The returning officer, Ríona Ní Fhlanghaile, has declared that the 26-County state has voted in the Referedum IN FAVOUR OF INSERTING A CLAUSE IN THE CONSTITUTION THAT PERMITS COUPLES OF EITHER GENDER TO MARRY by 1,201,607 votes to 734,300. That’s 62.1% yes to 37.9% no. The total turnout was 60.5% which is higher than in some other Irish referenda. The “Yes” vote exceeded the “No” in every county in the state except in Roscommon, where the vote was close. The “Yes” vote was significantly higher in all other counties and generally across rural and urban areas too.
The vote in favour is not surprising given that all the main political parties, as well as Sinn Fein and Left parties were all advocating a “Yes” vote. However, on its own that does not explain the wide gap between the two positions and the high turnout, especially in the face of the Irish Catholic Church hierarchy’s position against legalisation of same-sex marriage. It is hard not to see this as to some extent a conscious decision to oppose or ignore the Church’s position and to take a stand in favour of equality and civil rights.
When the votes are counted after today, we will either have a new clause inserted into our Bunreacht (Constitution) or we will not. If we do not, many of the “Vote Yes” campaign and opinion will be despondent. The revolutionaries among them should not be so but should instead reflect on their weakness as a force and on how to make that force stronger.
Should the vote result in a change in the Constitution, it will be probably the biggest blow so far to the power of the Catholic Church in lay society, a power it has enjoyed and abused even before 1921 but certainly since. Some, on both sides of the question, will see it as a blow against the Catholic religion itself but that is not necessarily so. Christianity and its Catholic variant survived and even thrived without State support in the past – indeed when its followers were discriminated against in every conceivable way by State power, a situation its faithful endured for centuries in Ireland as a whole and continue to do today, to a lesser extent, in the Six Counties.
What is the issue upon which we were being called to vote today? Although the NO campaign has tried to make us think it is, it is clearly not about whether two-gender households are better for raising children, whether surrogate birthing is right or wrong. It is not about whether we approve or homosexuality or not – although I suspect that is the real issue at base with many of the NO campaigners. In fact, it seems to me that it would be quite possible to disapprove of homosexuality and still to vote “Tá”, a question I will return to later. This might seem illogical, until we examine the actual issue upon which we are voting: do we agree with inserting a clause into the Bunreacht (Constitution) which states that a couple has a right to marryregardless of gender.
Presented with this question, which is a legal and Constitutional one, a number of issues arise, I think.
What does the Bunreacht say at the moment about this question?
What right has the State to define anything about sexual relationships?
Are we in favour of equal civil rights for people?
1. It may come as a surprise to people that our Bunreacht, our Constitution, currently says nothing about the gender issue in marriage. There is nothing actually in our Bunreacht to prevent same-sex marriage. But the prohibition does exist in law. In other words, legislators at some point decided to propose and pass a law which confined the right (and rite) of marriage to heterosexual couples alone. Why did they do so if it was not an issue at that time? It seems to me that they were aware that same sex relationships did exist and strove to exclude those people from the rights enjoyed by others. This was the point of a number of other pieces of legislation against homosexuality which were not finally overturned until 1993 in this State (1982 in the Six Counties, 1980 in Scotland, 1967 in England and Wales) – five years after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that this state’s laws against male homosexual acts violated human rights.
According to the Catholic Church (and most other churches), despite the current legal situation with regard to homosexuality at the moment, it is still wrong. Well, the Catholic Church – and before them the established Anglican Church of Ireland – can have their views but they are not entitled, nor is any other church, to impose those on lay society, neither by legislation nor by other means. They are, of course, entitled to express their opinion – just like any other organisation.
So, going back to the beginning of the legal status of heterosexual marriage within our current legal system, it was introduced as an excluding measure, at a time when male homosexuality was illegal and subject to heavy punishment and when lesbianism was frowned upon (though not actually illegal for complicated reasons). In other words, a law excluding a group of people was passed at a time when any man who declared himself to be one of those people was subject to prison sentence and any woman who did so was subject to extreme opprobrium in society. What chance was there for their point of view to be represented? In the absence of such representation and informed opinion-making, how can any democrat defend the laws passed at that time?
