Democratic Left July 26, 2012Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, The Left.
I was thinking recently about my time in Democratic Left. Brief it was too, about two, maybe three years at most. And what it did was perhaps utterly counterintuitive to what might have been expected. It pushed me from a passive sort of Republicanism that I had developed inside the WP to a much more active position. In a way this was curious, seeing how DL was almost unable to understand that a similar dynamic to that which occurred in the Workers’ Party where it shifted as Official Sinn Féin from a political/militarist position to a purely political one could be repeated a generation or so later with the Provisionals. What was most odd was that a party founded in part on attempting to avoid the evasions that were extant with orthodox Communism could completely ignore, or be resistant, to the realities of what was happening within PIRA and PSF. This was reflected in a profound suspicion of the peace process, which by the time DL was established was well under way.
I’ve mentioned this before, but one moment that really stuck with me was when a delegate from an inner city DL branch stood up at the Annual Conference in 1993 or 1994 and argued that ‘even the dogs in the streets’ knew that the IRA was moving towards a ceasefire but the rhetoric coming from DL reps was one that refused to admit that that was happening. I recall sitting in Liberty Hall in the audience and thinking, hmmm… that’s me out of here. Because it seemed to me then that in some ways this was worse than being evasive about the negative aspects of the Soviets. The latter was an issue which simple geography could lend a detachment, not laudable – but understandable. But this was something that was happening on our doorstep.
I was gone by the time the coalition came around and in a way I’m glad of that. Having been through one split I had no enthusiasm to walk away during another de facto one (albeit the numbers who left at the coalition seem to have been relatively low).
What I think in retrospect is that there was, for all of the evident ambitions of the party representatives, a space to the left of Labour. We know that now, that indeed that space is considerable. I’ve mentioned before. If one puts together the numbers of ULA and left Independent TDs one will see there are about six, perhaps seven if we include Ming Flanagan, left of centre, and five ULA.
That’s 12 TDs. About the numbers that the LP had during much of the 1970s and 1980s. Throw in the 14 SF TDs, and accepting there are caveats about how left wing all of them would be – albeit most would seem familiar to most traditional social democrats from the 20th century (conservative social values of some and all) and we see not merely a space to the left of the LP but an expanse.
DL’s ultimate ultimate function seems, in retrospect – and entirely unconsciously – to have been a conveyer between a fair porition of the vote that the WP developed and that which SF subsequently inherited. This is, of course, a major irony given the ferocious anti-Republicanism of many in DL but the dynamic was extant none the less. Proof? Well consider how the left vote didn’t expand when DL merged with the LP. Instead what tended to happen was that the DL TDs managed to retain their original WP or DL vote but were unable to expand upon it.
It speaks of a terrible lack of vision that they could believe that a party with six TDs could be non-viable. But, and I think this is testament to the character of many, though not all, of the individual TDs there was remarkably little effort to grow the party. The focus was strongly on the individual TDs rather than on a broader and national (in the purely technical and electoral sense) and internationalist vision.
Do I think the world, or this small portion of it, would have been better if DL had survived. I’ve very mixed emotions in that regard. Their inability to engage with how Ireland was changing during this period suggests that deep rooted approaches learned in the WP days by some, were very problematic and were blocks to development. And yet, and yet, an avowedly left of Labour, right of Marxist-Leninist political formation in opposition to neo-liberalism and with a strong line on social issues would have been of positive benefit. Never more so than today.
But I wonder if realistically they could transcend their past as well as they thought they could. That their final destination was the Labour Party suggests that that was not feasible.