Thursday, April 16, 2009


I am delighted here to have the first article written by a reader of this website. As I said in my first ever article I have hoped this site would become a place to share opinions and pose questions relating to the development of Sinn Féin. Thank you Jer for taking me up on this.

This article is Jer's initial impressions on Eoin Ó Broin's book "Sinn Féin and Left Republicanism" Title: Sinn Fein and the politics of left Republicanism.

I'd like to explore some of the ideas that I have encountered in o'Broin's book. Specifically the requirement it places on the Republican movement being self-aware and self-critical and then I'd like to extend Eoin's approach into reviewing what it means to be socialist. I'd like to extend the debate on what Irish Republicanism means based on what Eoin has written.

Now to the book. I am still reading it at the moment. Good book, well written, can be a bit academic but not overly so. Quite a rigorous approach. Whether you are for or against SF, pro or anti-republican or any other creed its a worthwhile read even for people who are politically opposed to the Republican project because it demonstrates why constant critical evaluation of your political project, its origins, beliefs and direction is the only way to progress.

I could not help thinking that both FG and FF could usefully apply the same logic to their parties, as could Unionists and just about any party that has built up a type of institutional memory. Critical assessment is key.

Can I also add in reference to a point I saw on the Irish times review by Richard English that o’Broin acknowledges that Republicans misunderstood the role of the British state in the north. I’m only about 1/3 of the way in but so far my reading of that for him the British presence in this country over the last century were symptomatic of societal and political upheavals and changes in attitudes that were happening in Britian. In that sense the British presence resulted from a type of political battleground for interests in Britain more so than a point of view than that Ireland itself was integral to the union. I have not done his point justice but it is nicely built up by Eoin. This point is I think very central to determining the future of the 6 counties and how republicans shape their strategy. I think its fair to say that Republicans have accepted the basic correctness of that idea and have shaped their policy according.

Not having reached the later chapters I am reluctant to comment on the strategy going forward aspect of the book. I wonder how much of a watershed the book is, as some have claimed or sought to portray it, rather than an eloquent setting out of one view of republicanism or a particular strategy that republicanism can employ. Some have claimed the book represents a return to the left for Sinn Fein. Indeed it probably does but its a very rigorous return demanding that Republicans figure out exactly where the project went wrong previously so as not to repeat the same mistakes going forward. He blankly points out that in most instances Republicanism has been a failure. Its an uncomfortable thought but its hard to dispute. While we should praise the strength of those who kept the tradition alive we have to examine why their projects shone brilliantly briefly but ultimately failed. That's not to knock them but to avoid the mistakes that brought them low. That will be an interesting debate worth having. Actually I think it would be fair to say that the book would stress that it has to happen. I look forward to seeing if it determines whether that debate is something that's being ongoing for a number of years, maybe even since 1980. I would regard the development of the dual strategy in the 80's - Army & Politics - was recognition that we need to be flexible if we are to harness the disparate forces in Irish society, who often seek apparently conflicting ends, to the end of building an Irish Republic.

Eoin o’Broin makes some very good points about the need to reevaluate ideas or notions of the past because often they assume their own persona independent of the actual events. Having your own narrative is not a bad thing but it must be constantly referenced to the past in an independent manner to ensure that it does not mislead. Republicanism is fairly old philosophy in Ireland now and while we look back on a single unbroken tradition where each generation renewed their vows to free Ireland its not necessarily the case. The strands that formed each Irish rebellion and local insurrection are different and if we ascribe the same motivations to them then we fail to understand why they rebelled and subsequently why they failed. Its a point worth considering deeply. Recently I saw a statement from a supporter of a dissident group which claimed that while the numbers may be small now they will grow. Republicanism had been here before he claimed and they knew the drill; he remembered the lean 40s. The question is surely obvious - Are we striving to build a Republic or just to hold the course.

Critical assessment quickly yields an answer.While Eoin o'Broin does not mention it, so far anyway, I wonder did he consider that such an approach should also be considered when looking at gender politics, internationalism and socialism itself.For me the language of socialism has become so debased by over 100 years of existence and variation that it is almost impossible to say you are socialist without inviting a whole load of pre-conceptions upon yourself.