2. Turning now to the question of what right the State has to make a ruling of any kind upon a sexual relationship between any two people, of either gender, it must be difficult indeed for anyone to justify that without recourse to church canon or prejudice. Those who do so tend to bring up questions of childcare, inheritance and taxation – in fact just about the same questions that were brought up in the Irish referendum on divorce in 1995. But childcare, or at least the financial aspect of it, can be regulated by the State without any interference whatsoever in the sexual relationship between the parents. Whether it does so fairly at the moment is another question which has no bearing on the concept. And inheritance – ignoring for a moment whether we agree with a political economy where land and other wealth may be appropriated by individuals or families and then legally handed on through their following generations — can also be managed without recourse to State regulation of marriage. Taxation, similarly. Were we to have a socialist society, one based on other principles than that which we now have, even those current excuses for state interference should no longer be even a consideration. In fact, it is difficult to see any reason why even now the State continues to have a role in the formalisation of a sexual contract between two individuals or, indeed, in its dissolution, except perhaps in ensuring fair divisions of belongings.
3. Those opposed to insertion of the new clause into the Bunreacht have done so from a number of perspectives of opposition: to lesbianism and homosexuality on religious or other grounds; to formalising same sex relationships; to the alleged undermining of the “sanctity of marriage” or of “romance”; in opposition to surrogate child-bearing and raising of children by gay and lesbian parents ….
Those supporting the new clause have defended the naturally-occurring continuum of sexual preference; maintained that the “sanctity of marriage” will be the same between same-sex couples, as will “romance”; denied that it opens the way to or encourages surrogate child-bearing and raising of children within a gay or lesbian household ….
Who is right and who is wrong? There is no doubt that as long as cultural beliefs and practices have been recorded, homosexuality and lesbianism have existed within societies — sometimes tolerated, often repressed, on rare occasions celebrated. We see homosexuality occurring too among animals. If there is such a thing as “sanctity of marriage” and “romance”, why should same-sex couples have any less of it than heterosexuals? Surrogate child-bearing is already possible and the hugely unequal distribution of wealth in our society – and between even our society and many others – ensures it can and will continue while the rewards are financial. Raising of children within a same-sex household is already happening, even without surrogacy. It is more difficult for gay men at present, but in the case of a gay man having custody of his children through widowhood (yes, some gay men do marry women), or the mother deserting the children or being deemed unfit by a court to have custody, a gay man may bring up his children within a homosexual parent household.
But will this change in the Constitution (and therefore also in the law) make surrogacy and child-rearing by gay couples more likely to happen? Will it increase the frequency of its occurrence? I think the answer to that, logically, must be yes – despite all the denials of the “Vote Yes” camp. And I think some of them must know that. Slowly perhaps and who knows by how much – but logically it must tend to increase the chances. But is that so awful? I find the idea of surrogacy in general distasteful but isn’t that just a prejudiced reaction? Probably. Will children reared by same-sex parents experience uncertainty about their own sexuality? Some will probably and some won’t. And if they do, why should they not be able to resolve that in time – as children reared in heterosexual relationships also find themselves having to do? Is uncertainty about sexuality such a terrible thing? In a judgmental, prohibitive and penalising society, it can be – so let’s create a society that is the opposite.
However, I have to say that I think all those questions and considerations are beside the point. If marriage is to be a legal status, then it is a civil right for everyone who is at the age of consent (and of sufficient mental ability to know to what they are consenting — in so much as any one of us was or does!). The right to same-sex marriage, as a civil right, should be supported even by people who do not approve of homosexuality, or marriage, or surrogacy, of child-rearing in a homosexual household. As for myself, someone who seeks revolutionary social, economic and political change, who wishes to see the overthrow of this State, a revolutionary as opposed to a reformist, I must nevertheless support reforms that extend civil rights, even when not led from below …. and so I voted “TÁ”.
Politics is about the present and the future, obviously … but it is also about the past.
Different political interests interpret and/or represent the past in different ways, emphasising or understating different events or aspects or even ignoring or suppressing them entirely. There is choice exercised in whom (and even what particular pronouncement) to quote and upon what other material to rely. And by “political interests” I mean not only groups, formal (such as political parties) or informal, but also individuals. Each individual is political in some way, having opinions about some aspects of questions that are political or at least partly-political. For example, one often hears individuals say today that they have no interest in politics, yet express strong opinions of one kind or another about the right to gay and lesbian marriage, the influence of the Catholic Church, and how the country is being run by Governments.
