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Column: Troubles over Mick Wallace follow a long line of left-wing splits

The Irish left has a history of schism, writes Adrian Grant – but if it wants to reap electoral rewards it must learn to co-operate.

Adrian Grant

IRELAND HAS NEVER really had a strong left-wing political party or grouping in the way that the UK or our continental European neighbours have.

The Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) was founded by James Connolly in 1896 but it is often joked that the party had more syllables in its title than members in its ranks. In 1912, the Irish Trade Union Congress decided to establish a political party that would represent the interests of the working class in the now-expected Home Rule parliament. However, a series of major events from the Dublin lockout (1913) to the War of Independence (1919-21) prevented the new party from being genuinely active on the political front.

By the time the Labour Party contested its first general election in 1922, much of its radical edge had been lost and it became an ineffective opposition in the new Free State parliament. After Fianna Fáil decided to take its seats in Leinster House in 1927, Labour had its work cut out to compete electorally with De Valera’s populist machine.

Today, the Labour Party is a partner in one of the most austere governments in the history of the state and the Irish left-wingers in the Dáil could be said to include a wide variety of groupings including Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party, People Before Profit Alliance and a number of Independents. Many of the TDs outside of Sinn Féin (those that some would claim are the real left) had been grouped under an umbrella organisation known as the United Left Alliance (ULA). This fairly small left-wing grouping now seems to be tripping its way towards fracture in a way that has become so predictable in Irish politics over the last ninety years.

Infighting and schism

Outside of the Labour Party (which has had its fair share of splits over the years) the left in Ireland has been plagued by infighting and schism. Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s, the IRA (which at the time was not politically represented by Sinn Féin) and Irish communists constituted a loose socialist republican movement that opposed the right-wing policies of Cumann na nGaedheal and later provided a far-left critique of the Fianna Fáil government.

However, the various groups involved could never solidify into one coherent left-wing bloc. The IRA leadership became jittery about open left-wing political activity after a ‘red scare’ in the early 1930s. This precipitated a split in 1934 with leading republicans like Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan going on to establish the Republican Congress. This new socialist republican umbrella group included a wide variety of republicans, communists, trade unionists, individual Labour party members, James Connolly’s son and daughter, unemployed workers’ groups and even a group calling themselves the ‘Shankill Road James Connolly Workers’ Republican Club’.

From March to September 1934, the Republican Congress threw itself head-first into grassroots campaigns. Many of its members were arrested for opposing evictions and its public meetings in Cathal Brugha Street attracted huge crowds from the tenements in the area. The government was quite worried about the threat posed by the new group. Garda surveillance was cranked up to find a way to crack down on the group’s newspaper so that it could be either severely censored or suppressed.

Devastating

In September, almost to script, the Republican Congress split over its future direction – whether it would become a new political party, or oppose the government as a united front grouping from the ground up. The split was devastating and destroyed any vestige of left-wing unity in 1930s Ireland. Many of those involved in the Republican Congress went on to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and those lucky enough to return home found that there was no outlet for their political beliefs anymore.

This is just one example of the many splits the Irish left has endured during the twentieth century. They are too numerous to analyse here, but the lessons remain. The ULA is now going through a period of upheaval that could threaten its future. The fact that it had to compromise and form a technical group in the Dáil with deputies outside of its membership has come back to haunt it.

The fallout from technical group member Mick Wallace’s tax affairs has seen Clare Daly resign from the Socialist Party and become an Independent TD under the ULA banner. Seamus Healy’s Workers’ and Unemployed Action Group has withdrawn from the ULA over the issue, leaving the latter’s future very uncertain. More recently, the chairman of the technical group, Finian McGrath, has resigned his position due to Wallace’s insistence on remaining as a member. It appears that little can be done to stop Independent TDs, regardless of political controversy or ideological conviction, from joining or remaining in the technical group.

Unprecedented gains

The ULA’s members must now proceed with extreme caution and ensure that these events do not destroy an alliance that has given the Irish left a much louder voice than would otherwise have been the case. There is, in the context of progressively more crippling austerity, a huge opportunity for the left to make unprecedented gains at the local elections of 2014. If the ULA is still around in eighteen months time, it can become the lynchpin that regional groups can gravitate towards. Or perhaps a more open alliance is needed; one that all manner of dissenting opinion can congregate around, without being tarred with the ‘crazy old lefties’ label by the media.

Excepting Sinn Féin and Labour for the moment, the left cannot grow into a proper opposition if constituent groups in the ULA are going to fall out over the tax affairs of an eccentric businessman. If the ULA is to have any real influence after the next general election it is going to have to play the game of co-operating with parties like Sinn Féin and the many anti-austerity groups that have been formed.

However, if Mick Wallace’s troubles with the taxman can have this kind of effect on the ULA, the chances of any kind of alliances being struck with people who are not socialist to the bone will be slim. It seems that today, even without the might of the church and state to contend with, a broad left-wing alliance is as difficult to form as it was in the 1930s. Irish politics continues to congregate around the parish pump, while the socialists fight each other in the corner, snipe about populists and can never seem to get off the ground.

Dr Adrian Grant is a historian and the editor of the online history magazine Scoláire Staire. His book Irish Socialist Republicanism, 1909-36 is available here. It will be launched at the Peadar O’Donnell weekend in Dungloe on 20th October and at the Irish Labour History Museum, Beggars Bush, Dublin on November 5.

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Adrian Grant

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