Ireland's parliamentry Left in crisis
Clare Daly’s was elected to the Dáil in 2011. A founder member of the Socialist Party, Daly was initially hailed as a bright new voice for Ireland’s parliamentary Left. But in strange and controversial circumstances, Daly left the Socialist Party in 2012 on foot of her defence of fellow TD and tax fraud, Mick Wallace. In this first post from the Anarchist Lens, Daly’s about turn is examined from an anarchist point of view.
In early September 2012, Clare Daly, one of two Socialist Party TDs in the Dáil (the Irish parliament) resigned her membership of that party citing irreconcilable differences. Re-designating herself a member of the United Left Alliance (ULA) (1) , she declared that it was time to “prioritise the building of the ULA” which she described as an “an alternative political force, that can present a real challenge to the establishment parties”.(2) Daly’s statement implied that she had undertaken a re-assessment of the possibilities for the Irish left and in so doing she had discovered that the Socialist Party (SP) – her political home for twenty-five years – was sorely wanting. She implied that in recognising that it was not possible to change the SP from within, she had reluctantly taken the decision to move on. The ULA was a much wiser venture.
On a superficial level Daly’s explanation of her decision to migrate to the ULA made some sense. However it was far from being the full story and almost anyone who had taken any interest in the matter knew this to be so. In the months prior to her departure from the SP, Daly had become increasingly linked to the independent Dáil TD, Mick Wallace. A controversial figure with Left leanings, Wallace had also won a seat in the Irish parliament, at the same time as Daly, for the Wexford constituency. Unusually – given his views – Wallace was also a building contractor and a property developer. (3) During the Celtic Tiger period he had amassed a significant empire that he subsequently lost in the financial crash and economic meltdown that began in late 2008. Emerging from this with a good deal of his personal wealth intact, Wallace successfully traded on his reputation and misfortunes and resoundingly won election to the Dáil in 2011.
However, in the early half of 2012, Wallace’s past caught up with him. The Irish Revenue Commissioner took proceedings against the Wexford TD accusing him of failing “to make full tax returns on apartment sales over a two-year period”. (4) Wallace’s company, MJ Wallace Ltd, had collected monies from individuals and families it sold its apartments to but it had not subsequently passed this money onto Irish Revenue even though Wallace continued to collect a generous salary as director of MJ Wallace Ltd. The sum of money demand by the Irish Revenue was €1.4 million (5). It also emerged that on another occasion he had withheld pension contributions totally nearly €50,000 that had been deducted from his employees in order to maintain his companies in credit (6). In due course Wallace pleaded guilty to charges put to him. M.J. Wallace Ltd was fined a substantial sum by the Irish Revenue but the original sum of money owed to the tax department along with the fine were never to be recouped as Wallace’s building company had become insolvent (7).
The complications for Clare Daly were not initially of her own making. Her party, the SP, were bound together with Wallace in the Dáil in a practical arrangement known as a Technical Group (TG) (8). The TG had no common political programme and was little more than a ship of convenience used by its members to make more efficient use of certain Dáil services based on the number of members it contained. TG participation allowed its members to propose and promote Dáil Bills and put questions to the Government etc; the TG also received a certain amount of administrative and financial benefits due to is size.
Wallace was adamant about continuing as a Dáil representative despite his past business transgressions. However within the TG of which he was a vocal member, there was considerable unhappiness about his position and the controversy surrounding his tax dealings. This was not surprising given that the Irish electorate was by this time (2011-12) well exercised by the matter of corruption in high office. There was widespread public sentiment that there was simply too much double standards and this had played a significant role in bringing about Ireland’s economic meltdown. Surely, the electorate felt, it time for a new beginning and an end to duplicity? A sentiment encouraged no doubt by the reality that Wallace had stood for election under the slogan that proclaimed: ‘For A New Politics’.
Socialist members of the TG were particularly uncomfortable over Wallace. Within the TG the leftwing TDs operated under two banners: their individual party banners – Socialist Party and People Before Profit for example – but also under the collective banner of the United Left Alliance. In all of these organisations and in the ULA itself there was disquiet among the rank and file about the proximity of the left TDs to Wallace given his tax irregularities. It could not be any other way. For many Wallace openly seemed to be having the best of all worlds: he had been through a financial disaster but was still very well off. Now he was collecting a very lucrative salary as a Dáil TD while claiming to be part of the new future in Irish political life.
