Sunday, March 28, 2010

More secularism, not less

Anger and resentment met the pope Benedict XVI’s pastoral letter to the Irish people on the sexual and physical abuse of children in church institutions. Read at Sunday mass on March 21 it provoked a number of walkouts from Dublin churches and verbal attacks on priests and bishops in other parts of the country. It is clear that, rather than appeasing the faithful and restoring confidence, the letter has antagonised even loyal Catholics.

Interviews conducted with church-goers leaving services revealed bitter disappointment and strong feelings of being cruelly let down. Many had hoped the pope would take some responsibility for the Vatican’s cover-up of clerical abuse. But instead all responsibility was firmly laid at the door of the Irish church. It is a local problem, with Irish bishops accused of having failed “at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse”. The Vatican stands innocent of any wrongdoing.

Bizarrely and in what seems something of an own goal, the pope identified the growth of secularisation within Irish society as in large part to blame. He bemoaned the fact that “fast-paced social change has occurred, often adversely affecting people’s traditional adherence to Catholic teaching and value”. Observance of rituals and deference to clerical authority has weakened. This has impacted on the church itself, resulting in “a well-intentioned, but misguided tendency to avoid penal approaches to canonically irregular situations”.

But the abuse and associated cover-ups happened long before the recent secularisation of Irish society. The complaints being investigated date right back to the 1930s. The worst actually took place during a period of tremendous deference to Rome - one lasting 60 years, from the formation of the Irish state until the late 1980s. And during that time bishops were extremely compliant when it came to imposing Vatican policy. They cooperated fully in the cover-up, which was directed and overseen by Rome itself. The Vatican’s central canonical policy document, Crimen sollicitationis, produced in 1962, stipulated that any person who made an allegation of abuse against a priest or nun must take an oath of secrecy. Breach meant automatic excommunication. All hearings were to take place in secret. Pope Benedict, in his former personification as cardinal Joseph Ratzinger headed investigations into child abuse from 2001 until 2006, wrote to all Irish bishops reminding them of the need to enforce Crimen sollicitationis and demanded that all complaints of abuse be referred to the Vatican and not the gardai. In other words, he tried to ensure that ‘the problem’ was hushed up.

The pursuit of that policy resulted in massive, systematic concealment and the silencing of thousands of abuse victims and their families. Canon law does not include any requirement to report abuse to state authorities - and that policy has not changed. In his pastoral letter Benedict asks bishops to “continue to cooperate with civil authorities” (my emphasis), when in fact they never have. Various state inquiries, including the most recent Murphy investigation, have been stonewalled when trying to obtain files from church authorities. The papal nuncio to Ireland refused to even reply to requests and the Vatican itself has similarly snubbed all requests made for information.

The Vatican is above the law when it comes to its own affairs. Today a number of bishops have either resigned or are facing criticism for holding canonical inquiries in secret and not reporting allegations to gardai - exactly in line with Vatican policy. There have also been numerous instances of where a priest who has been defrocked has managed to get reinstated on appeal to Rome. If anything, the Vatican was more lenient with abusers than the Irish church.

Benedict reminds Irish people of the venerable history of Irish Catholicism and exhorts them to return to the faith. A year-long period of “eucharistic devotion” is planned, so that the faithful can pray for the church’s survival in these tough times. An apostolic mission is also projected, with high-ranking cardinals due to arrive from Rome in the coming months to investigate Irish parishes. Priests and nuns are to attend special retreats to renew their clerical commitment. Every effort is to be made to restore Ireland to its former status as a bastion of Catholic observance and piety.

The Vatican could proudly boast throughout the 20th century of the persistence of the faith in Ireland - in contrast to the rest of Europe. It was throughout this apparently exemplary period that church-run institutions oversaw the canonical system of abuse and mistreatment of children within their care. Canon law is the problem, not the solution. It is the growth of secularisation that has given the courage to victims of abuse to speak out.

The history of Irish nationalism has been one where the church has held a dominant position. It has been tied into the national identity for hundreds of years, in particular because of the repression of the Catholic majority by English/British colonialism. Religious persecution led to a strengthening of identification with Catholicism as an ideology of the oppressed. That is not to say that the church itself played an oppositional role. It has always been a conservative force and has consistently kept the masses in their place.

The national movement which emerged out of 1916 was strongly influenced by Catholicism, reflected in the fact that 10% of delegates to the 1917 Sinn Féin conference were priests. As James Connolly famously predicted, the division of Ireland would result in a carnival of reaction north and south. The Free State government handed over education and social provision to the church, whose prominence was ensured.

The 1937 constitution, created by Eamonn de Valera, further strengthened the role of the church and instituted the concept of a ‘Catholic state for a Catholic people’. This constitution is still in place today. Article 6 states: “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive under god from the people.” Under this constitution abortion remains illegal, as it is against the teaching of the church. Divorce was banned until 1995 and is now only available where the couple have been separated for four out of five years. Abortion remains illegal and Irish women continue to travel to Britain and elsewhere in Europe to obtain terminations. Article 41 upholds the ‘sanctity of the family’ and preserves the special place of women as child-bearer and domestic slave - “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”.