So when an individual writes a history book, there are going to be political interpretations, although not all writers admit to their political position, their prejudices or leanings, in advance or even in the course of their writing. One historian who does so is Padraig Yeates, author of a number of historical books: Lockout –Dublin 1913 (a work unlikely to be ever equalled on the subject of the title), A City In Wartime — 1914-1919, A City in Turmoil – 1919-1921and his latest, A City in Civil War – Dublin 1921-’24. The latter was launched on Tuesday of this week, 12th May and therefore much too early for people for who did not receive an earlier copy to review it. So it is not on the book that I am commenting here but rather on the speeches during the launch, which were laden with overtly political references to the past and to the present. If a review is what you wanted, this would be an appropriate moment to stop reading and exit – and no hard feelings.
The launch had originally been intended to take place at the new address at 17 D’Olier Street, D2, of Books Upstairs. However the interest indicated in attending was so great that Padraig Yeates, realising that the venue was going to be too small, went searching for a larger one. Having regard to how short a time he then had to find one and with his SIPTU connections, Liberty Hall would have been an obvious choice. Whether he had earlier been asked to speak at the launch I do not know but, having approached Jack O’Connor personally to obtain the use of Liberty Hall, in the latter’s role of President of SIPTU, the owners of that much-underused theatre building, it was inevitable too that O’Connor would be asked to speak and act as the MC for the event.
O’Connor’s introduction was perhaps of medium length as these things go. He talked about the author’s work in trade unions, as a journalist and as an author of books about history. O’Connor’s speech however contained much political comment. Speaking of the period of the Civil War (1919-1923), he said it had “formed what we have become as a people”. That is a statement which is of dubious accuracy or, at very least, is open to a number of conflicting interpretations. The Civil War, in which the colonialism-compromising Irish capitalist class defeated the anti-colonial elements of the nationalist or republican movement, formed what the State has become – not the people. The distinction between State and People is an essential one in our history and no less so in Ireland today.
Talking about the State that had been created in 1921 (and not mentioning once the creation of the other statelet, the Six Counties) and referring to the fact that alone among European nations, our population had not risen during most of the 20th Century and remained lower than it had been up to nearly the mid-Nineteenth, a state of affairs due to constant emigration, O’Connor laid the blame on the 26-County State and in passing, on the capitalist class which it served. He was undoubtedly correct in blaming the State for its failure to create an economic and social environment which would stop or slow down the rate of emigration – but he did not explain why it was in the interests of the capitalists ruling the state to do so. Nor did he refer to the cause of the original drastic reduction in Ireland’s population and the start of a tradition of emigration – the Great Hunger 1845-’49.
Even allowing for the fact that O’Connor wished to focus on the responsibility of the 26-County State, the Great Hunger was surely worthy of some mention in the context of Irish population decline. Just a little eastward along the docks from Liberty Hall is the memorial to that start of mass Irish emigration. It was the colonial oppression of the Irish people which had created the conditions in which the organism Phytophthora infestans could create such devastation, such that in much less than a decade, Ireland lost between 20% and 25% of its population, due to death by starvation and attendant disease and due also to emigration (not forgetting that many people emigrating died prematurely too, on the journey, upon reaching their destination and subsequently). Phytophthora devastated potato crops in the USA in 1843 and spread throughout Europe thereafter, without however causing such a human disaster as it did in Ireland. In Mitchell’s famous words: “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine.” And that is what makes that period of population decline uncomfortable for some historical commentators.
Indeed, O’Connor did not mention British colonialism once, nor Partition, nor imperialism. And nor did either of the other two speakers, nor the author. I remarked on this to an Irish Republican present, to which he responded with a rhetorical question: “Did you expect them to?” Well, yes, perhaps naively, I did. While not expecting an Irish Republican analysis from Padraig Yeates and perhaps not either from anyone he would consider appropriate to speak at the launch of one of his books, dammit, we are talking about history. The presence of Norman/English/British Colonialism for 800 years prior to the creation of the Irish Free State, and its influence on that state’s creation and on subsequent events in Ireland, is worthy of at least a mention in launching a book about the Civil War. Not to mention its continuing occupation of one-fifth of the nation’s territory.
