A socialist challenge in the North of Ireland

June 26, 2017

Shaun Harkin is an Irish socialist and activist who ran for a seat in the UK parliament representing Derry in the North of Ireland. He ran as a candidate of the People Before Profit Alliance, a left-wing coalition that has run in elections in both the North and South of Ireland since it was founded a decade ago. Although he did not win, his showing of 1,377 votes in the Foyle constituency is further evidence of the desire for a left-wing alternative.

Here, Todd Chretien talks to Harkin about the campaign and the lessons he draws from it--plus the political situation in Ireland and Britain following the triumph for the Labour Party under left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, followed by the catastrophic Grenfell Tower fire.

I WANTED to start by asking you about politics in the UK today--with the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in London coming on the heels of the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London and the surprisingly good election showing for the Labour Party under its radical leader Jeremy Corbyn.

IT WAS already difficult to see how Prime Minister Theresa May was going to survive after the disastrous election she had. But with Grenfall, it's even more difficult to imagine.

Where Jeremy Corbyn has come across human, caring and demanding answers and justice for the people who died along with their loved ones, May has been terrified to face working-class people.

Corbyn doing so well--pushing back against everything that the Tories stand for--is galvanizing people and giving them a sense of confidence. There's tremendous anger in London right now, and it's explosive--it certainly exists here in Ireland as well.

THE IDEA that the Labour Party would be viewed as winners in this election would have seemed farfetched a year ago, coming after the vote for "Brexit" in last year's referendum on leaving the European Union. Certainly, the Tory Party didn't believe it was possible when they called the snap election in April. Corbyn seems to have broken through against the Tories' smears, the bias in the mainstream media and opposition from the establishment of his own party. How did he do it?

Socialist activists with People Before Profit march for abortion rights in Ireland
Socialist activists with People Before Profit march for abortion rights in Ireland (People Before Profit | Facebook)

THE BREXIT vote, I think, was a shock to the system, just like it was a shock to have Donald Trump elected. And there was a caricature of the British population--certainly the English population--as being "little Englanders": racist, anti-European, etc.

Some people did challenge that one-sided view at the time. Of course, there was an anti-immigrant narrative that was part of the Brexit argument, but there was also an anti-establishment narrative.

I think what Corbyn showed was that campaigning on demands that the vast majority of working-class people care about has great appeal.

Corbyn campaigned on reversing the privatization of public services--even renationalizing the rail system and the Royal Mail service. He called for raising taxes on the rich to properly fund public services and for a 10-pound minimum wage [the equivalent of about $12.50 an hour]. He proposed 30 hours of free child care a week and abolishing student fees.

People began to feel that these proposals would make a meaningful different in their lives.

And then there's Jeremy Corbyn himself, who, unlike other Labour leaders like Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, is an honest politician. He stood by his beliefs, and that's how people see him. He hasn't compromised on his beliefs. He's been a great representative of progressive and socialist ideas.

This was especially important after the terrorist attack in Manchester. Instead of simply condemning it, Corbyn opened up a larger discussion. He said that if we want to end these attacks, we're going to have to change British foreign policy. That was a very honest thing to do, and it blunted May's ability to use racism and Islamophobia.

That's not to say that hatred and racism aren't a big problem here. But this is where Corbyn's long-standing antiwar, anti-racist politics made a big, big difference. He's been a leader of the Stop the War Coalition--he opposed the Iraq invasion when a majority of people in Britain also opposed it. That opinion has always existed, but has never been properly represented by the leaders of the establishment parties.

SO MAY will remain prime minister for now, it seems, and the Tory Party in control of the government. But they have to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party's (DUP) 10 seats to have even a very thin majority. Can you tell us a little about May's new junior partners?

THERE'S NOTHING democratic about the DUP. I would say it's one of the most reactionary parties in Europe. In fact, many DUP members would be expelled from the Tory Party for their extreme reactionary positions.

