"More and more people realise austerity is not viable. There is no other way but to radicalise further"

An interview with Alexis Tsipras of Syriza.

In the past few months, Alexis Tsipras, leader of the Greek left-wing movement Syriza and widely tipped as the country's next prime minister, has been on an international tour, trying to build a broad coalition of support for his party's anti-austerity policies - and, perhaps, to convince the world's political elite that a Syriza government is not such a terrifying prospect. Last week was London's turn. The New Statesman caught up with him at the end of a busy schedule of meetings and talks, en route to see Tottenham Hotspur play Fulham.

NS: You’ve just given two lectures in London: one at the LSE, and one at Friends House, a well-known venue for left-wing events. How did you find the audiences?

Tsipras: Both at LSE, where I expected the audience to be a bit colder but it turned out that most were friendly, and at the [Friends House] one organised by Syriza London, the participation was amazing. At the second one I was surprised to see that almost 600 hundred people turned up. And not just Greeks either, many were British.

And I think this means that Syriza is not just a party with interesting positions, but a force that can bring change to the political landscape of Europe – not just for Greece, but for all the people who now need to reclaim their right to a decent society, justice and hope; against those who want to see them subjugated to this austerity that doesn’t just kill wages and pensions, but democracy itself.

Would you say you have political allies in Britain?

I had the opportunity to meet with two teams from the Labour Party: an official one headed by [Jon] Cruddas, the party's head of policy-making, and another one with four to five Labour MPs. I got the impression that the Labour party today is in soul-searching mode, and the debate around austerity is on, so Greece is for them an interesting case study. Bearing in mind that in previous years they followed neoliberal policies, today Labour are deeply troubled about everything that has happened in Greece and especially by the collapse of PASOK [Labour's social-democratic Greek sister party]. They're following the situation closely and I dare say they are one of the few parties so close to power in Europe with whom we share a lot of positions and with whom we can be in constant communication.

So Syriza can find common ground with Labour?

It will depend upon how daring [Ed] Miliband intends to be and especially when it matters most: during the next elections when pressure from the mainstream media and oligarchs in Britain start speaking of the "red dragon" that has come to drive away the City and submerge us in inflation and poverty. Of course this will depend not only on Miliband's endurance but also on the circumstances under which this duel will take place. Because if elections are held in 2015, the two years in between will be apocalyptic as to the effects of neoliberalism in Europe. Britain is already in depression. Nothing is getting better. More and more people in Europe realise that austerity is not a viable prospect. I hope people realise that there is no other way but to radicalise even further.

Do you think there is potential for something similar to Syriza in Britain? A party emerging from outside the mainstream that will oppose austerity?

I can’t really know that. Every country has its own characteristics and in Britain there's a long tradition of a two-party system. If of course Labour wins the next elections and opts to continue along Cameron’s tracks, then it’s almost certain that they will lose every bond with the social classes that support them. The void left there will certainly be filled by something new. That’s the way it works in nature and that’s the way it works in politics.

At your lectures, you spoke of the need for a "European people" in order to find a way out of the crisis. Do you find the conditions are here for this to happen?

I think we are running a grave danger: to focus our thoughts on the Greek people, on the British people, on the Italians, like separate entities. The crisis threatens to drive us backwards, back to the idea of the nation-state, and to the antagonism between those states that will come about as an extension of neoliberalism, with false ideas of competitiveness and so on.

On the other hand, we need to see the actual solution: that in common problems, we need common answers. Europeans have nothing to fight over. This stand-off is not between the British and the French, the Greeks and the Germans. This is between the working class, the unemployed and part of the middle class against predatory capital.

This brings us to something current and highly relevant to what you were saying. What do you think about what’s happening in Cyprus?

I think it’s unbelievable and self-destructive.

I believe that in the next few days panic will spread to the rest of southern Europe. It is a very risky choice they [the troika] have made, and it proves they have no understanding of the objective dangers facing the eurozone. They've chosen to have a Eurozone operating under their rule, with the people subjugated, threatened with blackmail like this. I think the only chance Cyprus has, like other countries, is if the political system rejects this blackmail. If they accept it, then there is no way back. Cyprus's economy will be ruined, its banking system will bleed capital as depositors will fear a second haircut, and this will spread throughout Europe.

On the contrary, if Cyprus resists, and rejects this deal by protecting its banking system, it would send a strong message of trust and credibility to the rest of the southern European countries as well.

One of the first things your opponents in the government said when details of the Cyprus bank levy came up was to claim that one of your own MPs, Manolis Glezos, suggested something similar recently.

Their claims are ridiculous.

They're made, though.

They [the Greek government] can claim anything they want in their PR war. It’s the same team of people that has ruined the country and they can use what they want to attack us.

Of course Manolis [Glezos] never said anything like that. He spoke once about the possibility of a voluntary loan via bonds exchange. His idea has nothing to do with the proposed involuntary haircut imposed on Cypriot deposits.

