Thursday, July 23, 2009
Sinn Féin are simply Catholic politicans - what do you think?
This week the Pensive Quill wrote a piece regarding his use of the term "Catholic Politicans" to describe Sinn Féin. This was in response to a comment I had left on his site in which I questioned the use of this term.
In the piece he wrote he has also mentioned this site and offered me the chance to respond, but as he rightly says I only manage the blog. This site is dedicated to debate within the party so I would ask people to read the piece and give their own opinion on how appropraite it is. Are Sinn Féin simply catholic politicans?
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
In recent days a comment appeared on the Pensive Quill in response to the article ‘Wrong Tune’. The poster, ‘Starry Plough’, manages a promising blog, Sinn Fein Keep Left. While constructed from the perspective of someone who feels Sinn Fein can still deliver the goals that initially defined it, the blog has survived the howls of those who protest the washing of dirty linen in public. Soiled linen is anything that does not depict the leadership in halos. Keep Left is a brave attempt to swim against the tide of party orientation which would readily see the leadership lurch gleefully to the right if the Blueshirts of Fine Gael were in a position to extend an invitation to join them in government. The one downside of the blog, which is not a criticism of Starry Plough or any of those who take the time to run it, is that 15 years ago its value would have been greatly magnified. Regrettably, at a time when debate and probing may have salvaged something from the republican project, there was so little of it able to emerge in the face of concerted leadership attempts to discourage it. Few then were thinking of blogs. Most of us were unaware of the existence of the internet.
Part of the comment Starry Plough made to the Pensive Quill had this to say.
One point I am struggling with in your posts though is the term catholic politician. The church is dying, many if not most people who vote SF, or any party for that manner, are no longer church going. So why the use of this phrase? I simply find it grabs my attention and deflects from other things you write.
That it grabs the attention of the poster is an achievement in it itself. It may have done so because it had a certain shock or annoyance property or alternatively because – as it seems to be for Starry Plough – it rings so far off the mark that it distorts the wider argument being made.
There are a number of defensible reasons for describing Sinn Fein elected representatives as Catholic politicians, none of which have anything to do with the religious persuasion of the people involved or the church that they might attend. Primarily, in as far as they stand for something other than their own power, the political project of Sinn Fein politicians, regardless of the discourse, is strategically driven by the impulse to advance the position of the Northern Catholic populace in a communitarian as opposed to a religious sense. Sinn Fein demand better schools not better church run schools. While people like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness openly admit their religious preferences Gerry Kelly seems never to express any religious sentiment whatsoever. So when the term ‘Catholic politician’ is employed it delineates a political community not a religious one. The terms Protestant and Catholic in the North are widely assumed to be interchangeable with Unionist and Nationalist. The concept ‘political Catholic’ is not to be misunderstood as, or confused with a religious Catholic.
Sinn Fein is essentially a Northern Catholic party. This results less from the ideological orientation of the leadership – vote chasers rather than ideology sponsors – than it does from the structural location within the political grid of that insurrectionary energy which brought Provisionalism into being and has played no small part in sustaining it since. Provisionalism is shaped more by constraints than opportunities. Brian Faulkner long ago made the observation that were it not for the Catholics of Belfast there would be no discussion of a united Ireland or a Provisional IRA to push it. Sinn Fein’s only consistent hardcore support base is located in the Catholic North. Elsewhere it tends to be more transient. This goes some way toward explaining its declining relevance in the South. Whether left or right, it is not viewed as a party that has answers to the problems that beset the South, just something up North that endlessly chatters in a strange Northern language called peace processery. Its abysmal failure to be recognised as a left alternative when cities like Dublin clearly moved to the left all militate against positioning it within a socialist framework. Its strategy of expansionism throughout Ireland has come off the rails and it is now being contained within the North where it plays second fiddle in a DUP led and dominated government. As unpalatable as it appears to those of us who saw comrades die and who spent long times in prison in pursuit of something vastly different from what Peter Robinson stands for, his pronouncements leave little room for confidence:
Nobody is boasting about Irish unification by 2016 anymore … on all fronts and at every level we have rolled back the nationalist agenda and are following our unionist agenda. We have re-moulded Government to our vision. Every impartial observer of the political scene agrees that the DUP is the driving force in Stormont.
This points to a Catholic minority and its political representatives accepting the balance of political forces and deferring to their outworking, not a republican constituency and its political representatives following a republican agenda that undermines that balance of forces and destabilises the concomitant political arrangement that it gives rise to.
