pe_00197250A Reply to Jim McVeigh

In recent weeks Councillor Jim McVeigh, the leader of the Sinn Fein (SF) group on Belfast City Council, has made a series of attacks on the Socialist Party (SP) via social media. In a complete contrast to the otherwise intemperate tone of his comments he also threw in a suggestion that his group and the leadership of the Socialist Party (SP) should meet in order to explore supposed “common ground”.

The Socialist Party has a long record of working with individuals who belong to other political parties, in specific campaigns and in the trade unions. The Socialist Party is open to meeting with other political parties, including parties which we differ with sharply. To have any value such meetings must have a clear purpose however. We do not believe a meeting on the basis outlined by Jim McVeigh would have any purpose. Indeed given the vitriolic nature of his attacks against the SP, it has to be asked whether his suggestion of a meeting is in any way genuine.

We do believe that it is necessary to answer Jim McVeigh however, and to do so publically, as his attacks are in the public domain. It is not necessary to outline every detail of the differences between SF and the SP in this article. The political positions of the SP on issues such as Cuba and Palestine, mentioned in passing by Jim McVeigh, are available and are easily accessible on our website and in our paper and other publications.

Here we outline our political differences with SF on the two immediate issues of austerity and sectarianism. These issues get to the heart of day to day politics in 2015 in Northern Ireland, and are deeply entwined. We also answer the scurrilous allegations which have been made by Jim McVeigh with regard to the activities of SP members in the North’s public sector union NIPSA. 

Sinn Fein’s Claim to be an Anti-austerity Party

It is no accident that Jim McVeigh has launched repeated vicious attacks at this time. His postings are in the main focused on the question of austerity. SF are desperate to convince their supporters that they are an anti-austerity party. The Socialist Party is the loudest voice exposing all the five Executive parties on the question of austerity and Sinn Fein are very aware of this.

The five Executive parties-the DUP, Sinn Fein, the UUP, SDLP and the Alliance Party-are each trying to claim that in one way or another they have acted to deflect or blunt the worst effects of austerity emanating from the Tory-Liberal Democrat government at Westminster. All five parties know there are few votes for parties which cheerfully implement cuts which condemn the poor, the sick and the disabled to miserable lives. All five parties thus claim to be against austerity when it is convenient to make such a claim.

For the DUP, UUP and Alliance their opposition amounted to little more than a futile vote against the coalition measures at Westminster. For the SDLP and Sinn Fein the gestures continued in the debating chamber at Stormont but their opposition to austerity is ultimately no more robust than that of the DUP, UUP and Alliance.     

The one day public sector strike against austerity on March 13th was the most significant united movement against Stormont since the Executive was established in 2007. It frightened all of the parties and increased their concern about the possible impact on their voting base. The parties which rely most on a working class vote are most concerned.

The “moderate” Alliance Party are in fact the Executive party which is most openly pro-austerity. Its so-called moderation does not extend to economic issues where it takes neo-liberal positions. It calls for the imposition of water charges and the re-introduction of prescription charges, for example, assuming that its largely middle class base will accept the need for such measures.

The parties are not impervious to outside pressure. All of the parties, and the Executive as a whole, can back away when they meet determined resistance. DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots halted a series of nursing home closures 18 months ago after a rebellion led by the residents of the home and their relatives who linked up with staff and local communities. One lesson of this campaign is that those who reacted to the announcement of cuts did not wait for a lead from the trade union leaders or anyone else. That was a vital component in their success.  Of course, the building of combative unions that respond to their members’ needs and resolutely fight cuts remains essential.

Similarly Sinn Fein have tried to wriggle off the hook of “welfare reform” on two separate occasions. Twice it has signed up to deals which would have seen the bulk of welfare reform implemented and twice it has pulled out of the deal at the 11th hour. On each occasion this was at least partly in response to pressure from activists in the union movement campaigning on the issue, and partly a reaction to disquiet in the Catholic working class areas of the North where its core support lies. It is also undoubtedly the case that it was a calculated and cynical move to appear to be taking the high moral ground on cuts in order to pose as anti-austerity south of the border. The truth is that the bulk of the cuts in welfare have already gone through or will be implemented over the next few years and Sinn Fein are complicit in this.  