Colonialism and Imperialism and, in particular, the Irish experience of the British variant, were not so much ‘the elephant in the room‘ at the launch as a veritable herd of pachyderms. They overshadowed us at the launch and crowded around us, we could hear them breathing and smell their urine and excreta – but no-one mentioned them. The date of the launch was the anniversary of the execution of James Connolly 99 years ago, a man whom the Labour Party claims as its founder (correctly historically, if not politically), a former General Secretary of the ITGWU, forerunner of SIPTU and the HQ building of which, Liberty Hall, was a forerunner too of the very building in which the launch was taking place. His name and the anniversary was referred to once, though not by O’Connor, without a mention of Sean Mac Diarmada, executed in the same place on the same day. And most significantly of all, no mention of who had Connolly shot and under which authority.
That circumspection, that avoidance, meant that a leader of Dublin capitalists, William Martin Murphy, could not be mentioned with regard to Connolly’s death either — i.e. his post-Rising editorial in the Irish Independent calling for the execution of the insurgents’ leaders. But of course he did get a mention, or at least the class alliance he led in 1913 did, in a bid to smash the ITGWU, then under the leadership of Larkin and Connolly. This struggle, according to O’Connor and, it must be said also to Padraig Yeates, was the real defining struggle of the early years of the 20th Century, not the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence nor yet the Irish Civil War. It was in 1913 that “the wrong side won”.
One-eyed as that historical vision must be, we have to question whether it is even partially correct. The Lockout was a great defeat for the ITGWU and for the leading elements in the Irish workers’ movement. But the Lockout did not break the trade union and, in fact, it later began to grow in membership and in branches. Other trade unions also survived and some expanded. So in what manner was 1913 decisive in ensuring that “the wrong side won” in later years? The Irish trade union movement was still able to organise a general strike against conscription in April 1918 and the class to organise a wave of occupations of workplaces in April 1919.
True, the Irish working class had lost one of its foremost theoreticians and propagandists by then, in the person of James Connolly. And who was it who had him shot? Not Murphy (though he’d have had no hesitation in doing so) nor the rest of the Irish capitalist class. In fact, worried about the longer-term outcome, the political representatives of the Irish ‘nationalist‘ capitalist class for so long, the Irish Parliamentary Party, right at the outset and throughout, desperately called for the executions to halt. General Maxwell, with the support of British Prime Minister Asquith, ordered and confirmed the executions of Connolly and Mallin of the Irish Citizen Army and British Army personnel pulled the triggers; in essence it was British colonialism that executed them, along with the other fourteen.
For the leaders of the Labour Party and of some of the trade unions, and for some authors, Padraig Yeates among them, the participation of Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in the Rising was an aberration. For these social democrats, the struggle should have been against the Irish capitalist class only (and preferably by an unarmed working class). It is an inconvenient fact that Ireland was under colonial occupation of a state that had strangled much of the nation’s economic potential (and therefore of the growth of the working class) in support of the interests of the British capitalist class. It is an inconvenient fact that the Irish capitalist class had been divided into Unionist and Nationalist sections, the former being descendants of planter landowners and entrepreneurs whose interests were completely bound up in Union with Britain. It is an inconvenient fact that the British and the Unionists had suppressed the last truly independent expression of the Irish bourgeoisie, the United Irishmen and, in order to do so effectively, had created and enhanced sectarian divisions among the urban and rural working and middle classes. It is also an inconvenient fact that the British cultivated a client “nationalist” capitalist class in Ireland and that the police and military forces used to back up Murphy’s coalition in 1913 were under British colonial control.
To my mind, a good comprehensive analysis of the decline inprominence of the Irish working class on the political stage from its high point in early 1913 and even in 1916, has yet to be written. One can see a number of factors that must have played a part and the killing of Connolly was one. But something else happened between 1913 and 1916 which had a negative impact on the working class, not just in Ireland but throughout the World. In July 1914, WW1 started and in rising against British colonialism in Ireland, Connolly also intended to strike a blow against this slaughter. As the Lockout struggle drew to its close at the end of 1913 and early 1914, many union members had been replaced in their jobs and many would find it hard to regain employment, due to their support for the workers and their resistance to the campaign to break the ITGWU. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many joined the British Army or went to work in war industries in Britain. Although the Irish capitalist class supported the British in that War (up to most of 1917 at any rate) it was imperialism which had begun the war and British Imperialism which recruited Irish workers into its armed forces and industries.
