Ireland's political magazine Sunday - Apr 19, 2015

2011 interview with Joe Higgins


As he announces his intention to retire, we reprint an interview with the strongest voice on Ireland’s radical left.

Michael Smith interviews Joe Higgins about a new electoral force on the left

I meet Joe Higgins over tea and a brownie, on a grim afternoon in December in Dublin City Centre.  He doesn’t want to talk about his background – people are sick of it – he wants to talk about  the United Left Alliance.  When pushed he claims not to know what forged his politics: he just had a view – rather than any particular experience – of unfair structures and he saw socialism as a way of running society with justice and equality. I ask him what role he sees for the market in all this and he says none – at least for the international markets and the markets in commodities.  He’d nationalise the commanding heights.  He’d nationalise – and leave nationalised – the banks.  And he’d nationalise other major infrastructure and major industries.  He’d re-nationalise Eircom and Team Aer Lingus.  I suggest that many people wouldn’t know what else he’d like to see nationalised and ask him to explain.  He wouldn’t “prescribe that enterprises of a certain size would be nationalised.  You’d start with the obvious candidates and then leave it up to democracy – workfloor democracy, participatory democracy, community democracy – to a proper debate as to how best to serve the needs of society”.  He wouldn’t nationalise every “corner shop, bed and breakfast or chip shop”. The position is the same as he held in Militant Labour twenty years ago before he was expelled.  “I’m a Trotskyist”.  He’s always been a Trotskyist, though he draws also from Marx, Engels, Rosa  Luxemburg and James Connolly – and times change so thinking evolves. It’s different from the totalitarian approach in former Eastern Europe. Stalinists in the Soviet Union jailed democratic socialists of Higgins’ tradition. I ask him what he thinks of the agenda of equality, sustainability, transparency that Village generally promotes.  He wouldn’t disagree with them but you can’t have those agendas in a capitalist society. So what’s his own agenda and that of his socialist party?

His agenda would be not to pay a penny to the speculators and gamblers. He’d say goodbye to the IMF as the expression of global capitalism with a history of wreaking social havoc across the world and of acting as shock troops to facilitate multinationals.  He’d default, not pay the bond-holders and while he won’t directly say he’d leave the Euro he’d prefer an arrangement  that was less of a straitjacket,  that allowed devaluation  He’d like to see democratic control of the banks, infrastructure and major industries.  Then he’d extend that Europe-wide.  He’d promote investment in major infrastructure, including health and education, to provide jobs and enhance quality of life. He’d nationalise natural resources along the lines of what the ESB and Bord na Móna did years ago.  Alternative energy is a priority.  He’d like to see more unity of the working class in a non-sectarian way in Northern Ireland. . As to a United Ireland, democratic socialism would see sectarianism dissipate and the border cease to be an issue.  The environment and climate change figure as priorities. Much of his agenda is impossible while capitalist structures remain in place but he’s determined democratic socialism would achieve nearly all the progressive views we discuss. At a local government level he was a robust opponent of developer-led rezonings and for thirty years he’s been  lobbying for the Kenny Report which would penally tax the fruits of taxation and allow local authorities to buy development land without paying a premium price. Again it’s down to the process: “as long ago as the 1960s, when the developers bought Fianna Fáil, the problem wasn’t so much corruption as the clout they wielded over the process” of local government and rezoning.

On the EU, he believes the European Commission is hypocritical about the European model which is dominated by corporate power including lobbyists. He’s particularly concerned with their trade agenda and is on the EU trade committee. Still he’s open to European solidarity on the basis of democratic socialism. The main thing is to work out a workers’ society where this agenda prevails.

He doesn’t see scope for taxation for environmental or quality-of -life enhancing purposes.  Taxing petrol or waste or water is a crude mechanism.  He prefers regulation rather than taxation to environmental ends. You provide public transport, you insist on recycling, you stop waste of water. Perhaps inevitably for someone whose agenda is so solidly social he has little interest in harnessing economic mechanisms to environmental ends.  But he is passionate about the environment and has innovative ideas – dual-flush toilets, reuse of rainwater and the like.

