Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

Build the ULA

with 5 comments

Guest post

In advance of the ULA Forum a statement on Building the ULA from Joan Collins TD, Eddie Conlon Steering Committee Member ULA and PBP and Dermot Connolly, Steering Committee Member PBP.

The Main Job Now is to Build the ULA

The ULA has been a success. It has brought together a variety of left and socialist forces and provided a framework whereby they can work together. It has led to a focus on what the left agrees on rather than what divides us.  It has shown that by working together we can have success and develop genuine and  radical political representation for working people.  With the election of 5 TDs the ULA has established a national profile and provided a pole of attraction for those who want to resist the attacks on workers, the unemployed and oppressed.

The key issue now is how we develop the ULA beyond being an alliance into a political force which can draw in new layers of activists and build commitment to a radical reorganisation of society.  The shift from an alliance to a new political formation will take time and cannot be rushed. But if the ULA is not seen to be moving beyond its current configuration, essentially an alliance of the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and the Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group, its growth could be stifled.  Those attracted to it may only see at as a tool of the constituent groups. They will feel they cannot have a real say in what happens  without joining one of the groups.

The real issue then is not when you declare a new party but that the thrust of our activity and debate should build a growing momentum towards a new party.

It is now vital that all members of the ULA commit to building it as a real vibrant formation and take responsibility for its organisational and political development. The revolutionary organisations within it should not see it solely  as a means of building their own organisations. We should agree that the task of building a real challenge to the capitalism is better advanced through the development of a genuinely open, broad and pluralist party rather than through the growth of particular tendencies within it.  Joining the ULA does not require members to sign up to a tendency and nor should it. Those who join should be free to commit to the ULA alone rather than feeling that their membership makes them fair game to be recruited to the different revolutionary forces within it.

The ULA must seek to be become the dominant oppositional voice in the country and in the Dail. It should seek to draw towards it all those disillusioned with Labour (and Sinn Fein). There should be no illusions about a left split from either of these organisations. But there should be a genuine effort to expose them and appeal to their supporters. On particular issues it should be possible for the ULA to work with broader forces when we agree.   To seek to be the dominant oppositional voice the ULA will need to be:

1.    Anti-capitalist

The ULA must be clearly anti-capitalist. As the founding programme says we must insist that “There can be no just or sustainable solution to the crisis based on the capitalist market. Instead we favour democratic and public control over resources so that social need is prioritised over profit”.  This profoundly socialist aspiration should guide our policy and allow us to argue for reforms without being reformist.  We must fight cuts and for change without sowing illusions that the current crises can be solved in capitalist terms.  This guiding principle strengthens our commitment to do no deals or coalesce with the right.  You can’t do deals with those committed to the current system.

The programme of the ULA is a good basis for developing the project of a new party.  While the programme needs to be fleshed out it is not the case that the ULA can solve the real challenges it faces by simply adopting a set of revolutionary or socialist demands. The programme will need to be built on but this must be through debate and drawing the lessons from concrete struggles.  It must be a bottom up process, the National Forum is a good start, which draws on the vast experience of the activists within the ULA, and its periphery, and addresses the concrete challenges that face us.

But the programme should not be seen as a disposable commodity which can be diluted to facilitate the entry of those who really don’t agree with us. A weak programme will lead to political domination by the organised revolutionary forces within the ULA as they will be the ones with all the political answers. The ULA needs to develop a culture of political debate and education aimed at developing the layers of activists who will be drawn to us.

2.    An organisation of struggle and unity

The ULA must be to the forefront in fighting for the rights of working people and the oppressed and standing beside those who enter into struggles.  If the ULA cannot draw into membership the best fighters in the communities and unions it will not grow as a mass political force.  While current levels of struggle are low there is no doubt that this will change in the face of further and sustained onslaughts on the living standards of working people.

When this passivity turns to activity the ULA must be in a position to support, develop and lead the struggles that emerge.  This must be done in a united fashion and in a way that shows that the ULA has a united approach to supporting and building campaigns.

The ULA should not passively wait for struggles to emerge but must actively work to develop united work around agreed campaigns. The constituent groups must agree on priorities and agree to focus on these priorities. To date this approach has not been taken with a fair degree of latitude being provided for constituent groups to do their own thing. Campaigns aimed at building individual constituent groups have even cut across the efforts of the ULA to do work on particular issues. For example, the Enough Campaign is now calling meetings on the issue of the EROs and JLCs while the ULA has also prioritised this as a key campaign issue.

United campaigns are a vital ingredient in uniting the ULA on the ground. Through working together traditional suspicions can be undermined and a genuine spirit for unity can be developed. They will also provide a national focus for branches.

3.    Democratic, participatory and open

To date the ULA has been run by a small steering group. This group needs to be expanded.  While structures will evolve slowly it is still the case that those not affiliated to the constituent groups will find it hard to have a real influence on the development of the project.

It is the case that as an alliance, which wants to develop into a unitary organisation, some degree of experimentation will be necessary to involve new layers and make them feel they have ownership of the project.  This may mean that some form of hybrid structure develops which allows representation within ULA structures for the constituent groups but also for those new to the ULA.

The development of ULA membership and branches has been rightly prioritised but the process is slow and uneven.  About 40 public meetings have been held since the election and it should be now possible to develop up to 40 branches if the will is there to do so.

In the interim consideration should be given to developing a mechanism to allow non-affiliated people an input into decisions in the ULA.  It would provide a clear signal that the ULA is committed to developing participation by those outside the constituent groups.

