How federalism failed the Irish left

The United Left Alliance (ULA) was launched in Dublin in late November 2010 to contest the southern Irish general election a few weeks later.

Liam Mac Uaid explains why it is falling apart and what we can learn from the experience.

Normally such a move would be electoral and political suicide. In this case the gamble paid off handsomely and in February 2011 the electoral coalition won 2.6% of the vote and five seats in Dáil Éireann, the neo-colonial parliament.

At that point the ULA consisted of the Socialist Party (the Irish sister organisation of the British group), the People Before Profit Alliance, a front organisation for the SWP, some ex Labour Party members and the now departed Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG).

Circumstances were unusually favourable for a radical electoral challenge. The southern Irish economy was in free fall; Fianna Fáil, the party which had engineered a period of rapid economic growth based on fraud and property speculation, was facing electoral annihilation at the hands of an electorate which was seeing itself become impoverished, unemployed and debt ridden as the southern political class meekly accepted an appalling programme of austerity imposed by the European Union. This was combined with an electoral system with proportional representation which makes it possible for smaller parties and independents to win seats.

If ever there was a need for a mass radical socialist challenge to the old parties and the new austerity it was in the post Celtic Tiger twenty six counties. Not only was there a need but the fact that an ad hoc coalition of socialists won five of the one hundred and sixty six seats within a couple of months of its launch showed there was an appetite for it among a radicalising section of the working class.

How did the major players in the ULA conceive of its development? Was it to become a new party of the Irish working class born from the fight against austerity? The Socialist Party certainly didn’t think so. In a statement in January 2012 they wrote:

The ULA is not the new party, nor is it likely to just become the new party at some future date.

The ULA is an alliance that fights on issues, outlines a left and socialist alternative and crucially popularises the idea of a new party. A new party will most likely come from the likes of the ULA combining with community and workers’ campaigns and struggles.”

So, an organisation that working people looking for an alternative have voted into parliament doesn’t have the potential to become a party. The advice given in capital letters at the end of the article is that readers who agree should instead join the Socialist Party. Completely absent is any conception that there is a relationship between people’s daily struggles and actively working towards transforming the ULA into a party which they can control.

In practice the SWP has voted with its feet. It has relaunched People Before Profit and in the statement announcing its withdrawal from the alliance the WUAG said “The SWP has prioritised recruitment to the SWP over building the ULA.”

The ULA now looks like an electoral organisation which is not going to survive to a second election. Rather than quickly move to consolidate it as a membership party its component parts preferred to maintain it as a brand to which they could attract people they wanted to recruit to their own organisations.

At demonstrations it has a much smaller profile than the SP or SWP and it times this becomes darkly farcical. After the massacre at the Marikana mine in South Africa Dubliners has a choice of protesting at two separate demonstrations called by the two major players in the ULA.

All the major political decisions were made in private with members who didn’t belong to the leadership of the SWP or SP not having any meaningful mechanism through which they could influence the alliance’s direction. This involved grotesque compromises such as the SP making it a matter of principle that the ULA not organise in the north of Ireland. In effect an organisation which should have been home to the most combative activists in Ireland had to accept the imperialist partition of the country as a key part of its programme. For socialists claiming the mantle of James Connolly, the Marxist who organised an insurrection while Britain was fighting a war, this was quite a novel reading of his ideas.

The Irish working class is paying a price for this refusal to transform the ULA in a broad class struggle party. Mass migration is once commonplace; hospitals are unable to treat patients and incomes have dropped by 20% in four years. Yet despite all this the south of Ireland has not seen anything comparable to the inspiring mobilisation in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Austerity has been imposed with very little opposition and the big political beneficiary has been Sinn Féin now has fourteen members in the Dáil due to its success in presenting itself as the radical anti-austerity party. That this is a spurious claim is evidenced by the fact that a hundred miles up the road in Belfast they are in coalition with the creationist, homophobic, hard right DUP. Yet the hard fact is that working people see them as a coherent party which stands in elections. This is not true of the ULA.

There are lessons in the collapse of the ULA.

The federal structure which allows its components to enforce a veto is profoundly anti-democratic. It privileges the narrow perspective of one organisation over the rest of the alliance. It also takes away the possibility of winning a political debate by politically winning the argument. Everything is reduced to horse trading and block voting, characteristics of established bureaucracies. It is also a serious obstacle to the recruitment of working class activists who want to join a fighting party but are not interested in signing up to a pre-existing Marxist current. 

