Catching up with éirígí’s John McCusker – starting “a community fight back”

eirigi logoéirígí won’t be everyone’s cup of tea on Slugger – but then name one political party that is. And in the spirit of exploring the smaller parties standing in the Assembly and local government elections, éirígí replied to the email that a number of other parties received but ignored.

I spoke to John McCusker at length a week or so ago. He’s éirígí’s West Belfast chairman and standing as the party’s candidate in Lower Falls for Belfast City Council in the upcoming elections.

We covered the reasons for éirígí’s participation in the elections, what the party stands for, militarism as well as cooperation with the police. I’ve included two video clips in the post below.

Right at the start, John explained:

éirígí is a republican socialist party which is obviously aiming towards bringing about a democratic socialist republic and very much organised at a grass roots level where decisions are made at the bottom and pushed up as opposed to top down.

John identified “the cuts” as a doorstep issue in Lower Falls, and recognised that “they’ve been designed in Westminster but they are being implemented by Stormont”.

At their Ard Fheis in January, éirígí agreed to stand council candidates, but not run for the Assembly.

éirígí’s decision to contest this election was on a basis for providing a platform whereby a radical voice could be given for this community that somebody that was not part of implementing the cuts or agreeing the cuts could give some kind of credible voice against it …

The decision was made there that we had no interest in the Assembly at Stormont and had no interest in Westminster. We viewed that if we contested any elections it was going to be at the most local level we could, where we could connect most closely to these communities. And that was at the local council level.

Citing éirígí as “one of the few republican organisations that has put any effort into examining the socialism in Ireland in its historical context”, John referred to the party’s paper on socialism: “From socialism alone can the salvation of Ireland come”.

… we were faced with a deteriorating economic situation which is going to be hastened by the cuts. And just to put that in some context, the building we’re standing in here now [Cultúrlann] which is the Lower Falls ward where I am contesting is one of the most deprived wards within Europe. The Lower Falls constituency itself has four of the top five most deprived areas within the Six Counties. That’s out of close to nine hundred areas.

So that was the context that we decided to fight this election on. We were looking thirteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Stormont’s Research and Library Service themselves unable to sugar coat their own figures had to admit that West Belfast thirteen years on is more deprived now than it was then. The question then is what will West Belfast look like in five, ten, fifteen years time. This is the platform that we decided we’d fight this election on.

It’s a community fight back. It’s recognising that this community shouldn’t be forced to service the debts of the rich, the people who gambled with enormous amounts of money and the community needs somebody that will be able to give some kind of credible argument against that.

By participating in this election, éirígí are playing a long game. I asked what éirígí councillors would do if they got elected to BCC?

A lot of other people would be able to answer that question very clearly in terms of clientelism: I will ensure I will get X, Y, Z for this community, and I’ll fight on these issues.

Certainly if anybody from éirígí is elected – either myself or Pádraic Mac Coitir [Upper Falls] – you will fight for your community on all the issues you can. But we have a much broader view of what this election can be used for. We’ve come out of a community that a lot of people have put their trust in institutions, commissions that were going to deliver for all the people of these communities and it’s failed to happen.

We’re very honest about what contesting an election would mean for us, that if you vote for me, if you vote for Pádraic Mac Coitir, indeed vote for éirígí, it’s not going to change the world, it’s not going to change the lives dramatically of people in this community. It’s a start of a community fight back. That’s what we’re fighting this election on, that the community is given a loud message that is starting to rebuild a radical community of resistance in West Belfast.

Now in terms of the council we will go into the council, we’ve already stated that we would take our seats in the council and we’ll do whatever we think is best for the community that we represent. But we’ll also be using that as a platform to make broader arguments about the way this society is organised, what is right with it, what is wrong with it, and what we should be doing about it.

The party are past masters at political stunts, or “quite clever eye catching activism” as John described their switching of the Union Flag on top of the City Hall for the Iraqi flag back in 2006.

[éirígí is] an organisation which is activist based, which doesn’t exist in the halls of the great, which is on the ground attempting to focus light very specifically on some things which are wrong in Irish society. Now how a lot of people do it is through these once off events like you say the British Royal visit in Ireland, the RIR marauding through Belfast city centre, these type of things. And use those examples which are quite high profile and get quite a lot of attention to focus attention on what is wrong in society.

As Mark posted on Friday, éirígí were due to perform a piece of street theatre in Dublin on Saturday afternoon to protest against the upcoming visit of the Queen to Dublin. The press release revealed that

… the protest will involve a mock guillotine and effigy of Elizabeth Windsor, as well as a ‘judge’ who will outline Britain’s historic and modern imperial crimes. A ‘citizens jury’ comprised of all the members of the public who attend the protest will then decide the fate of British Imperialism and Britain’s head of state and commander in chief of the British army.

