Greeks bearing the gift of an alternative

February 3, 2015

Belfast Telegraph columnist Eamonn McCann writes about the impact of SYRIZA's victory in Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe.

THE REASON SYRIZA won in Greece is that the people were mad as hell and decided they weren't going to take it any more. Told that they would have to accept severe job losses in the public sector, wage freezes, privatization, and cuts in services, they said "No!"

The position in Greece is far from identical with the position in Northern Ireland. Greece has a government, the north a mere Executive. But there are common factors, too.

The parties currently ruling the Northern Ireland Assembly tell us, as the now-ousted government in Athens did, that they don't like the measures they are imposing, or passing on, any more than the rest of us, but there's no alternative.

What was new and exciting about SYRIZA was simply that it rubbished that logic and told the Greek people that they didn't have to take it lying down.

SYRIZA has said that its immediate priorities will include restoring electricity to the poorest households, bringing the minimum wage back to pre-austerity levels, re-establishing universal healthcare and cancelling curbs on union rights.

SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras speaks in Athens right before the election
SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras speaks in Athens right before the election

This isn't a program for the overthrow of the economic order. But it brings back to mainstream European politics a broadly left-wing approach which many--including the miserabilist tendency on the Left itself--had thought was gone forever.

One of the SYRIZA slogans that resonated most widely was: "A different Greece is possible." And, therefore, perhaps a different Europe too.

It is for this reason--a rekindling of the notion that radical change need not be off the agenda after all--that anti-austerity parties and movements across the Continent, and particularly within the EU, have been rejoicing at the result of a foreign election with a full-heartedness not felt even in the lifetime of those no longer young. Or even youngish.

The north has long needed a new party of the Left. This could be the time for a serious effort at last to give the chimera some substance--not just on account of inspiration from Athens, but because of indications which seem to go beyond wishful thinking of a sharpening appetite for a different way forward, not based on ideas of communal solidarity, but on a breakout from the patterns and constraints of the past.

MANY OF us have more than once seen false dawns brush the sky with hope and then fade fast towards gloom again. Is it an illusion, though, that a large proportion of the young people here who seem to have turned away from politics might more accurately be said to have turned away from the useless politics peculiar to Northern Ireland?

Is it wishful thinking that leads us to believe that the barrage of hostility directed at the water workers, who recently took action in defense of their pensions, had less effect than might have been anticipated and that the main reason for this had to do not with ideological attitudes to the public service, or the pensions issue, but with thousands of people feeling a fillip from the fact that somebody was standing up and fighting back?

The volume of support for campaigns against cuts in respite care, arts funding, teacher training and community health provision has, likewise, been unexpected and possibly of wider significance.

The response to Irish Congress of Trade Unions' announcement of action against the austerity measures contained in the Stormont House Agreement--irrespective of the position on flags, parades and the past--suggests something more substantial, more than a straw in the wind.

These developments, even taken together and considered in the light of the optimism radiating out from Athens, do not mean that a new party of the Left could easily be brought into being. But SYRIZA wasn't built easily either, but emerged painfully and imperfectly formed from a protracted process of realignments, splits, surges and retreats, and resumed advance before existing fragments of socialist groups meshed with the mass mobilization of the mainly young to create the movement that swept to electoral triumph last Sunday.

SYRIZA isn't a hard-Left party. It is a coalition, crisscrossed with contradiction. We have yet to see how much of its program it can deliver.

The resistance of the old guard and the oligarchs will be serious and, on past form, unscrupulous. We can expect intervention by outside interests to derail the new government. What the party has done, though, is give us a glimpse of what's possible.

If the series of rallies in defense of the public sector and against austerity planned by the unions for March 13 turn out to be as large as they have the potential to be, the north could be on the cusp of something new.

No need to fear the Greeks. They come bearing gifts.

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