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16 Comments on How federalism failed the Irish left

  1. What a superficial and tendentious assessment of the undoubted problems of the ULA. Liam clearly has no knowledge of the ULA and the piece reflects the preconceptions of his little group in Britain rather than any assessment of his subject.

    The ULA would have lasted about thirty seconds if it had not been a federal organisation. A core problem of the ULA is that there is no significant wider layer of activists involved in it, outside the Socialist Party and SWP. That was a problem at the start and it is a problem now, and that as much as anything else dictates that it has to be federal. The alternative is that every decision is determined by whether more Socialist Party or SWP members show up to a particular meeting. This would be both less democratic and completely destructive.

    I note that the article has practically nothing at all to say about the politics of the ULA, or about the arguments within it over policy and orientation. Except to make the inaccurate claim that the Socialist Party regards it as a “principle” that the ULA should not organise in the North. It does not. Presumably discussing the politics of the ULA would involve doing too much research?

  2. This review misses out some key points on the development of the ULA, the most serious omission is that of the development of the membership of the ULA who are not members of the founding groups. These ULA members (known as the non aligned) have won two representatives on the ULA steering committee. The reps are democratically elected every six months and report all steering ctte meetings to the NA membership. The NA if nothing else are playing a watchdog role to the usual antics enjoyed by the Irish and British left. Secondly an advisory branch delegate council has been established which meets quarterly, this has the potential to be a democratic structure for a future party, which would be a huge step forward compared to the annual pre-ordained slate elections we are used to. While the SP and SWP see the ULA as purely an electoral alliance, the NA membership are pushing for the development of the ULA into a party. The TD (MP) balance has also shifted somewhat with the resignation of one TD from the Socialist Party (who is re designated as a ULA TD), and the expected resignation of another TD from PBPA again to re- designate as a ULA TD. This is not to be overly positive but the point remains that the ULA is not just the SP/SWP but contains many more activists who see the ULA as basis for a future non sectarian party.

  3. Much of this is true. But the ULA has NOT collapsed. It it at an ebb and has suffered some serious setbacks. But it has survived. It has come through a major crisis around the resignation of Clare Daly TD from the Socialist Party and has survived, so far. The (Tipperary) Workers and Unemployed Action Group (around Seamus Healy TD)has left, the SWP and the Socialist Party have effectively parked the ULA as regards themselves while nominally (and a bit more than that) remaining in it. Both are busy building their own organisations and, in addition, the SWP have relaunched the People Before Profit Alliance as a parallel alliance (but still in the ULA). But the ULA is still there, and most of the nonaligned (now organised) plus two of the TDs (non party)and their supporters are determined to build the ULA.

    Socialist Resistance should not take its que on the ULA only from its contacts in Ireland who are pessimistic about, or even hostile to, the project. There are admirers of Socialist Resistance in the ULA who are fully behind the enterprise and who still retain realistic but positive projections for it.

    Note too, many if not most of the nonaligned have not pushed the ‘one-person-one-vote’ issue as an ultimatum because they wish to preserve the achievement of the alliance in which some insist on a consensus approach. However there has been some voting on Motions at Branch Council level (including a rejection of one-person-one-vote) and the Steering Committee has been opened to elected reps from the nonaligned. Nothing is ideal in the ULA, but there has been (prior to the recent crises) an incremental if painfully slow development at all levels.

  4. Julian Assandwich // 16th November 2012 at 2:21 pm // Reply

    This is a rather ill-informed account of the left in Ireland. Socialist Resistance has practically until this point ignored the very existence of the ULA in Ireland. On its public meeting in September, SR hosted speakers from new left formations all over Europe – but no such invitation was made to their closest success the ULA.

    For all the ULA’s problems, it has used its combined weight to build what is possibly the most successful and coherent anti-austerity movement Ireland has seen in a century and would rank among the most promising movements in Europe. This is opening up the path for the ULA to develop even further.

  5. It is absolutely true that there is a “non-aligned” group and that non-aligned members have representation on the steering committee (and rightly so). However, it’s important to note when we are talking to people who aren’t familiar with the ULA, that the non-aligned grouping is very small and consists of perhaps 30 to 40 people nationally. Which in turn is a fair reflection of the numbers of people active in the ULA outside of the Socialist Party and SWP.

    It’s that absence of wider forces which makes federalism not simply a preference but a necessity.

  6. It’s hard to judge numbers nationally as the branch network is extremely underdeveloped, it is true only about 30 to 40 made the last national NA meeting, though there is many who cannot make such meetings. For example in our the Dublin Central branch meeting this week we had about 20 to 25 Na’s, most of which didn’t go to the national meeting. Only two could make it from Galway which again is dominated by NAs. There at the last count is about 150 paper members and about 50 on the discussion list, but again without branches it is difficult to know how many are still behind the project. There has also been some recruitment to the ULA through the NA in recent months as it has solidified. However it has to be said the only people pushing the project at the moment are the non aligned, the refusal to or attempt to build the ULA (beyond an electoral alliance) from the SP and then to say there that no one is interested is an entirely circular argument.

  7. By the way I make no argument against federalism, I cannot see how the project could survive otherwise, and I note the article has made no alternative suggestions.

  8. Henry, much of the resources used to create and build the ULA have come from the Socialist Party (and to at least some significant extent the SWP). There is at best a blindness (and at worst an outright dishonesty) about claims from some of our small group of non-aligned allies that they are the ones “building” the ULA and that this has not been done by the affiliates. You take for granted the very considerable resources the affiliates have put into the ULA, and you do so in a way that creates quite unnecessary friction.

    I am not making a circular argument here, Henry. The Socialist Party and other affiliates spent considerable effort organising public meetings around the country, trying to launch branches and trying to sustain branches for months on end which consisted of ourselves and a few people from our own periphery. For all that the SWP have now dropped the ULA in practical terms in favour of building People Before Profit as a front, I know that the same was true of them for quite a while. It is simply self-deluding and self-serving to claim that the problem is that an effort hasn’t been made. Efforts have been made and in only a small number of locations were any number of new people or unaffiliated activists willing to get involved in any numbers. The problem has not been lack of effort. The problem has been that it’s not possible to build a large political formation by willpower.

    I’m glad that you agree that there are in the greater scheme of things very small numbers of non-aligned active in the ULA. And I’m glad that you agree that federalism is absolutely necessary given the balance of forces. I’m not sure how you square this recognition with support for the idea of the ULA as is (ie the Socialist Party, the SWP and three dozen other active people) taking steps towards a party, however.

    It’s worth noting, and this isn’t particularly directed at you, Henry, that there’s a certain tiresome apolitical aspect to discussions about the ULA a lot of the time. In this case the tone was set in that regard by the very superficial and misleading original article. We argue about structures and numbers and organisational forms and resources, but much of the time the very real differences within the ULA about what policies and programme the ULA should have are ignored. Lots of chatter about “unity” as an abstract good and little discussion of what the political basis for that unity is to be.

  9. I broadly agree with the comments of Des Derwin and Henry Silke above. Mark P, in his usual never off-message style, relentlessly presents the current views of the Socialist Party leadership in his three comments.

    Readers will get a good grasp of the the political views promoted by the non-aligned current within the ULA from this Eddie Conlon Statement :

    Nonaligned Rep Election Statement from Eddie Conlon

    The potential of the ULA has not been realised. Despite significant electoral gains and considerable enthusiasm an organisation with a vibrant internal and external life has not been developed. It is now clear that the founding organisations are at best ambivalent about developing the ULA as the basis for forming a new workers party. Whats required is the development of an active membership who prioritise the building of the ULA. The non-aligned grouping can play a significant role in ensuring there is a focus on building the ULA and developing a layer of active members who begin to give it real life and turn it into an organisation that people can join and get active in.

    The prospects for building an active opposition to austerity is growing. While relative low levels of struggle have been a barrier to the building of the ULA there is evidence of change. There is now a layer of people, particularly in the CAHWT, who want to fight austerity and are open to the idea of a new political formation. The ULA needs to become attractive to these people and pull them into ULA activity. While it needs to be expanded, the founding program is adequate to advancing the struggle for a new workers party at this time.

    Rather than waiting for the founding organisations the non-aligned should develop a programme of activity which develops the profile of the ULA and provides opportunities for members to discuss the political development of the ULA. In practice this means building active branches, having an agreed approach to campaigns and holding regular public events which mobilise the ULA membership and/or provide opportunities to discuss political ideas and developments. The question of a regular ULA publication should also be advanced.

    Non-aligned reps on the SC should be mandated to push for these activities.