However it is true that Irish society has become more secular. Numbers attending mass have plummeted. Social attitudes in relation to the family have also changed markedly. Women can now choose to have children outside marriage without suffering institutional discrimination. And those people that do marry often do not do so in church. There has been a rise in civil marriages - from 5% in 1995 to almost 30% in 2009. In Dublin 40% of all marriages are civil. This really is a remarkable change and shows the diminution of influence of the church in a sphere where it previously held such authority.

And despite religious indoctrination in schools, the children of Ireland do not seem to be paying much attention. A survey in 2007 found that only 5% of children from 11-15 could list the first commandment. A third of the same group could not say where Jesus was born or what Easter represents. Many parents who are not practising Catholics are deeply unhappy with the church’s role in education and are demanding non-religious schools. The church still owns and runs over 80% of state-funded schools. Children are still forced to comply with all the requirements of those schools, including religious ceremonies. Their education is often adversely affected by reactionary religious influence on the curriculum.

People ignore the church to the extent that they are able in their own personal lives, but there is deep resentment at its continuing power, its hypocrisy and its massive abuse of working class children over decades. There is also the harmful effect of church teaching on sexuality. Some priests, including the well-known Brian D’Arcy, have spoken out against enforced celibacy. Others have spoken of the warped teaching which discourages the development of a positive sexual identity among young people. It has, of course, been shown that the very church which banned sex before marriage was colluding in the systematic sexual abuse and disempowerment of young people. Church teaching on morality cannot be trusted, let alone respected.

We also cannot ignore the fact that the church is the wealthiest institutional landowner in Ireland. It owns billions of euros of prime land, much of which it sold off for redevelopment during the period of the ‘Celtic tiger’. It also has vast wealth accumulated in other assets and bank accounts. Despite this, such has been the arrogance of some bishops that parishioners have been asked to contribute towards the compensation of abuse victims.

The government has been trying to keep out of the recent controversy and is determined not to come down hard on the church. It certainly does not want any change to the current constitution. Taoiseach Brian Cowen has made clear that he supports the church in its efforts to deal with the problem. His party has had a long and shameful history of toadying before the teachings and institution of the church and little will persuade it to change for the moment. It is part of Fianna Fáil’s DNA just as much as it is part of their state. Fine Gael is little different and also plays safe when it comes to the church. Perhaps they fear what would happen to their own power without the conservative influence of the church.

In terms of the left, the Socialist Party in Ireland says very little on this question and certainly has not come out with any radical demands. The Socialist Workers Party has been better and has made calls for the separation of church and state. The unfortunate problem is, however, that the People Before Profit Alliance is the SWP’s main focus of activity and last time I looked the PBPA had no policy on the church and state. This needs to change.

The left needs to campaign now for a democratic, secular state. We must challenge the current constitution by putting forward our own democratic demands. The way we are ruled is the central question for the working class. The church is determined to hang on for dear life and is supported by the ruling elite. Taking it on must include demands for the confiscation of church land, assets and wealth. State schools must become non-religious. One SWP writer has suggested that in place of the church they should be run by democratically elected committees. I agree. The trappings and content of the clerical state must be challenged - free abortion on demand, divorce on consent with no delay, removal of all religious and reactionary clauses, including the central role of the family.

Religion must be a private matter, not a defining feature of the state.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Massive protests in Iran 7 December

16 Azar: Student protests accelerate regimes collapse

“Mousavi is an excuse, the entire regime is the target”

The 56th anniversary of a murder of a student by the Shah’s security forces during President Nixon’s visit in 1953 may prove to be the last held under the heel of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Possibly millions of students, youth and workers took to the streets in protests against the regime and the barbaric repression since the rigged June elections. Though hard to confirm, today’s protests could be the biggest since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Protests have taken place in Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Arak, Karaj, Orumieh, Kerman, Rasht, Shiraz, Ahvaz, Kermanshah and Hamedan and there have been reports of soldiers protesting at Qom Airbase. Protestors carried Iranian flags that omitted the Allah sign showing that the movement is moving beyond the slogans of the June protests.

In preperation for these demonstrations the regime formed lines of police, Basij and Pasdaran around the universities, squares and monuments in the major cities. The government also attempted to limit internet access with up-to 50% of attempts to connect failing, however, the regime failed to stop the flood of information that is now on hundreds of blogs, twitter and news sites. The mobile phone network was also shut down in central Tehran and limited in other parts of the city. At one point there Basij were scene frantically searching computer rooms at Tehran Polytechnic University in an attempt to stop pictures and videos coming out. Protestors managed to organise the protests and relay information of road blocks etc through the internet and land lines in defiance of the government. Once again the Iranian youth has shown the world that the state cannot keep a lid on protests and unrest.

Repression and Resistance
On the streets the state repressive forces backed up by militia assaulted and arrested protestors but were met with courage and defiance.