The “Dented Shield” Argument

In the 1980s Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock used the expression the “dented shield” to cover his craven surrender to the Tories during the “rate-capping” struggle mounted by a number of Labour controlled councils against Thatcher’s attacks on public services. He argued that it was necessary to stay within the law and that a dented shield was better than no shield at all in protecting the poor. (In the history of the North the “better half a loaf than no bread at all” quote of nationalist leader Eddie McAteer in 1969 was made with regard to the civil rights struggle but amounts to the same thing).

This contrast with the struggle of Liverpool City Council, in which Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party in England and Wales) played a decisive role, mobilized the city’s working class to resist Thatcher’s cuts and winning significant concessions for Liverpool before the rebel councillors and city were betrayed by Kinnock.

There is nothing unusual about minority partners in government seeking to avoid blame for unpopular measures. The last two Dublin governments have included minority parties-the Greens in coalition with Fianna Fail (from 2007 to 2011) and now the Labour Party in coalition with Fine Gael. Both the Greens and Labour argue that things would have been worse without their presence in government-they plead that they acted as a bulwark against even worse attacks, a dented shield. Indeed even the Liberal Democrats argue that they have played this role in their coalition with the multi-millionaire Tories over the last five years.

Majority government parties are also keen to avoid responsibility for the cuts. The SNP claim that they are an anti-cuts party but in fact they have passed cuts in the Scottish Assembly and at local council level.

How is the approach of SF today any different any different from all of these examples? Sinn Fein supporters do not accept these excuses from others and should ask themselves whether such arguments hold water when Sinn Fein tries to make exactly the same case. How can SF supporters defend the comments of Minister for Education minister John O’Dowd at the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) conference in April when he told protestors that “placards will not end austerity” (delegates were holding placards with messages such as “SF + DUP = Tory cuts”)? He defended the right of people to protest, but in a patronising fashion went on to say that he had a duty to “lift my eyes out of my navel and look forward” (Irish Times, April 7th, 2015).

The reality is that Sinn Fein are the second largest party in a government, the Northern Ireland Executive, which is implementing cuts. The idea that any political party can challenge the capitalist system and simultaneously manage that system, is entirely false. A party which manages the system inevitably accepts its basic principles. This leads to the adoption of pro-austerity policies in the current period. Acceptance of the capitalist system means there is currently “no alternative”. In every country in Europe there are differences between the various pro-capitalist parties on exactly how austerity should be imposed, and as to where the cuts should fall, but these differences are of no fundamental importance. The ‘dented shield’ argument is used to try and cover a multitude of sins. There are no such thing as good or bad cuts, and no matter how small or big the cuts, they hit working class people and the poor, destroying jobs and services, cutting welfare benefits and impoverishing more people. The SP is opposed to all cuts.

SF start by accepting the budget devolved from Westminster. It then implements the cuts alongside the other parties. Indeed some of the sharpest cuts are currently falling in areas where SF has direct control. Education, an area covered by Sinn Fein minister John O’Dowd, is suffering badly. O’Dowd himself has said schools will likely see 500 job losses for teachers and 1,000 for non-teaching staff due to £28m cuts (BBC News, March 4th 2015). The INTO has claimed more than 560 teachers could go in the next six months. Over 90 language specialists will lose their jobs in April, over 200 teaching posts will be lost in June and a further 270 will be made redundant in September. According to the INTO some of these job losses will be compulsory (Belfast Telegraph, March 31st 2015). Over the last several years SF has voted through major attacks on the rights of workers, in particular major cuts in pension entitlements for public sector workers. These cuts began at Westminster but Stormont had local power on the issue which it chose not to exercise.

The daily announcements of cuts are exposing the myth that any or all of the Executive parties have made a stand against austerity. But if any doubt remains in the minds of some workers that Sinn Fein is genuinely anti-austerity they should consider its embrace of the twin policies of cutting 20,000 public sector jobs, and of cutting the taxes on the profits of big business, contained in the Stormont House Agreement. These proposals did not originate at Westminster but at Stormont. These are policies which were consciously adopted by the five Executive parties, including Sinn Fein. The idea of slashing 20,000 jobs is a Stormont proposal and one which SF initially boasted about, before becoming more careful in its language when under media pressure. These proposals represent the adoption of neo-liberalism: the many will suffer in order to boost the profits of big business. 