He has firm ideas about the current party-political line-up. A vibrant, left alternative in the next parliament will be opposed and dominated by FG and Labour, with a disillusioned FF in opposition. He notes in the context that Labour has certain progressive principles and yet will sacrifice them in the inevitable coalition, while carrying out the programme of the IMF.

I ask him about some of the forces on the left:

Labour, he says,  like the Social Democratic and Labour parties all over Europe has bought into market capitalism. Blair is the prototype, “out-Thatchering Thatcher and going in to Iraq”.  Their colleagues in Greece are carrying out the IMF agenda and in Portugal and Spain are implementing vicious cuts.  When he first started out in the Labour Party it was very different

The Trade Unions are mostly in retreat.  There’s no decisive leadership though he has some time for the Unite union.  The rank and file needs to take back control.  Too many of them do deals with government and are on wages like those of the top bankers.

The Greens were never on the left and he told John Gormley so a long time ago. This is because they could never say if they were left or right – leaving them exposed as opportunistic.

Sinn Féin takes a radical position on some issues.  The Socialist Party differs with it on its past willingness to go into power with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. And in Northern Ireland Sinn Féin implements British government cuts and represents only a section of society, Catholics – objectively it will never become a force for the protestant working class.

He thinks ‘claiming the future’ should have clearer policies and say who they are supporting electorally.

He is promoting an alliance for the general election. It is an alliance of left-wing groups and individuals. The United Left Alliance includes the Socialist Party, the People Before Profit Alliance (consisting of the Socialist Workers Party – whose prominent members include Eamon McCann, Richard Boyd Barrett and Kieran Allen), the Community and Workers Action Group of south Dublin, as well as other individual members, the South Tipperary Workers and Unemployed Action Group and the Independent Socialist group of Declan Bree in Sligo.

Higgins says, “there’s no one agenda but a fairly comprehensive founding statement of purpose and a pledge”. I ask if there are policy differences between the component members.  “At the level of detail, there may be different analysis – for example on Northern Ireland”.  He’s reluctant to define the differences of ideology between the component parties, especially when the capitalist media misrepresent. But in the current circumstances “it’s essential that there’s a basic unity on a principled and honest basis as a more significant force, especially in the context of the likely composition of the next Dáil with the obvious scope for a radical alternative, after years where people’s comfort was facilitated so leaving them with little reason to look elsewhere”. He does not accept we are a conservative society. “The alliance has been welcomed by a lot of people not previously associated with any of the component parties. But the alliance must stop the forces that are destroying our society”.

Is he concerned that the Soclalist Workers Party is ambivalent to violence?  I mention .reports of concerted riotings at the end of some of the recent marches.  He says he can’t speak for the Socialist Workers Party but he saw a few students brutally attacked by the Gardaí after a sit-in  in the Department of Finance,as a rehearsed warning to the rest of society and the state.  As to whether the Socialist party takes a different stance on violence,  he can’t speak for the SWP but the Socialist Party is in favour of well-organised disciplined mobilisations and industrial action since the greatest power workers have is the power of their labour.

The United Left Alliance (ULA) in its own words:

The Alliance is opposed to the government’s bailouts and the slash and burn policies which are only making the crisis worse. In the general election they aim to provide a real alternative to the establishment parties as well as to Labour and Sinn Féin, who also accept the capitalist market and refuse to rule out coalition with right wing parties. The approach of a Fine Gael /Labour government in power would not be fundamentally different than this government’s.

The ULA will be standing candidates throughout the country and they are inviting all people, campaigns and groups that want to fight for real change and who agree with their demands to become part of the Alliance.

They reject the so-called solutions to the economic crises based on slashing public expenditure, welfare payments and workers’ pay. There can be no just or sustainable solution to the crisis based on the capitalist market. Instead they favour democratic and public control over resources so that social need is prioritised over profit.

