Matt Collins was recently invited to participate in a discussion on “the left” at Féile an Phobail. Below is a partially edited version of his introductory remarks.
The first thing I want to say is that both globally and here in Ireland, we live in extremely tumultuous times. We are living in a period where everything is up for grabs, where old certainties are beginning to crumble and are no longer set in stone.
A cursory glance at the South of Ireland would testify to this. In the past year alone, we saw the explosion of the Repeal campaign which culminated in a referendum whose result changed the face of Irish society. Repeal shook the very foundations of the old conservative southern state and acted as a lightning rod for a new generation demanding their rights. Since then, campaigns have sprung up to further separate church and state, most notably the public campaign for better sex educations in schools, free of religious interference.
Here in the North, the future of the sectarian state is no longer certain either, to the point that the former Unionist first minister, Peter Robinson, has stated that people should prepare for a united Ireland. The DUP lost the unionist majority for the first time since Stormont’s inception last year in a highly polarised election which saw Irish language campaigners and the LGBT+ community take to the streets in their thousands to make equality an election issue. As Stormont breaks world records for being a defunct parliament, uncertainty reigns. For the first time in ten years, the House of Commons has been forced to debate whether it will introduce rights in the North, in the absence of devolution.
Ireland North and South is marked, therefore, by uncertainty and possibility alike, which says nothing of the existential crisis of the British state that has been created through Brexit. Brexit has, in stark terms, accelerated the crisis of the British state and called into question the future of the union, and it has also brought crisis upon the neoliberal model and free market economics upon which the EU was built.
So we live in a period where Ireland, Europe and indeed the world are open to being reshaped. The question is, how can we reshape the society we live in, through what strategy and through what politics can we win a progressive transformation?
The reality is that the left aren’t the only ones trying to reshape the world we live in. Both states North and South have been modeled for decades upon an economic agenda based on a concentration of resources and profits into small groups of people, both wealthy individuals and corporations. The result of this is that in this very community, a working class woman can go to jail for not paying her TV licence, while rich corporations siphon off millions of pounds in profits and companies burn RHI money to the tune of millions.
Let me give two examples; in the south of Ireland 40 percent of the current corporation tax base comes from just 10 companies. Think about that figure, it shows clearly that rich corporations are funneling money out of Ireland at an obscene level. Leo Varadkar’s reshaping of Ireland will see an intensification of this. It is unclear to me whether parties like Sinn Féin intend to support such a project or not, given their support for reducing corporation tax in the North. However, the reality is that the slightest change in the global economy would be devastating. If, for example, Trump raised economic tariffs or worse another economic recession; the southern economy will nosedive, so we need a new model to move beyond this race to the bottom.
Another example; just yesterday it was reported that the top 100 companies here in the North have boosted their profits by almost 80% in the space of a year, that’s over £920 million in profits in one year. Yet there has been no corresponding rise in wages for workers, and worse still the agenda of the big parties is one of cutting corporation tax, which will undoubtedly increase the inequality gap. Workers in the North have been taking a hiding in the last decade. But still the big companies are raking it in.
It seems obvious then, that if we want to reshape Ireland for the many not the few we need a radical break the neo-liberal economic model. Let me suggest some principles necessary to this.
Firstly, no coalition with the parties of the right. How can we advance a radical New Ireland by going into government with parties like FF and the Blueshirts, or by cutting a rotten deal with the DUP? We need an independent class politics, organised across the 32 counties.
Secondly, we must break with the neoliberal agenda and the buddying up to corporations, for reasons that I have already explained. There is plenty of wealth in our society, much of it horded by the millionaires and billionaires. We need a radical redistribution of wealth – to build decent homes, a proper health service, and to create sustainable and properly paid jobs.
Thirdly, the left should not be wedded to the decaying institutions that are currently enforcing austerity. The left should not reinforce the Northern state, nor prop up the crumbling union. Nor should we have illusions in the EU, which crushed Catalonian independence and waged economic war on the people of Greece, and has led to the death of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean. To paraphrase James Connolly; we serve neither London nor Brussels, nor the new “liberal” bastions of Irish conservatism grouped around Leo Varadkar for that matter. We need to fight for a new Ireland, a socialist Ireland, beyond the failures of Stormont and the Southern Ireland.
Finally, but not exhaustively. If the left seeks to reshape Ireland it must be resolutely opposed to racism, bigotry and sectarianism in all its forms. That means clearly saying no to sickening displays of sectarianism, included those protected under the guise of culture. However, it also means that we cannot claim to be free of sectarianism, if we simply propose that the reshaping of Ireland is based on counting the number of Protestants and Catholics. A border poll is a basic democratic demand. We should support it. But we also have to say boldly and confidently that we want to win people of all backgrounds to a new Ireland, not rely on communal demographics for change.
And it is not just the old divides that matter. We can’t speak of the left unless the left is prepared to stand against the likes of Britain First, and to build a movement that welcomes migrants to this city. And on this the silence of the Unionist parties has been deafening. Perhaps we should not be surprised. But then again, we cant say we are consistent anti racists if we pretend that racism only exists in one side of the community, and engage in a dangerous attempt to cover that racism up, or excuse it as something else. We must resist racism wherever it raises it ugly head.
Finally let me say that People Before Profit are very optimistic about the potential for progressive change in this period. We recognise that people might not agree with us on everything, and vice versa. Nevertheless, we are willing to cooperate where we do agree, and to find common cause.