The Wallace tax scandal unfolded over the spring and summer of 2012, just as tentative steps were being taken to develop the ULA into a national political party with proper structures and membership requirements(9). This was a delicate process given that the ULA contained within it different factions and a multitude of difficult individual egos. Nonetheless the goal was clearly set out by Joan Collins, a member of People Before Profit (10) and one of the ULA’s influential Dublin TDs:
"I want people to stand under the banner of [the ULA] for the local elections in 2014. We need an electoral alternative to cuts in the budget. There is a need for a principled opposition." (11)
The Wallace scandal detonated silently inside this shaky alliance. It was noted by ULA members that four of their five TDs had been silent on the matter of Wallace’s questionable standards; Seamus Healy, the Tipperary South TD, was the only consistent dissenter. No immediate statement was issued by the ULA distancing itself from Wallace or explaining to its membership what its position was on the matter of Wallace and his ongoing career in politics. Some put the silence down to the cumbersome, consensus-based decision making arrangement that the ULA had lumped itself with during its formation. Other rumours however – largely emanating from the more right-wing sections of the press – suggested that there was more to the paralysis than was at first apparent. The increasingly ugly spat eventually spilled over into the Campaign Against the Household and Water Tax (CAHWT) (12) , which Wallace had linked himself to via his Wexford constituency (13). The Campaign was a nationwide grassroots movement to oppose austerity and in particular a household tax that was being imposed on all house owners by the Irish government. It had a large, politically and geographically, disparate membership and it included in its ranks both the anti-parliamentary and parliamentary left. In the CAHWT there was little equivocation about Wallace and the Campaign issued a statement disassociating itself from the TD and his pass fraudulent actions. (14)
The scandal deepened in early June when Wallace’s plans to attend the European Soccer Championships in Poland became known. It seemed to some that Wallace’s lifestyle had been largely unaffected by his tussle with The Irish Revenue (15) and this provoked renewed criticism of the Wexford TD and his apparent lack of remorse. On June 12th the Socialist Party reacted and declared that “Mick Wallace’s failure to pay the original sum of €1.4 million in VAT is disgraceful, unacceptable and indefensible”. (16) The statement while clear cut on one level, went on to explain that Mick Wallace had no connections with the SP or the ULA (despite their close links with him in the TG) and that the campaign against Wallace was being fuelled by a right-wing media which had it in for Wallace, due to his past utterance. (Wallace publically opposed Irish support for the US war in Iraq in 2003 – this stand put him at odds with pro-US newspapers like The Irish Independent who have indeed led the campaign against Wallace.)
Around this time it also became more publically known (17) via more media reports that Clare Daly was ‘friendly’ with Mick Wallace, an Irishism for stating that they were in a relationship together. This news – as an explanation for Clare Daly’s puzzling stand – came more fully into the public light when Daly refused to back a Socialist Party supported motion designed to discipline the Wexford section of the CAHWT which was refusing to dissociate itself form Wallace despite directions from the Campaign nationally. (18) Daly’s position was now increasingly explained as being one to do with a personal ‘loyalty’ to Wallace (19). In other words she was refusing to join in the public condemnation of the troubled TD because she was in a relationship with him. Importantly also, Daly’s stand was offered as the reason for the initial reticence of the SP and the ULA to condemn Wallace and his actions. Later in the summer, after Daly refused to support a motion in the CAHWT, supported by her party (SP), proposing to censure the Lock Garman (Wexford) section of the Campaign which was standing by Wallace, the SP went public with their dissatisfaction and stated: "Unfortunately, two United Left Alliance (ULA) TDs, Clare Daly and Joan Collins, spoke in opposition on the grounds that the motions infringed the democratic rights of the Loch Garman group. This argument, against the agreed policy of the ULA, ignores the fact that the issue is of such importance to the campaign across the country that it is a decision to be made democratically through the national structures of the campaign." (20)
Shortly after this, Clare Daly dramatically quit the SP and issued her statement committing herself to the ULA and its potential to be “a real challenge” to the austerity politics. Needless to say few activists inside the Socialist Party were convinced by the reasons she was giving for her volte face and within the ULA itself there was also considerable scepticism re Daly’s about turn. Had Daly really been converted to the aspirations of the ULA or was she just using the ULA to cover over the debacle with Wallace and move on?
