Letter from Northern Ireland: our non-movement and what it means
First, a bit of background, and a bit of a caveat. I’m the current deputy president of the NUS’s Northern Ireland wing. Second, I was recently defeated in its leadership elections. Plenty will think of what I write here as a case of sour grapes. I disagree, but it’s important to put that out there.
If you’re reading this, I assume you have an interest in averting total environmental catastrophe, and probably an intertwined interest in moving towards a more just, more equal, more free society. To confound the immensely powerful, deeply entrenched elites who thwart our aims and deceive our populations, we will need to construct genuine movements. Movements capable of authentic, lasting, tangible impact. Movements of millions. Movements vying not simply for a stake in a debate, but a hand on the levers of real power in our world. As far as I can see, no movement remotely resembling this vision exists, or will exist soon, in the UK. We greens and lefties need to break the habit of reflexive movement vanity if these necessary phenomena are to ever arise from the ranks of ordinary citizens. We need to reject student vanguardism as an organising philosophy. We need to stop kidding ourselves that small clusters of motivated, often paid individuals and activists equal ‘movements’.
To take an example, the March for the Alternative was an impressive spectacle, but has not been translated into recurrent political action. In this sense, it was emblematic of the enthusiasm, wit and humanity in the unions and campaign groups, but was also a stark illustration of their distance from authentic, wide-ranging political impact. The myriad occupations, marches and speeches arising from the Coalition’s education cuts and fees increases have, likewise, made for impressive spectacles.
These various actions have, however, had no significant impact beyond isolated, peripheral issues (the forest sell-off, for example). The plummeting fortunes of the Lansley NHS bill owe more to genuine internal Liberal Democrat opposition, vociferous opposition from entrenched professional elites and Lansley’s intense dislikeability as any UKUncut or union action. We can’t be remotely satisfied with the groups and tactics we have: where they work, they do not go far enough. Where they don’t…well, they don’t.
Now, to Northern Ireland. We’ve had some traction in our opposition to fees increases. We have serious, positive commitments from 3 of the 4 largest parties, and no overt talk of a fees rise from any elected member of our Assembly. We face large, troubling cuts to our FE and HE systems, but the department they belong to in our devolved government enjoyed a relatively small percentage cut in current spending. On the whole, in the context of the past year, these are successes. But they are not the result of a ‘movement’. They are the result of that ugly word, ‘lobbying’, carried out by a small group of paid individuals, periodically complemented by highly planned, tightly orchestrated acts of political theatre.
Our national union (NUS-USI) brands itself as “the student movement in Northern Ireland” but can’t find takers for half its executive officer positions. Further education colleges, comprising the majority of our membership, provide almost literally no impact in our campaigns. In the universities (only two), we have some very able, very talented elected officers. Unfortunately, they are in the minority.
The majority are entirely a-political. Unfortunately, this includes many who are smart and capable. A majority are liabilities if exposed to the press. The pervading approach is myopic and amateurish, and dependent on the graft, research and patience of those who are politically motivated and willing to cover for their colleagues for the sake of the cause.
Outside official union structures, no autonomous, authentic ‘movement’ exists. The Northern Ireland Student Assembly, a loose collection of school students and activists, achieved a single, incoherent, disastrous action in central Belfast in December, before withering away to a motley residue of SWP and Socialist Party usual suspects. Including its still-involved school recruits, it numbers no more than 25. I admire the passion of these activists, but this, even in combination with the unions, does not resemble a ‘movement’.
The high point of our work this year was a march in central Belfast. While crowd estimates vary wildly, we got, at a maximum, 3000 people. There are 220,000 students in Northern Ireland, and we had the backing and partial involvement of Unite, NIPSA (our PCS equivalent) and the UCU. Within easy walking distance, at Queen’s University Belfast alone, there are over 20,000 students. Given months of planning and work, 3000 is…unspectacular. This was an essentially hollow political gesture capable only of complementing months of tightly-researched harassment of largely vapid local politicians. We had to essentially beg friends, not just students, to take an interest in their lives, in their society. Given the obvious unfairness of the fees rise, and the insanity of education cuts, this continued bedrock of almost total apathy is disturbing. We got a little of what we wanted, but we did not get it as a movement.
To get what we want, we need to be much less baselessly optimistic in how we’re pursuing progressive ends. We shouldn’t be afraid to confront the inadequacy of snail’s pace progress in UK progressive politics. This includes the cause of the Green Party.
We need to build mass movements. To build these, we could start by not cheapening the word, applying it to every little blossom of political action in the name of a good cause.
We need to socialise and politicise vast swathes of society who, right now, are behind all but the shallowest of tabloid tropes in their formal political understanding. We need to think very hard about how we can do this, and we need to think fast. The fate of the most vulnerable people on our planet, and in our own society depends on it.