At Hamedan University two students were thrown from the second floor by Basij scum, reports indicate that both students have sustained severe injuries. There were also heavy clashes between students and security forces here. At the hospitals in Tehran police with dogs prevented injured protestors from entering, arrested and attacking people who looked like protestors. At Amir Kabir University students were savagely beaten by security forces, where a prominent student leader; Majid Tavakoli was arrested. At the Medical College in Tehran Basij thugs attempted to break up a demonstration beating several students, there were reports of some badly injured protestors at this demonstration. At the Polytechnic University students clashed with the police and managed to repel them for a time shouting “Marg Bar Khamanei” (Down with Khamanei!) as the focus of popular anger shifts from Ahmadinejad and onto the Supreme Leader and the entire Islamic Republic. At Razi University in Kermanshah militia and police had a massive presence but failed to stop the student demonstration. At Sanati University in Isfahan in Kermanshah student protests were attacked by security forces. Professors at Beheshti University joined with the 2,000 strong protest to scenes of massive cheering and chants of ‘Death to the Dictator’. In Kurdistan students burned images of Khomanei and Khamanei in the University, they were also protesting the murder of socialist fighter Ehsan Fattahian who was executed on the 11th November. There were protests and clashes at Azad Shahrkord University, Elm o Sanat University, Sharif University, Azad University of Mashhad, Azad University of Najafabad, Sanati University in Isfahan, Hormozgan University, University of Zanjan, Yasooj University and others. School students have also taken part in the demonstrations, at a high school for girls in Tehran they gathered and chanted slogans, the video is below.

There was heavy fight across Tehran with students turning the tide against security forces and militia at times. Basij who were carrying Hezbollah flags were attacked and thrown out of Khaje-Nasir University by brave students. Outside Tehran University, the streets approaching Enghelab Square and Valiasr Street saw shots fired by security forces, it is not clear whether they were warning shots or fired into the crowd, some reports claim that some students have been shot. There were reports of security forces refusing to attack students and at times taking water from students who were calling for them to join the protests. It also seems that around Enghelab Square Basij abandoned their positions and vehicles which were swiftly used to form burning barricades by the youth. It has been reported that riot police attacked Basij who were attacking demonstrators. If this wavering from security forces and demonstrations from soldiers are confirmed then this could undermine the regimes confidence in its ability to suppress the protests and may possibly signal an acceleration of the regimes collapse.

Proving that the protests go far beyond the student movement, elderly women dodged bullets and tear gas to bring water, sandwhiches and first aid to the student demonstrators. Some were attacked by security forces, one women was beat savagely by Basij thugs. Below is the video of her after the attack:

Where fighting was taking place residents rushed to aid the students and young workers and many have formed voluntary medical groups, helping the injured into nearby homes and distributing water to crowds. Many workers joined the demonstrations after finishing work swelling the numbers in central Tehran and other cities.

Many students posting on social networking sites Twitter and Facebook have been asking where are the reformists? The mass movement has kept the colour of Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s presidential campaign yet it seems he has abandoned the movement he helped to stir up. As students chanted across Tehran “Mousavi is an excuse, the entire regime is the target” the reformists will have been made acutely aware that the movement is far beyond their control now.

Protests have continued on into the evening with sporadic clashes between protestors and police. It is unclear how many have been arrested today, though we expect it to be in the hundreds. The workers movement internationally must get serious in organising solidarity and demanding the immediate release of all of those who are in prison and secret detention sites.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Murphy Report and a challenge to the church

The Murphy report into sexual abuse perpetrated in the archdiocese of Dublin - publicly released on November 26 - has stirred up yet another political storm about the position of the Catholic church in Irish society. The report presents a damning picture of a hugely powerful, ubiquitous and autocratic clerisy that refuses to make itself accountable before democratic opinion. These new revelations of abuse and cover-up certainly point to the pressing need for a working class alternative to theocratic Ireland and its holy trinity constitution.

Just months after the Ryan report, which revealed systematic ill-treatment of children in church-run institutions, it is now clear that clerical abuse was - and is - a lot more widespread. The exploitation endured by residents of schools and reformatories was also suffered by children in the community - this time at the hands of parish priests. The Murphy report provides a glimpse into the Dublin diocese - from a sample of 5,000 secret files finally handed over in 2006. Sexual abuse was perpetuated against hundreds of children in schools, hospitals, sacristies and youth clubs in just about every Dublin parish.

Unlike institutional abuse, the misconduct of parish priests cannot be shrugged off as an historical problem, belonging to the ‘bad old days’. The report covers a 30-year period up to 2004 and includes allegations from the late 1990s. It also reveals that some perpetuators are still functioning priests. Furthermore a number of high-ranking bishops who were involved in the cover-up remain in office. A bizarre theological practice of ‘mental reservation’ was dreamed up by clergy to assist in creating this smokescreen. This allowed them to ‘reserve’ information about abuse in their own minds rather than admit it to those who came looking for answers.

Urged on by the Vatican, which was determined to protect its own from damaging allegations, the Dublin archdiocese intimidated and coerced working class families into silence. Children were ruthlessly interrogated and parents threatened with scandal and odium if they went public, including warnings of excommunication. Reality was twisted to such an incredible extent that absolution was actually offered to victims to assuage any feelings of guilt they might have. So powerful has been the grip of the church that most people did in fact keep their mouths firmly shut.

But a number of priests became so reckless in their behaviour that they became a nuisance to the church bureaucracy. The solution was to move them out of the parish, to another part of the country or abroad - often to work in education, hospitals or social provision: i.e., where they were likely to abuse again. The report slates church leaders for their scandalous disregard for the safety of children in Dublin and other dioceses. The conspiracy of silence was aided by the state, in particular the gardai, who connived by refusing to investigate allegations and instead referring them on to the local bishop. Priests were outside the law - an unchallengeable elite operating according to their own rules.

