The Tributary

Trotskyism has always been a movement of the margins, and not just in the sense that its organizations have usually remained in the shadow of the labour movement’s big battalions. In the few cases where Trotskyist parties have come to play a significant role, it has often been at some remove from the regional power centres: Bolivia rather than Brazil, Sri Lanka rather than India. It is fitting, perhaps, that Ireland should be the last stronghold of European Trotskyism.

At the turn of the century, it seemed as if Trotskyist organizations might fill the political space vacated by the official, pro-Soviet communist parties. In France, the two main Trotskyist parties teamed up for the 1999 European election and sent five deputies to Strasbourg. They ran separately in the 2002 presidential contest for a combined vote share of 10% – more than the French Communist Party and the Greens put together. In Britain, Trotskyists were at the heart of every left-wing electoral initiative that sought to challenge New Labour, as well as the movement against the Iraq war.

Two decades on, those interventions are a fading memory. Radical-left parties made some notable advances after 2008, but groups of Trotskyist extraction only featured as part of wider formations like Syriza and Podemos, or in the leadership of parties whose public platform is well removed from that tradition, such as Portugal’s Left Bloc. In Ireland, however, the Trotskyist left has won at least five seats in the Dáil in three successive elections since 2011. To put that in context, Sinn Féin, which won the largest number of votes in last year’s general election, never had more than five TDs before the Great Recession.

Apart from a short-lived grouplet established during the Second World War, the history of Irish Trotskyism dates back to the late 1960s. A number of groups emerged from the left-wing student milieu of that time. People’s Democracy (PD), which became the official section of the Fourth International, had the highest profile, because of its role in the political crisis that engulfed the North of Ireland. PD activists were prominent in the civil rights movement whose protests destabilized the Stormont system. A decade later, they promoted the idea of a broad campaign in support of republican prisoners demanding political status. Sinn Féin belatedly took up this proposal during the hunger strikes of 1980–81, with consequences that are still being felt today.

PD was always a small organization, and by the late 1980s it had lost whatever influence it once possessed on the wider political scene. In recent decades, Irish Trotskyism has mainly consisted of two groups that, in contrast to PD, possessed a stronger base in the South than the North: the Socialist Party (SP) and the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). PD had been strongly invested in the idea that the northern crisis would radicalize Irish society on both sides of the border. Neither the SP nor the SWP hewed to the same perspective, although their analyses of the northern conflict and the IRA diverged sharply in other respects. Until recently, the electoral impact of both groups has been an overwhelmingly southern phenomenon.

The SP and the SWP started as off-shoots of the British Trotskyist currents led by Peter Taaffe and Tony Cliff, respectively. This led some of their Irish rivals – republicans especially – to accuse them of following orders from London. If this was ever the case in the past, it’s certainly not true today: the Irish Trotskyists have been far more successful than their British counterparts in recent years, and the SP has formally severed its ties with Taaffe and his followers.

The SP used to operate as an entryist current inside the Irish Labour Party, much like its British sister group, before striking out on its own. Its best-known figure, Joe Higgins, first won a seat for the Dublin West constituency in 1997 and achieved a prominence out of all proportion to the SP’s size. This owed a great deal to his unique rhetorical style, which blended the personas of an Irish priest – Higgins had been training in a US Catholic seminary when he discovered Marxism – and a stand-up comedian. Higgins frequently had people who held no brief for his politics in stitches and commanded respect as the only opposition politician who could provoke the famously unflappable Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern to anger during the hey-day of the Celtic Tiger.

The success of Joe Higgins inspired his own party and the SWP to devote considerable energy to electoral politics, although it would be 2011 before they managed to win any additional Dáil seats. The Irish political system may be the most favourable for minor parties and independents anywhere in Europe: every constituency has multiple seats with preference voting, and there’s no minimum threshold of the national vote that a party has to clear. Higgins had initially built his profile in Dublin West by opposing water charges, and the next wave of protest in working-class communities was directed against bin charges in the early 2000s.

The socialist case against these service charges was twofold: they constituted a form of inegalitarian double taxation, and they would help fatten up the service for privatization. Several prominent left-wing activists, including Higgins, were jailed for taking part in protests against bin charges in 2003. Dublin’s local government officials went on to privatize refuse services, just as the campaigners had predicted. Bizarrely, it became an article of faith for Ireland’s centre-left parties that this only happened because of the protest campaign.

The real breakthrough came in 2011, when the first post-crash general election saw a huge increase in support for the left, broadly defined. Five TDs were elected under the banner of the United Left Alliance (ULA) – four in the capital and one in Tipperary. The ULA had several component parts, and while the finer details may seem obscure, teasing them out properly helps illuminate some wider points.

Three groups came together to form the ULA. The first was the Socialist Party, which added Clare Daly to its Dáil cohort that year alongside Joe Higgins, regaining the seat he had lost in 2007. The second was People Before Profit (PBP), a campaigning alliance set up by the SWP. One of the PBP TDs elected in 2011, Richard Boyd Barrett, was a long-standing SWP activist; the other, Joan Collins, had never belonged to the party. The ULA’s third component was the Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG). WUAG only had a profile in South Tipperary, where its leader, Séamus Healy, first won a Dáil seat in 2000 and reclaimed it in 2011.

