People Before Profit: Interview with TD Bríd Smith
The following is an interview with Bríd Smith, a TD in the Irish Parliament (Oireachtas). A TD (Teachta Dála) is the equivalent of a "Member of Parliament” — a member of the lower house (Dáil Éireann). Brid Smith is a member of People Before Profit, an important force in the Irish political landscape that demands and fights for a left anti-austerity government.
February 20, 2018
People Before Profit (PBP) has emerged in recent years as a socialist force in Irish politics both North and South. It is a 32-county — i.e. all-Ireland — organisation with approximately 1,500 members nationwide (in a total population of about 6 million).
In the Republic of Ireland, People Before Profit has three TDs (members of Parliament) — Richard Boyd Barrett, Bríd Smith and Gino Kenny — in the Dáil and 12 local Councillors; in the North, there is one PBP MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly in Stormont), Gerry Carroll. (There were originally two PBP MLAs, but Eamonn McCann lost his seat due to a reduction in the number of seats for Derry.) PBP has one Belfast City Councillor.
In the Dáil and on ballot papers, PBP has a pact with Solidarity (formerly the Anti-Austerity Alliance). Solidarity has three TDs, all of whom are associated with the Socialist Party. PBP has been linked to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), now the Socialist Worker Network (SWN), and this alliance with Solidarity only operates in the South (due to serious differences on the national question). At the local level, the two parties remain separate, though they work together in various campaigns.
There are 157 TDs in the Dáil, so the six members of People Before Profit / Solidarity are a small minority. They are nonetheless a significant voice that the national media cannot totally ignore. There are also six other left independents in the Dáil who are consistently to the left of the Labour Party and Sinn Féin. Consequently, an unusual situation exists in which the radical left is currently stronger in the parliament than the Labour Party, which — due to its coalition with the right-wing neoliberal Fine Gael party — suffered very badly at the last election and was reduced to seven TDs.
In early February, 2018, Left Voice interviewed Bríd Smith, People Before Profit TD for Dublin South Central.
LV: Ireland has been severely affected by austerity since the crash in 2007 and subsequent debt conditions imposed by the EU and IMF. What form has the resistance taken to this austerity, and what does this mean for your political stance on the EU, especially in the context of Brexit?
BS: Prior to the crash of 2007/2008, the Irish economy expanded very rapidly in what was known as the Celtic Tiger. Not everyone benefited from this, as important sections of the manual working class and the poor being were left behind, but overall it transformed the country from one that was deeply impoverished to one roughly equal to its neighbour, Britain.
The great crash, however, exposed all the contradictions in the Celtic Tiger, especially the ‘bubble’ character of the housing boom and the giant ponzi scheme that was the Irish banking system. The crash and the massive bank bail-out that accompanied it had a devastating impact on the whole society apart from the rich.
The economy was effectively bankrupted and placed into the hands of the EU Troika (EU Commission, ECB and IMF) which meant severe and sustained austerity including big wage cuts for all public sector workers, massive job losses, a number of extra charges and taxes on working people, and huge cuts to education, welfare and community programmes.
At first the resistance was not nearly as strong as it needed to be. The trade unions, which were mainly affiliated with and controlled by the Labour Party, called some large set-piece demonstrations against austerity in Dublin, but they failed to back these up with any sustained action in workplaces or communities. Instead they continued their policy of ‘social partnership’ and collaboration with the government. As a result, popular opposition failed to take off.
But this did not mean people were happy. On the contrary, the crash and austerity had a major impact on popular consciousness which primarily took the form of a ‘riot at the ballot box’ in the General Election of 2011. The principal victim was Fianna Fáil, which had for eighty years been the main party of Irish capitalism and, in relative terms, one of the most successful bourgeois parties in Europe. Fianna Fail were nearly wiped out and were replaced by a Fine Gael / Labour coalition government.