But this cover-up was not simply the brainchild of the Irish church - it was a conspiracy of silence orchestrated by the pope himself. The Vatican covertly circulated a 1962 document called Crimen sollicitationis, which stated that any person who makes an allegation of abuse against a priest must take an oath of secrecy. Breach of that oath meant automatic excommunication. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - now pope Benedict - was in charge of the investigations into child sex abuse from 2001 to 2006. He wrote to all Irish bishops in 2001 reminding them of the need to enforce Crimen sollicitationis and demanding that all complaints of abuse be referred to the Vatican and not the gardai. It says a lot about its arrogance and sense of superiority that the Vatican has to this day refused to reply to repeated requests for information from the Murphy commission.

The sheer hypocrisy of the church, which preaches sexual purity while abusing those in its care, is astounding. That these ‘servants of god’ wilfully caused such pain and damage to the lives of so many is contemptible. Help lines set up after the publication, have reported a massive number of calls. The scale of the abuse appears immense. Many have never talked about it before - they and their families were forced to keep silent by papal dictates. But now they feel able to speak out for the first time. Yet demands for the inquiry to be extended nationally are being resisted by the church, which claims that no good can come out of further investigation - no good for it, of course.

In a grotesque pretence of compassion bishops at the centre of the controversy shed crocodile tears and feign shock at the revelations. They appeal to their congregations and to the piety of the people to forgive them and move on. They pretend that they did not understand or comprehend the full extent of the abuse - when in fact they were the only ones really in the know.

Calls for resignations of high-ranking clergy and for and criminal charges to be brought against offenders abound - except from government leaders. Taoiseach Brian Cowan, true to Fianna Fáil tradition, has stepped in to shield the clergy. On December 2 he said it was essential to defend both the Vatican and the church in Ireland. While condemning the abuse, he said the church must be left to deal with its own. He would not wish to undermine its status. Of course not. The Catholic church and Fianna Fáil have a long and symbiotic relationship. It was, after all, a former taoiseach, Eamonn De Valera, who conceived of “a Catholic state for a Catholic people”. So keen was De Valera to create a theocratic regime that he sent the draft 1937 constitution to the Vatican for approval. He got his papal blessing and delivered to the church a permanent guarantee of power … and riches. The Catholic church in Ireland has accumulated fabulous wealth. In total its property assets are estimated to be some €28.5 billion (the equivalent of 22.7% of Ireland’s gross national product).

The fact that the church still runs over 80% of all schools is now a cause for great unease. Questions are being asked about whether priests can continue to chair education committees and school boards. They are deeply discredited, as is their ideological stranglehold on the curriculum. There are discussions about whether schools should be free of religious practices and indoctrination. Secularism is now a very attractive option - many feel quite rightly that Catholicism should no longer dominate our lives. Working class morality has been shown to be a great deal superior to that of our self-appointed guardians.

It is vital that the left in Ireland responds positively to this crisis. We need to put forward a serious and coherent programme for democracy. The working class struggle cannot just be reduced to economic issues. Our fight for revolution must be about all aspects of our lives and in particular must challenge how we are ruled.

And we certainly cannot be complacent or imagine that the church will just die off. It continues to have a hold over Ireland, particularly when it comes to social questions. Abortion is still banned and the constitution safeguards the life of the unborn, as opposed to the rights of women. Article 41 upholds the ‘sanctity of the family’ and preserves the special place of woman as child-bearer and domestic slave - “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. The findings of the Murphy report also reflect a view of women as lesser beings, useful only as mothers and housekeepers.

The decline of the influence of the church in recent years is in the main due to the reports of abuse and corruption. Church attendances have slumped to below 50% and younger people in particular have become more secular. However, although there are serious cracks in the edifice, the clerical establishment is determined to survive intact - and the government will assist it in every way it can. After all, the power of the church is linked with its own fortunes. Church pulpits deliver the votes of the pious. Some heads may have to roll, but only as a damage-limitation exercise. In the absence of a mass movement for secularism and democracy, church hegemony will almost certainly continue.

Article 6 of the constitution states: “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive under god from the people.” In other words religion is seen as the ultimate arbiter. That must be ended. The left can and must lead the fight for a democratic, secular republic. The working class has every interest in constitutionally separating the church from the state. Tax breaks and charitable status must be abolished too. Catholic schools must become state schools and the church should be stripped of all assets that are not directly needed for religious purposes. Let priests who make a vow of celibacy also take a vow of poverty.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Masses force leaders to act

The difficulties faced by the Irish working class cannot be understated.

Public sector workers in Ireland displayed a grim determination to resist further cuts when they turned out in their thousands on November 24.

The strike saw nearly a quarter of a million workers come out throughout the country. Many private sector workers refused to cross picket lines. The only state employees not joining in were emergency staff in areas badly hit by floods, who had decided to defer their action. Otherwise the strike was extremely solid - unsurprising given the overwhelming ballot in favour in every union.

From prison officers to nurses to clerical officers, the organised working class was out in force. The gardai, who are prohibited from striking, sent a message of support to the unions and refused to undertake many normal duties, including guarding the Dáil. They also declined to work overtime. The support for the strike and sheer strength of numbers showed the possibilities.