Those elected as part of the alliance will not do any deals or support any coalition with any of the right-wing parties, particularly Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. They are committed to building a mass left alternative to unite working people, whether public or private sector, Irish or migrant, with the unemployed, welfare recipients, pensioners and students in the struggle to change society.

  • Mark

    Great stuff Joe. About time we had a real alternative in the Dail and in the communities. Labour have been waiting so long (since 1918) that they’ve forgotten what they were waiting for. Now their only raison d’etre is to prop up Fine Gael in government and help them implement the austerity for the mess that Fianna Fail created. One Joe Higgins in the Dail was a breath of fresh air. Multiple Joe Higgins in the Dail in the form of the United Left Alliance will be a welcome revolution to the stale face of Irish politics and may at last alter our tweedle dum, tweedle dee representation to a more relevant left/right discourse.

  • Fezziwig

    Why ‘Looney Left’?
    An Apology for Socialists

    Why do establishment parties, media commentators and journalists so often refer to the hard Left as The Looney left?

    Obviously the juvenile sing song cadence lent by the alliteration is a happy happenstance too irresistable to not bandy it about to the delight of the uninformed and ignorant. But it is a trite way to fob off what you really have no inclination to investigate or understand.

    But on a deeper level I think that it is an accurate indicator of what the right truly believe. The world view held by the left is beyond their understanding; simply not part of their lexicon. When an idea is so alien to you that you simply cannot conceive of anyone holding such views, you simply file it away under ‘insane’ in what could be described a self defence mechanism; a form of denial whereby you don’ have to ask yourself any uncomfortable questions that could possibly shine light on your own world view, motivation and belief system. To do so could prove a very uncomfortable exercise and human nature being what it is, who wants to voluntarily make themselves uncomfortable?

    The right wing establishment simply cannot conceive of anyone not being motivated, as so many have clearly been by unashamed naked avarice. This avarice manifests itself in jobs for the boys, nepotism and croyneism; the protection of the few at the cost of the many; capitalism for the workers with socialism for the elite.

    I am bored by how the term is bandied about so freely by the talking heads rolled out night after night on our radio and TV screens. It is time for them to give it a rest and for us to call them on it.

    The left are not loonies but rational people who care for the future of Ireland and Irish Citizens. Nor are they mad communists that want to land us all in the dark ages. They are mostly democratic socialists who are pro business with the caveat that said business is in the interest of the people and whose sole objective is not profit. Their world view is not one in which a n obsequious deference is shown to money, power and fatuous, inane celebrity. They are not the ones who know the price of everything but the worth of nothing. They wade through the cacophonous noise of the self interested mob to get to the heart of what is wrong in Ireland.

    The left seem to be the only ones taking on board the analysis of people like Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize Winner in Economic Sciences 2001; Paul Krugman, economist and winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics; Nouriel Roubini cited by Foreign Policy magazine as being fourth on their list of the “top 100 global thinkers”; George Soros; and our own Dave Mc Williams, Brian Lucy, Constantin Gurdgiev, Morgan Kelly, Paul Somerville and Peter Mathews. With the exception of Soros you can’t describe these men as socialists. You wouldn’t describe our home grown boys as socialists. What unites them is a genuine social conscience; a strong moral compass directing them to do what is right; an innate intelligence and adherence to logic. They are simply stating the truth but the establishment seems to be studiously ignoring them. Why? These economists are not pushing some self serving agenda, they base their opinion on cold hard facts. Why is it that only the left seems to be taking note?

