07 October, 2007

What's the Left's gotta do...

Thursday night, people rushing past, and a retreat from the traffic into the Ireland Institute on Pearse Street. I was worried that Finian McGrath and myself would be savaged by Aengus O'Snodaigh and Tommy Broughan, whatever about the audience, but in the end we all received polite applause for our few words. I hadn't known that Tommy describes himself as a Marxist Republican before, but maybe that's what the audience wanted to hear.

I felt it might be useful to attack a few sacred cows, and here's a tidied up version of what I said...

'What future for the Left in 2007?', a speech to the Ireland Institute, Pearse Street. Dublin, 4 October 2007

Tony Benn I see from the newswires on the BBC is back. Veteran left-winger Tony Benn is planning to stand for Parliament again. The 82-year-old, a Labour MP until 2001, wants to be the party's candidate for Kensington in west London. All is not lost.

I came into politics shouting and roaring. I campaigned to try and save Viking Dublin at Wood Quay, and a decade later I marched to City Hall with a megaphone to reverse the devastation and destruction of inner-city communities. It was Dublin Corporation’s crazy road-widening plans that were destroying our built heritage and our communities. It was a campaigning issue. Neither the Left nor the Right had a monopoly of wisdom in tackling these issues. While the forces of development were behind this obliteration of parts of our city, the local authority and its workers were acquiescing in the destruction. The lesson I took from those days is that we need to campaign.

Back in June the Green Party decided to go into government with Fianna Fáil. We decided to go into Government because we felt that the issues (such as Climate Change) could not wait for another five years.

We didn't get all we want because we didn't have the numbers. They have 78 seats; we have 6. That having been said there's a lot in the Programme that we can deliver on. Just last week John Gormley published his intention to rack up the Building Regulations for new construction by 40% from the middle of next year.

Our representatives voted overwhelmingly (87%) at a party convention to enter government, and we have two influential two cabinet seats--the environment and energy ministries - out of the 15 in total.

The Economist gave a good synopsis of our position:

“The new administration is expected to support a more radical policy on climate change, including the introduction of a carbon tax which the outgoing administration had abandoned following pressure from business leaders.

The government also agreed to carbon emissions reduction targets of 3% per year; to set up a commission on climate change; and to set more energy efficient standards for new buildings.

The Greens also demanded reform of local government, including a directly elected mayor of Dublin, and the establishment of an independent electoral reform commission to investigate party financing, which was agreed.”

I have no doubt that we will also make progress in other areas such as proper planning, an issue close to my heart.

Some people want the Greens to be the moral guardians of Fianna Fáil. If we were to do that we would need to threaten to leave Government every second day. No-one will take us seriously if we were to do this, and besides it would distract us from implementing our Programme.

After 25 years in the Party I didn't make the decision to join Government lightly. I don't think anyone of us did. On balance I do believe that Ireland will be a better place with the Greens in Government than not.

I received a fair amount of attention over a blog posting where I described a deal between Fianna Fail and the Greens as a deal with the Devil or a Faustian pact. Well I found out recently that in Goethe’s version of the Faust story, Faust gets the girl, cheats the devil in the end, and lands up in heaven. There’s hope for us yet!

On a more serious note, The Left is in trouble. It has become a vehicle for vested interests, and it has been lost its voice by the rush to the centre by former left-wing parties all over Europe. The Left is in trouble because people have become distrustful of Government. Many believe that they are the best judges of what to do with their money, and they are not willing to give money to central government to do the same.

The Left is in trouble because it has become a receptacle for vested interests. I note from front-page article in the Irish Times today entitled ‘New Plan tabled to deal with problem teachers’ that: ‘For years, the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland would only allow members to be inspected if the teacher agreed. Those of us with children, and indeed those without know that there are under-performing teachers out there. I don’t believe that the ASTI’s behaviour is appropriate. It seems typical of vested interests.

In Dún Laoghaire green bins were introduced for householders. After a year the amount of grey bins being presented had halved. I asked the question had the staff been re-assigned. They hadn’t. Negotiations with the Unions had stalled. In my ten years as a Dublin City Councillor the Direct labour crews in the Housing Department virtually ceased to exist. Part of this decline was poor management, but I have no doubt that archaic work practices contributed to their demise. Work practices in the private sector and the State sector have dramatically diverged in recent years. Unless The Left realises that its job is not about protecting vested interests, but about assisting the excluded and the disadvantaged in society, The Left will continue to decline.

The Left is in trouble because it wants power too badly, and in doing so it has lost its voice. Pat Rabbitte linked up with Enda Kenny. Tony Blair became a Cheshire cat caricature for the UK Labour party in order to appease voters. In the end there was nothing left but his smile, and that too disappeared in the end.

The Left is in trouble because it won’t detach itself from the vested interests of unionised workers. In France Ségolène Royal wouldn’t face up to out-dated work practices in France for fear of losing the Union vote.

There’s a certain envy and mistrust of The Left from the Greens. Sure most of us have a left of centre bias in our social and economic leanings, but we worry when the posters of the Labour party are draped across Liberty Hall, or when environmental organisations are exclude from the partnership process.

Even the Lisbon agenda within the European Union was based on three pillars – social – economic and environmental. It is only in the new Programme for Government that environmental organisations are poised to have some recognition in the Partnership process.

Of course the Left has its founding principles and writers like Gramsci and Marx, but so do we. It would be useful if commentators on the Left explored the writings of Arne Næss, Rachel Carson and others. When we sat down in the Glencree Reconciliation Centre back in 1982, we thought long and hard about our own principles. We agreed that all political, social and economic decisions should be taken at the lowest effective level. We stated that as caretakers of the Earth, we have the responsibility to pass it on in a fit and healthy state. We said that the poverty of two-thirds of the world's family demands a redistribution of the world's resources. I believe that those principles have stood the test of time.

Maybe the Left has been around for longer, but that is all the more reason for the movement to consider its raison d'être in 2007.

I believe that the Left must keep its distance from vested interests. It must also ensure that it is not swayed by parochial interests, whether in Meath or Shannon. It also needs to allow itself to be affected by the green winds that are sweeping across the political landscape.

The Left must protect the marginalised, not those who are most secure. Not much more than a stone’s throw from where we speak on Pearse Street are two large flat complexes; Pearse House and Markievicz House. Conditions there may have been fine in the 1950’s but they are not today. The same applies in parts of Ballybrack and Dún Laoghaire. The Left should be screaming for improved housing, access to education and training and facilities for children. It is not.

The Left must recognise that the State is not always the most appropriate vehicle to assist those who have been left behind. In this day and age it is most often the private sector that provides employment. Permanent pensionable jobs should not be the knee-jerk reaction to economic difficulties.

The Left must disentangle itself from being in bed with the trade union movement.

The Left must be wary of ‘green-washing’ itself by taking on board token environmental concerns. The Left in Ireland has not yet realised that Climate Change is the greatest threat to humanity of our time.

The Left must campaign. I believe if these changes were to happen, both Connolly and Pearse would be proud.

2 comments:

Michael Taft said...

Ciaran - thank you for a considered and constructive speech at the Ireland Institute. Hopefully, this will lead to more dialogue between progressives regardless of their political affiliation. I have responded, I hope as constructively, with a piece on my own blog (and at Irishelection.com).

DL former Green voter said...

Not selling out by reversing your vote on the Civil Unions Bill might be a start for "the left". For shame. And to think I believed in you.