Labour did very well campaigning on a programme which pledged to protect working people from the ravages of the right wing parties and the EU. Their slogan was ‘Its Labour’s Way or Frankfurt’s Way.’ At the same time there was a breakthrough for the socialist left with the election of one People Before Profit and two Socialist Party Candidates, plus, shortly after, a swathe of radical left city councillors.
Labour in office, however, abandoned all their radical pledges — it became ‘Frankfurt’s way all the way’ and they continued to inflict cut after cut, charge after charge on the working class. The real fight back began over the Household Charge (HHC), a series of big fees imposed on family homes. These were, and still are, presented as some form of ‘progressive’ tax on property, but this was always just spin — in reality they were a severe tax on ordinary people. The Household Charge met with a major campaign in local communities based the principle of mass refusal to pay supplemented by big street demonstrations.
This campaign was very successful and the government was forced to retreat. But what they did was replace the Household Charge with a Property Tax which was still unfair but, crucially, could be collected out of people’s wages, welfare, and pensions by Revenue (the Irish taxation authority). This fact broke resistance to the Property Tax. Emboldened by this success the Government moved to the imposition of Water Charges. I will return to the question of the EU and Brexit later.
LV: The radical left in Ireland, including People Before Profit, have been at the forefront of a massive movement resisting water charges. What has been the impact of the water charges movement on the support for radical left politics?
BS: Water charges, which were also linked to plans to privatise water services, were the last in a series of austerity taxes and a widely seen as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back,’ but the thing was, people felt they could be resisted. For legal reasons water charges could not be taken out of wages or bank accounts and required the installation of water meters directly outside peoples’ homes. Water charges became the focus for all the accumulated anger at austerity. In the spring of 2014, People Before Profit, together with Unite the Union, held a major conference with activists from Bolivia and elsewhere to kick start a resistance. Over the summer a mass movement preventing meter installation developed in working class communities, and at the same time a broad coalition called Right2Water was assembled involving trade unions, left parties, and community groups.
On October 11, this exploded in an amazing mass demonstration of over 100,000 people on the streets of Dublin. It is important to understand that this is equivalent to a million in London or Paris. The demo was vibrant, determined and very working class. It was absolutely set on refusal to pay the charges, and example of mass civil disobedience. This was immediately followed on November 4, 2014 by local anti-water charges demonstrations across the Irish Republic. These marches were even more amazing with thousands of people marching in small rural towns like Letterkenny or Gorey and over 30,000 in Cork. In Dublin there were mass marches in every area of the city. Over a quarter of a million marched nationwide. In 2015, numerous other mass demonstrations followed including on working days, and in large parts of Dublin and elsewhere not a single water meter was ever installed as a result of local communities defending their streets.
The political consequence of this was a huge radicalisation within the working class. There was widespread revulsion against the mainstream parties — Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. Of course, this radicalisation was not even or coherent. Sinn Féin, who present themselves as reformist left nationalists, were significant beneficiaries of this mood, as were a variety of ‘independents’ (ranging from genuine radical lefts to right wingers) but so too were People Before Profit and the Anti-Austerity Alliance, the two main forces on the far left, which had both played major roles in the anti-water charges movement. The general election of 2016 saw the collapse of the Labour Party (from 36 seats to seven) and the election of three TDs each for PBP and AAA (who later changed their name to Solidarity). It also signalled victory for the water charges movement with the election of a majority of anti-charges TDs. Fianna Fáil, who initiated the water charges, was forced by the movement to come out against them. This led to the abolition of water charges and the refunding of those who had paid them.
Since then the new government — an unstable minority Fine Gael / Independent Alliance coalition, sustained by Fianna Fáil — has taken considerable care to avoid provoking a new mass movement, and the existence of an economic recovery has enabled them to do this. Nevertheless, there is still serious discontent at growing inequality and major crises in housing and homelessness and in the health service.
LV: There have been significant social changes in Ireland in recent years, seen in the successful referendum on marriage equality and the significant movement of opposition to Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws. What is the role of parties like People Before Profit in these movements?