When the Stormont House Agreement was agreed Sinn Fein celebrated like the other signatories. First Minister Peter Robinson stated that the agreement is “a monumental step forward”. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described the resulting document as “astounding”. Former Haas talks co-chair Megan O’Sullivan has welcomed “a new era” for Northern Ireland politics.

This was a celebration of the sharpest wave of cuts ever outlined for Northern Ireland. The main plank of the agreement is a massive programme of job cuts across the public sector. Twenty thousand jobs will go. All five parties are not just in favour of the cutting of thousands of jobs but actually boast of their ambition to “re-balance the economy” away from public sector and towards the private sector.

The actual results of the shrinking of the public sector are apparent all over Europe. A tilt towards the private sector will mean increased casualisation of the workforce, with lower wages, reduced pensions, increased job insecurity, and a greater proportion of part-time and temporary jobs in the workforce. The private sector is superior to the public sector only in the sense that it is more efficient engine of exploitation.

The plan to cut the size of the public sector is linked both ideologically and practically to proposals to reduce corporation tax. If corporation tax is cut there will be a reduced tax take and the subvention from Westminster will be cut by the same amount. The Executive is proposing to make up the difference through saving on the public sector wages bill. This will be achieved both by mass redundancies and on-going “wage restraint”.

Sinn Fein and Sectarianism

Ultimately the SF leadership argue, in an echo of Thatcher, that there is no alternative. It takes this argument several steps further at times and explicitly states that there will be no alternative until there is a united Ireland-an entirely utopian nationalist argument similar to that peddled by Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.

A real alternative must start with a rejection of the very basis of a system which puts profits before people. Despite the occasional rhetoric, the Sinn Fein leadership does not seriously seek to challenge the capitalist system, and is thus incapable of posing a real alternative. Instead it seeks to curry favour with big business. In early March Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams insisted that his party is “good for business” after The Irish Times reported that US business figures had raised concern about its economic policies. Adams was clear: “We’re very good for business. We’re very pro-business. We can’t be getting support for US businesses on the one hand and then be bad for businesses on the other hand.”

The alternative to accepting and implementing austerity is the mobilisation of working class and young people in a determined anti-cuts movement. To be successful such a movement must be capable of uniting Catholics and Protestants. Sinn Fein, or any other party which accepts the system and is based on sectarian division, is totally incapable of mounting a real united working class opposition to austerity of this nature.

Despite the Sinn Fein leaders’ attempts to present themselves as a radical alternative, North and South, SF is a nationalist party and in the North it is based in one community only. It seeks to represent the “interest” of that community in competition with the other community. For Sinn Fein to declare that it is anti-sectarian does not make it so – all of the main parties in the North, nationalist and unionist, also make such claims. Individual Sinn Fein members and supporters may genuinely believe the anti-sectarian rhetoric but the reality is that like the DUP, UUP and SDLP, Sinn Fein, as a party, thrives on sectarian division and its policies and actions promote and deepen sectarian division.

The path to a united Ireland for Sinn Fein is through a cross-class alliance in which the supposed interests of the “nation” come before the interests of any one class however. In the current general election Sinn Fein posters proudly proclaim its cross-class approach with the meaningless slogan “Putting Ireland first”. Of course in the context of Irish nationalism a cross-class alliance amounts to an all-class Catholic alliance. This cross-class approach is also seen in unionism, with election pacts made in the interests of maintaining ‘the union’ supposedly taking precedent over all other interests. In reality the interests of working class Protestants are ignored. Elections become sectarian headcounts in which all working class people lose out.

In any cross-class alliance the dominant class in society, the capitalist class, ensures the primacy of its economic and social system. Thus the interests of the capitalist become the “national” interest. SF is a party which accepts this and thus defends the capitalist system. This is the basis of Gerry Adams’ desperate attempt to prove SF’s acceptability to big business.

