Building an alternative movement in Ireland: interview with éirígí national chairperson Brian Leeson
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The following interview was conducted back in late 2008, and first appeared in early 2009 in The Spark newspaper. Over the next few weeks I hope to carry out interviews with a number of Irish union militants and socialist-republican activists to put up on the blog.
Philip Ferguson: Could you tell us how you first got involved in political activity?
Brian Leeson: I suppose I first became politically active in the summer of 1989 when I attended a large protest in Dublin that was demanding a British withdrawal from occupied Ireland. It was called to mark the 20th anniversary of British troops being re-deployed onto Irish streets back in August 1969. For a few months before the demonstration I had been becoming more politically conscious, particularly with regard to the war that was then raging in the occupied Six Counties.
What struck me most about that day was the contrast between the sheer size of the protest and the tiny amount of media coverage it received. Despite the fact that more then 20,000 marched that day, it hardly registered on the political landscape at all. Of course, this was at a time when state censorship by both the London and Dublin governments excluded republican spokespeople from the airwaves.
Within a couple of weeks of that demonstration I had taken a decision to become politically active. I applied to join Sinn Féin, but at 15 years of age I was too young. Instead, I started to sell the An Phoblacht newspaper each Saturday morning outside of the General Post Office on Dublin’s O’Connell Street – a building which fittingly had served as the headquarters of the 1916 Rebellion.
From then on I became ever more involved in the republican struggle and the Provisional Movement, which I remained a part of until early 2006.
PF: How and why did éirígí come into existence? How would you explain your pretty rapid growth?
BL: éirígí was formed as a socialist republican campaigns group in April 2006. Initially, there were just seven members and the organisation was based solely in Dublin. In May 2007, at our first Ard Fheis (national congress), the decision was taken to constitute éirígí as a political party. Since 2006, éirígí’s membership has grown steadily, to the point where we now have ciorcail (branches) all across Ireland.
As to why éirígí came into existence; what was then a small group of people thought it was time to make a new beginning in terms of socialist republican politics. We believed there to be the political space for a new socialist republican organisation. The growth of the party since then has confirmed that our original analysis was correct.
There is clearly a significant number of people who were basically waiting for a credible vehicle to emerge for them to join or support. I think this fact, along with the hard work of our activists, explains our relatively rapid growth.
PF: What is éirígí’s view of the current situation in the north?
BL: The British occupation of the North of Ireland is as real today as it ever was.
In July 2007, there was much fanfare surrounding the ending of the British army’s 38-year-long Operation Banner campaign in the Six Counties. What wasn’t mentioned was that, on the very day Operation Banner ended, a new British army campaign began in the North – Operation Helvetic.
Under Helvetic, 5,000 British troops remain garrisoned in the Six Counties. These troops can be deployed at will by the British government. In addition, much of the ‘temporary’ repressive legislation that the British government introduced to suppress the republican struggle had now been made permanent.
Also in 2007, the British government’s spy agency, MI5, was appointed as the chief gatherer of intelligence on Irish republicans. To facilitate this, a massive MI5 base has been built on the outskirts of Belfast. This facility will also serve as the main headquarters for MI5 in the event of an attack on their London headquarters.
On the front line of the occupation is the Police Service of Northern Ireland – formerly the RUC. The PSNI remains a highly sectarian, paramilitary police force. Since its name change the PSNI has added CS gas and tasers to its arsenal of lethal plastic bullets. These ‘less lethal’ new weapons are in addition to the standard issue handguns and assault rifles routinely carried by members of that force.
On the socio-economic front, nationalists remain two-and-a-half times as likely to be unemployed as unionists (members of the population who support British rule – PF) and, in some areas, nationalists make up 83 per cent of those on the housing waiting list.
All of this compounds a deeply unequal society where working class people generally, and working class catholics in particular, are exploited and denied basic rights. In short, the Six Counties remains a highly abnormal state and necessarily so in order to maintain the British occupation.
PF: The south of Ireland, the Twenty-Six County state, is often held up in NZ as a model of ‘social partnership’ between the state, the bosses and the unions. What are things really like for workers in the south?
BL: That may be so, but it should be also noted that the Twenty-Six County state was the first in Europe to enter recession earlier this year. Socially and economically, the Twenty-Six County state now rates second only to the United States in terms of inequality within the ‘developed’ world.
This fact is a massive indictment on the class of politicians and business people who have decided policy in the South to the detriment of the majority of the population.
The Twenty-Six Counties, Ireland as a whole and the rest of Europe are now in financial meltdown due to the manner in which our economies have been structured and mismanaged by political parties and corporations that have only their own interests at heart.
Fianna Fáil (the main and near-permanent party of government), their coalition partners and their friends in big business are at the top of the guilty list in this regard.
They have allowed a chaotic, greed-fuelled auction to take centre-stage in this country over the last 15 years and labeled it the finest economy in the world. Yet, as soon as this ‘fine economy’ implodes, the hundreds of thousands of people who actually work to generate the wealth are expected to foot the bill to save those who mismanaged it.
Instead of harnessing the wealth of recent times to create first-class health, education and transport systems, the Dublin government has provided us with rising unemployment, mass privatisation and endemic child and fuel poverty.
PF: Is there much of a challenge to the class collaborationism of the union leaderships? What role does éirígí see for itself in challenging this collaboration?
BL: The whole carefully-manufactured ‘consensus’ that lauds ‘social partnership’ as a panacea for all our ills in now beginning to fall apart. It is falling apart because the brutal realities of the capitalist economic system are becoming ever more obvious.