In time representatives of branches should be able to meet collectively through elected delegates who could elect representatives to the Steering Committee. There would have to be agreement that such delegate meetings would be composed of those not affiliated to the main constituent organisations.  In the interim the proposal of the SP for a nonaligned platform within the ULA has merit and should be debated further.

In moving to a new party we have to be clear that party will have to be democratic and pluralist and allow the organised expression of different opinions. This will mean facilitating different political platforms. But this should not lead to a cacophony of voices where differences are accentuated to draw supporters to different tendencies. This will undermine the project.  The focus must stay on what is agreed with debate continuing on those issues on which we disagree.

Its important that as we move forward we don’t have false debates. For example none of us have illusions in the Dail  but putting thought and effort into Dail work does not amount to parliamentary cretinism. We must derive the most from having five TDs, an MEP and around 20 councillors.  This involves putting effort, thought and resources into our public representatives and becoming more skillful at linking their activity with the broader activism of the ULA.  The reality is that continued electoral success, or failure, will have an impact on the growth and development of the ULA. Our success has been important in legitimating the project and giving us authority to speak for working people. Therefore the next round of council elections and the next general election are key targets in developing the ULA.  We believe that we should seek to double our representation on councils at the next local elections.

As we move forward there are many organisational and political challenges to be met. Information flow must increase and an ebulletin and an improved website must be prioritised.  Mechanism for facilitating the exchange of political views must also be developed.  As a matter of priority steering group minutes and decisions should be circulated and regular forums should be held where activists can communicate and debate directly with the steering group and the TDs.

We believe the ULA can play a role in developing left unity in the North. The recent successes of PBP candidates in the North shows that there is a thirst for change amongst a minority. Low voter turn out suggest growing alienation form the political system. We believe that a left unity project should grow organically in the North but we believe that the ULA can play a vital role in facilitating movement towards the reorganisation of the Left in the North.


The ULA represents an unprecedented opportunity to build a radical political voice for working people.  The confluence of an unprecedented crises in Irish capitalism and the commitment of the left to develop a unity project means there is a real possibility that advances can be made towards the reorganisation of the Irish working class. A key ingredient in realising this possibility is that the constituent organisations prioritise the building of the ULA over all other objectives. This will mean suppressing deeply developed political instincts which favour their own organisational interests.  It is now vital that all members of the ULA commit to building it as a real vibrant formation and take responsibility for its organisational and political development.  If this is done the real potential of the ULA may be fully realised. Concretely this means:

  • Putting the resources and assigning organisers to develop a network of up to 40 branches. Branches should facilitate local campaign work, tie in with national campaigns and facilitate political discussion. Branches should have designated convenors who tie in with the steering committee. This work should provide the platform for doubling our representation on local councils at the next local elections.
  • Growing the membership towards 1,000 members registered on a central data base
  • United campaigns which generate real opportunities to practice unity in action
  • Increasing information flows and accountability and developing structures which allow all members to have a real say.

Contact Eddie (087 6775468), Joan (086 3888151) or Dermot (087 7675691) if you want to discuss this statement further

5 Responses

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  1. […] LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. There is much to agree with and to disagree with in this statement, so lets start with some of the positive. Firstly, it is a good thing in and of itself that people are putting their views and proposals down in print. That helps us all to clarify where people stand and what they are arguing for.

    Secondly, the four concrete steps proposed at the end are all reasonable, as long as they aren’t put forward too rigidly. There should be a centralised list of members. Our developing structures should facilitate accountability, the flow of information and should enable all members to have their say. Where there is sufficient agreement (on the issue, on tactics, on priorities), there should be united campaigns, although I would tend to stretch that beyond the limits of the ULA.

    Thirdly, I agree that the Enough campaign should not be cutting across ULA campaigning priorities. It seems to have become a catch all campaign for anything the SWP want to do while not being identified as either SWP or ULA.

    Fourthly, yes, we should take elections and having public representatives seriously and we should try to maximise the advantages they provide. At the same time, it’s important to remember that with the best will in the world, and without doubting the sincerity of our public representatives for a moment, that parliament does exercise a rightward pull on people which has to be fought against. And sudden parliamentary breakthroughs have often led to an overconcentration on parliament, which didn’t do a party like the Scottish Socialist Party any favours (I am talking here of the period immediately following them getting 6 MSPs elected, not about the later disaster).

    Fifthly, I am glad to see the statement that a “left unity project should grow organically in the North”. It is important to hammer home the point that the ULA, arising as it does from Southern conditions, cannot simply be imposed on the Northern left and that attempting to do so would cause more problems than it solves. The statement that the ULA “can play a role in facilitating” in the left is very vague on the other hand, so vague that it’s difficult to support or oppose.

    There are plenty of other things I agree with in this statement, but in a second comment I’m going to comment on some things I disagree with or am not sure about.

    Mark P

    Jun 24, 2011 at 6:00 pm

  3. Radical new structures are needed, the tired old structures of the traditionalist socialist clubs won’t cut it, Democratic Assembly at Ecotopia (a conference which takes place every year usually in Nordic or East European countries) is an effective, inclusive form of expediant and collective decision making.
    The new structure(s) should provide either real collective decision-making or actual accountability

    nora boyle

    Jun 30, 2011 at 11:35 am

  4. […] non-SWP PBP grouping spoke a couple of times in favour of their proposals on the way forward ( and it seemed to find something of a resonance with speakers from the floor, particularly the […]

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