31 July 2003 Edition
Building political strength
BY DOMHNALL Ó COBHTHAIGH - I have been enthused by the recent discussion on the place of left-wing politics in the current republican strategy. All too often socialists and radicals have spent their time debating old shibboleths to the avoidance of key strategic issues. I think all contributors share this understanding and the conclusion that we need to adopt a less dogmatic approach to reaching our existing and potential constituencies. This is, after all, only common sense, given the dominance of the ideology of the ruling class both in the current popular discourse, their control of the media and the almost universal conviction that 'socialism' is a utopian outlook requiring repression for its implementation.
Many contributions have raised the importance of policy making as a new area for republicans to engage. Without a doubt, this remains true. Through involvement in the Executive and Stormont Departmental Committees in the Six Counties and our increasing power and presence in Leinster House, we have often had to provide policy 'on-the-hoof'. This has not always been easy, nor has it been the preferable situation. It is difficult to produce a deliverable radical policy when you do not have state power.
In last week's paper, Seán Mac Brádaigh argued that we need to 'get down to developing the policies', the particular need for a detailed taxation policy and noted the good work of the small dedicated team in Leinster House in the field of policy development.
It is certainly true that our comrades in Leinster House have done a large amount of very useful and detailed work over the last two sittings of the Dáil e.g the recent Pre-Budget Submission. In addition, we should also note the similar volumes of policy produced by the variety of support committees within Stormont during their time in operation (with a particular note of the work of the two Sinn Féin minister's teams). As an aside, I consider the establishment of all-Ireland structures in the various areas of policy making is a step forward for the party. So too is the fact that their remits will be determined by content rather than merely falling in accordance with the departments of the institutions in which we are engaging.
An important part of policy making is consultation with interested activists. We shouldn't assume that Sinn Fein must have, ex cathedra, all the answers. Policy development needs discussion and participation. The process of policy making which has been adopted over the past year has been a significant move forward in terms of democratising the policy-making process and politicising our activists. I would consider that the manner in which the 'Educate that We May be Free' paper was conducted was a template for the process of policy making within the party.
As for fiscal policy, I think it is a very difficult subject, and yes we do require a detailed policy. I have always felt that republicans do need to take the issue by the scruff of the neck and make the very simple and intelligible argument to people: 'Do you want the Healthcare and Education systems of Sweden or Texas? Well then, we have to have the taxation system of Sweden.'
Furthermore, we really have to become an honest voice in politics; we cannot afford to become yet another party that makes great commitments but cannot deliver on those promises. Growing political apathy is a double-edged sword, we need to make sure people really believe in what we're doing.
However, the unremitting focus on taxation by some republicans would tend to denote a lack of balance in their understanding of what socialism really is about. For a start, we can't raise taxes to punitive levels without destroying the economy and ruining the standard of living of everyone. Other parties seem to persist in the thinking that socialism = high taxes, decent public services and nationalisation. This formulation misses probably the most important bit, the empowerment of people through participative-democratic fora and mechanisms of control.
The taxation section of the Manifesto was good but looking back, we might have usefully limited the proposed global increase in Capital Gains Tax by applying a minimal level of say €200,000 income for the 40% rate as it is likely that the policy adopted within the Manifesto was too harsh on lower income inheritors. Similarly, the review of taxation was a useful device to avoid the pain of the Sunday Independent running banner headlines 'Sinn Féin wants to Increase Tax and Ruin Economy'. We also need to have a more nuanced understanding of how the current taxation system doesn't work - the very richest people in Ireland pay almost no tax at all. That was implicit within the Manifesto section on this subject.
All the same, those who would feel that the Manifesto did not go far enough should be aware that there are no simple answers in regard to taxation, especially for Ireland. Furthermore, it cannot occur outside of a more general economic development strategy. Simplistic arguments such as the 26 Counties having the lowest proportion of taxation in the EU ignore the reality of its current status of underdevelopment and peripherality from large markets - issues which remain characteristic of our partitioned economy.
We should not move to adopt higher taxation levels simply on the basis of a knee-jerk reaction (as advocated by ultra-leftist micro-parties often directed by parent-groups located in industrialised economies). After all, it is the growth of the economy that determines the wealth of the nation as a whole. Taxation is a key factor in all that, but we are not going to be able to stick two fingers up at global capitalism and tell them to go home, not just yet anyway.
Policy making is a central issue for the party, and we do need to get it right, but it is happening and work is ongoing with increasing numbers of people involved from across Ireland - in fact, the more the better, no one should be excluded. However, I would have other concerns - going beyond taxation.
In my experience, this policy debate is being followed by only a small fraction of activists. Many people who buy this paper view it as a 'contribution' rather than a purchase of something to read avidly. Most of our 'most active' activists have 101 other things on their plate and often lack time or confidence to engage in debates, especially those of a theoretical hue. Many activists have not yet made the connection between economics and the national liberation struggle.
The process of education throughout the party is piecemeal. In the party's Bunreacht, cumainn are meant to meet weekly. In reality, the overwhelming majority would do well to meet monthly. Comhairle Ceantair, in general, don't discuss party policy and all too often policy decisions are taken by inappropriate structures in inappropriate manners. Few areas will make the most of the potential for badly needed fund-raising offered by selling the National Draw tickets, leading to problems with local finance and a general dependence on income from external sources.
Policy, theory and strategy are all much more developed than the organisation and the cadres with which we are seeking to implement them. We will really need an internal 'cultural revolution' if we are to deliver on our full objective of a 32 County Democratic Socialist Republic.
Debate like this in the pages of An Phoblacht is a start. Strategically-directed and outward looking work on the ground is another start, but let's be real when we look at what we are and what we want to do. If Politics is 'knowing what to do next', we need to get organising in a strategic manner and to build a collective political strength.