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Can the left become a unified political force?


TD Paul Murphy

TD Paul Murphy

Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins

Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins

Richard Boyd Barrett

Richard Boyd Barrett

TDs Claire Daly (right) and Mick Wallace (left)

TDs Claire Daly (right) and Mick Wallace (left)

Ruth Coppinger, Socialist Party TD

Ruth Coppinger, Socialist Party TD

Brendan Ogle

Brendan Ogle


TD Paul Murphy

Too many chiefs, not enough Indians. This could be the biggest problem facing Ireland's hard left today as it tries to become a force that can really rattle the Leinster House establishment.

The movement is full of strong debaters, powerful protesters and massive egos - who seem to be completely incapable of working as a team.

Following the stunning victory of Syriza in Greece last month, many Irish Marxists dream of pulling off a similar coup here. The trade unions involved in Right2Water have just announced a two-day conference for early May, aimed at forming some kind of left-wing alliance before the next general election.

Earlier this week, Gerry Adams dropped a strong hint that Sinn Fein would be quite happy to lead such an alliance - even though many socialists refuse to see the Shinners as left-wing at all.

There is, however, one nagging difference between Ireland and Greece. Syriza are blessed with a charismatic figurehead in Alexis Tsipras, who rides a motorbike, goes to Panathinaikos soccer matches and looks cool in suits without a tie.

Whatever you think of the new Prime Minister's economic policies, nobody can deny that the man is a born leader.

To put it politely, if there is an Irish Tsipras then he or she is keeping themselves well hidden.

Our own left-wing luminaries appear to be in their comfort zones when addressing marches through a megaphone, not so much when asked to provide a realistic alternative to the Government.

So who are the leading figures of Ireland's left today - and which of them are ready to make the leap from protest to power?

Joe Higgins - Socialist Party

The grand-daddy of them all. Higgins is a former trainee priest from Kerry who still preaches socialism like an old Bible-thumper. Once a member of the Labour Party, his Trotskyist Militant group was expelled in 1989 and went on to become the Socialist Party.

Higgins is a witty speaker who enjoys huge credibility within the movement, partly because he once went to Mountjoy Prison for his role in an anti-bin charge campaign. He has a bad relationship with Sinn Fein and does not want them to be involved in any left-wing partnership.

Now 65, he will not fight the next election but has promised to stay active in the socialist struggle.

Clare Daly - United Left

The iron lady. Daly cut her political teeth as a Siptu shop steward in Aer Lingus and was a strong ally of Joe Higgins. However, she fell out with the Socialist Party after failing to call for the resignation of her tax-dodging friend Mick Wallace.

Although the Dublin North TD is tough and articulate, there is a bitter edge to some of her public comments. She once yelled "f**king pigs" at a press photographer, accused the media of "slobbering" over Michelle Obama and called Fine Gael TDs "nodding donkeys" for voting down her abortion bill.

Paul Murphy -

Socialist Party

The enfant terrible. Murphy lost his European Parliament seat last May, which turned out to be a blessing as he won the Dublin South West by-election just a few months later.

Since then, the privately educated 31-year-old has made quite an impact - not always in a good way. He was part of the mob that trapped Joan Burton in her car in Jobstown, then claimed, "I was elected to break the law".

Arrested under controversial circumstances last week, Murphy is a formidable operator but prone to making rash statements.

Richard Boyd Barrett - People Before Profit

The baby face. Boyd Barrett is the birth child of actress Sinead Cusack and clearly inherited some of her speaking skills. He made his name as an anti-Iraq War protester in 2003, becoming a TD for Dun Laoghaire eight years later.

Boyd Barrett often appears more human than some of his colleagues and recently gave a moving Dail speech about having to bury a daughter born with a fatal foetal abnormality. He is also keener than most on building a left alliance, but with little success so far.

Ruth Coppinger - Socialist Party

The loose cannon. A schoolteacher from Mulhuddart, Coppinger is another of Joe Higgins's proteges. She won last May's Dublin West by-election after serving eleven years on Fingal County Council.

Coppinger has a melodramatic style and predicted that last December's anti-water charge protest in Dublin "could sink the Government", which turned out to be a little optimistic. Last week she caused uproar in the Dail by appearing to call the gardai "dogs", although she later claimed to be merely quoting Shakespeare.

Brendan Ogle - Right2Water

The revolutionary. 'Public enemy number one' is how Ogle was described back in 2000 when he led a train driver strike that left thousands of commuters stranded. Today he is still a militant trade unionist, a leading Right2Water campaigner and a chief organiser of the left-wing conference planned for May.

His strategy was summed up in a fiery speech he gave to the extreme republican group Eirigi in 2011: "It's going to require more than marches... burning cars and smashing up buildings. It's going to require militant industrial action, no holds barred."

A cynic might say that the Irish left never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Unless these people can change the habits of a lifetime, the movement may be about to miss its biggest opportunity of all.