Reaching back in history but to different parts of Europe, Padraig Yeates, in his short and often amusing launch speech, cracked that “for years many people thought Karl Kautsky’s first name was ‘Renegade’ ” — a reference to the title of one of Lenin’s pamphlets: The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Yeates apparently admires Kautsky and quoted him on Ireland. But Kautsky advocated no uprisings against imperialism or colonialism in the belief that “super-imperialism” (also called “Hyper Imperialism”) would regulate itself peacefully, letting socialists get on with the task of evolving socialism. Two World Wars since then and current developments have negated Kautsky’s theory but more to the point, to advocate his theory as a guiding principle at the time he did was a major ideological threat to proletarian revolution and to the evolving anti-colonial struggles of the world and therefore he was a renegade to any variant of genuine socialism and socialist struggle.
This is relevant in analysing the position of the trade union leaders and the Irish Labour Party today. They are social democrats and their central thesis is that it is possible to reform capitalism, by pressure on and by involvement in the State. They deny what Lenin and others across the revolutionary socialist spectrum declare, that the state serves the ruling class and cannot be coopted or taken over but for socialism to succeed, must be overthrown.
It is the social-democratic analysis that underpinned decades of the trade union leaders’ social partnership with the employers and the State, decades that left them totally unprepared, even if they had been willing, to declare even one day’s general strike against the successive attacks on their members, the rest of the Irish working class and indeed the lower middle class too since 2011. Indeed Padraig Yeates, speaking at a discussion on trade unions at the Anarchist Bookfair a year or two ago, conceded that social partnership had “gone too far”. Can Jack or any other collaborationist trade union leader blame that on the transitory defeat of the 1913 Lockout? They may try to but it is clear to most people that the blame does not lie there.
Two other speakers addressed the audience at the launch, Katherine O’Donnell and Caitriona Crowe. Catriona Crowe is Head of Special Projects at the National Archives of Ireland and, among other responsibilities, is Manager of the Irish Census Online Project, an Editor of Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Vice-President of the Irish Labour History Society. She is also Chairperson of the SAOL Project, a rehabilitation initiative for women with addiction problems, based in the North Inner City. It was her, I think, who made the only mention of “Blueshirts” and her also that mentioned the anniversary of James Connolly. Although her speech was overlong in my opinion for a book launch in which she had already been preceded by two longish speeches, strangely I can remember very little of what she had to say.
Katherine O’Donnell’s contribution however made a considerable impression upon me. She declared herself early in the speech to be lesbian and a campaigner for gay and lesbian rights and is Director of the Women’s Studies Centre at the School of Social Justice at UCD. O’Donnell began by praising Padraig Yeates’ work, of which she declared herself “a fan”. In a speech which at times had me (and sometimes others too) laughing out loud, she discussed the contrast in the fields of historical representation between some historians and those who construct historical stories through the use of imagination as well as data; she denounced the social conservatism of the state, including the parameters of the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage, the legal status of marriage in general and the climate of fear of prosecution engendered by the shameful capitulation of RTE to the Iona Institute on the accusation of “homophobia” (she did not mention them specifically but everyone knew to what she was referring).
Jack O’Connor, between speeches, made a reference to a giant banner hanging off Liberty Hall which had the word “NO” displayed prominently, saying that they had received congratulatory calls from people who thought it was against same-sex marriage. The banner was however against privatisation of bus services. The current banner on Liberty Hall says “YES” to the proposal in the forthcoming referendum and he said that now busmen were calling them up complaining …. to laughter, O’Connor commented that “it’s hard to the right thing, sometimes”. Presumablywhat he meant was that it is hard to know what the right thing to do is, or perhaps to please everybody.
It is indeed hard to please everybody but I’d have to say that it is not hard to know that the purpose of and‘the right thing to do’ for a trade union, is to fight effectively and with commitment for its members and for the working class in general. And that is precisely the responsibility which has been abrogated by Jack
O’Connor personally, along with other leaders of most of the trade unions, including the biggest ones for many years, SIPTU and IMPACT. And also by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. That is why Jack O’Connor gets booed now if he ever dares stand on a public platform related to trade union struggle, a treatment received also by David Beggs before he retired from the Presidency of ICTU.