The DUP here in Northern Ireland have stood in the way of woman having the right to choose, and of equal marriage, even though we now have equal marriage in the South of Ireland.

They are deeply racist, and their supporters regularly belittle people of the Muslim faith. They are openly hostile to Irish nationalism, specifically to the Catholic minority in the North. Ian Paisley, the party's founder in the 1960s, was a bigot who constantly beat the Orange drum, whipping up tensions between Protestants and Catholics.

The DUP has always had links--and do to this day--with Loyalist paramilitaries and even terror squads who have murdered innocent Catholics. So it's utter hypocrisy to talk about Jeremy Corbyn's "sympathy" for Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) when the Tories are now dependent on the DUP for forming a government!

The more the DUP becomes involved in UK-wide politics, the more toxic Theresa May will find them.

IN 1998, the Good Friday Agreement brought a formal end to the military conflict between the British state and the IRA and its political arm, Sinn Fein. Since then, power sharing and limited self-government have been concentrated in the Northern Ireland Assembly. But the Assembly dissolved several months ago, and Sinn Fein's leader Gerry Adams recently remarked that May's policies were in "breach" of the Good Friday Agreement. Can you describe the issues involved in these conflicts?

THERE ARE devolved governments in the UK: a devolved Scottish parliament, a Welsh parliament and a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. There is a constant struggle over these bodies extending their autonomy and power--if you want to call it that--over local policy and taxation.

But there are limits to it as well. In the North of Ireland, taxation and security power still mostly reside in Westminster--that is, in British parliament.

Here, the Assembly came about as a result of Good Friday with a power-sharing executive. There was tremendous support here for peace--people had been through 30 years of violence. But there's less support for the political structures that came along with it.

The way the government is set up institutionalizes sectarian division. When you go to the Assembly, everything is organized to share power between the Nationalists or Catholics and the Unionists or Protestants. If you are like People Before Profit and refuse to declare yourself a Nationalist or Unionist, as is required--if you declare yourself Other or Socialist--you're considered not to count in the votes.

WHAT ABOUT Sinn Fein? Long-time IRA commander and Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuiness' passing elicited an outpouring of sympathy among the oppressed Catholic population. Does Sinn Fein still represent a progressive political force?

SINN FEIN and the DUP have shared power since 2007. Sinn Fein is a nationalist party, and it is better than the DUP on some key issues. For instance, they support equal marriage. Inside Stormont, where the Assembly sits, they would have attempted to slow down the introduction of privatization and welfare reform.

But it's also the case that Sinn Fein looks in two directions. They often say the right things, but they haven't provided enough resistance to Tory policies.

Sinn Fein supports Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deals, where the government secures private financing for public projects like road or hospital building and ends up paying huge fees and interest payments. These deals are the kind of backdoor privatization that Sinn Fein supports.

It all came to a head two years ago, in March 2015, when the trade union movement called an all-out strike against the so-called "Fresh Start Agreement" in the Assembly between the DUP and Sinn Fein, which included privatization, welfare reform and a whole host of cuts to the public sector.

PICKING UP on the theme of strikes and social movements, how does People Before Profit see the relationship between elections and broader struggles?

IN THE aftermath of the strike against the Fresh Start Agreement, I think Sinn Fein began to lose some of its support. Gerry Carroll and Eamonn McCann were elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly for People Before Profit (PBP) in two heartland areas for Sinn Fein--in West Belfast and in the Foyle constituency that includes Derry.

PBP was launched as an attempt to give expression to grassroots struggle and a more radical set of demands. In addition to standing in the North, we've achieved some breakthroughs in the South of Ireland--we're an all-Ireland, 32-county organization.

You're probably familiar with the water charges movement as a kind up uprising against a European Union directive to mandate fees for water usage. The left has been some of the most consistent fighters around these issues, leading to a political breakthrough in the elections. Not to the degree of SYRIZA in Greece or even Podemos in Spain, but significant nonetheless.