Those who now govern us under the neoliberal dogma, under the dogma of subjugation, will go for anything, they’ll ask for no one's permission to take measures like that one. They will turn us into Argentina [circa 2001] while at the same time proclaiming that their target is to avoid exactly that. De la Rua [the former Argentine president] was their ideological cousin anyway, and it’s likely a helicopter will carry them away too, when the time comes for the Greek people to reclaim their rights and bring back balance to our society, economy and lives. There’s no other possible outcome.

But your opponents will claim you are no longer that radical, and that you now resemble a centre-left party.

Well, it’s ridiculous that the same people who claim that we aid terrorists, accuse us of becoming more timid at the same time. They just spin it any way they can and hope it catches on.

So are you still radicals or have you become a party of the centre-left?

Syriza is what it is: a radical, left-wing party that feels the pulse of the times, knows what’s at stake and is after a wide consensus and unity for political change in Greece. This is something that departs from the narrow limits of the radical left.

And what of the transformations Syriza is going through? Because there is certainly something changing.

We are going through a process, as democratic as ever, and with the people’s participation it can only get better. We already accomplished much. Last year no one would have thought that Syriza could achieve this. Instead of factions, we are now a solid democratic party, that operates with the same freedom of opinions as it used to. This will lead to the formation of a new shape for us that will come about after our next conference which is taking place soon.

Are you making moves in the European scene as well?

We are looking into the new conditions now forming. Our aim is for an international summit on the re-negotiation and the cancellation of the debt of peripheral European countries. For this, we are open to co-operation with forces outside the European left as well.

So you still claim you'll "tear up the memorandum" and not just repay Greece's lenders at any cost?

Our reasoning is that the memorandum has already failed. It’s a disaster. We’ll put an end to it and replace it when in parliament. We’ll proceed to renegotiate with our lenders with the prospect of a reasonable, viable agreement that won’t just concern Greece, because this is not just a Greek crisis. We’ve seen that the problem is systemic. This means that when negotiations take place it won’t be Greece against the world but rather, the European South against Ms Merkel.

Let's leave Europe for a moment; what about the rest of the world? What came out of your recent tour of South and North America, for instance?

This happened in the context of carrying a message to the outside world: That Greece is going through a humanitarian crisis and that it needs alliances with those powers that realise the danger austerity carries for the entire planet. It’s in their best interests to support Greece, not out of charity, but rather because they understand that this catastrophic tragedy needs to stop. Through these contacts we've had the chance to create such alliances, for today and for tomorrow.

Was something more specific discussed in terms of trade? Cheap oil from Venezuela, maybe?

Well, I don't think there is any point to get into so much detail. What matters is that a number of countries both in South and in North America understand the the Greek program is not working and a government of the left can provide a way out of it not just for Greece but also for Europe. It will give a prospect of balance for the world economy as well, because the real threat right now is the spreading of austerity and depression.

Is the rumour true, then, that the US is positive towards the possibility of Syriza coming to power?

That’s a comment I'd leave for you journalists to make. The point is that the US are following a policy line radically different from that which Angela Merkel follows and enforces throughout Europe. The US have printed money, they intend to tax the rich in order to avoid the fiscal cliff.

These are things that sees anyone who dares to propose them in Greece and Europe, labeled an extremist, when at the same time it's what Obama does. In that sense there are common elements, at least more than in the past, in the applied economic policy. Geopolitics are more complicated than that, I'm afraid.

One subject you seemed to leave out of your talks was immigration, an issue that the far right has exploited to frightening extent. What is Syriza's policy on this?

Immigration is one of the most important issues on our agenda. The European South is an entry point and we need to look into a wider solution. It's unfair for entrance countries to be forced into taking all the weight of the issue. Dublin II [the EU-wide agreement on asylum seekers] strips away the right of immigrants and refugees, to leave the country with proper documentation. They don't want to stay in a country where they can't get a job, but they are forced to.

So we need to examine what kind of Europe we want from now on: Do we want a Europe based on solidarity where hardships are equally distributed? Or do we want a Europe where the south is used as storage space for poor souls and the north lives on comfortably? We are approaching this both on an institutional level, trying to force a treaty change, but also through a humanitarian perspective. We can't treat those people who arrive to our country like second-class citizens.

And especially for those kids who are born in Greece, we say nothing different than what Britain does: they should be able to get Greek citizenship. They take part in Greek education, they speak Greek and they know no other home. We need to see the future in a multicultural Greece, much like the way Britain worked it out, successfully in my opinion.

So, for a last question: how important is your role as the face of Syriza?

Faces and personalities are important sometimes, but it's social conditions that create the context for them to act. I’ve been saying the same things for three to four years. The people accepted the message now, not because I changed it. I believe history will be written by those people, not leaders, despite the role leaders have to play in this.

Follow Yiannis Baboulias on Twitter @YiannisBab and Daniel Trilling @trillingual

Alexis Tsipras (centre), after a speech outside Athens University in June 2012. (Photo: Getty.)
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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution