A Voice for the Irish Left Wing

Against the Current, No. 105, July/August 2003

Tommy McKearney

FOR MANY YEARS Irish republicans understood that in order to create a republican democracy in Ireland, it would be necessary to break free from the political connection with, and domination by monarchist Britain.

Understandably therefore, many outside observers (and many people in Ireland too) have assumed that Irish republicanism comprises of only one agenda and that is the purely nationalist one of ending British rule in Ireland. In a very real sense, the act of clearing the building-site seemed to assume more importance than the shape of the house to be constructed.

Irish republicanism has indeed been about breaking British rule in Ireland, but for two centuries now it has also reflected the socio/political agenda of those who have felt that they have no resource to conventional, parliamentary means. It has therefore encompassed the revolutionary and insurrectionary tradition that has existed in Ireland for a very long time.

Whether this tradition will manifest itself again in the future is a moot point but history’s impact is unlikely to be dissipated overnight.

Due to the enormity of the task of breaking free from one of the world’s great powers, it is perhaps unsurprising that many Irish republicans concentrated more on the immediate work of removing British influence than on the dynamics of their own cause.

This frequently led to a flawed appreciation of the need to promote a wide and relevant social/economic political program in order to integrate the revolutionary spirit and tradition with current socio-economic needs.

Toward a New Course

This lack of clarity has been very evident over the past decade. Since Sinn Fein [political wing of the republican movement –ed.] decided in the early 1990s to come to terms with the established order and embed itself within the confines of reformism, Irish republicanism has lurched between parliamentary cretinism on one hand and anarchistic militarism on the other.

A small number of left-wing republicans have however, attempted to steer a different course and advocate the path of mass popular action.

One of the principal organs promoting mass popular action in Ireland is the quarterly magazine Fourthwrite. Drawing on a regular core of writers and inviting contributions from a wide range of political activists, Fourthwrite endeavors to provide a vehicle to accommodate the crafting of a contemporary program for radical Irish republicanism.

Fourthwrite takes the view that it is important to include the outlook of people and organizations from both the socialist and republican strands in the magazine. This has meant that writers from such diverse backgrounds as the (British) Socialist Workers Party, Anti-Fascist Action and Republican Sinn Fein have contributed articles for publication.

There is of course a fine line between encouraging healthy exchanges of view and hosting a blank space for vanity writers. Fourthwrite sees its role as facilitating and stimulating the development of a viable plan of action and avoids the temptation of becoming a “liberal” journal of fanciful discussion.

Focus on Trade Unionists

Towards this end Fourthwrite has taken a conscious decision to pay particular attention to the thoughts and deeds of trade union activists currently resisting what amounts to corporatism in Ireland.

For several years now, both the British and Irish ruling classes have managed their business through an understanding with labor that in theory is supposed to regulate negotiations among the state, capital and the trade unions. The working out of this arrangement — known as New Labour in Britain and Partnership in the Republic of Ireland — has delivered handsome profits for the bosses but granted poor recompense to working people.

Unlike a cruder style of confrontational capitalism, this form of management relies on securing the acquiescence of a section of the working class and its trade union leaders.

The deal, in essence, involves persuading a privileged section of the working class to accept a share of the benefits in return for a promise to be of good behavior — and all the time encouraging the privileged workers and their labor leaders to believe that they have won this through “influence” in the corridors of power. In the meantime, business and the state finance its Labour allies’ perks by systematically cutting back on services and allowing the creation of an underclass.

Resisting Privatization

In Ireland, north and south, the provision of health care is becoming increasingly more Americanized. The concept of a state provided health service is being gradually replaced by private health care and with that, the need for an adequate income.

In the south of Ireland there has been a great reduction in the construction of public housing schemes while private building is now prohibitively expensive for working-class people. Moreover, old age pension provision has not kept up with inflation while public transport and infrastructure is poor.

In the north of Ireland, whole areas exist in a state of neglected dereliction, as the free market system proves incapable of restoring badly needed employment.

Yet Ireland is by no means a third world country. The south of Ireland has the highest cost of living in Western Europe and, for its size, the region has a healthy annual Gross Domestic Product. Problems arise from the organization of society and distribution of the wealth it creates.

Fourthwrite argues that these issues can only be adequately redressed within a socialist state and that this should be our reason for promulgating the cause of an independent socialist Irish republic rather than a nationalist desire for mere separation.

These are not new observations, but it takes time and a considerable amount of persuasion in order to create a consensus around a new political program. It is always easy either to drift along with the bigger and more successful reformist movements that promise a taste of power or go negatively into a defensive cocoon.

Fourthwrite avoids taking these options and editorially argues consistently for a new departure. The magazine acknowledges that like Irish republicanism, socialism, and anti-imperialism have no unifying common program at present. This simply means however, that these principles require working on and need to be better articulated.

In spite of its modest resources, Fourthwrite will continue to encourage those people seeking to develop the above mentioned principles and we know that we can depend on the ongoing support of our friends and comrades abroad.

ATC 105, July-August 2003