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
Catholic Politicians

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.


  1. The first thing I wish to say in response to the above piece is that I enjoy reading the Pensive Quill (AM) and feel that he raising points and asks some very relevant questions in a very stimulating way.

    I’ll try to keep my own response brief, so I’ll do it in note form.

    1) I would point out that I am a member of Sinn Fein based in the south and AM is correct in saying the above explanation of the use of the term catholic politician fails to describes what I see within the party.

    2) AM states Sinn Féin is “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 “ The project I, and the people I know in the party fight for is the advancement of position of Irish people throughout the island. In the piece AM has written he simply writes off Sinn Féin in the 26. This is convenient for his argument as it downplays the fact that we have an all-Ireland agenda and are the largest all-Ireland party. Yes, we have challenges in the 26, as we do in the 6, but that does not mean our presence in the South can be written off and an analysis given that views Sinn Féin purely within a six county context.

    3) AM himself says he has rejected the terms republican, socialist, revolutionary because he doesn’t like it and it does not fit in with his analysis of the Sinn Féin. Fair enough. He does not wish to use the term nationalist because that has been used to describe the SDLP. Okay. So he chooses the term Catholic politician to do exactly what he wanted to do. Essentially piss off Sinn Féin supporters. I personally reject its use because I have never accepted that the struggle for a united Ireland is a sectarian one. For me Sinn Féin wishes to see a democratic, united and secular Ireland. The party is trying to do what no other major party is trying to do. Namely to push for a new united republic.

  2. yeah AM is a very good writer credit where it's due but another shinner here. this used to be a major critism of the left to Sf in Dublin over 20 years ago. i rejected it because i felt the nature of six county state, the place of anyone who called themselves progressive should have been with the minority who where getting attack by the state. it was the right place for republicanism to be at that time and prior to it before i joined. now thats not to say that that position should be static, the objective is obviously unity. SF recognise that imo by trying to create a senario where we can get into protestant communities and argue politics. i accept stormont is far from perfect. it's far from our first choice but it had many parents and calming the situation down has potential for want of a better phraze to build bridges.

    one area where iam disapointed with other republican groups in all this with the exception of the IRSP who do, do out reach work, is the newer groups not taking advantage of the potenial of what SF is doing. there is no need for them to support any of the institutions SF support but they can use the relitive calm to take advantage of it.

    rambling but think SF are more than simplely a northern catholic party because they understand that for there objectives to be achieved they need the support of more than just northern catholics. demographics across the island. and i accept that in that SF made a big tactical error putting the cart before the horse trying to appeal to everyone at once and some serious thinking is needed in that regard but the realisation is there.


  3. Look this is just anti sf shit. It is just trying to do what brit propagans has always tried to do. They want to make out it is a senseless struggle between religious nutters and now pricks like this want to do the same. I don't know what he wants to achieve maybe he could tell us!

  4. Anon - how many protestants are in Sinn Féin? The fact is Sinn Féin are supported by catholics in the north. How Sinn Féin breaks out of this position is the big question.
    The problem I have with the Quill is that he seems to think other republican groups are any better. The fact is they are even more catholic orientated than Sinn Féin. How do you think the rioting in Ardoyne came across to the loyalist community? How did the riot in Dublin come across. I'll tell you how they came across - very badly.

    At least Sinn Féinare making an attempt to reach out across the divide. What is the Quill doing?

  5. how we do it, don't think theres one arument or one capaign thats going to change an entrenched mindset. so we need three and four and five and six etc. and this process is already quitly happening. being realistic our party is still the boogman to alot of people, the sticks changed there name and became apologetic for the consequences of the sectarian trappings of orangism. we need to be blatently avoiding falling into the same lazy senario they fell in to. first thing to recognise is a true blue loyalist is a true blue loyalist, they are offended by our existence we don't need to apeal to them we need to appeal to the wider protestant community.

    the riots in ardoyne in fairness the area was efectivly put under a curfew, maybe there was a better way to articulate anger but anyway it's done, and loyalists will be angry about that and the wider protestant community may be angry about that but short of going into negotiations with the local ardoyne comunity then how do they expect to appease that anger in a way satisaftory to all. obviously it's not in some loyalists interests to seek such a solution they want to maintain the status que, but in the wider potestant community who is there to articulate that opinion or to encourage that opinion? thats where republican groups should be looking. and on different arguments etc.

    the quill from my reading is an opinion piece. i don't think its function is to advocate stratagies, thats up to groups. and it that scence would agree. why aren't other groups with the exception of the IRSP and SF thinking bigger than working class catholics in the six counties? if SF disapeared tomorrow and any one group hypotecticly got all that support, realistly how can they be go further with it than the provo's did. i don't get what there trying, but any way it's up to them.

  6. sorry forgot to sign it. post just a second a go was me.


  7. I had a look at the ‘pretentious twat’ blog, no sorry, I meant to say ‘pensive quill’ blog and guess what the first image is you see? Mackers sternly guarding a Catholic totem! Hitchens and Dawkins would excommunicate him.

    Mackers akbar.

  8. "the blog has survived the howls of those who protest the washing of dirty linen in public."

    If he had not included that line he would have retained my attention. But thats bit dramatic. One fellow posted about washing dirty linen and pretty everybody else said they were against that but for open debate only.

    They way he makes it sounds there was a titanic struggle.

    Its overblow in order to make it sound like the big bullies were squelching debate. A cheap smear tactic in my opinion. Same as the catholic debate.

    Alls fair in love and war they say though.


  9. What if they are catholic politicians? They are a party elected by catholics and nationalists and republicans. Are the DUP worried about being protestant politicians? The DUP aren't trying to reach out to catholics, they're far too busy trying to keep their own electorate happy, and fending off the TUV.

    I think its a good idea to try to reach accross the divide, BUT the protestant people are well represented by politicians of their choice, and I don't see any demand from them that republican/nationalist parties should be representing them. There is at the minute a good mixture of people crossing the divide and going to the offices of any politician of any hue who will give advice etc anyway. I know some protestant people from the lower shankill and upper springfield road who have gone to SF politicians/offices for advice. It's being done by both sides.

    I don't think its a good idea for one party to try to be all things to all men. If unity ever does come, the protestant/unionist people in the north will find their own way, with their own representatives imv rather than be assimiliated into an exsisting electorate.

    'A catholic party for catholic people', I can't help feeling its a moot point.

  10. 'asilimateing' protestants into a political culture after a UI presumes that its possible to get a UI with out there support.

    i don't see how, genuinely.

    iam not talking about veto's. wheter a stratagy is constitutional or military, what ever your poision there needs to be a recognition of what a huge strategic asset the unionist loyalsit ideology is to britian in ireland. for every man thats turned away from that concept, britian gets weaker if they can be convinced by what ever group to embrace a republican analyisis then ireland gets stronger. its not rocket science. wolfone said my aim was to free ireland - my MEANS was to unite catholic protestant and disenter -

    the means is the important part there it means no pun intended that in wolfones time he knew that if he got the catholics to rise that the protestants would be used against them, if presbytarians rised then catholics would be used against them..... sort of like today and every other day for the last few hundred years. if you want a UI then you need to asimilate catholics and protestants on some level today now yesterday before there is a UI to get a UI.

    it would be good practice.