SF of course denies that it is a Catholic party or a sectarian party and individual members of SF will take exception at this characterisation. There are Sinn Fein supporters who genuinely regard themselves as anti-sectarian and as socialists. But the facts and the words of leading SF members expose the party..In recent days and weeks SF has been deploying anti-sectarian rhetoric. But in various statements and speeches its leading figures have repeatedly equated nationalism with anti-sectarianism, anti-austerity positions and “progressive” views. They claim that both the main nationalist parties, SF and the SDLP, a conservative nationalist party traditionally supported by the middle class, are “progressive”. Sinn Fein are shamelessly seeking to mobilise the Catholic vote in the Westminster election campaign. North Belfast SF candidate, Gerry Kelly has openly appealed to the electorate of North Belfast to consider their vote on the basis of the recent census results: “The figures from the last census and recent elections show that Sinn Fein can now take the North Belfast Westminster seat” (flyer for Kelly campaign launch meeting March 4th 2015).

Shortly before the election campaign commenced SF explicitly called for a pact with the SDLP in order to “maximise” the nationalist vote. Sinn Fein MP Conor Murphy dressed his call for a sectarian Catholic bloc in the election with the claim that “progressives can make gains” and called on the SDLP to put “progressive politics before its own narrow party political interests”. He had the gall to criticise the unionist parties for agreeing a sectarian voting pact: “The coming together of the two main unionist parties, the DUP and the UUP, in an election pact on a narrow sectarian and conservative agenda is a challenge to progressive politics. These parties have no vision for the future and are happy with crumbs from the Westminster table. This demands a strategic response from those of us who wish to see a society based on equality, inclusion and the protection of the most vulnerable.” (Newsletter, March 18th 2015).

What else does this amount to but a sectarian appeal to one community to outvote the other community? To try to claim that this is in some way advances “progressive” politics in no way hides its real intent and its highly divisive impact.

The DUP and the UUP have formed an election pact. This is clearly a sectarian arrangement. In recent months prominent unionists have spouted nakedly sectarian bile. The most odious example of this was East Derry MP Gregory Campbell repeated sleights on the Irish language with his references to “curry my yogurt” (his take on “Go raibh maith agat”). At the last DUP conference he announced “on behalf of our party let me say clearly, and slowly so that Caitriona Ruane and Gerry Adams understand, we will never agree to an Irish language act at Stormont and we will treat their entire wish list as no more than toilet paper. They better get used to it.”

Campbell’s words find an echo: in a speech to SF members in Enniskillen last autumn Gerry Adams was recorded saying “The point is to actually break these bastards – that’s the point. And what’s going to break them is equality…That’s what we need to keep the focus on – that’s the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy is to reach out to people on the basis of equality.” In response to criticism Adams later claimed that he was referring to “bigots, racists and homophobes” and not to unionists or Protestants in general. Most Protestants heard his comments differently. The comments of Campbell and Adams reveal the ugly side of the sectarian parties. Sectarian-based politics offers no way forward.   

The Socialist Party and NIPSA

Jim McVeigh has made a particularly vicious attack on the activities of SP members, and other lefts, in NIPSA:

There is no such thing as NIPSA Broad Left folks, this is a SP faction attempting to manipulate and hijack NIPSA. What we need is a coordinated strategy with unions in Britain and all anti austerity parties, including SF, to oppose the people who are the source of these cuts, the Tories and closer to home the DUP. So no to divisive factionalism within the trade union movement”.

The SP is proud of its record in the trade unions. The SP and its forerunners, Militant and Militant Labour, have been active in NIPSA and other unions and trades councils in the North for five decades where they have openly campaigned against poverty, exploitation and for workers’ rights, against discrimination, repression and sectarianism and for workers’ unity and socialism. Our members have always been open about their political affiliation, unlike many others. In NIPSA, for example, when SP members stand for places on its decision making body, the General Council, they state their SP membership on their election statements. When SP members run for elected officer positions in the union they do likewise.

SP members in NIPSA work with others on the left in the umbrella grouping known as the Broad Left (BL). This is a real organisation with meetings open to all to decide on policy and direction. BL members are open about their affiliation. The fact that the members of the union have voted for a BL majority on the General Council for the last two years demonstrates the appeal of its fighting and anti-sectarian policies.

The SP puts forwards policies in NIPSA, and in other unions where we have members, which are designed to further the cause of working class unity and to ensure that the union movement mounts a fighting opposition to the cuts and opposition to all forms of sectarianism. Our ideas have been supported by many NIPSA activists and members and NIPSA has been at the forefront of the anti-austerity movement. NIPSA activists are currently in the front line of attempts to check those who seek to link the trade union movement with sectarian-based parties, including SF. Trade union members who support SF or any of the other Northern Ireland parties should be of course free to argue their ideas within the union movement but the SP believes that for the union leaders to move towards a link, formally or informally, with any sectarian-based party risks the unity of the trade union movement.