John McCusker, éirígí council candidate in Lower Falls, West Belfast

éirígí are just standing two candidates – both in West Belfast. I thought it was strange that the party’s general secretary Breandan Mac Cionnaith – who has a high profile in Portadown – wasn’t running.

When the decision was taken to contest elections it was done on the basis of where obviously it would be best done. We thought and the decision was taken in this very building we’re standing in now that West Belfast would present us with a great opportunity. We’re also very honest about where we are as a party. We are a small organisation. Contrary to popular belief we are drawing on from an expanding pool of people, republican activists and socialists, as opposed to a dwindling pool.

But we are realistic about where we are, and we’re using this as a general platform not just for West Belfast to put arguments our there which we hope will be carried into other areas. And this is an important distinction between us and some other parties, we don’t get hung up on the notion of ego or profile or who’s the biggest name and all the rest of it. It’s about saying where’s the best area for us to target that we can make an impact, and then who best to do that in that area.

Summarising their approach to the election, John explained:

[éirígí] have a different notion of what contesting elections means. Some people are totally about, and absolutely about, securing seats. That if you win the seat it was a successful election, it was worthwhile contesting. If you don’t win the seat it wasn’t worth contesting and it was a failure.

Our view would be very different. It’s not about getting into a seat where we’d contest only if we had a chance of being elected. What it’s about is offering an alternative. It’s about engaging with thousands of people on the door – which we have been doing already – knocking doors, explaining to them what éirígí is about, asking them for their contributions for what we should be doing. And that in itself is a success for us. If we didn’t focus on that in this kind of campaign, it would be unlikely that you could get the same response. Generally, people within this three/four months are fairly switched on to politics, even those who aren’t overly political, they’re open to your ideas, and solutions to problems. That’s what we have been using it for. And I think there’s definitely an appetite out there for politics we offer.

John talked about the distinction between éirígí and other nationalist, republican and socialist organisations.

I think on the nationalist/republican side you certainly have people with aspirations towards United Ireland. Now assuming those aspirations are genuine – and in some cases it may be a stretch too far to assume that that’s true – it is usually based on the age old notion that labour must wait, that the issues of labour, of social and economic equality, of wealth, who holds it, who doesn’t hold it, that all of these issues must wait until issues of national sovereignty are resolved.

And we have those on the socialist side who will proclaim socialism, who will decry the ravages of imperialism around the world, but consciously ignore the impact of British imperialism within Ireland and all the spinoffs of it. Further than that, some of them will go as denouncing people who aren’t ignorant to the impact of imperialism within Ireland.

éirígí rejects both those propositions. éirígí is based very much in the tradition of James Connolly, that the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland; the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour; the two cannot be separated.

To put it maybe in more contemporary terms, it is that éirígí will not accept attacks on the vulnerable within society, the working class, will not abide by cuts, which aren’t designed to service the debts of the wealthy within society. Likewise, we’re not going to form alliances with the bosses, the wealthy and the landlords, in the hope that somehow, sometime, somewhere all these issues will be resolved by the changing of a flag. On the flip side of that as well, we’re also not going to be silent about British occupation and what it means to the communities we exist in: the extension and retention of oppressive laws, the entrenchment of the nefarious agencies like MI5 based at Holywood. These are things we will not be silent about, we will speak out about and we’ll also point out as far as we can that the real barrier that imperialism poses for socialism in Ireland.

I asked about armed struggle. Were éirígí totally against taking up arms again? After reminding me that there’s a long history of British militarism in Ireland “whether it be from the bayonets of the Black and Tans, to the rifles of the parachute regiment” John turned to Irish republicans.

In relation to militarism, éirígí has consistently made its position clear. I’ve no reluctance to restate it. And that is that éirígí does not believe that the conditions exist for the successful prosecution of armed struggle.

éirígí made a conscious decision at its foundation and ever since that it would focus all of its energies in building a radical socialist republican political party which was organised out in the open, which was democratic and transparent, that would be engaging with people in a very open way as to what was wrong with society and what we felt we needed to do to overcome these wrongs. That’s the position we have. That’s the position we focus all of our energy on.

But is there a list of things that would change to make the conditions exist?

[John] It’s very difficult for anybody to predict. What we’ve been keen on, and what our position has been based on, is not engaging in historical revisionism or hypocrisy. We don’t have a crystal ball and we do not know when conditions will present themselves again and to what degree they will.

[Alan] But it’s not ruled out for ever? But for now?

