Scuffles at the Dail, sectarianism and unity - what is the Right to Work?

The Golden circle at protestLast night I was on the 'Right to Work' march that went to the Dail where some scuffles broke out as some of the crowd broke away to try and push through the gates. I'm not going to discuss that much, far too much in the media already about what amounted to very little. The main topic of this blog is the Right to Work Campaign itself and the question of how we should approach these sort of party controlled fronts. it is generated in part by the failure of WSM to come up with a collective approach and as a result being caught somewhat on the hop by last nights events.

Lets start off with the events. I had turned up to take photographs among other things and rushed out a short report and photo slideshow for the WSM site on my return home that evening which I reproduce below.

Around a thousand people marched through Dublin tonight to protest against the bail out of the banks. When the march reached the gates of the Dail a group went through the gates where they were attacked by Gardai with batons.

The march had been called by the SWP/Right To Work campaign and had achieved the backing of the UNITE union (whose regional secretary is a SWP member). It had also managed to get Fintan O'Toole, a high profile journalist, as a speaker at the start of the march along with speakers from the Community sector which has been targeted with viscous cuts. The weather was brutal with downpours just before and during the march but all the same around 1000 people took part.

When the march reached the gates of the Dail a group went through the gates where they were halted just a couple of meters inside the entrance. Gardai then attempted to push them out but when this failed they drew batons and attacked the crowd with at least three nasty head injuries being reported. Once the Gardai violence had forced the protesters to retreat the gates of the Dail were closed and locked. No arrests were being reported as of the end of the demonstration.

Created with flickr slideshow.

Just on the numbers as there is always a row about that.  I've taken to counting every demonstrations I go on, often more than once, because experience has led me to believe that you can't believe estimates from other sources.  Figures for last night were as low as 200 (some media) to as high as 2,500 (announced from the platform).  I counted at the Parnell monument with another well known activist and we agreed a figure of 930.  As the rain meant people were packed together I recounted at the Spire and this time got 970. So in this report I called it a 1,000. 

10 second sweep of the crowd at the start

This morning I embedded a couple of video's of the scuffle which others had put online with the article, these are below.  I'm not going to offer a commentary on these for now as the Irish Times report's that the Gardai are investigating the incident, that report also says there were at least 5 head injuries.  I also think there has been a remarkable amount of coverage already today about what was a pretty minor incident, only notible for the willingness of the Gardai to use extendable batons to attempt to crack unprotected skulls.  Those who had a go at trying to get into the Dail grounds were right to do so, its quite weird that those who have been praising the far more militant resistance in Greece have retreated so fast when the media criticises such a minor scuffle.

In work at least none of my fellow workers seemed to find the scenes that outrageous, its positive that a marker has been placed that there is more to this than waiting for the union leadership to organise a ballot on yet another one day strike that they will then call off.  The video's in any case, particularly the first one, give a clear enough chronology of what probably happened, one that is quite curious given the SWP's standard opposition to 'direct action' stunts on street protests that go beyond two minute sit downs. 

Segment from the Vincent Brown show that shows most of the scuffle (from about 2 minutes in) and also segments of the speeches and an interview from the march.

 

I actually missed the scuffle as I'd left the march early as it reached College Green. I found out about the scuffle while updating the WSM twitter (Sky News reported the Dail had been stormed) and had to abandon my pint to fly across town and discover what had happened.  Now while the lousy weather and my leaking jacket was part of the reason I think its also true that a bit of old fashioned knee jerk left sectarianism crept into that decision. The SWP's constant creation and re-creation of front groups that serve to do nothing but burn out and cynicise people annoy's me at the best of times and in the current circumstances borders on the criminal. They did an excellent job building for the march but this doesn't take away from the fact that the Right to Work is yet another party controlled front in a long, long history of such fronts.