Back in 2011, another giant banner hung from Liberty Hall – that time it urged us to VOTE LABOUR, as did leaders of other trade unions. Stretching magnanimity, we might give the trade union leaders the benefit of the doubt and say they had forgotten that the Labour Party had only ever been in Government in coalition, most often with the right-wing Blueshirt Fine Gael party and that its most recent spell sharing power had given us one of the most repressive governments in the history of the State. Let us imagine for a moment that these social-democratic union leaders had forgotten all that. But, after February 2011, as Labour and Fine Gael went into coalition and both reneged on their election promises, as the Coalition government began to attack the working class and the lower middle class, what is their excuse then? When did they denounce the Labour Party to their members, publicly disaffiliating from the party? No, never, and the fact that those disgusting connections continue was underlined by the presence at the book launch of a Labour Party junior Government Minister and the late arrival of noneother than Joan Burton, Minister for Social Constriction …. er, sorry, Protection.
Considering that the book being launched was about the Civil War, it is really extraordinary that no speaker mentioned the repression by the Free State during and after that war. I am certain that Padraig Yeates has not glossed over that, he is much too honest and too good a historian to do so. But that only one speaker at the launch (Catriona Crowe) should mention the sinister Oriel House and none the at least 25 murders its occupants organised, nor the 125 other murders by Irish Free State soldiers and police, nor the 81 state executions between November 1922 and January 1923, sets one wondering at just how much self-hypnosis sections of our political and academic classes are capable.
I attended a meeting last night discussing the state of trade unions in Ireland and I found the meeting depressing. Not the state of the unions, which could be grounds enough for depression it’s true, but the state of the Left that sits down to discuss these questions. Because where else can the remedy come from except from the activists on the Left and if they don’t have a solution ….!
Practically all the 40 or so in the room were activists in trade union, community and political struggles, many with decades of experience. Many have suffered in the struggle, made financial and other sacrifices, some have suffered unemployment as a result of their commitment and some have even seen the inside of a prison. As the result of that combination of experience, one would think that they would come up with a good way – or number of ways – forward, out of the dire situation in which the trade union movement finds itself at the moment. One would think …. but alas!
The title of the meeting was TRADE UNIONS — RADICAL OR REDUNDANT? It was held on the second day of the week-long program of political discussion and cultural events of the James Connolly Festival, organised by the Communist Party of Ireland. Billed as a “debate & discussion on the future for trade unions”, the panel was chaired by Garret Gareth Murphy of Trade Union Left Forum and consisted (in speaking order and in personal capacity) of Louise O’Reilly (SIPTU), Dave Gibney (Mandate), Ann Farrelly (Swords Says No but also a member of a teacher’s trade union), Laura Duggan of Work Must Pay, Bernie Hughes (unemployed member of SIPTU but also a community activist and recently jailed for allegedly breaking an injunction sought by Sierra/ Irish Water).
Having attended a public commemoration of the death of Bobby Sands and nine other hunger-strikers which was also to start at 6pm, I arrived late for the meeting and so missed one panel speaker’s contribution and much of what another said. But that still left the rest of what the second one had to say and the other three.
At 7.15pm, the panel speakers finished and the meeting was opened to comment from the floor. Around an hour of speakers and less than an hour allocated for contributions from the audience, a discussion which then had to be cut to allow the panel to respond. This unfortunately is standard for Irish Left meetings, right across the political spectrum. Of course the intention expressed was to keep the contributions to five minutes from each and of course too some of them went way over. In this case, with five panel speakers, I had in fact predicted what would happen on the FB page of the event, though of course I would have been glad to have been proven wrong.
It is understandable, in a way. Left-wing speakers tend to be communicators and have a lot to say. They are also often kept out of many arenas where they could express their ideas. But arrogance has to be a factor too, when one knows that a meeting is scheduled to last about two hours and there are five speakers and a chair – and one still takes over 20 minutes to speak. Where does one think that extra 15 minutes (or much more) is going to come from? It is going to be deducted from other speakers probably and certainly from the audience. Or if the meeting goes on longer to make up the deficit, the risk is of wearing out the audience. The solution is crystal clear but probably won’t be applied – book less speakers and chair the meeting rigorously.
So why are so many speakers invited? Sometimes it’s because a broad representation of opinion is sought and at other times it might be that a number of organisations are expecting to be given a speaker. Then each speaker might attract a different audience or members of a different organisation. I have taken part in organising rallies and public meetings too and I know that these issues present difficulties but I also know that they have to be addressed. If we want participation and are democratically minded, we should not continue to organise debates/ discussions in this way.