BS: The underlying social changes, especially urbanisation, education and internationalisation, are very important. They have profoundly weakened the rural-based structures that sustained the two main pillars of conservative Ireland — the Catholic Church and Fianna Fáil. This has been compounded by the exposure of large-scale child abuse, both sexual and physical, by priests and the terrible mistreatment of women in Church-run institutions like the Magdalene laundries and the Mother and Baby Homes.
The spectacular victory in the Marriage Equality Referendum confirmed the profound change in the ideological landscape that had already taken place. Backed by all the main political parties and opposed only by Catholic diehards, this was a relatively easy victory and the role of People Before Profit was, in all honesty, limited. But it is very significant that the “yes” vote in the working class areas of Dublin was especially high.
The struggle for abortion rights, which in Ireland necessitates the repeal of the 8th Amendment to the [Irish] Constitution, will be much tougher and more bitterly fought. For the Catholic Church, this is their last stand and they will throw everything at it with a massively funded and highly emotive campaign. With the referendum scheduled for May 25, this struggle is now reaching its decisive stage.
So far there have been a series of hugely impressive mass mobilizations on the streets — particularly on International Women’s Day when the main bridge in Dublin was occupied by, largely, young women and their male supporters and in the huge annual March for Choice in September. People Before Profit have been centrally involved in these actions and I have been able to play a substantial role in the Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Committee tasked with discussing the wording of the referendum and what abortion regime will replace the 8th Amendment if it is repealed.
People Before Profit is a 100-percent pro-choice party and many of our leading women activists have been in the forefront of this struggle for decades — since before PBP was formed and even going back to when the 8th Amendment was introduced in 1983. Our task now is to be at the heart of turning the campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum into a mass social movement capable of achieving a big win that puts pressure on the cowardly politicians to pass progressive legislation.
This is an extremely important struggle. Winning it will maintain and deepen the leftward momentum in Irish society. Losing it will be a major setback for women and will throw us all back.
LV: How do you see the relationship between the movement outside parliament and what radical left MPs can do inside parliament?
BS: People Before Profit stands above all for ‘people power’. It is a grassroots activist organisation built mainly out of campaigns in working class communities on a host of issues. We regard our TDs as first and foremost servants of the movement outside parliament. Their job is to be, in the words of James Connolly, ‘disturbers of the peace’ and, as Lenin put it, ‘tribunes of the people’. All of our TDs and public representatives understand this. In parliament, we are speaking not to the other parliamentarians but over their heads to the People outside and we aim to promote active campaigns.
I also have a particular responsibility for workers’ rights and try to use my position in the Dáil to champion workers’ industrial struggles such as recent strikes by LUAS (tram) drivers, bus drivers, TESCOs workers and RyanAir pilots. For these workers having TDs who can be relied upon to put their case in parliament and on the media is very useful.
Parliament is not the political centre of gravity as far as we are concerned but there is no doubt that being able to mount a serious challenge electorally and win seats has been very important. It gives us a voice in the national political debate and thus in the media which is often not the case for left-wing socialists. It is vital we use these opportunities and project our interventions through social media.
Our social media operation is something People Before Profit takes very seriously both in itself for promoting meetings, building demonstrations and making popular propaganda though videos and memes, and as method of linking our interventions in parliament with the movement outside.
LV: What is your view on the national question in Ireland and the question of a united Ireland?
BS: People Before Profit is an anti-imperialist party. We are opposed to partition, which Connolly rightly said would lead to ‘a carnival of reaction’ on both sides of the border, and for a united Ireland. We organise on a 32-county basis and would vote for unity in any border poll.
At the same time, we believe that actually achieving a united Ireland involves breaking at least a section of the Protestant working class from unionism and sectarianism and that this requires a simultaneous struggle against both the rotten states [of the] North and South and united working class struggle in the North.
Our vision is for a united socialist Ireland and we pose that concretely by saying we want an austerity-free Ireland, north and south; public housing, north and south; a decent health service, north and south; an anti-racist Ireland North and South; a woman’s right to choose, north and south; and so on.