    I am proposing:

    1. An extension of the Steering Committee to 4 reps per group. This would widen the
    leadership of the ULA, allow for broader representation (of women and from outside Dublin) and hopefully develop a wider commitment to the development of the ULA.
    2. Regular ULA public events.
    3. Immediate registration of the ULA with the aim of having a wide layer of candidates at the next local elections.
    4. Developing a united approach to campaign activity with an emphasis on agreeing this approach through the structures of the ULA.
    5. The building of active branches and more regular branch council meetings which discuss both policy issues and activity.
    6. Decision making by consensus with an emphasis on getting active agreement. Moving to one person one vote at this stage would lead to permanent competitive mobilisation by the founding organisations against each other. It would also mean domination by the biggest and best organised groups.
    7. The ULA should facilitate a discussion on left unity in the North. A successful project aligned to the ULA can only develop out of a process rooted in the six counties. I agree with the objective of the ULA being a 32 county organisation.
    8. Their needs to be more regular meetings between the SC and the TDs to ensure
    coordination of ULA activity in the Dail. TDs should also actively interact with the general membership. There also needs to be a ULA Press Officer.

    The project of developing the ULA as the basis for a new party needs to be relaunched. The non-aligned members should now play an active role in building key branches and developing the profile of the ULA.

    I have been active in the ULA since its founding. As a member of the People Before Profit I was centrally involved in the discussions that lead to the formation of the ULA. I have played an active role in arguing for representation of nonaligned members. I recently resigned form PBP because of its failure to prioritise the building of the ULA. I am fully committed to the development and growth of the ULA. I have been active on the left since 1978. I am an active trade unionist currently a member of the Executive of the TUI.

  10. John, it would be more useful for you to point out what precisely you think is wrong with the views I expressed than for you to simply sneer that they are those of the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party is after all a pretty substantial part of the ULA, and its views, correct or incorrect are of some inherent interest to people involved in the ULA. If it’s assessment is wrong, you should explain how and why.

  11. I think the priority of both the SWP and Sp have been on building their own organisations. To put the record straight for readers of this websiteI was myself a member of the SP from 1998 to quite recently. And I believe from my time both inside and outside the Sp that the ULA was not prioritised nearly enough. The ULA still I believe has far more potential that could be achieved. My own branch (and mark’s) has 35 members with the Sp and SWP more involved it could easily be fifty.

  12. I agree with most of what Henry has said above. One further point – seen from Britain, the election of 5 ULA TDs in 2011 might seem very impressive; certainly if the radical left in Britain elected 5 MPs to a (much larger) House of Commons that would be a great triumph. But the Irish electoral system makes it a lot easier to win seats (multi-seat constituencies allow you to win a seat with 10-15% of first-preference votes; there’s no minimum level of the national vote that you have to win to get into parliament). And the 5 ULA TDs didn’t come out of nowhere to win those seats – Joe Higgins and Seamus Healy had both been elected to the Dail during the boom years, and Clare Daly, Joan Collins and Richard Boyd Barrett had all been knocking at the door with strong performances.

    So you couldn’t really say it expressed a huge radicalisation among the working class or anything like that – there WAS a general shift to the left in the 2011 election, and the ULA was helped by that, but only candidates who were well established before the crisis did well. And it wasn’t followed by a surge of activity outside parliament. The main problem for the radical left in Ireland is that we haven’t protest movements against the Troika remotely similar to the ones in Greece, Spain or Portugal.

    That said, I’ve no doubt that there was a potential for the ULA to be in a stronger position now than it is, and I agree with Henry about why that potential hasn’t been realised so far.

  13. Ed makes a very good and measured assessment of the ULA’s successful election campaign in February 2011, and is right about the more democratic proportional electoral system in Ireland compared with the British straight vote system. I agree with his observations on the potential of the ULA, and why it has not been realised.

    That said, the picture is not entirely black – ULA TD’s, notably the Dublin North representative Clare Daly, led the way in April 2012 promoting legislation to legalise abortion in Ireland. This was accompanied by significant mass action which helped revive the Pro-Choice Movement.

    The death of Indian woman Savita Halappanaver has rocketed this issue back on to the agenda, and the Fine Gael / Labour Government is badly shaken. As events unfold over the next couple of months, we will see how things develop.

    more information here :

    An Irish Rising Day, November 17 2012 – “The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us arise!” – Jim Larkin

  14. John McAnulty // 17th November 2012 at 7:09 pm // Reply

    I think the article (and the majority of the contributions) miss the point. It really is not possible to explain the decay of the ULA in organisational terms.

