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A union leader and social democracy. He forgot. They don’t. There’s the difference. April 28, 2010

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, European Politics, Irish Politics, The Left.

I want to refer back to a quote that DublinDilettante fished out of the latest Union Post and which was cause for some consideration. It was from Blair Horan, who in a poignant cri de coeur said:

Mr Horan, right, pointed out he was a social democrat who had supported the Government on European Treaties over the past decade and “had taken on the militant left to do so”.

I noted that this was a ‘category error’ and that Horan seemed to misunderstand the nature of the exercise.
And while I don’t for a second doubt that Horan considers himself to be a social democrat nor would I attempt to second guess what that means for him, it does appear in that statement that he’s forgotten that interactions, socio-political interactions in particular, tend to the adversarial.

It didn’t matter a whit that social democrats, myself to some degree amongst them – although that turned a bit sour at the end, were often in favour of Lisbon in both iterations. It didn’t matter that they lined up with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats (that wing which wasn’t sneaking off to have fun and frolics with Chairman Ganley – God bless him, I never thought I’d miss him, but I do). It didn’t matter that the unions and IFA, IBEC, ISME and the SFA (albeit with untypical wobbles from elements within them) agreed – in serious tones and with due deliberation – that this was a strategic national interest and that all would line up – however odd that exercise might prove to be – on the same side.

But that’s not the same thing as being on the same side or expecting that others will operate as if one is on the same side.

It’s fine for any union leader to assert that he or she is a social democrat. In fact it’s laudable. But it’s rather unwise to do so in the expectation that Fianna Fáil are social democrats, or that social democracy represents some sort of ‘moderation’ that will be its own reward. More unwise still to believe that when Fianna Fáil are in government with a party of the liberal economic right, the Progressive Democrats for much of the past decade and a half and remains in government with their remnants.

And what’s also galling about the piece is that in this instance Horan knows this… for he continues:

“Minister Dempsey has in the past blamed bankers and developers for the mess that the country is in, and now criticises the unions, but conveniently neglects to accept that it wasthe reckless domestic economic policies of the past decade that has wrecked the Irish economy.
“It is the minister’s own Government that is in denial, attacking lower paid public servants while pretending that the low tax model is sustainable.”

Bingo! That’s it precisely. So what need to pretend that we’re all in this together, we’re all singing off the same hymn sheet, that somehow moderation is a virtue?

Worse again, is the reference to facing off militant union members on Lisbon. It’s not that I suggest that inter-union differences of opinion should be ignored, but there is a tendency of much of the left that when criticised or confronted by the right the immediate response appears to be to throw some element or another of leftist policy or thinking away or to set oneself up in opposition within the left. I’m not pretending that doesn’t work both ways, or that granted Lisbon, and the broader EU issue, was arguably something that conflicted many on the left, but that too in a way makes this in some respects worse. Are the union leadership truly so naive that they believed that this would store up good will with a right of centre government?

Thing is not that there is no room for negotiations and engagement in any context. That’s a pointless approach from almost any standpoint – although there are circumstances where no engagement is better than engagement – not least because that’s not where most union members are and bringing them with one is an important part of the process but also because the power of labour while not as constrained as it might seem to think remains constrained, particularly within a hugely complex society.

It is however crucial that that process is based upon a recognition of what and where people stand. And that is true of all players in this…

We can be as radical as we damn well like but it’s completely futile if we can’t mobilise people to come with us.

But that’s not the same thing as saying one doesn’t make the effort according to ones lights, or – and as importantly – that one doesn’t recognise the power relations at work here. There are different, and arguably varying, levels of power in the relationship between labour and state and labour and capital. But those relationships, which we see are more rather than less similar in both cases, are not, can not, be ones where we pretend that there is no difference of interests, or worse again delude ourselves that somehow state and capital will smile munificently on the instances where some brief confluence of interests for a time makes joint action necessary.

I genuinely don’t want to personalise this. But it strikes me that if former members of the Workers’ Party don’t get this, indeed get to the point that they seem like men (or women) whose sense of the way the world works has been dealt a crushing blow, you’d really have to wonder about what social partnership (something by the way I’ve never been instinctively antagonistic to as long as it was seen through on our terms) was about, and indeed where this leaves us for the future.


1. Louis Lepke Jr. - April 28, 2010

‘you’d really have to wonder about what social partnership (something by the way I’ve never been instinctively antagonistic to as long as it was seen through on our terms) was about, and indeed where this leaves us for the future.’

It leaves us where we are now, basically fucked. When the GRA sound more militant than SIPTU, and when Peter McLoone is individually contacting IMPACT reps to beg for a ‘Yes’ to Croke Park, the union movement has given up the ghost. And to a government that is crumbling- note the way they have collapsed over pensions. A general strike last year and they’d have been gone. But Jack O’Connor (labour member or not) would always rather have Fianna Fail in power.


2. alastair - April 28, 2010

Blair Horan – surely he’s simply disputing that he’s a ‘militant union leader’. I’m not seeing any suggestion that he believes FF to be social democratic fellow-travelers, or that he should be rewarded for his moderation, or that there’s any sort of implied common hymn sheet at play. He’s just saying that Noel Dempsey is wrong with the ‘militant’ label.