Daly’s departure from the SP ended a twenty-five year long association with the Party. But the acrimony and headaches did not end there. Citing dismay with the ULA’s wavering on the matter of Wallace and its tolerance of Daly within its ranks, the important Workers and Unemployed Action Group (WUAG) associated with the Tipperary South TD Seamus Healy departed the ULA in September. (21) More significantly the Socialist Party continued to grumble and made it clear that it was openly at odds with Daly and her supporters inside the ULA. As 2012 approached its end, a real question mark hung over the future of the party. The SP, while at the same time announcing it would not leave the ULA, launched a broadside against the new venture stating that it was “not measuring up to the political challenge” (22). In other words a right mess for all those left activists committed to the parliamentary road to socialism.
Many on the Left have been flummoxed by Daly’s loyalty to Mick Wallace and by the manner in which his predicament appeared to have influenced her decision to end a twenty-five year association with the Socialist Party. There has been much incredulity and, it must be said, much dismay too – as indicated by the acrimonious divisions with the ULA. But, seen from an anarchist perspective, is Daly’s political migration really that unusual? Unexpected certainly, but unusual?
In Left history, anarchist theory has played a vital role in critiquing the process by which parliament not only contains but also disarms the drive to bring about meaningful change in society. This critique has become all the more important and relevant given the repeated emphasis placed by socialists and Marxist-socialists on using the parliament. This despite the fact that the parliamentary road to socialism is an entirely failed entity, littered with repeated disasters, compromises, examples of ditched principles and, in many cases, outright betrayal of the interests of the working class. [For specific examples and the overview in Many Roads, One Destination in the WSM pamphlet Parliament Or Democracy ]. (23)
Anarchism indeed has presented a coherent and consistent analysis as to the why and the how of the phenomena. There are, it should be emphasised, different aspects to the critique. For example working-class self-activity – a key component in the struggle for change – often declines significantly when a strong parliamentary socialist movement emerges. There is also the significant issue to do with the feasibility of using the State (an intrinsically authoritarian structure) to bring about fundamental processes of liberation. There is the important issue of disconnection that emerges when socialist candidates obtain parliamentary office and how that disconnection impacts and impairs movement objectives. In regard to much of this, anarchism has been proven to be an insightful political theory when it comes to understanding why seemingly ‘committed and principled’ socialists renege on their promises when they achieve high office. The Clare Daly debacle is perhaps best understood within this anarchist critique.
A LONG ROAD
To understand better what is meant here it is important to look at the journey that Clare Daly has made. First and foremost, Daly was catapulted into a very different world by her election to the Dáil in 2011. Some socialists like to pretend that this does and that a person with principles can stand above material trapping at will. But in practice that is actually not the case. There is no iron rule here, of course. Some individuals are impacted more than others; sometimes the effect takes a long while to materialise whereas with others it is felt immediately. In Daly’s case it should also be borne in mind that her arrival in the Dáil was a long time coming.
Daly after all was a founding member of Socialist Party (SP) – formerly the International Militant Tendency. She worked tirelessly throughout much of the 80s and 90s at a grassroots level for the cause of socialism in Ireland; very few people, if any, dispute this. During that time she worked for the Irish airline, Aer Lingus, in their Catering Department, where she was an active member of her trade union, SIPTU; she held the elected post of shop steward for over 10 years. In 1999 she first tasted electoral success in the public sphere when she won a seat for the Socialist Party on Fingal County Council; she was subsequently re-elected in 2004 and 2009 (24). In 2011 with austerity in the air she finally made the long sought-after breakthrough and won a Dáil seat for the constituency of Dublin North.
Her election to the Dáil gave her a new, powerful platform from whence she was able to make her views known about the causes of the crisis and what should be done about it. In the initial period she performed ably and well – and was, notably, a new and a fresh voice in Irish political life. She featured regularly on significant Irish media fora such as the flagship current affairs programme Today Tonight (RTE) and on the influential Tonight with Vincent Browne (TV3). During this period it was certainly clear that Daly was following through on her track record and on the mandate she had received at election time. She certainly championed the cause of social justice at a time when mainstream politics in Ireland was roundly focused on delivering a swift dose of neo-liberal medicine to its unprepared public.
