Christine O’Mahony’s opinion piece in The Beacon, Allyship with marginalised groups means examining your own privilege, instigates a valuable and interesting discussion on the question of how those from ‘majority’ populations engage with struggles against oppression. While this discussion is not new in movements for social justice, there is certainly value in going into writing formally and engaging in some critique and analysis on the issue. I encourage everyone to read it.
Where O’Mahony’s piece contributes to the debate is the distinct lack of hysterical moralism. She at the very least attributes good intentions to those she highlights as behaving in a flawed manner (and I do so likewise with her). Doing so allows us to focus on the concrete issues. Her firm statement that Travellers are targets of racist abuse is also worth praise – this was the crux of a rather bitter and sharp “debate” on social media, and our Traveller brothers and sisters deserve real recognition when discussing the complex topics of oppression on this island. O’Mahony also correctly criticises those who say they are against oppression but, when push comes to shove, end up defending their own narrow political interests. Words are good, but action matters. That said, O’Mahony’s article falls well short on a number of questions and, in my opinion, lacks balance.
The Politics of Allyship
O’Mahony offers us a useful definition of what an “ally” is in the opening paragraph of her article;
“The definition of allyship is when a person who is in a position of privilege and power seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalised group. It is not an identity. Instead, it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with minority groups. Allies need to work and put in the effort to be considered genuine by the group they seek to pledge their solidarity with.“
There is nothing principledly wrong with the definition on which the article is premised – the issue is the politics of allyship in the fundamentals. The political vision of allyship outlined by those who support it looks less like solidarity, and much more like cheerleading. To be in solidarity with a struggle is not simply to give it uncritical aide and to be “accountable” to those they are in solidarity with, it is to contribute that struggle both organisationally and politically.
On first read, this seems no different to the vision of allyship outlined by O’Mahony, but there are important nuanced and subtle differences in method. The problem is as follows: To be an ally, you have to build trust and accountability with oppressed peoples. However, that leaves it completely open as to who in those oppressed groupings you are accountable to. The underlying implication is that there is nobody within an oppressed grouping that you can disagree with when it comes to fighting our oppression, as that runs counter to the principle of accountability (as vague as “accountability” is).
Minorities Within Minorities
The problems of this are obvious. It treats oppressed peoples as a homogenous entity. In reality, there is a broad spectrum of differences of attitude and opinion within any group in society. That is obvious to everyone, but it is something that needs to be restated. The vision of allyship attempts to obscure these real differences, both personal and political, and instead pose a situation of oppressed groupings struggling as one, waiting for our “allies” to get in line behind us.
As examples of “allyship done wrong”, O’Mahony wheels out People Before Profit’s involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement. Namely, she mentions the case of a PBP speaker allegedly speaking too long at a BLM protest last summer, PBP flags on a protest, and then the PBP Black Lives Matter mural in Belfast. Leaving aside that these are absurdly trivial issues, even if one disagrees with them, the complaint here is illustrative of the problem. As a person of colour myself, I fully support PBP’s mural in solidarity with black lives. I fully support PBP’s open and honest identification of itself within BLM protests, and in all movements against oppression. Similarly, when organisations like the Connolly Youth Movement took the initiative to organise one of the first solidarity demos after George Floyd’s murder, they were roundly criticised on account of being a “white” orgnaisation – but the initiative was a good one, and I will defend their right to do it. I am far from alone in that regard, and many POC activists have been subject to bullying and harassment – including racial abuse from so-called “allies”, but particularly from those associated with MERJ (who O’Mahony cites approvingly) – for standing against the stream on this issue.