We work to build a 32-county political culture not just around opposition to British rule but in all the day-to-day struggles and campaigns. We believe that increasingly these issues — like LGBTQ rights, abortion rights, climate change, and defence of the environment — can unify people across the border. If, in the wake of Brexit, moves were made to establish a hard border between North and South, we would call for ‘people power’ mobilizations from both sides of the border to oppose this. It could be symbolically and practically very important.
LV: Where do you stand on the EU and Brexit?
BS: People Before Profit is opposed to the EU as a bosses’ club committed to defending the interests of capital and the 1 percent and imposing neo-liberalism on its member states. We do not see it as any sort of liberal or progressive force in the world — its disgraceful treatment of refugees and policy of ‘Fortress Europe’ is proof of that. It is thoroughly undemocratic and would clearly be a major obstacle to the implementation of a programme of radical change by any left government, such as a Corbyn government in Britain.
At the same time we are internationalists, not nationalists, and passionate anti-racists. We have nothing to do with the right wing racist anti-immigrant opposition to the EU.
In the North, where there was of course a vote in the Brexit referendum, matters were complicated by the fact that DUP were for ‘Leave’ and Sinn Féin for ‘Remain,’ and Remain won the popular vote. PBP was subject to a lot of attacks from SF over this, but we stuck to our position for a left Exit. This does not mean, however, that we support the kind of Tory Brexit being carried through by Theresa May and company. We will first and foremost defend the interests of working class people and oppose a hard border.
In the South all the main parties and the mainstream media are pro-EU, and Brexit has consistently been reported as a disaster for Ireland. As a result, pro-EU sentiment remains popular. However the experience of the bank bail-out and Troika imposed austerity means there is a certain current of opposition to the EU. We seek to ensure this does not take on a far-right or racist form.
LV: What is the relationship between the radical left and Sinn Féin in the Irish parliament (the Dáil) and is there a prospect of a left government in Ireland in the years ahead?
BS: The question of Sinn Féin is complex because it is a nationalist–reformist party which presents different faces to different audiences, e.g. to mainstream Republicans and Democrats in the US (from whom it gets funds) and to working class communities in Dublin. On the one hand it has spent many years in coalition with the DUP in the North, including years in which it implemented British Tory-inspired austerity. It also supports a low tax regime for multinational corporations in the North to ‘harmonise’ with the low tax regime in the South. On the other hand, its voting base in the South is very much in the manual working class.
In the South Sinn Féin presents itself as part of the Left but in practice it often equivocates on issues. It was unclear on water charges, especially the question of non-payment, until it was forced to change by mass pressure and the loss of a seat (to the Anti-Austerity Alliance). On abortion rights, it is currently pro-repeal of the 8th Amendment, which is the precondition of any change in Ireland, but has a position to the right of Fine Gael and the government on the legislation that will follow — it is opposed to abortion-on-request for up to twelve weeks (which the government is largely supporting). But this would be disastrous for Sinn Féin among young people, and it looks likely that pressure from the movement will force it to change its position.
In the North, People Before Profit emerged largely in direct opposition to Sinn Féin who were part of an austerity government. In the South, PBP has been built up to the left of Sinn Féin but to some extent stands alongside it in a number of campaigns.
As to the prospect of a left government in the future, this would require a major further radicalisation — we are nowhere near the numbers yet. More likely is that Sinn Féin will look to go into coalition with Fianna Fáil. This is a course we strongly urge them not to take, but so far the SF leadership refuses to rule it out. The truth is that viewed up close, Sinn Féin is a good deal less radical that many on the international left imagine on the basis of their armed-struggle past.
If the prospect of a left government did develop, our participation in it would very much depend on its real commitment to concrete radical policies. We are very wary of attempting to manage capitalism in crisis. Look what happened to Syriza!
LV: What do you think are the main lessons to be drawn from the political defeat of the Syriza government in Greece and the apparent retreat of organisations such as Podemos from any notion of strategic confrontation with the state or capitalism?