The now-defunct constituency covered the southern part of the county, one of Ireland’s largest, although it contains no cities. The biggest town, Clonmel, has a population of 17,000, and a tradition of working-class organization that reaches back to the early twentieth century – James Connolly and Jim Larkin founded the Labour Party there in 1912. The ability of WUAG to secure a healthy vote in successive local and national elections suggests that the geographical concentration of the radical left in Dublin, Cork, and other cities is a function of supply rather than demand. In the bigger population centres, Marxist groups are more likely to have a critical mass of activists who can be mobilized for an election campaign.

The ULA’s initial success was followed by a period of fragmentation that would surely have proved fatal if the electoral system had not been so accommodating. Its three founder groups went their separate ways within a couple of years. The Socialist Party set up its own campaigning front, the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA), which changed its name to Solidarity in 2017. PBP carried on, while two ex-ULA TDs – Clare Daly and Joan Collins – created another organization called Independents 4 Change.

These comings and goings were grist to the mill for Ireland’s political correspondents, most of whom resent having to write about small Trotskyist parties and grasp eagerly for any excuse to cite Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Even less jaundiced observers must have found developments bewildering. But PBP and the AAA still managed to win six seats with 4% of the vote in 2016, a clear improvement on the ULA’s 2011 performance. The main factor behind that was an upsurge of popular mobilization between the two elections – above all the campaign against water charges, which became a genuine mass movement, on a much higher level than the protests of the 1990s and 2000s.

The Trotskyist left played an important role in that movement, supporting the call for non-payment of the charges at a time when Sinn Féin shied away from such tactics. In October 2014, the AAA candidate Paul Murphy won a high-profile by-election in Dublin South West that journalists considered a dead certainty for Sinn Féin, largely because his party pushed for a more combative line on water charges. The Irish establishment rounded on Murphy and his comrades after they joined a sit-down protest against a government minister visiting the constituency shortly after the by-election. The wildly inappropriate charges of false imprisonment brought against them ran into the brick wall of a jury trial in 2017, with the jurors clearly setting no store by police testimony that flew in the face of video evidence.

There is no way of measuring the opportunity cost of the divisions on Ireland’s radical left, but it must have been significant. The break-up of the old party system has produced a crowded political landscape where possession of a clear identity is a valuable asset. After the 2019 local and European elections, it seemed as if the tide was washing out for Sinn Féin and the radical left alike. Both Sinn Féin and the Solidarity–People Before Profit alliance lost more than half of their council seats. With a general election due within months, it seemed as if the Trotskyist parties would lose their parliamentary foothold altogether while their republican rivals were pushed back into a marginal space.

The February 2020 election, held just before Covid-19 struck, completely upended those expectations. Sinn Féin ended up topping the poll with 24.5% of the vote. In opinion surveys held since the election, the party has been vying with the conservative, strongly anti-republican Fine Gael for top spot. The average Sinn Féin vote share has been just over 29%. The next general election looks set to be one of the most bitterly contested in the history of the state, with a severe housing crisis and the pandemic’s economic fallout dominating the agenda.

The survival of the Marxist left was a subordinate theme in the election: Solidarity–People Before Profit held onto five of their six seats and survived to fight another day. However, in all but one of those constituencies, Sinn Féin could easily have taken another seat if they had run an additional candidate. The Sinn Féin surge happened so quickly and unexpectedly that the party’s conservative approach to candidate selection left it punching below its weight in terms of seat share.

Next time around, Sinn Féin won’t be making the same mistake. The party would be happy to take seats from any quarter, of course, but eliminating the Trotskyists would also have the advantage of removing a challenger on its left flank. For precisely that reason, it would be a great pity for the broader Irish left if the socialist groups faced electoral oblivion in the next national contest. Whatever shortcomings there might be in their approach to politics, they have made a real contribution since entering the stage. Notably, they were the only parties with national representation to align themselves wholeheartedly with the biggest social movements of the post-crash decade: the water charges campaign and the struggle for abortion rights.

On both of those issues, Sinn Féin lagged well behind the curve. There is certainly no question of the Trotskyist parties challenging Sinn Féin’s dominant position on the left of the spectrum in the foreseeable future. But the existence of a rival force, even a minor one, may serve as some deterrent against a rightwards lurch. There is now much less chance of Sinn Féin becoming a junior partner of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, as seemed probable just a few years ago: the party’s aim is to lead a government. But taking office from a position of strength is certainly no sure-fire guarantee against incorporation, as the example of Syriza showed us.

People Before Profit also now has the distinction of being the only party other than Sinn Féin with elected representatives on both sides of the Irish border. It has strongly supported the call for a referendum on Irish unity and intends to campaign for a Yes vote if that materializes. The dynamic of political competition in Northern Ireland differs sharply from that of the South and merits an article in its own right: for one thing, Sinn Féin features there as a party in government, albeit under very unusual circumstances, rather than the leading opposition force. But the existence of an all-Ireland socialist organization, even if it is a small one, is a factor of some importance when the coming years are likely to see the constitutional status quo under mounting pressure.

Does the Irish experience have any broader lessons? Perhaps it shows what future, if any, Trotskyism is likely to have: as one tributary of a recharged left-wing movement, rather than the mighty river that its founder expected it to become.

Read on: Daniel Finn, ‘Ireland’s Water Wars’, NLR 95.