However in taking up her seat in the Dáil, Daly was facing an old and difficult bogey for a socialist. How would she cope with her new found status? The most obvious and immediate factor is the special position that is reserved for TDs. (25) Lucrative salaries, allowances and expenses are part of the deal but this is accentuated by the special attention that is focused on politicians particularly in the modern setup where media/ celebrity status is increasingly valued. So a TD can easily gain much greater access to all sorts of privileges that an ordinary person would never dream of encountering. This sort of limelight can affect a person’s orientation and indeed the trapping of high office have long been viewed as potentially corrupting to core principles. Not so much a problem for a mainstream politician but a considerable headache for a revolutionary socialist whose commitment must remain loyal to those excluded from power and privilege in society.
The benefits of parliamentary success are not accidental creations, of course. Within the narrow confines of modern ‘Western’ democracy, parliamentarians are expected to see themselves as leaders and, in theory at least, they are also potential decision makers within and for their communities. In that sense it seems quite logical that they should be rewarded with privilege and status. Such endowments send the right sort of signal about parliament’s role in society and it ably assists in binding parliamentarians to the institution and the process of standing for election. Again, in practice, this presents no real problem for a mainstream politician but for a Marxist party such as the SP and its membership there are pitfalls.
Longstanding activists of Clare Daly’s ilk are not unaware of this problem. Nor, for that matter, is (or was) her former party. The Socialist Party for example ordains that all its members follow one simple rule on attaining Dáil office: all Socialist Party TDs must commit to only taking a wage that is equal to the ‘average industrial wage’. The surplus money that accrues to the elected party members is instead donated to the Party for its uses in the wider struggle. In this way, in theory anyway, no SP TD can personally benefit from being elected to the Dáil. But in practice of course the problems associated with Dáil privileges and status present themselves in a number of ways – amounting to a lot more than just the jingle of coins. A party member may well eschew the material trappings of office (money and material aggrandisement) but as is evidenced in the Clare Daly case there are plenty of other trinkets in the shop window to catch the unsuspecting eye.
For an elected member of parliament the road to pragmatism and moderation is both well known and well worn. There have been the famous cases – ‘grand’ examples so to speak – such as that of the pre-WW2 German Social Democratic Party. The GSDP grew meteorically after its formation and had radical aims (26), but as high office beckoned it was to discover that its leadership had become increasingly dominated by a very pragmatic viewpoint. The socialist Edward Bernstein articulated this well when he said that electoral politics was ‘the high-school of compromise’. Throughout his life Bernstein retained a commitment to the eventual aim of socialism – redistribution of wealth via the ending of capitalist production – but crucially, he argued that the more immediate and tangible goals should and did take precedence over long term aspirations (27). Bernstein’s influential viewpoint culminated in his now classic re-formulation of the priorities of the GSPD when he stated: ‘the movement means everything... what was usually called the final aim of socialism ... nothing’. (28)
Recent Irish history illustrates the same process. For example Irish people have just been through a budget where the Labour Party justified its role in imposing severe austerity on the grounds that if the Labour Party didn’t deliver the medicine to the public, an even less sympathetic coalition of parties might impose something even worse – a sort of mental mind-flip worthy of Orwell’s 1984 surely. Another interesting example is that involving the formation of the political party, Democratic Left (29) in 1992 as a breakaway from The Workers Party. On that occasion a majority of The Workers Party’s seven Dáil TDs, left to form a new left-centre party. At the time, the acrimonious split cloaked itself with a number of pragmatic reasons including the desire by the seceding group of TDs to distance themselves from the image of Stalinism that had clung to The Workers Party. But in reality the new Democratic Left party was decidedly more ‘centrist’ than ‘left’ and quite amenable to capitalism too. In time all of Democratic Left’s TDs merged into the Labour Party and today one of those originals, Eamon Gilmore, leads the Labour Party where he has played a key role in imposing austerity on Irish workers. QED?
Compared to the above examples, Clare Daly’s migration does not amount to a great deal. Her defection is partly personal and it is also limited in its scope by the reality that it doesn’t involve a tranche of other supporters following suit. However it does come at a bad time for the Irish parliamentary Left which itself is in the midst of manoeuvres to establish a stable and viable electoral alternative intent on occupying the space vacated by the Labour Party.
But where Daly’s case is of interest is in that we rarely see the process identified by anarchists working itself out so thoroughly and dramatically in an individual case. It is far more common (as with the Democratic Left example above) to see the process working itself out within a political party where it can sometimes stay hidden from full public view. In Daly’s case though her travails are largely hers and hers alone and, for reasons that are not entirely fair to her they have become quite public as well.