YOU MENTIONED the water charges movements and the fight for marriage equality and abortion rights in the South. If the government has accommodated itself to certain aspects of change, it has also responded with repression. How has the left--North and South--navigated these challenges?

THE POLITICAL establishment in the South of Ireland is losing credibility. For a long time, it was governed by the "two-and-a-half party" system as it was called--after the two parties that emerged out of the Irish Civil War, Fianna Fáil and Fianna Gael, as well as Labour Party as a junior partner.

The Catholic Church has enjoyed a privileged position in the Irish Constitution and in setting reactionary social policy. Further, Ireland was an economically underdeveloped country.

But over the last 30 years, we've seen people begin to challenge this arrangement. Most importantly, the referendum on equal marriage in 2015 was a massive victory.

Recently, the Labour Party has paid a very steep price for joining in a pro-austerity governing coalition, leaving space in 2016 for PBP and the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) to win almost 4 percent of the national vote and six seats in the Dáil Éireann, or the Assembly of Southern Ireland.

One of those elected, Paul Murphy of the AAA, is currently facing six months in prison and the loss of his seat on trumped-up charges for taking part in a protest. That trial is going on as we speak, and campaigning for the charges to be dropped is an important part of our fight.

All of this means that, looking from the North to the South, people on both sides of the border can begin to imagine the kind of society we want to build and the kind of movements it will take to win it. It's a very important development.

In the North, we broke through in May 2016 when Eamonn McCann, who had been standing in Derry and the Foyle region since the 1960s, won a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Gerry Carroll won a seat in West Belfast.

There was an appetite for an alternative to nationalism and unionism, to stand up more vigorously to austerity, to defend public sector jobs, and to fight on all sorts of progressive social issues like equal marriage, women's right to choose, solidarity with refugees and migrants, and protection of the environment.

YOUR CAMPAIGN for UK parliament was also based in Derry. Can you talk about the issues you ran on and how you were received by both Catholic and Protestant voters?

WE KNEW it would be difficult because it's a first-past-the-post system, similar to the U.S., rather than the proportional representation system in play for the Assembly. The party with the most votes in each of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland gets the seat. Here in Foyle, there's only one seat.

We had an aggressive canvasing operation, visiting working-class areas all over Foyle, knocking on doors and talking to people about opposing a Tory Brexit, opposing Tory cuts, having no border here, neither a soft nor a hard border.

We talked about getting rid of the two rotten Irish states and replacing them with a united, socialist Ireland. We talked about privatization and poverty and defending the public sector. We explained that we stood for a lot of the same things that Jeremy Corbyn stood for in terms of a 10 pound minimum wage and things like that.

We also had an excellent social media presence. We got substantial coverage in the mainstream press, we participated in lots of rallies and campaigns, and we had the right to a mailing delivered to every house in the constituency.

We got on radio and television, and participated in the "hustings," an obscure British word for candidates' debates. And we put up posters all around town with People Before Profit and the candidate's picture on them. The candidate had to apologize to all his friends and family for that!

YOU MENTIONED Eamonn McCann. He's a longtime socialist leader who is also closely identified with the historic fight for the Catholic minority's civil rights in a city that has suffered terrible levels of Protestant paramilitary and British military violence. Is PBP primarily based in the Catholic working class or do you also appeal to Protestant voters?

WE CANVASSED in both Catholic and Protestant working-class areas. We're the only party that does it.

I would say that the same number of doors didn't want our materials in nationalist areas as in unionist areas. We know that working-class Protestants do vote for us. We consider this very important. The conversations we had in working-class Protestant areas were very similar to ones in Catholic areas: We talked about poverty, about austerity, about people's frustration with the establishment parties. I think that makes us optimistic.

There is a tradition--one where Eamonn is an important figure, even though he's closely associated with the Bloody Sunday massacre of Catholic civil rights demonstrators and the fight to hold the British government responsible--that understands us when we champion the idea that class is the most important division in Irish society. There's a hearing for the idea that working-class Catholics and Protestants face the exact same problems when it comes to housing, cuts to benefits, cuts to education, cuts to the NHS.