Appeals to uncritically “listen” and “learn” in the broad strokes are more or less universally appeals to listen and learn from so-called, usually self-proclaimed, “leaders” who are part of an oppressed grouping. There is no inspection of their actual politics, strategy, tactics, basic democratic legitimacy, or even organisational transparency. These are difficult issues to navigate, which is what makes the concept of allyship so alluring. It removes the need for those from majority groupings to critically engage in complicated topics and instead substitutes a tendency to passively regurgitate what the “leading” figures say. I use “leading” very loosely – often these people do little in the way of genuine leadership and are simply placed on that pedestal by people on social media with little connection to the situation on the ground.
Solidarity with the oppressed is unconditional, but it is not a one-sided relationship. One of the roles of those who are engaging in solidarity must be critical engagement with the movement itself – that is, questioning and challenging established tactics and leaderships, as well as bringing their own ideas, resources and, yes, organisations to the table. This is essential – not because movements against oppression should be considered party-building exercises for the parties that support them, but because doing so carves out a space for democratic debate and discussion and assists the movement in finding the best way forward in the struggle for liberation. We need comrades who will not be afraid to criticise us in a constructive and friendly way, put forward ideas and ground us with a political understanding of our struggle. Yes, sometimes it does help to have people to say that calling other activists the n-word or allying our movements with hated figures like Leo Varadkar are not good ideas.
If a party happens to grow from a movement, that is simply a sign that those involved in said movement find its tactics and politics convincing. Some of us may not be happy with that – but denying people the choice by preventing them from being exposed to the ideas of those we do not like is not only grossly undemocratic, it is outright counterproductive. As activists trying to organise to beat the system, we should be happy that like-minded people with similar goals to us are finding a home and organising themselves. Political organisations genuinely committing to a movement and involving themselves aides in the process of legitimising our struggle in wider society, illustrating its broader base of support and winning people over to our side of the argument. This undoubtedly strengthens us collectively.
Ultimately, such a method is not compatible with allyship, which sees debate and disagreement within our movements as an unhelpful distraction or an external imposition, and is quick to cut out those who engage in it.
But it is also no coincidence that the demands for political organisations to lower their banner first and foremost come from those who place themselves at the leadership of movements. There is a cynical element – precisely because acknowledging that struggles against oppression are broad based with a variety of viewpoints threatens their uncontested control. This is not for a second to say that everyone who argues that politics should be “left at the door” in these movements are cynical – I would say that the majority sincerely believe this argument and believe that it is the most constructive way to build our movements. And that is a debate I am more than happy to have – unfortunately, many (on both sides of this argument) are not.
Criticism Is Necessary
The issue here moves beyond political parties. When an ad hoc group, Grandfathers Against Racism, started getting media coverage for their longstanding solidarity protests against the far right and racism, people were denounced for supporting them by leading figures in organisations like MERJ – again, on completely trivial grounds. Through the framework of allyship, the old men in question were clearly in the wrong – but the reality is that we all intuitively understand, as do the broad mass of people who sympathise with our struggles, that what these people did was a legitimate and correct act of solidarity.
Similarly, after longstanding anti-far right, anti-racist activist Izzy Kamikaze was viciously beaten up by fascists, MERJ leaders and their supporters took to social media – to attack her for her name. The tendency is clear – the problem is not of the political party itself, or of the activist, or of the little protest by some old white men, it is that there are others in our movement getting attention and undermining the idea that we have a singular representative.
This is where allyship turns from simply being insufficient into being counterproductive. This kind of politics – and it is politics – should not be something uncritically supported by well intentioned people and activists. It deserves to be addressed and criticised head on. A good comrade is not afraid to challenge these kinds of ideas and methods – a good ally reinforces it, or at best ignores it because thinking about it too much is inconvenient. At worst, they overlook it because saying something would threaten their social standing.
Politics, Not Moralism
And threats to social standing are not rare or uncommon. They are frequently made and often carried out. The now-infamous phrase of “cancel-culture” is often used and abused by the right wing and their sympathetic pundits in the media who hate the idea that the unwashed masses can criticise them, but it is not an entirely fictitious phenomenon. It is a product of viewing our struggles against oppression in exclusively moral terms, as opposed to political projects.
