), whereas political support for the Socialist Party and People before Profit stands at around 3%.15 The vast majority of households engaged with the non-payment campaign do not appear to subscribe to a radical left perspective, nor is there any indication that they will do so in the future. The idea that the mass non-payment of bills which underpins the anti-Irish Water campaign will automatically lead to a mass radical left movement is rather naïve.
If we look back at the twenty-year period preceding the 2008 crisis, arguably the single largest element missing from the creation of a dynamic in Ireland for societal change was a genuine class-based social, political, and trade union movement. It could also be argued that what we are witnessing since 2008 is the first tentative steps towards such an organized movement. The campaign against Irish Water has given rise to the umbrella group Right2Water, which consists of local community organizations, five of the country’s fifty or so trade unions,16 Sinn Féin, and participants from radical left groups such the Socialist Party, ‘People before Profit’, the WSM, Éirígí, the Workers Party, and the CPI.
Events held under the banner of Right2Water have seen over 100,000 people from across the country on the streets of Dublin engaged in active and celebratory protest.17 There is a new mood in progressive and radical circles that is positive not just reactive, and Right2Water has tried to tap into this with a plan to launch an agreed political platform for radicals and progressives who intend to stand in the next general election. This move to create a coalition has not been without its tensions. The trade union movement suffers from the legacy of social partnership, and is still not quite trusted. The participation of Sinn Féin is anathema to the radical left, while the newly formed community groups tend to view the radical left parties with suspicion, as entryist cuckoos in the anti-austerity nest.18
It is hard to know whether Right2Water will lead to anything, but even if it results in false starts and stumbles, it is nonetheless pointing in the right direction. The Irish people, quite simply, need a progressive movement. The Irish radical left, despite its current limitations, has an opportunity to help shape its scope and direction. Will it show the flexibility and humility needed in order to play a positive role? The answer to that is in our hands, and I live in hope that we can, and can help build the country we deserve.
1. ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’ A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), 276.
2. People before Profit also has one councillor in Belfast.
3. For more on this, see T. McDonough and T. Dundon, ‘Thatcherism Delayed? The Irish crisis and the paradox of social partnership’, Industrial Relations Journal, 41:6 (2010), 544‐62
4. For more on this, see C. McCabe, Sins of the Father: The Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy, 2nd ed. (Dublin: History Press Ireland, 2013), 96-218.
5. J. White, ‘Interpretations of the Northern Ireland Problem: an Appraisal’, Economic and Social Review, 9:4 (1978), 257-82 ; B. Walker, ‘Ireland’s Historical Position: ‘Colonial’ or ‘European’’, The Irish Review, 9 (Autumn, 1990), 36-40; M. McAteer, ‘Critical Contexts for the Irish Left’, The Irish Review, 32 (Winter 2004), 53-68; M. Muck, ‘The New Marxist Revisionism in Ireland’, Capital and Class, 46 (spring 1992), 95-110.
6. ‘The Good Friday Agreement brought to an end the 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland known as ‘The Troubles’. It was ratified in a referendum in May 1998. The agreement set up a power-sharing assembly to govern Northern Ireland by cross-community consent.’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/events/good_friday_agreement
7. The agreements were: Programme for National Recovery (1987); Programme for Economic and Social Progress (1991); Programme for Competitiveness and Work (1994); Partnership 2000, for Inclusion, Employment and Competitiveness (1997); Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (2000); Sustaining Progress (2003); Towards 2016 (2006).
8. M. Kelly, ‘The Irish Credit Bubble’, UCD Working Paper Series, WP09/32 (December 2009), 2. https://www.ucd.ie/t4cms/wp09.32.pdf
9. Tasc, ‘Submission on the National Minimum Wage’ (April 2015)
R. O’Farrell, ‘The Irish Labour Market since the Recession: Lifting the Veil on Long Term Trends’, NERI Working Paper Series (December 2013)
10. R. Lyng, ‘Is Nothing Sacred Anymore?’ The Furrow 54:9 (September 2003), 469-77.
11. This refers to the thesis put forward in the early 2000s by US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke that US capitalism that solved the problem of severe fluctuations in the business cycle, and had done so through low interest rates and independent monetary policy. See B. Bernanke, ‘Remarks by Governor Ben S. Bernanke At the meetings of the Eastern Economic Association, Washington, DC, February 20, 2004: The Great Moderation.’ http://www.federalreserve.gov/BOARDDOCS/speechES/2004/20040220/default.htm; J.B. Foster, ‘Bernanke and “The Great Moderation” Four Years Later’, MRZine (3 December 2008), http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2008/foster031208.html
12. On 30 September 2008, the Irish state put in place a two-year guarantee to safeguard all deposits (retail, commercial, institutional and interbank), covering bonds, senior debt, and dated subordinated debt (lower tier II) with six Irish banks. The overall cost of the guarantee is somewhere around €64 billion, and was one of the causes of Ireland’s sovereign debt crisis in 2010. For more on this see McCabe, Sins of the Father, 195-218.
13. The Troika were a committee made up of the European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Commission that oversaw the bailout programmes of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus.
14. ‘Explaining Work-Place Sit-ins’, Socialist Voice, February 2012,
15. ‘Water charge Farce to Cost State Millions’, Irish Examiner, 16 July 2015; Sunday Independent/MillwardBrown Opinion Poll: July 2015, slide 9.
16. The five unions are: Mandate Trade Union, Unite the Union (ROI), The CPSU, Opatsi, and the CWU Ireland.
17. ‘Furious protesters scream ‘No More’ as 100,000 march against the hated charge’, Daily Mirror (10 December 2014).
18. This comment is based on conversations I had with members of these groups in Dublin, Cork, Cavan, Monaghan, Limerick and Kildare. The main form of communication used by these groups is social media (in particular, Facebook), which tends to be immediate and ephemeral. The following newspaper article illustrates the tensions: ‘AAA accused of trying to sabotage water charges campaign in Limerick’, Limerick Post (27 March 2015),