The SP will always puts the interests of the whole working class first. We will resolutely and openly oppose any plan for the trade unions to lend direct or indirect support to SF or any other party that would be seen as sectarian-based by union members and other workers. 

Jim McVeigh’s attacks on the role of SP members in NIPSA amount to a call for a political witch-hunt: “Does anybody believe that NIPSA/Broad Left is anything other than a SP faction conspiring to take over NIPSA? NIPSA is a proud union that is being driven into a culdesac by a small politically sectarian faction. This clique use every opportunity to attack every other party except the so called Socialist Party. It’s time for unions to confront this tiny faction who are leading NIPSA to disaster. Let’s get together and attack those parties who support Tory Cuts, the unionists and the Alliance party. Stop attacking other parties of the left and let us unite behind a new progressive programme, North and South!”

The SP will not bend before this attack and we have confidence that the members of the union will support our opposition both to austerity and any coming together with sectarian parties.

The drawn out process of renewing the activist ranks of the unions, and of developing a fighting leadership , becomes more urgent with the passage of time. In the coming period the process will accelerate through an increase in struggle, and the conscious intervention of left trade union activists, including through the building of broad left formations in all the unions.      

Building a Fighting Alternative to Austerity and Sectarianism

The differences between SF and the SP are not “mostly tactical” as Jim McVeigh suggests. The SP is a party which is based on a class analysis of society and which fights for the socialist transformation of society. The SP stands for working class unity. In all our activity we strive to build this unity and to counter sectarianism in all its forms.  The SP challenges the very basis of the capitalist system in words and actions through the fight against austerity and all of the cuts. For us left and socialist credentials are established by a firm and unswerving adherence to the interests of the working class, both Protestant and Catholic.

Jim McVeigh is attempting to portray the SP as a party which is isolated and which has no strategy to oppose austerity. This assertion is entirely false. We will continue to engage in the day to day struggle to build working class unity and socialism.  We will enter into discussions with others, and take opportunities to publically state our case, when we consider this likely to be beneficial to the interests of working people. We will subject other political forces to robust criticism when it is warranted. The needs of the working class call out for such openness and honesty.

The Socialist Party will strive to build a vibrant and united anti-austerity movement over the coming weeks and months. We draw inspiration from the mass anti-water charges movement in the south, a movement in which SP members are playing key roles. It is of vital importance that anti-austerity strikes and other actions are targeted against both Westminster and Stormont.

The Executive parties may try to use issues around the cuts to divide working class people in the run up to the general election on May 7th. Sectarian-based parties will argue for a “fair” distribution of cuts, claiming that the community from which they derive their electoral base is losing out more than the “other” community. If the unions are seen to come down on one side or the other in the midst of this process there is a real danger of increased tension in the workplace, and even of the outline of potential splits in the trade union movement emerging. Should these processes continue unchecked, nothing less than the unity of workers in the workplace, defended by activists over the past decades, sometimes at the cost of their lives, is at stake.

It is necessary to reject the entire basis of the austerity project and to demand a no-cuts budget be set at Stormont. The politicians at Stormont will only go down this road in extremis-if they feel a fire from below. The setting of such a budget would inspire workers elsewhere. We must seek to immediately link up with workers in struggle, or moving in the direction of struggle, in England, Scotland and Wales and in the South. Our allies lie there amongst the organised working class. A working class revolt against austerity across Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales would shake the political firmament.  

And the SP will continue to build a political alternative to the sectarian parties, arguing for a new mass working class party which brings Protestant and Catholic workers together on the basis of a consistent, 100% opposition to cuts in the struggle for a new society.  There is a political vacuum in Northern Ireland. It is likely that four out of ten will not vote in the election on May 7th. Many of these non-voters are sick of the sectarian parties and are angry at the cuts and closures. If the trade unions were to mobilise their members in sustained opposition large layers of young people and the working class would come behind such a campaign and would draw the political conclusion that the sectarian parties represent the past. The ideas of socialism and the Socialist Party represent the future.