    Many on the right believe that the level of renumeration offered to an employee is directly correlated to the quality and commitment they give to their profession. Look at the wage levels our government see fit to set for medical consultants, senior civil servants , bankers , TV and radio personalities, TD’ s and the like. The prevailing premise is that if you reward something you get more of the behaviour you desire while if you punish something you get less of it. Daniel Pink the American writer describes a study done at Massachusetts Institute of Technology whereby a group were given a set of challenges which were incentivised at different levels; do pretty well for a small monetary reward, medium well gets a medium reward , top achievers got a large cash prize. They found that as long as the task required only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as expected, but once a tast required even rudimentary cognitive skill a larger reward led to poorer performance. Why? It seemed to go against all accepted economic thought. It showed that once you get above rudimentary cognitive skill rewards don’t work. This research was funded by the Federal Reserve Bank, that notoriously looney leftist group!

    The experiment was repeated in Madurai, India where the monetary motivation was relatively more significant . Here those offered two months salary did no better than those offered one months. The most significant finding was that those offered the highest reward performed worst of all. The ongoing trouble with the HSE comes to mind! Look at FAS and the government itself. These findings of are not anomalous ; it has been replicated over and over by economists, psychologists and sociologists. When a task requires conceptual creative thinking the old carrot and stick model is not effective. At work money is a motivator but if people are not paid enough they will not be motivated. Paying enough to remove the money worry frees people to concentrate on the work. Science shows that there are three factors that lead to better performance and satisfaction: autonomy , mastery and purpose. Humans need to be able to be masters of their own destiny, a self directed employee is an engaged employee.

    We love mastery, we have an inate drive to get better at things like sports, music , crafts etc. We derive a great sense of achievement and enjoyment from mastering things. We put in the time and effort because it is fun. Our payment is the sheer fun and enjoyment we experience. Such passion has resulted in the development, by highly skilled people all around the world working together for free ,of products like Linux (powering one out of four corporate servers in fortune five hundred companies), Apache (powering the majority of webservers) and Wikipedia which they then give away rather than sell.What motivates these people to do all this? They are doing it because they crave challenge and mastery and they have a real purpose; the desire to make a contribution to society. What employers are finding is that when the profit motive is unhinged from the purpose motive undesired things happen like shoddy products, bad service , unmotivated workers and dreary uninspiring workplaces. When the profit motive is dominant or when it is unhitched from the purpose motive entirely, things gets infinitely worse. Organisations and companies that are flourishing are also the ones that are animated by this purpose motive. Purpose is essential to our humanity and our productivity.

    For too long Ireland and the Irish has been pimped by the government to Global Finance and Corporations. The only difference between FF and FG is that FF is prepared to jump through the hoops set by our European masters set at any heigh while FG refuse to do so unless the hoops is lowered, just a little. When the ECB , IMF and the EU ask what way the Irish Government want to take it, FF says “Any way, anywhere your lordship pleases”, while FG and Labour would timidly prefer a method and place of their own choosing.

    Charles Dickens described what is happening in Ireland in his novel Little Dorrit 1855-1857. In this insightful, entertaining satire he describes the shortcomings of the Governments Treasury Office represented by the Circumlocution Office and the society of the period. Debtors are imprisoned in the Marshelsea Debtors Prison where nobody discern who’s fault it is; who is to blame. Prisoners can’t work while incarcerated and can’t be released until the debts are paid! Sounds familiar doesn’t it? A catch 22 situation. We are going round in circles and it won’t stop till someone calls a halt. We can do so by refusing to pay for the losses of speculators and rogue banks. Separate our soverign debt from that of the rapacious banks. Everone of us is happy to do all we can to get our soverign debt obligations fulfilled. It is our duty to honour those debts.

    In Little Dorrit The Circumlocution Office is expert in the art of How Not To Do It and is populated by members of the Barnicle and Stiltstalking family.