The main hurdle now to overcome is the cowardice and complicity of the leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. While setting a second strike day on December 3, Ictu simultaneously announced a return to talks with government and employers to try to avert that action. David Begg, Peter McLoone and other union tops have openly stated their commitment to rescuing Irish capitalism. McLoone, chair of Ictu’s private sector committee, has conceded that “temporary adjustments” need to be made. He agrees that the public sector wage bill should be cut by €1.3 billion - but without reducing wages. This translates into a loss of overtime and shift premiums, unpaid holidays and job cuts. Ictu’s Better, fairer way document sets out its alternative strategy - to extend the recovery period and implement the cuts more gently than planned by the government. Begg and others are now hoping the government has learned its lesson from the one-day strike and will be willing to play ball.

But taoiseach Brian Cowan has insisted that civil service employees will have their wages reduced - by at least 7%. He is “not for turning” and is adamant in his refusal to give in to pressure from the unions. His government has been warned by the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank that €4 billion of cuts have to be made on December 9, as a precursor to even more severe attacks in 2010.

It is expected that Ictu will give ground on wages and come back with something less than a 7% cut. But trade union members are under far too much pressure, as they struggle to cope on incomes already slashed by almost 10% thanks to pension and income levies. There was fury in March when Ictu called off a national strike of public and private sector workers in favour of new talks. They produced nothing at all and it is clear that nothing will be gained out of continuing ‘social partnership’. The only reason the November 24 strike went ahead was because of the mass pressure from below.

The Socialist Workers Party in Ireland - which has recently seen a damaging split based around most of what remains of its Belfast membership - has made some worthwhile, if limited, proposals. It has called for the formation of strike committees and for mass meetings leading up to a national demonstration on December 3. It also argues that unemployed and private sector workers should be drawn into the struggle. The Socialist Party agrees with the need for unity of the public and private sector and says that it stands “for the establishment of a new party to fight for a left/socialist government that would end the dictatorship of the capitalist market and instead plan the economy for the needs of people, not the profits of the few”.

Discussion continued between both groups and others at the SWP’s Marxism event last weekend. Deep-seated tensions were evident between the main protagonists, with little sighn of agreement beyond a possible commitment to work together on the December 3 demonstration. That is welcome, but hopefully it will be the start of a meaningful process which draws in others.

The difficulties faced by the Irish working class cannot be understated. The recent freak weather conditions have added to the economic stresses, causing social dislocation and homelessness. This has severely affected the rural community. But the sight of so many thousands taking action can only but give us tremendous hope. The raw material is there for the creation of a mass working class party but what is needed is a political programme for democracy in Ireland - curb the power and influence of the church and introduce the principles of secularism, a popular militia to replace the standing army, abolition of Seanad Éireann, the upper house of parliament, fight for a united Ireland with the right of self-determination for a British-Irish territory - and a strategy that links achieving this Ireland with the perspective of working class rule throughout the European Union.

For too long the left in Ireland has either mimicked the trade union bureaucracy or the nationalist petty bourgeoisie. Now is clearly the time for the politics of Marxism and working class independence.

Friday, November 20, 2009

SWP member & CWU president Jane Loftus sells out the postal strike

Dave Isaacson condemns leading SWP members who continually undermine and sabotage attempts to forge rank and file organisation