    It is true that Ireland has easily the weakest response to austerity so the question the socialists have to answer is why this is. The socialist movement is not responsible for that weakness. It is far too small to have that effect. However it can be judged on how it identifies that weakness and on the alternatives it offers.

    In truth there is very little discussion of this nature in the ULA. The general conviction is that electoral gains will increase representation in the Dail and a bigger platform will lead to increased resistance. Insofar as there is any mobilisation on the streets the conviction is that the more diffuse the politics the bigger the demonstration – a sort of unconscious popular frontism. The economic crisis calls for a revolutionary response, but the electoral orientation leads to a growing reformism.

    In my view the main weakness of the ULA is not that it is an alliance – an honest alliance organising at the grassroots could have done a great deal – it is that it is an electoral alliance that almost invites ferocious organisational sectarianism, reduces the ULA to a badge of convenience and seems completely blind to the sort of political deformations that a concentration on parliamentarism can bring to socialist organisations.

    On the streets one of the major causes of working class weakness is that the trade union leadership has been locked in social partnership for decades and is deeply involved in mechanisms for agreeing and enforcing austerity. The socialists seem blind to that reality.

    Next week an anti-austerity demonstration will be held in Dublin. ICTU, having spent months agreeing the austerity, will now lead the opposition. If the ULA or the Socialist groups are opposing this betrayal and hypocrisy I have yet to see it.

  15. The article was written with an English audience in mind and one which is largely unfamiliar with the ULA so I’m grateful to comrades in Ireland who’ve offered a range of perspectives.

    Here are some of the results from a parliamentary by election in Manchester last Thursday.

    Edward Richard] O’SULLIVAN (British National Party) 492 (3.0%)
    [Laurence Guthrie] KAYE (Pirate Party UK) 308 (1.9%)
    Alex DAVIDSON (Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts) 220 (1.3%)
    Catherine Aminatta HIGGINS (Respect (George Galloway)) 182 (1.1%)
    Peter CLIFFORD (Communist League) 64 (0.4%)

    The Pirate Party beat the whole far left and the BNP beat its combined vote in a constituency with a large student population. So, just when the British working class is seeing deep cuts in its standard of living; the outsourcing of the NHS and big cuts in benefits the electoral weight of the British left is derisory.

    In my view a big part of the reason for that is that self appointed vanguards decide that only they have the right to make decisions about the big strategic questions facing the working class and, when they conclude that some sort of broader formation is necessary, their number one priority is that they control it or are able to veto decisions they don’t like. The inherent lack of democracy in the ULA’s federal structure is an expression of that and TUSC in Britain has a very similar model.

    This structure is designed to alienate militants who feel that they should have a real voice in decision making. A obvious solution to the issue of the ULA or TUSC being composed of two relatively large organisation is to do what the components of the Danish Red Green Alliance did. They give members a free vote on any issue which does not involve crossing class lines. (See the piece by Michael Voss) This pseudo Bolshevik notion all members of an organisation have to vote the same way is Stalinist baggage that needs to be dumped.

    As Syriza shows there is a real link between economic struggles assisting the development of a party and the political perspectives a party offers sustaining the mass mobilisations. This goes some way to explaining the number of general strikes we’ve seen in Greece. I hope the comrades in Ireland who are trying to make the ULA into something comparable win out.

  16. In other words, as I pointed out in my first comment, this is a superficial article written primarily through the lense of your British groups views on the British left. I quite understand that you were writing for an audience largely unfamiliar the ULA, but perhaps next time you could consider producing an article that won’t have the effect of deepening that unfamiliarity?

    The ULA and TUSC do not have the same structures. The ULA’s structure is not a remotely significant issue in the ULA’s problems, which are chiefly rooted in a failure to attract a wider membership against a backdrop where struggle and resistance to austerity has been very muted. This was not because there was some horde of prospective ULA activists out there who refused to join because they reject federalism on principle. You wrote an article about the ULA which told us a lot about your group’s fixation on the evils of federalism and nothing about the ULA.

    I note that both the original piece and this discussion have featured almost nothing in the way of comment on the ULA’s policies, programme, orientation or the disagreements within it on any of these issues. Everything is organisationally focused, with a silent background assumption that the political content isn’t particularly important.

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