We thought that because we were standing a new candidate, if we got 1,000 votes, that would be a success. In the end, we did better than that, I got almost 1,400 votes, and Gerry Carroll got 4,100 in West Belfast. So this gives us a platform to build on.

LET'S RETURN to May's reliance on the DUP in the UK parliament in London. This comes while the DUP can't even convene the Northern Ireland Assembly. Is there a strategic opportunity for the Irish left in the fight against the Tories?

A LOT of people here are excited about how well Corbyn did across the water. However, politics in the north of Ireland don't follow the same pattern, because politics here are very much shaped by the sectarian division. We've found in the last cycle of elections that the vote for the smaller alternative parties was squeezed.

At the beginning of the year, a financial scandal around the Renewable Heating Initiative program involving the DUP Assembly first minister Arlene Foster--who is currently leading negotiations with May over forming a British government--forced Sinn Fein, under tremendous public pressure, to bring down the Assembly by withdrawing its support.

That left us without a government here since January. Sinn Fein's support has subsequently grown as it is seen as taking a tougher line against the DUP.

In the last Assembly election in March of this year, Sinn Fein won more seats and the overall Unionist majority in the Assembly was lost. That's set off a dynamic here where the competition between the two biggest blocs has intensified.

We saw the DUP increase its vote in the general election on June 8 and increase its mandate in a sense. On the other hand, Sinn Fein used the increase in its support to insist on a referendum on the status of the Irish border within five years and the potential for Irish unity. The return of the question of a united Ireland has come back in a big way.

There are a lot of people voting for Sinn Fein because they are genuinely disgusted with DUP financial scandals--and for the DUP's disrespect for the Irish language, where Arlene Foster described Irish speakers as "crocodiles." They're outraged by the DUP's hostility to LGBT people, to women's rights. People are not simply voting for Sinn Fein because they're for a united Ireland--they also want to send a signal in favor of progressive issues.

On Brexit, 56 percent of people in the North voted to remain, including big remain votes in Derry, Foyle and West Belfast, while the DUP supports leaving the EU on the same terms as Theresa May.

Sinn Fein, for its part, has expressed support for some sort of special status in the relationship to the EU. Again, this has raised the question of a united Ireland as an important issue unlike any time in decades, because according to the EU's Article 49, if the North were to unify with the South, it would mean the North would automatically remain in the EU.

HAS CORBYN had an impact in Ireland? What are the prospects for the left?

THE DUP has said that they are supporting May in order to prevent Corbyn from ever becoming prime minister.

They made a big deal about Corbyn's sympathy with the IRA in the past as the basis for stopping him. And given the polarization between Sinn Fein and the DUP on the question of the Irish border, it's been harder for the socialist left to win support for an independent class position.

Having said that, the DUP/Tory government has yet to be formed. They've agreed in principle to work together. However, the crisis of Grenfall has thrown everything up in the air. Nobody really knows what's going to happen.

What I would like to see, and what I think the Irish left would like to see, is the biggest possible opposition to Tory policies. We want to stop that government in its tracks and then push for the sorts of proposals that Corbyn has been talking about.

Whether that leads to the government collapsing, a new election and a chance for Corbyn to form a government, we can't say in advance. Those are all possibilities.

Here, the discussion is about whether there will be new elections for the Assembly. Can the DUP and Sinn Fein reach an agreement to restart the Assembly? We've been given the date of June 29 by the British Secretary of State for a deal to be reached or face the prospect of direct rule from London.

It's hard to tell. But there is another factor that could emerge. If there's the development of a protest mood in Britain, we'd like to see that carry over here on the streets. There are calls for mass protests on July 1 to stop the Tory government, and there's an equal marriage march planned here for that same day. People power on the streets could reshape all the calculations of the mainstream parties.

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