There was one significant omission in Jim Moody’s article on the sell-out of the postal strike by the Communication Workers Union leadership, which allowed CWU president Jane Loftus to come out of it looking rather good, when actually she has been an utter disgrace (‘Militants condemn sell-out’, November 12).
Loftus, a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and therefore supposedly a revolutionary, is also a member of the CWU’s postal executive committee (PEC), which voted unanimously on November 5 to accept the interim agreement and call off the strikes, just as the strength of the postal workers was starting to be realised. This goes completely against the position of Loftus’s organisation. Socialist Worker has rightly stated that “Leaders of the postal workers’ union were wrong to suspend strikes at Royal Mail last week … There was no reason for the union to sign up to the agreement. The proposed escalation of strike action - that would have seen two 24-hour strikes in close succession last week - had widespread support within the union” (November 14).
Another Socialist Worker article by Cambridge CWU rep Paul Turnbull calls on postal workers to “restart the strikes immediately”. Yet neither questions why Jane Loftus did not vote against this sell-out - indeed her name is not mentioned at all. Activists in the SWP and militants in the CWU need to ask what is going on here. The SWP’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, is arguing one thing, while their highest placed member in the CWU is doing the exact opposite. Like other socialists all over the country, SWP activists put massive amounts of time and energy into supporting the postal workers and their strike. No wonder Socialist Worker might not want them to know that their own comrade on the CWU leadership colluded in undermining that hard work.
Many would expect better from a member of the SWP, but this kind of behaviour is not an aberration. Back in 2007 Loftus failed to speak out against the rotten deal which ended that dispute. The only PEC members who openly campaigned against the 2007 sell-out were Dave Warren and Phil Brown. Loftus also colluded with the bureaucracy by keeping their secrets and withholding vital information from the membership during closed-door negotiations with management. The SWP failed to use this information to warn strikers of the impending sell-out and call on workers to organise independently of the bureaucracy. Again, back in 2003-04 Loftus voted for the Major Change agreement, a management package that involved job cuts.
Loftus is certainly not alone, however. Her actions are reminiscent of those of Martin John and Sue Bond in the Public and Commercial Services union. Similarly, these were the SWP’s leading comrades in a union with a left general secretary (Mark Serwotka) and leadership (dominated by the Socialist Party in England and Wales). The SWP has consistently downplayed (or kept silent about) any criticisms it may have of left union leaders such as these in order to try and draw them into supporting various SWP ‘united fronts’. In the process the SWPers closest to them in the trade unions clearly bought into the ‘awkward squad’ hype and are in thrall to these bureaucrats.
There are plenty of perks to the job and other social pressures which weigh upon those who enter the upper echelons of the union structures. A revolutionary party should be constantly on guard and fighting against the effects of these pressures on its militants, yet the actions of the SWP leadership often do just the opposite of that. Their desire to get close to and win the approval of ‘left’ union leaders creates a culture of diplomatic silence and conciliationism, while what is necessary for accountability within the unions is open debate and rank and file independence from the bureaucracy.
As members of the PCS national executive committee Martin John and Sue Bond had failed to support SWP policy within the union on a number of occasions, and then in 2005 they knowingly went against SWP directions and policy to vote with Serwotka and SPEW for a scandalous pension deal which sold away the rights of new entrants. Only after regular exposures of their actions (not least in the reports of CPGB member Lee Rock in the Weekly Worker), and growing complaints from other SWP members, was the leadership forced to take action against these renegades.
Initially Socialist Worker ignored the actions of its members on the PCS NEC, while condemning the deal as a betrayal of future generations of workers - sound familiar? Even after disciplinary action was begun Sue Bond got off very lightly with a letter of apology in which she stated: “I do regret the position our vote left comrades in, and the significant implications for the left in other public sector unions. I can certainly assure comrades that I have no intention of breaking party discipline in the future” (Weekly Worker November 17 2005). Martin John flounced out of the SWP the day before he was due to face a meeting of the SWP fraction within PCS. It was not until four weeks after the pensions deal was voted on that news of all this made it into Socialist Worker.
However, it is not just a few individual SWP members succumbing to the pressures of the bureaucracy. The SWP itself has consistently failed to use its positions of influence within unions to build genuine rank and file movements which are independent of the union bureaucracy. The SWP-sponsored occasional publication, Post Worker, does not openly take on the likes of general secretary Billy Hayes and his deputy Dave Ward when they act against the interests of their members. Rather, it regularly gives over significant space for them to promote themselves. It might as well be an official union publication.
SWP members may well wonder about the priorities of their leadership, when Alex Snowden - a Reesite Left Platform supporter - has been expelled for “factionalism” (during the pre-conference period when temporary factions are allowed), yet Jane Loftus seems to have got off scot-free for a blatant act of treachery. Comrades in the SWP need to ensure that Jane Loftus is held to account and faces disciplinary action. She must be called before a fraction meeting of SWP comrades in the CWU and made to explain her actions. She must either recant and campaign openly against the acceptance of the interim agreement in line with SWP policy, or it is she who should face expulsion. Beyond this, major questions have to be asked about whether she can continue to be the SWP’s leading representative within the CWU, given her track record. And all of this must be done openly with full reports in Socialist Worker.
I have been told that CWU executive members can only subsequently campaign against majority decisions if they immediately registered their dissent. If this is the case, then Loftus must be made to step down from the PEC in order to campaign within the CWU accordingly.
Prior to this latest sell-out, Socialist Worker quite correctly asked the question, “How do we fight when union leaders waver?” Matthew Cookson wrote: “The best way to take the struggle forward is to organise workers on a rank-and-file level. A strong organisation of this nature could support the officials as long as they were representing the union members, but could act independently the moment their leaders began to look for some way to settle their dispute unfavourably” (October 31).
Yes, but the actions of leading SWP members continually undermine and sabotage attempts at forging such rank and file organisation. Comrades in the SWP need to think much more deeply about the role their organisation plays within the unions. They must be free to use Socialist Worker as a tool to explore why it is their leading representatives in the unions end up acting against the interests of the working class.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Working class responds to cuts

