Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sinn Féin—a party at the crossroads

Below is a piece sent in fron the Communist pary of Ireland. It is clearly an attack on the party, but despite this it still asks questions that all those in the party need to answer.


The recent ard-fheis of Sinn Féin was a somewhat quiet affair, with not a lot on the agenda to stir interest other than two motions, from Waterford and from Drimnagh, Dublin, dealing with possible participation in a coalition Government after the next general election in the Republic.

The motion from the Drimnagh cumann stated: “This Ard Fheis calls on Sinn Féin not to go into power with other parties in government such as Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, as this would be incompatible with our politics and would damage the party.” But the Ard-Chomhairle put forward an amendment that effectually leaves the door open for participation in a future Government, and this was overwhelmingly carried.

The arguments made by those supporting the two motions drew on experience from previous coalition Governments and the consequences for the junior parties in those Governments. Underlying the debate—not mentioned during it but certainly part of the subtext—was the fact that many members in the Republic are greatly concerned that if the Sinn Féin leadership get an opportunity to join a coalition Government they will do so. The experience of the dumping of central policies just before the last general election is still a painful memory for a large number of Southern members.

The position of the Ard-Chomhairle was that any decision in relation to joining a Government would be taken by a special party conference. Given that Sinn Féin is in effect a Northern party, controlled from Belfast, its priorities are shaped by political developments and the priorities surrounding the Northern situation. The majority of delegates to the recent ard-fheis, as with previous ard-fheiseanna, were from the North. If the opportunity arises to enter government in the Republic, the likelihood of their joining a coalition is very high—simply because the political priorities are determined by that relationship.

What is also obvious from the speeches during the ard-fheis and in media interviews afterwards is that the Northern leadership has little more than a superficial understanding of the political, economic and social situation in the Republic. When it comes to the nitty-gritty of the political and economic questions, they flounder—which is quite understandable, given the nature of the conflict in the North over such a prolonged period and the preoccupation with the peace process.

If the opportunity arises of entering a Dublin Government, a majority at any special conference for taking that decision will be Northern delegates, who will approach such participation from an entirely different set of political priorities.

Yet the agenda of the ard-fheis shows that the majority of motions down for discussion came from branches in the Republic, while those dealing with the Northern situation came mainly from the Ard-Chomhairle, with very few from individual cumainn in the North. There were no significant motions dealing with the social and economic situation in the North, and those that there were were devoid of any real depth.

This reveals a number of possibilities: that there is complete unity on the economic and social strategy of the national leadership; or they have no clear idea of an alternative strategy; or the leadership brooks no criticism of its attitude to government; or if there is criticism it is muted or corralled, in the interest of sustaining the unity of the organisation and a united front against unionism.

Another area that shows how far Sinn Féin has shifted politically was the section dealing with “European affairs.” Motions 11, 12 and 13, all again from the Ard-Chomhairle, show a further diminution of opposition to the European Union. There was no indication of the nature of the European Union and what it represents; there was no challenge to the view presented by the media or assessment of the effect of the Lisbon Treaty. All three motions were full of woolly thinking and pious aspiration. “Bring information on the EU back to different sectors and local communities in Ireland through a programme of outreach . . . Engage on the basis of our progressive policy positions on issues within EU’s competences . . . Promoting democratic change in the EU.”

What is ignored is the fact that the policies of the European Union itself have contributed to the crisis and have a major bearing on the measures that member-states can introduce to overcome the crisis.

The question is, How can you call yourself a republican and support the European Union? Republicanism is about democracy and the sovereignty of states, equality between states as well as equality between peoples, and the centrality of the people in democratic and economic policy and decision-making.

The European Union has been deliberately constructed and is treaty-b
ased to ensure the very opposite, by removing the people from the whole process and actively discouraging their involvement, undermining national democracy and national accountability, making all political and economic decisions subservient to the needs of transnational corporations, and all this backed up and imposed by the main imperialist states at the heart of the European Union.

There is a token throwing in of the idea of using the European Union to “raise the issue of Irish Unity, and other issues related to the peace-process.” It is not clear what “Irish unity” would mean, considering our inability to change or do anything independently of what the European Union will allow and what is possible within an imperialist superstate.