    “The Barnacle family had for some time helped to administer the 
    Circumlocution Office. The Tite Barnacle Branch, indeed, 
    considered themselves in a general way as having vested rights in 
    that direction, and took it ill if any other family had much to say 
    to it. The Barnacles were a very high family, and a very large 
    family. They were dispersed all over the public offices, and held 
    all sorts of public places. Either the nation was under a load of 
    obligation to the Barnacles, or the Barnacles were under a load of 
    obligation to the nation. It was not quite unanimously settled 
    which; the Barnacles having their opinion, the nation theirs. “

    “what the Barnacles had to do, was to stick on to 
    the national ship as long as they could. That to trim the ship, 
    lighten the ship, clean the ship, would be to knock them off; that 
    they could but be knocked off once; and that if the ship went down 
    with them yet sticking to it, that was the ship’s look out, and not 
    theirs.  “ Dickens

    It certainly took an enormous effort to pry our own Mr Tite Barnacle off our ship.

    Mr Merdle, an unscrupulous banker and fraudster who comes to a sorry end is redolent of Anglo Irish Bank et al. Coincidentally in Dicken’s introduction to the novel he connects this character with an Irish Bank.

    “If I might make so bold as to defend that extravagant conception, Mr Merdle, I would hint that it originated after the Railroad-share epoch , in the times of a certain Irish Bank, and of one or two other equally laudable enterprises.” Dickens

    Investing in Merdle’s enterprises leads to the ruin of many in the novel.

    You could do worse than spend an hour reading chapter ten of Little Dorrit which will make you laugh and think in equal measure;it is a gem. Indeed you could do worse than read any of that great author’s books since most of the abuses and ills of society he so brilliantly illuminated are very much still with us today.

    Back to the objectional term The Looney Left. Can someone on the right please tell me what term they would employ to describe what our government did on the night of 29 th September 2008? The……now, let me see….. what can I call it….looney idea of inextricably combining our soverign debt with that of the banks is an act of madness beyond comprehension. With a stroke of the pen they sold out the Irish people and their future. I don’t know what terms the right might employ but looney would seem to be the least strong; traitorous, ignorant , inordinately myopic, criminally negligent or perhaps simply insane are terms that immediately jump to my mind. What a miraculous windfall to all the bond holders who had written off their losses in their own heads anyway! Our governments lunacy certainly came as a nice surprise gift to them. In the circumstances I think economically traitorous is a euphemism. There are no words to describe the astounding incompetence of that action.

    A very real worry is that perhaps there was method in their seeming madness, Afterall we are not allowed to access information on what actually went on at that fateful secret meeting. Perhaps we will find out in 2038! In the meantime we have to live with the consequences. But not all of us; the political and financial elite jog on as before with no fear of accountability. Who benefitted from that fateful decision?

    Socializing the private losses of speculators and placing the crucifying burden of covering those private losses on the shoulders of the already pauperized people of Ireland and in so doing mortally wounding our economy is a crime against humanity. Signing up to the EU, IMF/ECB ‘bailout’ is just twisting the knife in the wound. Anyone with a brain knows that we cannot attract any investment with such a millstone around our neck. Any desperately needed oxygen to the Irish economy has been mercilessly sucked up by this immoral arrangement. We are on our knees and the only hope is to do what the left say they will do; reject the deal. That way we can begin to fan the flames of our economy once again but this time in a real way; in such a way that builds our country, not as Ireland Inc., or Brand Ireland (shudder!) but as an open society where education, health care, basic human dignity, the environment, housing and employment are what is important, not making a profit to pay some faceless investors. We are not a business; we are a society; the community of Irish People.

    As Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol:

    “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faultered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
    “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