The huge scale of opposition throughout Ireland to government cuts was made crystal clear on November 6. Despite poor organisation by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions nearly 100,000 marched in protest in major towns and cities.
New forces were very much in evidence, as non-unionised workers, the unemployed and pensioners joined trade unionists in protests against the draconian attacks on pay, benefits and public services - to be intensified with the December 9 budget. Many middle class people are also up in arms against the government’s determination to make them too pay the billions needed to underwrite the National Asset Management Agency - its bail-out of finance capital.
The demonstrations were part of the ICTU-organised ‘Get up, stand up’ campaign. Another march took place on Wednesday November 11 and a national strike is planned for November 24. Ballots for strike action have received overwhelming support - with over 80% ‘yes’ votes received on turnouts of more than 70%. The mandate for action is unquestionable. So is the militancy. Public service workers are at the forefront of the dispute, being the most highly unionised and also being a central target of government cuts.
The 24/7 Frontline Alliance was formed in September to mount a united fightback and includes nurses, paramedics, firefighters and gardai (police). It also included servicemen and women until minister for defence Willie O’Dea warned them to withdrawal immediately. But defiantly soldiers have warned that they will not scab on any national strike. The alliance organised a militant demo of over 4,000 on November 11, with gardai marching in baseball caps displaying the official police insignia, as they were not allowed to wear their uniform. Angry speakers insisted on defiance of the government and assured marchers that no further cuts would be tolerated.
The raw material is certainly there for a major social movement. The depth of the crisis cannot be understated. Unemployment has now risen to 13% and many still in work are also in big difficulty, as wage cuts mean that mortgages and other debts cannot be paid. Public sector workers are facing job losses of between 7% and 15%, while social welfare, including child benefits, is also for the chop. Already charities like St Vincent de Paul have said they are unable to cope with the huge rise in demand for help. Many people have gone from being charity-givers to depending on handouts themselves.
The scale of the problem is immense. During the Celtic Tiger years people were actively encouraged to go into major debt. Housing prices were astronomically high, but credit was easy. Banks would phone mortgage holders enticing them to borrow still more - for a second house, a holiday of a lifetime, a new car: the sky’s the limit; you could have it all. Many were already living way beyond their means before the current recession hit. Now they are drowning in debt.
Unfortunately the problem remains lack of leadership. ICTU is not serious about fighting the cuts. More than that, it is actively undermining the militancy of those prepared to fight. It has a 10-point programme which openly accepts the need for “pain”. But rather than short, sharp shock treatment, general secretary David Begg proposes a “more gentle adjustment over a longer period”.
ICTU is therefore using its members’ militancy to pressurise the government into accepting a programme that is directly counterposed to the interests and the wishes of its members. Desperate to uphold ‘social partnership’, ICTU remains in talks with government about how best to cut €1.3 billion from public sector wages. This is despite the militant speeches of individual trade union leaders. Begg has promised that the strikes and protests can be avoided if agreement is reached on minimising the pain. Conflicting messages are being sent out and there are splits and divisions between unions.
Meanwhile the Irish government is hell-bent on squeezing the working class. Social welfare and pensions as well as wages will be slashed in the December budget. And now that union leaders are indicating their acceptance of some cuts, taoiseach Brian Cowan is upping the pressure even further. He has promised that the €4 billion-worth of savings to be made in the budget is only the beginning. Much more ‘sacrifice’ will be needed. By participating in the drive to save Irish capitalism, the ICTU leadership is shamelessly selling out the working class. An urgent challenge to this complicity is needed.
So the left has a major challenge to face. Although talk continues of electoral unity (or a non-aggression pact at any rate) between the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party’s People before Profit, nothing tangible has emerged. The SWP is calling for committees of action to be set up by public sector workers in the run-up to the November 24 strike. The Socialist Party has called on ICTU to turn it into a general strike. Meanwhile both groups continue to run their own separate campaigns.
A meeting on November 7 organised by the Irish Socialist Network and the magazine Fourthwrite to discuss left unity reflected both the possibilities and problems facing the left. Addressed by a number of speakers, including Chekhov Feeney of the Workers Solidarity Movement and Tommy McKearney of the Independent Workers Union. One of the sessions was chaired by Mick O’Reilly, former Irish regional secretary of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union. There were also contributions from Murray Smith of the New Anti-capitalist Party in France and José Antonio Gutierrez, a Chilean activist.
The meeting heard about the crisis at the heart of global capitalism, whose effects are being felt particularly deeply in Ireland. From the floor comrades spoke of the frustration of forever fighting a losing battle against cuts. There was recognition of the potential. More than 50 people were present, from different traditions, including anarchists, republicans, Labour members and Marxists. There were obviously enormous differences and a lot of confusion. But all were there to discuss left unity and there was an expectation that a further initiative would be taken. However, none was, although it was called for from the floor. Mick O’Reilly said it would be “up to the organisers of the meeting”. Perhaps the discussions are being held behind closed doors and we will all be enlightened later.
It is not clear as to whether any invite went out to the SPI and the SWP to attend. Certainly any initiative around unity must try to involve these two left organisations. The need for a mass workers’ party based on Marxism received minority support. None at all from the platform speakers. Although the need to challenge social partnership was raised by members of Socialist Democracy (a group that originated in the northern-based Peoples Democracy and is now part of the Fourth International).
Hopefully this meeting is a spark for something more ambitious. Meanwhile those of us committed to the formation of a single revolutionary party will raise the need for it whenever we can. It is the only serious answer for a working class desperate for change. Workers can see with their own eyes that capitalism has failed. What they need now is inspiration, ideas and, above all, organisation.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Lisbon Treaty wins - lessons for the left