A revelation of the pretence at being some sort of radical party while hiding this from some of those it believes are allies in the struggle for Irish unity is the fact that there was no criticism and no indication of their understanding of the role of the United States in global politics, or its central role in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In relation to the coup in Honduras, the motion from the Ard-Chomhairle “condemns the coup d’état in Honduras which resulted in President Zelaya, who was democratically elected, being removed at gunpoint. This act undermines democracy in the region.”

The coup in Honduras was planned, organised and supervised by the CIA and the US State Department. No calls for President Zelaya to be allowed back; no expression of support or solidarity with the democratic forces now engaged in an intense struggle with the puppet government; no acknowledgement that a number of leaders of the democratic opposition have been assassinated.

From reading the motions and the speeches of leading figures in Sinn Féin one cannot help seeing that it is a party moving steadily to the centre. It is caught up in electoral politics and is prepared to make whatever compromises are required to secure participation in government. It will surely end up in government but with nothing radical to bring to the table.

At this stage, what separates Sinn Féin from the Labour Party is that it still has a commitment to Irish unity; but its attitude to other central questions makes the achievement of that goal unrealisable. As for the rest, the establishment can rest easy.

The question now is, Where will those in Sinn Féin who believe in a radical republicanism go from here?


  1. that wasn't an attack on the party. its was a rehashed critique, though spicific to to the recent ard fheis, thats been going on for some time. something i thaught this blog accepted as fair critisism and was set up to contribute to.

    i disagree with the first critisism that the leadership is week on economics. there speaking in sound bites to camera's trying to get idea's across in seconds. the same circumstances make all economic debate sound like that.

    the south american critisism, maybe the writer has a personal interest. personaly think critisisms like that are akin to how long is a piece of sting. how much are you against it....

    the european critism is fair. we only stick or head up on that issue when theres a referendum but i agree with the writer its a live issue.

    essentialy on the dynamics of the party as the priorty issue being the north again i agree with the writer. though the critism of coalition being a north south devide is wrong it might be more accurate to say one county versus 25 and then the north, most of the cumman supporting the drimnagh motion came from dublin most opposing it from the other 25 counties with in the free state though the author is correct imo that essentialy the north would get the casting vote. though that could go either way, depending on nesesity, as the author pointed out but not necessarly the conclusion.

    for me i don't know how i feel about this. i've no problem seeing SF sacrafice its self if it progressed things on wards to a ui, people have died for it whats the difference a party dieing for it, and thats what would happen, so be it.

    the writer is essentialy pointing out the old labour must wait argument of republican politics maybe he's right. even if for a second we accept it must that doesn't make coalition the logical option. even in that senario, just like the greens or anyone else there is still getting your central issue on the table maybe the stategic question people need to ask themselves in this debate is not just should we go in or not in to coalition but work out probability how much we could achieve in one term , because thats all we'll probably get. if its worth sacraficeing SF then fair enough. if not then its not.

    at the moment i can't see FF or FG giving more than bread crumbs. that doesn't negate the gfa for me, the left alternative idea in that context and is probably the more logical path to follow or create which is another argument.


