by Harry McIntyre
from Indymedia Ireland

Split centred around Belfast

The Socialist Workers Party has split. There has been some speculation on 
Indymedia and elsewhere that the SWP was having internal difficulties in 
Belfast. The dust has now settled, and the bulk of their Belfast 
organisation is now outside of the party.
The SWP has been having a tough time of it in Belfast in recent years. In 
the early years of the decade, the Belfast SWP was the success story of the 
organisation, building a number of branches and a strong student group. Then 
a period of decline followed, with branches merging, the student group 
weakening and the loss of some key activists. Now an organised split has 
taken most of the active, politically hardened, remaining members, leaving 
the Belfast SWP with an occasionally visible prospective election candidate 
and a handful of his associates.

The arguments flared up around electoral strategy. The Dublin leadership 
wanted to run Sean Mitchell, the excitable young member who got a small but 
respectable vote in West Belfast last time out. The Belfast committee, 
essentially a joint branch committee for the two mini-branches the party was 
operating in the city, wasn't so sure. Most of its members were of the view 
that Mitchell had been insufficiently active in the area over the last year. 
It was, in other words, a minor tactical difference of a sort that a 
democratic organisation could easily accomodate within its ranks. 
Unfortunately for the SWP, it is not such an organisation.

With typical heavy handedness, the Dublin leadership came down on the local 
dissidents like a ton of bricks. Vitriolic arguments ensued and the Belfast 
committee was wound up to shut up those who disagreed with the Political 
Committee. The writing was on the wall after that. The people who had held 
the SWP together in Belfast over a long, hard, period were told in no 
uncertain terms that either they did as they were told and shut up 
complaining or they'd be expelled. They decided to jump before they were 
pushed and resigned as a group.

As the dust settles, Barbara Muldoon, chair of the Anti-Racist Network, 
Gordon Hewitt, Mark Hewitt and their allies have found themselves outside of 
the organisation they helped build. It is understood that they are in the 
process of setting up a new organisation, based on the fundamental politics 
of the SWP tradition but with a greater commitment to internal democracy. A 
name, a platform and their first public statements are expected in the next 
couple of weeks. Meanwhile, the SWP in Belfast has been reduced to Mitchell, 
a couple of other students and an American academic. Donal Mac Fhearraigh, 
the SWP's Dublin full time office functionary has been sent North to shore 
up what's left and try to begin the process of rebuilding.

It's worth looking at the wider implications of this split in one city.

The splinter group are long standing SWP members with personal and political 
connections to SWP across the island. They could very easily make a nuisance 
of themselves to the SWP across the island by offering SWP members the 
option of an organisation with SWP politics but a less dictatorial internal 
regime. The big question will be whether they can gain support outside of 
their home city.

For the SWP it further hammers home their weakness outside of Dublin. There 
isn't one strong branch left outside the Republic's capital. Historic 
strongholds like Belfast and Waterford are down to a handful of members. 
Cork and Galway are hanging on by a thread. There's nothing at all in 
Limerick. Derry has Eamon McCann, which means a high profile, but a weak 
branch. It wouldn't take much more of a retreat to reduce the party to a 
regional organisation.

Perhaps more interesting for the wider left is what this incident reveals 
about the SWP's approach to left unity.

Firstly, while the SWP is very weak outside of Dublin they do at least 
maintain a tenuous presence, which can't really be said for the rest of 
People Before Profit. In Dublin, the SWP are the dominant force in the 
alliance, but there are others present and involved. Elsewhere the SWP 
simply are the alliance. South Tipperary may become a dramatic exception 
when the Workers and Unemployed Action Group announce their adherence, 
although it is not yet clear if that affiliation will involve taking on the 
PBP label and fully integrating into the alliance or if it mostly represents 
a formal commitment to continuing their existing work together. The Belfast 
split remember came to a head over what candidate to stand and in what 
constituency in the next Westminster elections. This discussion was carried 
on entirely in SWP branches and committees. But they weren't talking about 
standing an SWP candidate, they were deciding on who and where PBP should 
stand. There is no People Before Profit structure in Belfast, just the SWP 
using the name and taking whatever decisions it like. In so far as anyone 
else gets a say, its a case of the SWP presenting them with a fait accompli.

Secondly, what does the SWP leaderships complete inability to tolerate even 
minor tactical disagreements within their own organisation without pushing 
the matter to a bitter split say about the depth of their much trumpeted 
commitment to left unity? How can anyone take them seriously when they talk 
about how the broad left share 90% of their views and need to work together 
when at the same time they are casting people with near 100% agreement with 
them in the outer darkness over the most trivial of disagreements? What does 
it say about their commitment to working together fraternally when their 
immediate response to dissent is to smash those who won't do as they are 
told? If they are willing to break with their own long term membership so 
rapidly and completely, how secure can any of their allies feel that we 
won't be the next thrown under the bus if we should ever prove surplus to 
Political Committee requirements

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