It seems to have become the norm here in Ireland for the government to repeat a referendum when it does not like the result of the first ballot. While farcical, these bullying tactics have a proven record of success. For an establishment intent on getting its own way, ‘no’ never really means ‘no’.
Fianna Fáil has made great play of the advanced nature of Ireland’s constitution, boasting that Irish people have more democratic rights than others in Europe because Ireland is the only state to have held a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. In reality it refused to accept the will of those same people this October in a replay of the original referendum - just over a year after a resounding ‘no’ vote against a virtually identical set of proposals. Similarly, back in 2001 people voted to reject the Nice treaty by a 54% majority, only to find themselves faced with a repeat referendum the following year. Just like in 2008, the government would not take ‘no’ for an answer and got its way at the second attempt.
While the ‘yes’ vote was expected, the extent of the shift was surprising - 67% voted in favour of adoption of the treaty, reflecting a 20% swing in just over a year. With the exception of Donegal, the response up and down the country in both rural and urban areas was a consistent ‘yes’. Working class constituencies in Dublin were particularly notable for the change in voting patterns. And, although very deprived areas were more likely to abstain or vote ‘no’, the ‘yes’ vote was most certainly not a middle class phenomenon. It is more accurate to describe it as the response of a working class under great pressure and willing to accept anything to relieve the present crisis.
It was clear from the interviews and vox-pops in the run-up to the referendum that many were voting ‘yes’ with a heavy heart. With all the Dáil parties except Sinn Féin united around a single campaign, there was tremendous pressure exerted. But the most important factor was the fear that refusing to adopt Lisbon could provoke a backlash from Europe. It is well known that the government is overwhelmingly dependent on the European Central Bank for large-scale borrowing and debt financing. Ireland does not want to be another Iceland, and people know that the EU has prevented that … so far.
Most important to analyse are the limitations of the leftwing ‘no’ camp. In essence it was narrow and lacking in vision. The dangers of Lisbon were emphasised simply from an Irish perspective. Both the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party warned of attacks on Irish neutrality and national sovereignty, as well as workers’ rights. Fianna Fáil and its allies denounced them for scaremongering. Debate centred on which was the greater danger for the Irish people - to be in or out of Lisbon. There was no campaign for and rarely a mention of the idea that a united European working class could take on the establishment.
In the absence of such an approach the left appeared anti-European and small-minded. And, critically, it allowed the ‘yes’ camp to pose as progressive and forward-looking. The other problem with the lack of a European agenda was that the left could more easily be confused with the rightwing nationalists. Coir, a deeply reactionary anti-abortion campaign, ran a well funded and visible postering operation full of ominous warnings. This included a claim that the minimum wage would be reduced from €8.65 to €1.84. Such pseudo-leftist, exaggerated claims did nothing to bolster confidence in the ‘no’ campaign. With the country in the midst of a major economic meltdown, people wanted more than negativity. Voting for Lisbon was a pragmatic move for many, taking a chance that the ‘yes’ campaign was right when it claimed the treaty would mean jobs and recovery.
The SWP describes the result as a defeat for the left, and this is clearly true. It points to the fact that many white-collar workers see Europe as progressive. But this observation does not lead the SWP to conclude that illusions in the EU must be countered with Europeanism from below. Instead it pledges to ally itself with the third of voters who rejected the treaty. However, the majority of this section is not progressive. While many will have voted ‘no’ from a vague working class perspective, many others will have done so from the petty nationalist standpoint of Coir and Sinn Féin.
In addition, those who voted ‘yes’ are not automatically to the right of those who rejected the treaty. In the present dire circumstances, to many it seemed suicidal to oppose it. Our class is obviously not thinking as a future ruling class, but is desperate to protect itself from yet more suffering.
Socialist Party MEP Joe Higgins congratulated those who voted ‘no’ for their courage and defiance in the face of the establishment’s tremendous propaganda barrage. In an article analysing the result, the SP has emphasised that support for Lisbon cannot be seen in any way as a vote of confidence in the government. Quite right. There were broad smiles of relief on Fianna Fáil faces following the victory, yet the crises that have beset the government almost immediately re-emerged.
A day of action has been called by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions on November 6. This is part of a campaign in the run-up to the dreaded budget in December - the government is set to launch a ‘slash and burn’ attack on public services and impose major cuts in the wages and pensions of public servants. Jack O’Connor, leader of Siptu (the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union, the country’s largest trade union), has announced that strikes and confrontations are inevitable.
Other union leaders are warning of a winter of discontent. Obviously if they can get an agreement with the government they will be more than willing to call off any strike action. But bureaucrats are under tremendous pressure from below and there is far less scope for cosy social partnership deals.
Adding to taoiseach Brian Cowan’s woes is the unreliability of Fianna Fáil’s coalition partner, the Green Party. There is deep dissatisfaction amongst rank and file Greens. Many want to pull out of the government before their hands get any dirtier. Support for the Greens plummeted in the last local elections, mainly because they are seen as a willing puppet of Fianna Fáil. Their membership is increasingly fractious. This weekend’s conference will decide on the future of the Greens in government - and is also therefore a vote on the continuance of the Cowan administration itself. And even if leader John Gormley wins a mandate to continue in cabinet, the road ahead is clearly a rocky one.
The government’s popularity is at an all-time low in the polls. Revelations continue to emerge about corruption among ministers and senior civil servants. The latest surround the ceann comhairle (chair of the Dáil) John O’Donoghue. He has been shown to have a very definite penchant for high living and luxury chauffeur-driven limousines. After a determined effort to remain in office, he was finally forced to announce his resignation, with the exposures still continuing. Government spokespersons have now been forced to admit that ‘standards in office’ during the ‘Celtic tiger’ years were far from desirable.
The working class is starting to stir. There have been a number of demonstrations in the last two weeks, involving thousands of protestors in Dublin. More will come as the temperature of the class struggle rises still further. Lisbon will certainly not save the government. But the vote highlights the need for a clear, positive working class agenda. We need a programme that goes beyond simple defence against cuts and job losses. We need our own party, based on Marxism, to challenge capitalism and to fill the vacuum of leadership. The left needs to move forward and take on that challenge.