  2. I would say it is a critique. The CP are not unsympathetic to SF, its goal and policies. In the same issue:

    Transfer of policing and justice finally agreed

    The approval by the Northern Ireland Executive of the transfer of policing and justice powers to Belfast is to be welcomed as a significant and important step towards giving greater powers to the Executive and Assembly. A strong, comprehensive Bill of Rights is the next important step, coupled with the demand for greater fiscal powers.
    The transfer of policing and justice has been long in coming, being resisted by the intransigence of the unionist parties, in particular the DUP. The last-minute attempt by the Official Unionist Party to block the transfer was nothing but a pathetic attempt to achieve opportunist electoral advantage over the DUP in the forthcoming British elections.
    The role the British Conservative Party is playing behind the scenes is reminiscent of how the British over the centuries attempted to use Irish political representatives and Irish political parties to advance their own agenda in relation to British imperial politics. The Tories will do anything to get into government, regardless of their publicly stated support for the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements. They have been trying to exploit the unionist desire to win back a number of seats in the British House of Commons from Sinn Féin and using the possibility of a hung parliament to extract concessions, while hoping to have the Unionists on side to make up the number in case of a close election result.
    The old imperialist mentality and its ingrained prejudice and contempt for the Irish people constantly bubble to the surface. As James Connolly put it so well, “Yes, ruling by fooling is a great British art—with great Irish fools to practise on.”
    The next big test for the Executive is how it is going to deal with the growing economic crisis, and the implementation of water charges. It is clear that both political entities on this island have failed economically to meet the needs of all the people. They have been nothing more than weak, subservient appendages to the imperial economy of Britain; and as that has declined this dependence has shifted to the United States and the European Union.
    The economic policies required and the building of a sustainable economy can be constructed only on an all-Ireland basis to maximise the use of the talents of our people and the use of all our natural resources, both on land and in and under our seas. No solutions are to be found in appealing to London for some change in policies, as those policies are determined by the needs of the big financial and banking interests. Neither will Brussels or Berlin provide policies that can create jobs and prevent the haemorrhage of mass emigration once again.


  3. The CPI are spot-on in this. No doubt this reflects the way trade union activists in that party are experiencing Sinn Fein on the ground in various places across the North. There is, today, virtually no significant economic difference between Sinn Fein and the other mainstream parties any longer. They are all playing the same game. One Minister cuts something, all the local politicians (including those from the offending Minister's party) complain and do verbal somersaults for the press. But the cut goes ahead, either staggered or muffled in some way, and they all forget about it and get on with getting re-elected.

    Maybe members living in the Republic don't realise that this is how it works up here. The CPI's insightful comment on the lack of debate from northern delegates reflects the manner in which the north is run (a top-down operation). Whatever the leadership pushes through Stormont is good, any criticism is 'unrealistic'.

    Some choose to live in a make-believe world where the leadership are not waiting to jump into coalition tomorrow. They think that the party will not agree such a move at an Ard Fheis. Those people must have missed how Ard Fheiseanna voted through ceasefires, decommissioning and entry onto Policing Structures. All of which would have appeared inconceivable a mere couple of months before. The leadership are good at getting their way when it counts.

    There's no alternative to coalitionism now. The party is failing to grow in the Republic and they have set their priorities. Labour must wait again. The question is whether such a strategy will even deliver a United Ireland. Unfortunately, I don't see it.

  4. Thought provoking article by CPI.
    I agree that it isn’t an attack on SF and if it is, it’s only a mild one containing an irritating tendency (for me anyway) of calling the 26 Counties ‘the republic’. We all know there are questions to be dealt with and that there is a widening contradiction between Left Republican politics and the policies being implemented by the DUP / SF led assembly in the Six Counties. However the opinion above that “There’s no alternative to Coalitionism now” deserves to be taken seriously as the argument about the leadership being good at getting their way is well put and is spot on. However Socialists/Left Republicans in SF haven’t gone away y’know. We can’t however afford to sit there and just talk until the next general election comes along because if we don’t build the party in the 26 and drag policy back from the drift to the centre it’s into Coalition in Dublin we’ll be going, that’s if anyone wants us. The only alternative for us who believe in Republican Socialism is to become more active amongst our communities, to have a clear vision of the socio-economic changes we wish to bring about and to attract more like minded people to the party and convince more people within the party that we can change society at the same time as moving towards a UI. I appreciate the work being done on this blog and long may it continue but I’m beginning to think that we need some kind of forum, publication (maybe an online one) as well, where our ideology can be fleshed out, built upon and transformed into a modern Socialism fit for the 21st Century. There is a constituency out there for change who can see there isn’t much difference between FF and FG/Lab. That’s the constituency we need to go after- people who believe in a just, fair and equal Society – who are prepared to back a party with left wing radical policies to bring about real change. Sorry for sounding like a party political broadcast but the question raised in the original post – “The question now is, Where will those in Sinn Féin who believe in a radical republicanism go from here?”—is very pertinent.