All the speakers I heard expressed the opinion that there was something seriously wrong with the trade union movement. That was hardly revelatory – it is the opinion of the overwhelming majority of people on the street and in the workplace, if they have an opinion about the trade unions at all. And quite a few have hardly any opinion about trade unions – they don’t enter their view of the world to any degree whatsoever. Laura Duggan related that many young workers, finding themselves in difficulties with Job Bridge or otherwise at work, when looking for help, go first to Citizens’ Advice or to her organisation’s Facebook page – the last place many of them go to is a trade union.
Since that dismal view of the trade unions’ performance is so widespread and was shared by the panel speakers, I would have thought a few sentences could have been devoted to it and the rest of the speakers’ contributions could have been dedicated to prescribing or at least exploring solutions. Exactly the reverse is what happened – most of the contributions I heard were about ways in which the trade unions have failed, including much about personal experiences, but very little about what the solutions might be. Well, maybe the title of the meeting could be partly to blame but as activists, are we not mostly about solutions? Did Marx’s dictum on philosophy totally pass us by, that “heretofore philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”?
So what were the solutions presented by the speakers? I recall “that the unions should recruit more young workers”, “respond more to young workers’ issues”, “there should be one big union”, “there should be education about political economy and history”, the unions should “continue participating in the struggles against the Water Tax”, “fight more strikes, especially when the membership have called for it” …..
Sure, OK, fine, brothers and sisters – but what if they don’t? What if the leadership, because that is what we are talking about in the failure of the trade unions, what if they don’t do what you think needs doing — what then? What are you going to do? What should we do?
The contributions from the floor followed much of the same pattern with however a greater amount pointed towards solutions. But again, it was mostly what was wanted from the leadership rather than what we could do to achieve the desired ends, especially in the face of the leadership’s intransigence. The need for young people to join the movement was expressed from the floor with on two occasions fulsome praise accompanied by applause for the one young person on the panel – well-intentioned no doubt but to me an embarrassing expression of the activists’ desperation.
Emigration, the 1990s Industrial Relations Act, leadership out of touch, the media … were all variously listed as being the reasons for the lack of resistance by the Irish trade union movement as well, of course, as the social partnership of decades between the unions and the employers and state.
One interesting contribution from the floor referred to an alleged ballot-rigging of which SIPTU had been found guilty in court years ago but which they appealed to the High Court. The brother relating this alleged that the Fianna Fáil Government of the day had the High Court clear SIPTU in exchange for the compliance of the trade union thereafter. Another brother a little later however denied there had been ballot-rigging (he actually said that “it was worse than that”!) and an argument broke out until the Chair quickly brought the meeting to order.
One brother in the audience stated that the problem was not at bottom whether the unions were fighting for better wages or not but about the politics of the union – if the politics were about social-democracy then of course the union would not act in the way we wanted. No-one responded to that contribution, presumably because either they agreed with it but couldn’t see how to progress from a union that isn’t even defending its membership to one with a revolutionary socialist ideology, or because they are basically in favour of social democracy, so long as it’s of a leftier kind.
I made one contribution to the discussion, in which I stated that although I have been a trade union member of different unions for most of my working life, and although I believe we should join a trade union, of course the trade unions are redundant. That is the opinion of most people at work and in the street and is the reality. But that doesn’t mean that trade unionism is redundant.
People will join a trade union if they see it fighting for its members. The workers who left the NUDL to join Larkin’s breakaway IT&GWU did so because they felt the NUDL had sold them out but they knew that Larkin wouldn’t do that and that his union would fight the employers. That was the same reason other workers joined the union too. If workers don’t see the union fighting, why should they join it?
I referred to all the bad history and difficult conditions for the operation of trade unions listed by contributors to the discussion. I pointed out that much worse conditions had been encountered and overcome by trade union organisers in the past – they had been deported in chains to Australia and in the United States many had been shot dead.
The Left in Ireland traditionally tries to deal with collaborationist trade union leadership by mobilising votes to replace the current leadership with Left candidates; I said that this process is too long if at all practicable and that our agreed Left candidates, if successful, are often corrupted by the trade union regime so that we have to start again. I proposed the same solution that I had done some years ago and on a number of occasions since, that trade union activists should form an organisation or network across the unions, in order to attend pickets when strikes break out, as people did with the Greyhound strike, to support the workers in struggle, to talk to them and also try to recruit them so as to have them go with us to the next strike and support the workers there.
