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.