According to the ‘social partnership’ narrative, everyone was a winner – workers, bosses and the state.
This narrative cannot survive the utter failure of the system that ‘social partnership’ was designed to protect.
Now that the economy is in crisis, it is clear that everyone isn’t a winner. Once again, it is working class people who are being told to ‘tighten their belts’ while the wealthy secure their gains and are supported by massive government bail-outs.
éirígí has stated from day one that there is an alternative to this dog-eat-dog economic madness and it is one based on cooperation, solidarity and participatory planning, i.e. socialism.
It is the job of every left-wing organisation, including éirígí, to fill the vacuum of ideas that exists in terms of how to deal with the economic crisis with socialist politics.
PF: One of the key things that has bedeviled Irish republicans, including socialist-republicans, since Connolly’s time is the relationship between the class and national questions or, put another way, the class and national aspects of the Irish revolution. How do you see that class and national relationship in Ireland being linked?
BL: Connolly believed that the relationship between the class and national questions is fundamentally indivisible. What has bedeviled Irish republicans since that time is how to build a movement that effectively deals with both. éirígí shares Connolly’s analysis that the Irish revolution has two aspects – the national and the social.
To resolve one, you have to resolve the other.
The key to socialist republican thinking is to understand that the military occupation of Ireland, and the denial of political democracy that it represents, is just one aspect of what Connolly referred to as the ‘Conquest of Ireland’.
The social aspect – the replacement of the collective ownership laws of the native population with private property relations, particularly with regard to the land – was what provided the material incentive in the English invasion of Ireland.
Any successful reconquest of Ireland must remove the social and economic system that the English brought into Ireland. In éirígí’s opinion, any revolutionary movement in Ireland must have the resolution of the national and social questions as its core objectives.
PF: The other issue that has bedeviled the movement in Ireland is the relationship between military and political activity, or party and army. How do you view the issue of armed republican activity?
BL: Any population that has the misfortune to find itself under foreign occupation has the right to use armed force to remove that occupation. Whether it was the French resisting the Nazi occupation or the Vietnamese resisting Franco-American aggression, the principle is the same. And that principle also extends to the Irish context.
However, while any people may have a principled right to use armed struggle, it may not always be tactically or strategically the correct option. We believe that there are other, more effective ways to challenge and defeat British rule in Ireland today.
PF: What possibilities are there for uniting anti-imperialists, at least around particular projects and maybe into some kind of ongoing coalition? Is éirígí working along those lines or do you have a different view?
BL: Since its foundation, éirígí has been working with anti-imperialists and other progressives on a number of issues. The first of these was the ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign which is resisting Shell Oil’s operations in Co. Mayo. This was closely followed by éirígí joining the Irish Anti War Movement, which is made up of a broad coalition of groups opposed to Irish collaboration in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, éirígí has worked within the Campaign Against the European Union Constitution, which was one of the lead organisations in the recent defeat of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.
We believe the building of a new progressive social movement to be an essential step on the road to transforming Ireland’s socio-economic system. Such a movement will need to encompass trade unions, political parties, community groups, campaign groups, residents associations and non-aligned individuals. Similar movements have played an important role in the recent move to the left within a number of South American countries. éirígí believes there are lessons to be learned from these countries that could be applied to the Irish context.
PF: There are also a number of explicitly socialist-republican currents, such as the Irish Republican Socialist Party. What is éirígí’s attitude to the idea of trying to regroup all the socialist-republicans into a single organisation?
BL: While, theoretically, the ideal situation would see a single socialist republican party we have to recognise that the conditions for such a party do not yet exist in Ireland. The reality is that there are a number of organisations, including éirígí and the IRSP, that profess a left republican analysis. These various organisations have come into existence for a range of different historical reasons, some of which still exist today.
While, at a superficial glance, these differences may seem surmountable, a more comprehensive analysis reveals much deeper tactical and ideological separation. To prematurely attempt a merger or coalition of these groups and parties may well damage the tentative growth that radical politics in Ireland is currently enjoying.
In éirigi’s opinion, a better option at this time is for groups of similar outlook to work together on single issue campaigns, similar to those outlined above. Over time, the conditions for a single socialist republican party may well emerge.
PF: How does éirígí see things in Ireland developing over the next, say, decade? How do you see éirígí developing in that context?
BL: The discourse in Ireland, both north and south, over the last decade has been dominated by an ‘end of history’ type analysis. The aim of this propaganda was to promote the idea that all forms of popular struggle were finished. According to this view, the economy, although fundamentally unequal, was fundamentally sound and needed nothing but minor tinkering with. Meanwhile, the national question was settled, with the British occupation continuing indefinitely.
In éirígí’s view, the next 10 years will be about exploding these myths. The truth remains that the economy is not fundamentally sound – it is on the point of collapse due to the way it was managed in the interests of the wealthy few. Already, we have seen tens of thousands of people taking to the streets of Dublin to protest about government cuts.
The Six County state is not functioning as it was supposed to under the normalisation agenda of the British government and it never will. The communities that always opposed British rule are witnessing the failure of British rule on a daily basis.
In light of this, I think the next 10 years are going to see a rejuvenation and popularisation of the struggle for an independent, socialist Ireland. It won’t be easy, but we’re determined to get there.
PF: Is there anything you’d like to add?
BL: I’d like to thank you for giving éirígí the opportunity to explain its ideas to people in New Zealand. Communication and solidarity between peoples involved in struggle is essential in the fight for a better world, and long may it continue.
Posted on July 31, 2011, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, éirígí, Economy and workers' resistance, Interviews, Irish politics today, Political education and theory, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, twenty-six counties. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.