I related some years ago being elected to the steering group of an organisation that was allegedly going to fulfill some of those expectations, the Trade Union Activists’ Network. I attended nearly every internal meeting for a year and was constantly trying to push it into action but it became clear to me, over time, that most of those present on the Steering Group had no real interest in the work and may have even been there for no other reason than to prevent activists from occupying their positions. Nevertheless, a grassroots network across the unions is still the only solution, I concluded; if we don’t build that we will continue to attend meetings like this in years to come, bemoaning the lack of success of our trade unions.
Some people – perhaps even most — may think they know better and after all, why should my ideas be any more likely to work than theirs? Well, perhaps for no reason; but their approaches have been tried without success for years – so why not try the one I advocate?
A somewhat separate issue which I did not address in my contribution was the much-promoted alleged support of trade unions for the Right to Water campaign. It is a fact that not one of those trade unions has advocated non-registration and non-payment. No trade union has advocated resistance to the Water Tax or its implementation by its members and, as one speaker from the floor pointed out, a number of local authority workers had been transferred to a private company installing water meters, without any resistance from the local authority trade unions.
Near the end of the meeting, speakers from the floor began to coincide in saying that we should continue to encourage trade union membership through recruitment, wearing our union badge, education, etc, etc. One went so far as to state that saying that trade unions are redundant is something some right-wing people and employers would love to hear, at which point I interjected that he was implying that “the critics are the problem”, something he hotly denied. But the fact is that the opinion of people about the trade unions is a result of the actions and inactions of those unions, rather than anything said in a meeting of around 40 people (or even a thousand).
I began this report by saying that I found the meeting depressing but that was not, it seems, what most others who attended felt. I found it depressing because despite all the lessons the Left is being taught, it seems unable to learn from them. But when the panel speakers came back to respond to the discussion, for me there were a couple of gleams of gold or at least something shiny in the bottom of the pan: Dave Gibney said that young workers will join a union when they see it fighting and spoke of the young workers in Dunne’s Stores who were enthused and politicised by their recent experience of being on a picket line; Louise O’Reilly said it was a waste of time expecting more sympathetic treatment from the media and that what we need is our own, left-wing newspaper.
Diarmuid has been employed in many capacities, including as a factory labourer, construction labourer, kitchen porter, cleaner, laboratory assistant, foundry furnace operative, machine moulder, fitter-welder, youth worker, community worker, adult education tutor, hostel worker, hostel and addiction services team manager.
In the course of those, he has been a member in Britain at different times of the following trade unions:
Amalgamated Engineering Union
Construction Engineering Union
AEU (Foundry Workers)
Community & Youthworkers’ Union
NALGO (ILEA: Youthworkers; Adult Education Tutors)
NALGO (Local Authority, Education)
……. and in Ireland of:
SIPTU (Marine and Port)
SIPTU (Health workers)
Diarmuid has made serious attempts to found union branches in a number of manual workplaces with some successes and some failures, including being sacked from two workplaces for trade union or solidarity activity. He has also founded a union branch (managerial section) in his more recent work managing teams working with the homeless and people with substance misuse issues, along with facilitating union branch founding for other grades of workers in workplaces he managed. During his employment by NGOs, Diarmuid has faced disciplinary proceedings three times and beaten them twice, once at the initial stage and at the appeal stage in the second; he took the third to Labour Court and was awarded compensation.
Elected Shop Steward and/or Health & Safety Staff Representative in NALGO and in Unison, Diarmuid has campaigned for health & safety improvements (including organising comprehensive risk assessments by the team) as well as representing workers at disciplinary hearings (with mixed results). Elected unpaid Assistant Branch Secretary, he has been active in organising a strike, speaking at shop meetings and organising and participating in pickets. For a year, he edited a trade union branch newsletter and contributed articles to it.
As a trade union, community and political activist, among the pickets he has supported have been at car manufacturers (Fords), building sites, newspaper (Wapping), refuse workers (Greyhound), catering workers (Subway, Mac Donald’s), against cuts and closures of services, also collecting money for miners’, fire fighters’ and health workers’ strikes.