To pose some questions following on from that:

What does a worker's Republic mean. Are HSE consultants on a quarter of a million not workers?

While we all have rights as citizens. How must we weight those against our responsibilities as citizens?Are the small rural Farmers struggling to make money with their 40 acres or the Small business with 3 people employed in them on the other side of the fence to workers?

How do we react to the fact the language of socialism was developed in a urban-factory divide while Ireland was until recently a predominantly rural country.

Indeed that last question is one Eoin touches on when he highlights the application of Socialist ideology was never going to take hold in an Ireland that was predominantly rural. Not because of greed on but because it was not built to deal with the particular issues of Irish society and hence it failed.

If SF is to reaffirm its left orientation then it must separately evaluate its socialist policies and notions in a similar manner because while the two elements of the national struggle may be complimentary, a la Connolly, they are both subject to long traditions based on notions of fealty to a certain path and dare I say doctrine.

Hernando deSoto, the man who effectively defeated the shining path and lifted many Peruvians out of poverty, said (and I paraphrase) that people don't want to be socialists they want to be capitalists but they are not being left do so. Despite his use of such language what he achieved in Peru was the equivalent of a full scale socialist revolution. He just did not see the point in calling it that and becoming bogged down in a debate on semantics.

Am I suggesting some type of policy dissimilitude, no, certainly not, only warning that as Republicans the language we use and how we describe our policies has the danger of forcing us to explain the terms away rather than the policies. In the end do we want to build a Republic based on equality which is truly radical in its vision or do we want to be the old men in the corner who came close.

Eoin's book is highly recommended for those interested in history, politics and Republicanism. It makes for uncomfortable reading in places but that's the purpose of the book. Never again should Republicanism fade away just as its about to succeed.


  1. I found that fact that republicansism is an evolving thing that has changed tactics and emphasis, was very well put forward. it puts a lie to those who claim republicanism is an unchanging monilith which can alter from the true path.

    The adaption and development of our policies over the past 20 years is just another stage in the struggle. Yes, the change has been radical, but in itself that is no problem. what we must do is continue to review its progress critically.

  2. Are you saying that we should not refer to ourselves as socialsits anymore? Because I am a socialist and proud of it.

  3. Hi Balbriggan SF,

    No certainly not suggesting that we pretend we are no longer socialists. However what do we mean when we call ourselves socialists. Just as what it means to be Republican is a complex thing that requires evaluation then so does Socialism.

    As o'Broin highlights succintly Socialism did not take off in Ireland because its language and policies had evolved in a factory versus big boss context. Whereas in Ireland the people were looking to secure their own farms. The very land they worked for foreign landlords would be theirs. The produce of the labour theirs. Quite socialist actually but as Eoin points out JJ Lee says that Connolly
    's "fatal tactical error was his reluctance to acknowledge the existence of rural Ireland".

    O'Broin continues by pointing that Connolly bolted a radical Fenian republicanism onto an already existing socialist formula designed for a different political and social context.

    Like the early Irish adapted christianity to an Irish form before it could take hold, and boy did it, Socialists must throw out the rule book and use their hearts and heads to rewrite socialism so that its now relevant for Ireland in 2009.

    Eoin also points out that C's socialism had little relevance for irish workers and agri-sector workers. (pages 100-01).

    We need to make socialism relevant to modern Ireland by systematically re-evaluating what Socialism means to us. Casting away the out-dated elements and showing that while SF is socialist those fears people have in Ireland about socialism are unfounded.

    Now as to why you maybe thought I was suggesting we abandon the word Socialist. What I was getting at was that there is a tendency for people to argue SF is anti-business, anti farmer, anti this and that and only for the workers based on the fact that SF is a socialist party.

    We are being pidgeon-holed by perceptions based on a global geo-political stand-off that
    pitted left versus right for nearly a hundred years.

    Thats what concerns me. There is a whole set of baggage ours and the electorates that means rather than building a fair society we are fire-fighting mis-perceptions.

    As I pointed out Hernando de Soto said to hell with labels I have work to do and proceeded to distribute property rights to the poor in Peru on a scale that was a full social revolution.

    Lets not abandon the term but lets drop its baggage.


    PS I see myself as a socialist as well.