    Fear is a malignant motivator, look how successfully Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair played their respective citizens like a virtuoso does a violin using that ever so effective subduer of free will.
    The government paint a picture of a devastated wasteland with no money to pay public servants , empty ATM’s etc if we default. Well we are facing an economic wasteland now, the markets will not lend to us precisely because the bailout deal has ensured we cannot achieve any meaningful economic growth. We are not a good bet; we are literally shackelled. Investment money is like water, it is not sentient, emotional or animated but it will alway find its level; the markets are the same. If we discard the millstone and reject the begging dependant mentality we have had since joining the EEC and become self reliant, the markets will sniff out an opportunity and go for it. We have a morbid fear of offending the financial elites. They don’t give a curse. To the rest of the world we look like prime idiots meekly accepting our millstone and morbidly afraid of “what the neighbours will think if we default” never mind that they are emphatically not our debts. Appearance are everything to us and we want to be seen to be the good little beggars so beholden to the ECB that we will accept any ignominy they care to offer us. We should have rejected the overtures of the EU/ECB/IMF and asserted our independance earlier. The markets would have taken it in their stride, investors would have come back as soon as we started to show some growth. That action would have been lauded as the only rational and logical thing to do. We are heading for default anyway and all this misery will have been for nothing. We are like a terminally ill patient who goes through all the fear, pain , hope and indignity of treatment only to die after all. International investors expect Ireland to default in the not too distant future. Why wait and prolong the misery, bite the bullet and do it now? January 2011 came with a jolt as people awoke with the bald evidence printed on their pay cheques; the cold hard reality of what our government have signed us up to , all hope has been extinguished as in the cold light of day we face the heart stopping realization that it is only the start.

    Too much fear causes indecision. We are like deer caught in the headlights of fear, preoccupied trying to hold on to a job if you are lucky enough to possess one, and to hold body and soul together if not. Young couples with children are imprisoned in their homes by mortgages they cannot meet and the soul destroying knowledge that they are no longer free. When you live in such fear there is the danger that you will clutch at straws for deliverance and make a decision to trust that some politician has done all the research and thinking and has hopefully come up with the right solutions. We have to shake ourselves out of this fatalism and think for ourselves and most of all not resign ourselves meekly to a prisonlike existance on somebody elses terms.

    While fear is a malignant motivater hope is a benificent one. The last budget left us with little hope and January brought more desolation with the dawning realization that we are only embarking on this voyage of misery which is estimated to go on to affect our children and their children. But out of this despondency came a bright glimmer of hope when Joe Higgins Socialist MEP challenged Jose Manuel Barroso on the EU/IMF bailout. At last here was one of our representatives who actually had the gonads to confront our masters on the morality of this so called bailout; here was someone with the backbone to say what most thinking Irish men and women feel and were bursting to say. It was cathartic to hear him tell Mr Barroso that the emergency support fund of the bailout was “nothing more than another tool to cushion major European banks from the consequences of their reckless speculation on the financial markets”.

    Mr Higgins is perhaps the most respected representative we have and his action in the European Paliament was lauded by commentators of every political hue. He is known for his integrity and honesty as well as his quick wit and ready riposte. The reason for this universal respect is simple, he is unassailable because he cannot be bought and confines himself to the realms of truth. He is an independent thinker and consequently the bane of the establishment. It was telling to see the reaction of Mr Barroso as his mask slipped to reveal just what he really thinks of the Irish. Of course his anger was also roused because what Mr Higgins confronted him with was the truth of the patent immorality of Irish tax payers paying the bad debts of the speculator banks. It is often said that the truth hurts and on this occasion it certainly hurt Mr Barroso.

    Let us face our fears and stare them out of contenance. We have already faced that worst that can happen, they ‘Germans’ are here. Everything that was true and strong in Ireland is still true and strong. The government decimated manufacturing here while selling Ireland to the multinationals but we can rebuilt manufacturing, we are consumate agriculturalists, our green sector is vibrant and growing, our people are well educated, idealistic, motivated and innovative. Look at what we achieved all over the globe. We produce a disproportionate amount of talent in the sporting and artistic areas. We are rightly proud of our creativity. The economy of the future will be like shifting slabs of ice under our feet. We have to be agile , adaptable, constantly learning and open to change in order to prosper. Our history shows that the Irish have all these talents in spades.We have so much to contribute, so much to offer. Lets stand up, stand together, give strenght to each other and face our future boldly and proudly. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Let us reinvent ourselves and embrace the brave new world as a free people living in an open, inclusive, caring and progressive society where left and right work together for the benefit of all. Between the right and left I believe there is much common ground, enough ground to carry us all. E pluribus unum.