[John] What we believe in éirígí is that our energies are best placed organising in an open, democratic fashion, within the communities we exist in. Making the arguments that we feel need to be made, that other people won’t make. We’re about building and in some cases rebuilding a broad social movement which will campaign against British occupation and will campaign in favour of socialism.

If you weren’t a socialist republican, would it not be difficult to juggle the concepts of a party that is radical, revolutionary, destabilising, in a peaceful mode at the moment but not ruling it out forever?

Well it may be. I wouldn’t think that’s down to us. Other people I think should examine perhaps more carefully not just Irish history but history internationally. Everything that brought about radical transformation in society didn’t necessarily depend on armed struggle as its only component, or indeed as its main component. But we do come from a tradition within Ireland where there has been armed struggle. That’s something that we all know and something we all have some fair knowledge of.

What éirígí is about doing is creating a way where people can in a democratic way openly engage in radical republican socialist politics and address the issues that need to be addressed in this society. That’s our position. We’ve stated very clearly and I have a belief that that will be something we’ll be asked to state time and time again, and we’ve no reluctance to do that.

So éirígí don’t believe the conditions exist for armed struggle at the moment. They don’t support the PSNI. So when it comes to the death of Ronan Kerr and other attacks, would éirígí support people going to the police to give evidence to stop attacks?

The answer is a little ambiguous.

[John] Again it comes back to out position and this is a line of question that will undoubtedly be pursued. Our position is clear in terms of we are not involved in these types of actions. That because we do not believe the conditions exist for a successful armed struggle it also follows that we are not supportive of or aligned to any other group and their actions.

Now in relation to how people engage with the PSNI or the British Army, our position has always been clear on that as well. We are aware we exist in a unique circumstance. We are under occupation and there are some situations where people feel the need to engage with the PSNI, the RUC before it, the RIC before that. And a lot of those cases, whether it be through insurance claims, whether it be through sexual assault, missing children – there’s a litany of ways out there that people had to engage with these forces. Always have done, may I add, in this community and people need to make their own decision on how best they do that.

We would encourage people if they’re having any dealings with these bodies as far as possible to be represented by a solicitor, by legal professionals, certainly at least accompanied by them in their dealings.

[Alan] You do stop somewhat short of saying definitely go and … if you know who did it go to the police and tell them.

[John] Certainly.

You’ll need to listen to the second video to figure out whether that’s a “certainly yes” or a “certainly no”. I thought I knew at the time, but when I listen back, I’m not so sure.

Unlike the IRSP which takes its ideology from a wide range of historical figures (including Marx, Engels and Lenin), éirígí largely seem to derive their world view from James Connolly. Has Irish socialism moved on much since Connolly’s days in the early 1900s?

Well I think in terms of the great battles in society and throughout history, the themes are generally quite the same. There are advances, there are retreats, but basically in essence the struggles are the same. Therefore, a lot of language seems the same as well. In a lot of ways, the lot of working people hasn’t moved on, hasn’t progressed. I think the challenge for the left – I’m glad you raise this kind of issue – the challenge for the left is to produce a proper critique of where we are, where we’ve come from and where we need to go.

I think there has been a failing, broadly, on the left to address these issues properly. I think the times we’re in now, what we’re facing into, will definitely necessitate the left to form a more broadly representative plan of where we go from here.

I pointed out that West Belfast would soon be awash with posters from socialist parties: éirígí, IRSP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Socialist Party, People Before Profit, Workers Party. Have they not divided the niche into sub-niches that are so small that nobody wins?

First of all, there are a number of people in the contest for these elections who would describe themselves as being on the left. Obviously they come with their different histories, different takes on what’s required, and where we need to go. I think there is room out there for somebody like éirígí because we’re republican socialist organisation. Some of the other – indeed most of the other – groups that would describe themselves as leftist aren’t republican and won’t really be addressing in any way British occupation, the realities we face in these communities. I think in the Lower Falls for example, number one, not everybody’s contesting the same seats. You’ve some people on the left who are contesting the Assembly and some that are contesting at a local level.

We finished with a few quick questions:

[Alan] What’s more important, May Day or election day?

[John] May Day.

[Alan] Did you complete your census form?

[John] No comment.

[Alan] Would you encourage people who vote éirígí number one in the council election to transfer to any other candidates?

[John] That’s down to people’s own discretion.

There’s a sense that éirígí’s manifesto stretches back a hundred years into the past and forward another hundred. éirígí’s long term goals are more important than short term fixes. It’s a very different mindset to that of most parties who are thinking no more than ten years (or ten minutes!) ahead to achieve their visions. It’s also a mindset that explores everything through the prism of history and socialist heroes like Connolly, in a way unionists do not match. In the end, to me, I found it to be a struggle without any obvious hope. But the West Belfast electorate may disagree.