Commenting on the experience of being elected to parliament, a member of the Australian Labour Party commented thus, as far back as the early half of the 20th century: "Our supporters] “commonly criticised their MPs for not being icy enough. They saw Parliament as a comfortable club which seduced Labour members with facilities way beyond the reach of the a typical toiler - higher wages, comfortable leather chairs, billiard tables, dining rooms, well-stocked library, free rail travel and invitations to lavish functions."
This of course is a familiar refrain – the danger of being seduced by the material trappings of high office – but the same observer went on to make this other significant point: "Close contact with [our] adversaries could be disarming too. After lashing union bashers on the hustings it was different matter altogether to confront them in relaxing surroundings and find they are not bad blokes to share a drink with or a game of cards with. Many Labour men were obliged to adjust and often did so without being aware of the process." (30)
Leaving aside the sexism of those times for the moment, the key observation is that a person (an elected socialist) might find himself in due course and as a result of his exposure to the hum-drum of parliamentary life ‘obliged to adjust’ his behaviour. He noted also that that such a person also “often did so without being aware of the process”.
So we are led back to the unexpected and, some would say, uncharacteristic about turn by Clare Daly in September of last year. A theory has floated about that explains Daly’s move as being one of a sudden bout of bad judgement perhaps brought on by the heady emotions of being in a new relationship with Wallace. But this hardly does justice to Clare Daly. By any measure she is not a novice. If anything she is a seasoned and an influential activist. For example it was openly suggested that she would one day be the next leader of the Socialist Party. So hardly an example of someone who would blow with any wind.
Another aspect of Daly’s about turn has been her steadfastness. For the best part of a year she hardly wavered to any significant degree on the matter of Wallace. Rather, in her confrontations with her formers comrades, she has been trenchant and, even now, with her move into the ULA she has not shown any desire to compromise – a factor that is likely to do terminal damage to that party.
What seems much more plausible and fair to Daly then is to accept that she had changed. Her political outlook had shifted and it appears to have shifted significantly since her election to the Dáil. Some of this no doubt is to do with the new situation she finds herself in but it also has to do with the people she is now in closer proximity to. Daly’s support for Wallace could (reasonably) be viewed and described as ‘seeing things from Wallace’s own perspective’. Recall that Wallace himself does not really believe he did anything particularly wrong in terms of his tax affairs (31). He was simply a man trapped in a collapsing building (the financial crash). He had to take harsh measures or else he might never have got out alive. Clare Daly’s own pronouncements to some extent echo this viewpoint. She had stated that she has condemned Wallace for his past misdemeanours. But, as she puts it, these aspects are now in the past and it’s time to move on to more important issues.
In keeping with her surprising support for Wallace, Clare Daly has also become more closely associated with a reformist wing within the ULA which aims to mould it into a social democratic electoralist party. A ‘social democratic’ party may sound like a fine aspiration to some but recall that it is light years away way from the revolutionary socialist position that Daly adhered to while a member of the Socialist Party and which she articulated and stood over for decades.
There is no knowing for sure, of course, what has gone on with Daly – and my conjectures here are just that. Time will tell us more no doubt. But the evidence is mounting that Dáil tenure and the ‘limelight’ of office has got to Daly. In this sense anarchists may well be quite justified in engaging in a bit of ‘I told you so’. But for Ireland’s troubled parliamentary socialist movement the fallout is a lot more serious and worrying. For parties such as the Socialist Party much is made of (and huge effort is expended on) the matter of getting someone elected to the Dáil. Consider for example what the SP put into Clare Daly’s slow but steady rise. It was actually huge. With her election won, the hope and expectation was that she would work hard to increase the Party’s profile and standing. But now all of that has come to naught.
Once more then, Dáil office (and power) – The Holy Grail for Ireland's parliamentary socialists – has proven to be a graveyard for its political ideals. Some might hope that in time this latest debacle will provoke a sobering reassessment in that quarter but it would be naive to expect anything dramatic either. Sadly, some socialist traditions seemed fated to repeat the same errors again and again and again precisely because they neither understand the nature of power (the electorate versus the parliamentary machine) or how this works steadily and stealthily against the processes of liberation.