WorldbyStorm - April 29, 2010

Good point. But consider this. It’s not just that he’s disputing he’s a ‘militant union leader’. After all he could as easily say ‘I’m not a militant union leader. I’ve sat around a table from the social partners for a decade. I’ve fought for my members but I’ve always been willing to negotiate. I’ve successfully supported and won the government line on the EU in the face of opposition’.

But he doesn’t stop there. He specifically use “social democrat” as an explicatory term.

It seems to me though that Horan is trying to suggest that as a self-avowed social democrat he is not merely distinctly different to ‘militant’ left union members, but is in some fashion something that is closer to, or at least clearly recognisable as sitting on the same sort of ideological plane as, even if there is distance between them, Fianna Fáil (as you rightly say, that’s not synonymous with saying FF is social democrat, but it is suggesting that FF would at least understand the usage of the term SD and recognise that as yet further evidence or whatever for non-militancy).

It’s that usage that’s more than interesting in itself, for while social democracy is a broad church it’s not just about being ‘moderate’ and it has some pretty militant congregations within it. I’ve been on more than one industrial action with Irish LP members to know the truth of that – indeed actions where LP elected reps smiled on the activity, but a moments reflection on European social democracy also will demonstrate that many social democratic formations are more than happy to use militant action where appropriate.


3. Mark P - April 28, 2010

Horan’s intervention into the Lisbon debate, as front man for one of the astroturf “civil society” groups rolled out on the Yes side, was specifically aimed at undermining the cohesiveness of left wing opposition to the Treaty. In the unions he has been a stalwart of the right wing bureaucracy.

I’m sure he was genuinely offended at being called a militant.


4. Bartholomew - April 28, 2010

‘Fun and frolics with Chairman Ganley – God bless him, I never thought I’d miss him, but I do’

Don’t worry wbs, he hasn’t gone away you know:



5. Captain Rock - April 28, 2010

You should pack in all the left-politking and join the Gardai. Their union is the most militant in the country (and some of them have access to guns).


6. Jim Monaghan - April 28, 2010

On the Gardiai, a Trotsky anecdote.
If you have shortages you have a queque.
If you have a queque, you need to police it.
If you have police they get what is being quequed for first.OIr thgey serve themselves first

The repressive forces are just demanding their pound of flesh in advance of doing what is required if they are needed to act against the masses.

Look what is happening to Greece


7. HAL - April 28, 2010

I think the Gardai are remindung the government of the old proverb.
If you rob Peter to pay Paul,you can always depend on Paul.


8. Jimmy McNulty - April 28, 2010

There is a dialectic at work here, cop-killas and gangsta-faces. The Gardaí are seriously fucked off with Fianna Fáil. Many Guards are married to teachers or nurses, or related to same. The relentless media public-sector bashing has considerably annoyed them, as can be seen by the GRA leader’s speech, which called this stuff ‘incitement to hatred’. Similarly the language used about Fingers and Seanie Fitz, about FF’s rich pals, and bankers and developers, was much stronger than that used recently by David Begg or Jack O’Connor. While there are all sorts of scams cops can use to make more money, lots of younger Guards have been hit hard by the recession and the public sector cuts. We can stew in our leftie ‘off the pigs’ juice, and pretend that ‘Five-0’ ‘ the Shades’ and ‘the Filth’ are constantly on our backs (which unless we are in Rossport or members of the C-IRA, is simply not the case), or we can recognise that this is a very interesting situation. Fianna Fail ministers haven’t gotten the hump like this over teachers conferences: one TD called for the GRA leader to be sacked from his job today. In Britain neither the police, nor the army, have bodies as vocal as the GRA or PDFORA (who said they would be reluctant to break strikes last year). So dig it brothers in blue!


WorldbyStorm - April 29, 2010

I have the impression that some Gardai are fairly uneasy about too vociferous statements by the GRA in the context of ‘politicisation’. Not sure how that plays out, but I’d think it could be a division between those in some ranks and those in others.


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11. Pope Epopt - April 28, 2010

@Jimmy McNulty

A good point, well made. Allegiances shift and a smart operator spots chinks in the armour. The Emperor has made the elementary mistake of pissing off the Praetorian Guard.

I wonder just how officious the Gardaí would be about ejected enraged citizens who wanted to take over the Dáil or the headquarter of Anglo Irish?


WorldbyStorm - April 29, 2010

I think it would depend on who the citizens were. I think back to the one event which really shook the govt, at the Budget two years ago when the senior citizens started to stir it up. They vote. They’re largely ‘respectable’, etc, etc. That scared the shit out of the govt parties. I couldn’t see a heavy handed response to them… but then they’re probably unlikely to do the sorts of actions you suggest.


12. Pope Epopt - April 28, 2010


It’s late.


13. Jim Monaghan - April 29, 2010

I think if you look carefully at the Gardai and the prison officers they are asking to be made an exception to the cuts, a bit like the really successful union, the one the senior civil servants are in


WorldbyStorm - April 29, 2010

That seems to be the long and the short of it.


14. Jimmy McNulty - April 29, 2010

Actually the POA voted to reject the Croke Park deal today. ‘The coppers and the screws, they told us what to do, they now lead the way, towards a better day…’


15. Jimmy McNulty - April 30, 2010

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