  5. Ok folfs, criticism not attack. Hey it was 1 am and my word selection was not the best

  6. And what is the CP (and other progressive parties)going to do with its electoral mandate? It's fine critising others, but where's the meat? Or do we just read a tract out of Marx and we'll be given the answers? Pfft.

  7. iam not sure that marx wrote a critique of SF current position. guessing the cp are obserbing our trajectory and taking a guesstimate where it will end up. any one can do it. this ones a fair bit more detailed than the usual SF ate my baby, biggest sell out ever. don't think it deserves a pfft.

    second anon.

    yeah alot of what you say is fair. though thing about the whole coalition debate. people hinting at it and people dead against it tyeing them self up in knots and almost seem oblivious to the fact that still no party down here will touch us with a barge poll. doesn't matter how much people want it, odds are slim. one arguemnt to create an alternative.

    second the same argument has been happening for about a decade now, same points even. two different conversations are happening at the same time. going into coalition is a 'possible' vechile to advance the struggle or a sell out on labour issues. well members seem to be prepared to take the rise on the second one every year it comes up so go to where the yes voters are at. what can be achieved going into coalition to advance a ui. what i was trying to say above is personaly think the gains would be limited and the costs high. strategicly its not very good thinking.


  8. I think the problem that has to be realised for any leftist in the party is the goal the leadership and much of the base are prusing is not socialism, it is a united Ireland.

    O'Broin correctly pointed out (in his book) the failure of this, the need for the social and national to be pursued at the same time, that they are complementary.

    That is, that socialism cannot be separated from the national struggle. Otherwise:

    - Sinn Fein will not have the forces to make the change
    - What is the point?

    The GFA has helped copperfasten this because it involves administering a colonial parliament with no fiscal powers, and with little room for other forces. So essentially SF alone struggle with Unionism for national unity, without dealing with the social issues - partly because the social issues can not be properly dealt with by the present institutions, and partly because they're are more important 'national' issues to be dealt with e.g. policing and justice.

    But in the south the only forward momentum will come from social issues. And, further SF cannot move UI very far forward without changing the 26 counties and its policies. The leadership has taken this as going into Government. Will this be sufficient?

    If the Green Party is anything to go by, that's a no and it will mean:

    - No substantive change
    - A rejection of socialist political economy for neo-liberalism
    - A destroyed party
    - Co-option of radicals by the state at the expense of the movement and in favour of the state.

    Leaving radicals like those in the Green Party to begin again in building a movement for real substantive change.


  9. Two can play that game;

    Since the national question determines all other questions, any party which downplays or ignores it will inevitably capitulate on all other progressive aspects of their programme, like Democratic Left, BICO, stickies, NILP, etc. etc.

    Since there exists a mass revolutionary party in Ireland determined to resolve the national question it is, at best, unhelpful to remain outside it. Unless the CPI is going to adopt the constructive role the SACP did towards the ANC? Otherwise they are in danger of 'drifting to the centre'

    There are many criticisms in the piece, much anecdotal stuff about where resolutions orginate, which cumann lined up on which side of each debate, and so on.

    The main point of substance is on rejecting a resolution which, remember, ruled out 'contemplating' coalition government, presumably even if Labour or FF came over to SF's progamme! In the real world every voter in the 26 counties knows there will be a coalition govt. after the next election. The other parties, media and others expend a huge amount of energy on isolating SF. So what would be the effect of adopting that no coalition motion have been? To isolate SF further. Instead, it is now possible to approach the electorate with the honest platform that nothing has been ruled out, so they can safely vote for us while we can be very confident, unfortunately, that none of the others will come over to our programme.

    If people are worried about us going over to their programme, they should say so honestly. Presumably that was why the leadership inrodued the reolution allowing a special Ard Fheis where the membership would decide on coalition. Not much sign of betrayal there, from a leadership which has faced down the Brits.

    The CPI, and others, seem unaware of two other key points.

    First, in the North, there is a power-sharing arrangement, not a coalition government. And the Budget is determined in Westminster, just as it was today by Darling. Our representatives attempt to do the best they can for working people within that, and do a great job. The alternative is refuse to participate in the structures because we don't like their terms. This would be the equivalent of Rosa Parks saying I agree to sit at the back of the bus, because you'e all racists upfront.