Of course, there are morals involved. It is immoral to be racist, homophobic, sexist etc. It is moral to stand against those things. Moral repugnance towards injustice often motivates activists and ordinary people to get involved in our struggles. That is well and good. The issue arises is when morals are idealised and morality turns into moralism. An individual can have the purest of morals and end up with the worst of ideas – and that is fine, so long as there is a movement around them to keep them grounded in reality, and hold them to account.
When moralism dominates, questions of tactics, strategy, etc. become issues of moral contention – if you disagree with my method, you are immoral. If you have a different analysis to me, it is immoral. I want nothing to do with you. You are a destructive wrecker who should be expelled from our movement and from all other activism, permanently. Those who agree with me on this issue are moral, regardless of what they actually say or do, or have done. This sort of moralism works its way into all sorts of political questions – let us not mention the universally hostile debate on sex work – but it is particularly destructive when a movement against oppression does not have overwhelming majority support in society, which is unfortunately the case for struggles such as anti-racism. It fundamentally weakens our movements and leads to destructive splitting, resentment and so on.
The antidote is facing the reality that what we are engaging in is not a moral crusade, but a political project to change society. We have to discuss out what the best ways are to convince the majority of our view, and there will be principled and sometimes fundamental disagreements which are not reconcilable. The outcome of that is not to create mortal enemies or hate figures, it is to test our ideas and see where they go, and then review. If people seek to create division in our movement through some sort of test of moralism, exclude people or organisations from protests etc. then that tendency has to be opposed.
That is not to say that people are left off the hook for wrongdoing. O’Mahony correctly mentions Sinn Féin’s posturing in support of black lives whilst simultaneously voting to fine BLM protesters in the North, and they should be criticised and continue to be criticised until they seriously grapple with that and show that they are now different. But there are definite scales of difference here between having your party name on a BLM mural and fining BLM protesters, even if you disagree with the former, and yet our great allies will line up with all sorts of discredited groups to go after a harmless solidarity mural (and yet say nothing when it was vandalised by racists and defiantly repaired by PBP).
Elephant In The Room
In that context, one element of O’Mahony’s article that may leave informed readers with a bitter taste in their mouth was the lack of disclosure of O’Mahony’s political affiliations. As a former member of Sinn Féin, she made a name for herself politically by coming out and criticising the party last year over tweets by Sinn Féin TD, Brian Stanley, and subsequently resigning as a result of Sinn Féin’s internal culture. She quickly moved onto the Social Democrats, and is now also a member of the SDLP’s youth organisation – both organisations which you will find absent in her article which goes across most of the left (self-proclaimed and otherwise) to some degree or another. For the sake of consistency, I myself am a member of RISE (though of course do not speak for them).
If we are being serious about the question of allyship, by her own criteria both organisations are completely lacking. The SDLP was one of the parties that voted to fine BLM protesters (in fact, the much maligned PBP was the only party to oppose the fines), and has more than its fair share of dodgy politicians, and links to the right wing (and systemically racist) Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties in the South. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, hugely mistreated one of their POC candidates in the 2019 Local Election, Ellie Kisyombe. Several leading members of the Social Democrats resigned from their Executive Board in protest over it. That is not to mention other objectionable acts such as voting against abortion on socioeconomic grounds. And for all the shade thrown at the radical left for allegedly “taking over” movements, the Social Democrats are the ones who have turned Galway Pride into an appendage of their political machine. Certainly no organisation is perfect, but the list on infractions for both parties is not insignificant.
This circles back to an important point about allyship. By removing the political element of active, critical engagement from the question, it suppresses these kinds of issues and the accountability that stems from them. By forcing people to hide their political affiliation and their politics, you also open the way for those with bad records to embed themselves into movements without being challenged. Perhaps that was the point all along?
If we want to actually win our struggles for liberation, we have to move past the search for allies and start looking for comrades.