The name itself is a giveaway as an identically named organisation was set up by the parent group, the British SWP back in June. There was a round of expulsions in the British party around this time and it appears the Irish organisation are so keen to prove their loyalty that they have even arranged the Irish RtW conference to be on exactly the same day as the British RtW conference, 22nd May. It's not like they even try very hard to disguise the nature of this front even though anyone pointing out the obvious will face shrill cries of 'sectarian.'  Anyone who has been around the left for a while will have seen the same game being played out over and over and over.

Just after the scuffles I was talking to a member of the (Irish) Socialist Party who asked if WSM had been asked by the SWP to take part in RtW. I said not as far as I knew and asked if the SP had been asked. Yes he said, but they had been presented with signing on to the finished project with a name and set of slogans already decided so had declined.

Now here is the problem. Apart from the dishonesty involved, running these sorts of fronts in this sort of manner means that nobody except those who don't know what is going on are going to get involved in a serious way. And those who don't know what is going on will come out the other end wiser and very much burnt by the process - quite liable in fact to think that this is how the left operates in general.  There is a third group who calculate they can get out more than they put in, normally becuase they have some form of claim to authenticity or media profile that the party finds useful and therefore will demand nothing else in return.

We'd had some discussion of all this in advance of last nights march in my WSM branch meeting last week without coming to any real solution to the dilemma. Do you support such fronts because something is better than nothing or do you oppose them as only doing damage in the long term and thus being counter productive. Or do you try and walk the fine line between these positions in order to advocate an alternative.  I go for the last but this is not as easy as it sounds.

Anyway out of all that I drafted a text for the WSM internal site, as much as an exercise in demonstrating how difficult it is to walk that line without coming across as a sectarian nut job as anything. Not surprisingly people were not keen on turning this into a leaflet but with the march now past I'll present this here as another rejected draft.

Fighting to make sure we don’t pay for their crisis
In Dublin on March 11th a demonstration is taking place under the slogan ‘Enough is enough’ agains the bank bailers and for jobs & services. The organisation calling it is called the ‘Right to Work Campaign.’ This is one of many initiative that have emerged in opposition to workers being made to pay the costs of the capitalist crisis, initiatives that have included Grassroots Unite, Social Solidarity Network, Public Sector Alliance, Youth Against Dole Cuts, Teachers United and the United Alliance Against Cuts. This looks like a good thing, with all these organisations out there fighting surely the government must almost be defeated?

Life is seldom that simple and here this list of organisations (and we could add more) far from reflecting the strength of the opposition to the crisis reflects its weakness. All are in reality tiny and most are simply front organisations for one political party, the Socialist Workers Party, to recruit out of. Because the SWP has a terrible reputation for the way it runs such fronts this means the rest of the left and significant numbers of experienced community and union activists will not go near it.

The ‘Right to Work’ initiative is slightly unusual in that it has the sponsorship of UNITE, perhaps it would be uncharitable to point out that this is the one union that has a leader who is a SWP member? Otherwise the list of sponsors and speakers is the usual list of SWP members with a sprinkling of the latest wave of independents designed to convey the impression of this being a broader initiative. The simple and standard giveaway being the fact that the list doesn’t include anyone from the SWP’s main rival, the Socialist Party, despite the prominence of their MEP Joe Higgins or their members who hold positions in the CPSU, a union that in some respects has led the fightback.

All this is very ‘Life of Brian’ and will no doubt be ‘answered’ with the usual cries of sectarianism. While in some ways this is a fair enough reaction whenever one small far left group has a go at another we also think there is a genuine issue here. The government and employers have shown a determined unity in imposing the costs of the crisis on workers in Ireland. Our resistance has been extremely fractured. But this isn’t simply down to a chronic inability to get on, its also down to organisations and individual not being able to accept unequal relationships being imposed on them as a condition to involvement. As a simple example Peter McLoone argues that opposition to the PSA weakens the ability of the union leadership to negotiate but would we accept a unity with that leadership based on shut up and do what we decide?

There is a need for a united resistance to the cuts but any initiative that aims to build such unity has to, from the very start, be open at all levels to all those who oppose the cuts. It should not be the creature of a single political organisation or indeed grouping of any such organisations.

Although the opposition is weak it is not so weak to make the initiation of such a united resistance impossible. At least half a dozen individual union branches in the country have consistently taken stances of radical opposition to the crisis. It’s not impossible to imagine a founding conference, genuinely open to all, organised by a committee formed from ten or more union branches representative of a variety of unions and perspectives. Such a committee would be likely to include members of the SWP, SP and the other parties of the left but it would not be a creature of any one organisation and indeed its very variety would mean those who have been burnt by fronts before would be more inclined to trust it. Out of such a conference a genuine united front of opposition to the cuts could emerge, one that would be a very much stronger position to organise resistance than the various paper tigers the left has constructed to date.

In the meantime what attitude should we take to the Right to Work Campaign? Well we think that almost anything is better than nothing and on that basis we are inclined to take part in whatever demonstrations and conferences are organised that appear to have some hope of attracting militants to them. But we would very much prefer to see a genuine initiative we could build with enthusiasm for. We think it probable that we are not alone in thinking this way. We reckon that if every organisation and individual militant who thinks like this begins to make this clear the parties of the left will abandon their paper tigers in the realisation that very much more is to be gained, by them as well as the movement, in the construction of a united front of struggle that has some real bite.

Now I'm not particularly wedded to the alternative I sketch in the last two paragraphs except for the general principle that we need some sort of genuine united front initiative that is not the creature of one organisation and that starts from a broad base. I crashed some of the sessions of the Equality in a Time of Crisis Conference at UCD at the end of last week (where incidentally the SWP advertised last nights demo at least twice at every session). One of the more interesting sessions was the 'Social Movements & the response to the crisis' where Laurence Cox argued for another method (powerpoint here), a broad Counter Summit designed to pull in a wide range of organisations in a collective discussion process for action.  I'm proposing to the WSM conference that we should be arguing for another variant of the same idea through arguing for a united front of struggle against the crisis that would only be formally launched once a range of organisations agree to a founding conference.

It is probably that the scuffle at the Dail will, at least for a while, give the Right to Work Campaign some legs although their strategy of picketing the Dail every Tuesday sounds like a recipe for burn out (and a repeat of the failed strategy of whatever the SWP front created around the budget was called.) But as the creature of a single party RtW cannot deliver what is needed, a broad and massive wave of resistance to the cuts. If it expands then at some point SWP control freakerary will kill it off as they smothered the Anti-War Movement once it escaped their control in 2004. More likely will be that it will slowly fade from view over the next 6 months, like so many similar previous fronts.

If that seems like a grim choice - it is. It's easy to see why so many people simply walk away in despair. It was very noticeable last night that apart from the token contingents most parties had sent along to hold their banner and distribute their leaflets there were few of the usual suspects around. There were very few anarchists either inside or outside of the WSM, no more than a couple of dozen in total. A couple I talked to had been involved in the scuffles but this means the demonstration was highly unusual in having no anarchist banners or flags on it at all as far as I could see.
Now I understand very well why people take that attitude, after all I've already confessed to sneaking off to the pub early. But it is a weak political response in a situation where hundred of people who were not members of political organisations did turn up and may well have been open to a different point of view. I also rather suspect a substantial turnout would have led to a more successful scuffle at the gate, from the video its clear that the thin blue line only just about held. For sure this was no more than a stunt but at this moment, when so many are resigned to the cuts, even a stunt can serve to life morale and encourage struggle.

Clearly the anarchist movement needs to reengage as a collective entity with the struggles against this crisis and as part of building a very much broader resistance. I think at the moment we are suffering from our organisational weakness and lack of collective decision making or even discussion mechanisms. That is something that also requires some sort of solution. In the past the Grassroots Gatherings filled that space, there may be an argument for reviving that or something similar. In the meantime Right to Work are having the first of their weekly pickets of the Dail next Tuesday at 7.30, perhaps we should be there in numbers this time?

 

Video shot from speakers truck by Paula of the first minute or so at the Dail gates

  


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