BS: The disastrous Syriza experience is an important warning for the left internationally. I think there are two main lessons for us all. First, that the institutions of the state, whether at a national or European level are not neutral or on our side. Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza leadership seemed really to believe that the EU institutions were their friends and allies, and by committing themselves to the Euro and the EU in advance deprived themselves of even the most limited bargaining power in the negotiations. It was like trying to bargain in the bazaar but telling the vendor in advance that you will buy anyway whatever they ask for. Second, and even more important, they seemed to think that dealing with the Troika was a matter of a smart (or charming) negotiating strategy when in reality it was power politics and class struggle at its clearest. Their only hope was to rely on the mass movement and people power from below. You have to be prepared to challenge the system even to implement a reform programme. It is only the fear of such a challenge that makes the state and the ruling class offer concessions. In Greece the EU was determined to make an example of Syriza to deter others and only fear of popular revolt would have stopped them.
Although there was a sense in which Podemos grew out of the magnificent 15-M movement and the occupation of the squares it was always a very top-down operation, conceived in the Complutense University of Madrid and offered, without any real democratic debate or involvement, to the passive voters. It is therefore sad but not surprising that Pablo Iglesias and the Podemos leadership have retreated to a mere populist reformism. This is bound to happen with any party or movement that says to its supporters and voters [that] you don’t need to do anything except follow and vote for us. We, the elite, the clever ones, will deliver change for you. This is the exact opposite of what People Before Profit believes or practices. Also I think Podemos’ poor position on the national question was a major weakness which has been exposed by events in Catalonia. Interestingly, People Before Profit City Councillors were able, with the aid of Sinn Féin, to propose and win the flying of the Catalan flag over Dublin City Hall for a month as a gesture of solidarity. Previously they did the same with the Palestinian flag.
LV: The Socialist Workers Party in Ireland is part of People Before Profit. What do you see as the role of the revolutionary party within the wider electoral formation?
BS: I am also a member of the SWP/SWN, as are our other TDs at the moment, and I think the cases of Syriza and Podemos demonstrate the importance of the existence of a revolutionary socialist spine within People Before Profit. At its recent conference on February 3-4, the SWP voted to change its name to Socialist Worker Network (SWN) and I will explain this further in a minute, but first a little background is useful.
People Before Profit was initiated by the SWP in one or two areas of Dublin. It then grew gradually over about a decade. Only in 2011 did it mount a significant electoral challenge, and only in the last few years has it developed into a serious national party with branches in most towns and a proper infrastructure and substantial membership.
The SWP has been the only organised Marxist tendency within PBP and although its membership is only about 20 percent of the total, it is probably fair to say that the SWP exercises a certain political hegemony within PBP. But the SWP also takes care to maintain PBP as a political space in which people who are not Marxists or revolutionary socialists or not yet revolutionaries, but who want to challenge the system, are welcome and feel at home. Many such comrades operate successfully within People Before Profit, spearhead grassroots campaigns and become Councillors. In the future, if we grow, they may become TDs. At the same time we in the SWP/SWN work to win over PBP members to revolutionary socialism and Marxism. So far this is working well.
The reason for the name change to Socialist Worker Network is to signal that we are not a rival or separate party to People Before Profit but work wholly within it. There had been some confusion about this particularly among new members.
However, we believe that without a revolutionary spine, i.e. without the SWP/SWN, People Before Profit might end up going the way of Syriza or the Irish Labour Party. The SWN remains committed to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and the building of a revolutionary party while simultaneously working in an open and non-sectarian way with militant reformists and people who have not yet thought through the ‘reform or revolution’ question.
As far as we can see, this is a fairly unusual, perhaps unique, political formation internationally. We developed it over a period of time as part of our understanding that most working people in the process of radicalisation may not move directly from moderate reformism or non-political passivity to outright revolution, and therefore we needed a form of organisation to reach out to them and meet them on their journey leftwards.
Of course there have been hiccups and problems along the way and doubtless there will be many difficulties ahead but we have made a modest beginning.