Earlier today I interviewed the recently re-elected independent TD for Dublin South Central, Joan Collins. After the ordeal of last month’s short general election campaign and the count, in which she was elected by reaching the 8,572 vote quota, her Crumlin constituency office was open and busy with activity. No piece on Joan can be written at this point in time that fails to mention the remarkable fact that she is a seasoned community activist and politician who managed to canvass for and win an election to the Dáil while standing trial for and being acquitted of breach of the peace charges at the central criminal court in relation to her ongoing protest against the installation of water meters in her community. Why wouldn’t Crumlin elect Joan Collins?!
After a long fought community based campaign against bin charges which culminated in her election to Dublin City Council in 2004 she was approached by the Socialist Workers Party ahead of the 2011 general elections with a view to forming a broad based alliance against austerity. Joan, who said she considers herself non-sectarian when it comes to left politics, joined with the SWP and a number of others in forming People Before Profit, and stood in and won a seat for the new party. This placed her across from the government during a term which saw aggressive Fianna Fáil introduced and Fine Gael and Labour implemented austerity measures which tore a hole in the fabric of communities across the country.
This was the heyday of the United Left Alliance, a socially and politically wide formation to the left of Irish politics that had all the potential to meet the threat of the elites in the Irish political establishment. As all that is solid turns into air, the alliance quickly fragmented due to internal differences. While Joan and her colleague Clare Daly worked to keep the ULA together as a structure to support community anti-austerity initiatives the seams came undone leading to Joan ultimately parting company with People Before Profit.
In our conversation Joan was reluctant to over criticise People Before Profit and the personalities involved. She still maintains that effective resistance to the government’s neoliberal agenda depends on cohesion in the left, but she was adamant that fair criticism is required in the hope that it will lead to better reflection. As a 1980s import from England the SWP, a radical left revolutionary party, has remained very much on the fringe of Irish politics – even left politics, and has been considered by most as unelectable.
People Before Profit then may have begun, as Joan said, as a genuine attempt to solidify the left in the face of mounting austerity. In 2011 this did appear to be a winning formula, and the various movements on the left did result in the wider umbrella of the United Left Alliance. People Before Profit, however, was never allowed to be a fully autonomous organisation in its own right, but kept always under the direction of the SWP’s own national executive. Joan Collins and others including Seamus Healy were disheartened to see that People Before Profit was most often little more than a recruiting ground for the SWP, with meetings being used to disseminate Socialist Worker Party newspapers, leaflets, and SWP membership signup petitions.
Ideology is important to people like Joan, but she couldn’t be clearer in saying that ideology – thinking Socialism – must go hand-in-hand with activism and work within the community. This she said was absent from an SWP which sees revolution as a coming messianic certainty for which it only need wait on to assume leadership. “It doesn’t work like that,” she said, “our role as Socialists is to agitate, educate, and organise in order to build a movement communities themselves can take ownership of and lead.”
We can have the oligarchs of Ireland and the world accumulate wealth and power or we can have democracy. We can't have both. #redacted—
Joan Collins T.D. (@JoanCollinsTD) June 01, 2015
With this past general election returning a Dáil dominated by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and with the prospect of a hellish coalition of the two forming in the days and weeks ahead, there are many on the left – myself included – worried for the future of our anti-austerity hopes. Putting this to Joan I was taken with her optimism. One has to wonder how sitting so close to Enda Kenny and Joan Burton for the past five years can leave a shred of optimism in anyone, but she was optimistic. Rather than focussing on the elements of social resistance such as the water charges, she turned to the bigger picture of the Right2Change project. This was the first general election outing of such a wide but loose left confederation and still it took some 35 seats in Leinster House. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s a start.
Media was also a huge problem. RTÉ effectively disappeared 80,000 people the weekend before the general election. When some were saying that up to 100,000 were out demonstrating the state broadcaster never bothered to cover it, and even what the media did say put the numbers at 15,000, then 20,000. Only once they were beginning to look stupid this figure was revised to a vague “thousands.” Outside Dublin, where RTÉ have the monopoly on information, people were only given Micheál Martin and his Fianna Fáil as an alternative to the current mess.
Everything is still to play for. We never got the perfect result we wanted, but who ever does in politics? The entire system, from the media to the configuration of the constituency boundaries, she said, is designed cynically and clinically by the establishment to protect the status quo. We have started building a movement that is bigger than any one party or grouping on the left. If we continue to build on this, in communities and people’s places of work, we cannot in the end be defeated. If this movement weakens then we will all be isolated and vulnerable to a state apparatus that wants rid of us.