Be that as it may, it does not follow that seeing Sinn Fein politicians as little other than political Catholics is self-evident. The case for that has to be demonstrated rather than assumed. Personally, there is a measure of discomfort in describing Sinn Fein as republican, socialist, revolutionary – all terms it would prefer over Catholic. The first three terms, once said leave a bad aftertaste in the mouth. There is a certain psychological comfort to be drawn from finding a term that intellectually and emotionally smoothes those jutting and jagged edges that come with employing another term that does not seem to fit quite as well. The term Catholic politician is not made to measure but one that is purchased straight from the rack. As such it is never a perfect fit, is a matter of taste and must at all times coexist alongside the view of others who think it does not fit at all.
For some time I have not felt comfortable in employing the term ‘republican politician.’ It bestows legitimacy on actions which are demonstrably anything other the republican. Apart from all the other republican sacred cows sacrificially offered up to the great god Peace Process, to equate republicanism with a strategy of touting to the British is so anathema to republican sentiment – on a par with terming someone who supports the Ku Klux Klan, a black civil rights activist– that it simply fails to compute. It sticks in the craw to confer the status of republican on anyone who would endorse touting, no matter how useless, self-referential, abhorrent or counterproductive the actions of physical force republicans.
‘Nationalist politicians’ would be a term more appropriate than ‘republican politicians’ but in many senses the SDLP got their first and were always termed nationalists by Sinn Fein. So the term Catholic politician allows for a convenient demarcation line between the two sets of politicians, Sinn Fein and the SDLP. And because Sinn Fein has been more inclined to beat the sectarian drum in terms of appealing to the instincts of its constituency the label political Catholic is more appropriate to it than to the SDLP. Moreover, ‘Catholic’ rather than ‘nationalist’ tugs at Sinn Fein’s sleeve each time it makes a claim to have advanced nationalism as a 32 county phenomenon. In that sense it is subversive of the party’s proclamations. Any sense that Sinn Fein is involved in a struggle for national liberation has long since evaporated. As Fionnuala O Connor, frequently quoted in recent articles on the Pensive Quill, tellingly asked:
Hijackings certainly would not advance the cause of Irish unity, said one youngish Belfast Sinn Féiner indignantly on Tuesday. Behind closed doors, does anyone in her party profess to believe that taking part in Stormont debates is bringing Irish unity a day closer?
The term Sinn Fein politician would be adequate but it is merely descriptive and not critically interpretive. Benign and neutral, it would hardly ‘grab the attention’ of any reader, apart from members of RSF who might demand that the Provisionals relinquish the title deeds to the name Sinn Fein. The term Catholic politician is interpretive in as much as it suggests what Sinn Fein is, by exclusion it also implies what it is not. In that sense the term ‘Catholic politician’ is a subversive term, aimed at challenging and eroding the view that Sinn Fein is a republican party.
Use of the term ‘Catholic’ also draws on the thinking of Peadar O’Donnell, a republican of substantial pedigree and firmly established left wing credentials, who pointedly made the observation of the IRA in Belfast that it was a battalion of armed Catholics. So there is historical precedent within the republican tradition for its usage.
Finally, the internal power-sharing solution that Sinn Fein has accepted is an answer to a problem that could only have its explanatory roots in the model of internal conflict that throughout the Northern political instability constituted the main definition of the conflict and which the Provisional republican narrative sought to challenge at all points before effectively succumbing to it. The internal conflict model allows the British state to stand back, benignly hold the ring in which Catholics and Protestants are instructed to solve their differences, and behave like a convenor or arbiter rather than a malign participant.
Sinn Fein, no longer armed with a serious republican, socialist, revolutionary or all-Ireland nationalist ideology has long since vacated the primal ground of republicanism. There is no ideological centre of gravity which acts to prevent it becoming a catch-all party. But the structural limitations that contain it both to the North and within the Catholic community within the North mean that its catch-all catchment area is the Catholic population of the six counties. Sinn Fein growth in the North is not the consequence of creating more republicans than ever before – that is like saying Tony Blair and New Labour created more socialists than ever before. It is a growth fuelled by greater numbers of Catholics not opposed to the British presence per se but who feel the British can be made to run the Northern state more fairly so that Catholics can improve their chances within a British political system.
Sinn Fein - a Catholic party for a Catholic people.