    Second in the South, all the other parties, FF. Greens, FG and Labour all accept the failed policy of cuts to restore government finances. Only SF has stated boldly it does not accept cuts and is in favour of investment to stimulate the economy. Not only is this morally right, it is extremely radical in any part of Ireland. Keynesian-style stimulus measures are unheard of here because the state investment required would fatally undermine the role of the chancers and gombeen men who have been running the place since Partition.

  10. B, The Greens went into govt. with what seemed like a broad range of aspirations but without a list of hard targets which had to be achieved as part of their being in govt. They had not drawn any hard lines in the sand beyond which they would not cross. And recent cabinet shuffles show they will not draw any full stop.

    Are there any hard lines they SF could insist on, the crossing of which would trigger our the leaving of a future coalition.
    Is this an acceptable strategy for entering coalition.

  11. Nora,

    1. You are misconceiving the CPI on the national question. They are not the worker's party. They do not ignore the national question, and certainly do not subscribe to a unionist position (NILabour, WP) or two nations theory (BICO). There are definite criticisms to be made of the CPI with regard the national line and their failure to take part fully in the national struggle, but they do not ignore its importance. In fact I think the CPI are arguing the opposite here - against a possible drift to the centre on both the national and social by SF.

    2. It subscribes to the very national line you point out the SACP subscribes to. That is, along the lines of that the national democratic revolution must be completed in Ireland. The SACP is part of the ANC, they do not however believe the ANC is socialist, not far off, what I presume is the position of the CPI on SF. The SACP sees it role as defending the interests of the working class in the national revolution and moving it to socialism. The article is a critique, much along the lines of the critiquing the SACP engages in. The difference is the SACP often critiques itself as part of the ANC, and the ANC itself - currently a big issue in SA according to the news? The CPI is similarly providing a critique of the substance of national struggle in their opinion, being led by Sinn Fein presently, and its possibility of completing the national democratic revolution and the subsequent transition to socialism.

    3. Yes, I agree, there are logical problems with the CP with regard Stormont. In one hand they appear to support the GFA, in the other, yes, they criticise SF in it, and thus would suggest they cannot agree with the GFA. That is, that it does not provide the means to achieve social and democratic change. However, I would presume the CPI think SF could do more, or start to build forces to help them do more perhaps? The Rosa Parks analogy is wrong, surely it would be for Rosa Parks to become the driver of the bus/bus company or get rid of the bus altogether and get a new one? I believe their policy would be to use the structures, yes, but build the forces to go beyond them, which in effect should push the structures futher anyway. It would seem from the article they believe Sinn Fein are now contained/constrained by the institutions and/or not engaged in building the forces to go beyond them?

    4. I think they fear, like many people, and they point this out, that Sinn Fein will go into coalition and be forced to drop its programme like the Green Party (inevitable by coalition with the gombeens). They haven't been re-assured by the Ard Fheis. The question they are asking, are Sinn Fein trying to build a 'left alternative' or are they preparing for coalition with the gombeens?

    5. It is fair to point out that it is easy for the CPI to critique from the sidelines as a very small organisation, with no elected reps or discernable bases of support, except perhaps in the Unions? But, is it unconstructive or raise unimportant questions, particular since the CP is a party that subscribes to the same aims as SF?

  12. Self reflection is a healthy exercise, either for an individual or an organisation. Excessive navel gazing is both demoralising and obsessive. Ultimately engaging is self obsessive exercises leads to paralysis. Imo, Sinn Fein Keep Left provides the basis for dialogue and a meeting place for like-minded individual to voice their concerns within the party in a public forum; discuss ideas and hopefully motivate people to engage at the grass roots level. It is but one part of the broader Republican movement. It is an integral one to my outlook.

    No other party in Ireland, bar maybe the Greens at this moment, is engaged in navel gazing. The main parties are providing some programs, plenty of sound bites, and barking up all the wrong trees with their money centric policies. Since when did Ireland become a corporation (Ireland Inc.) a lá Kenny's announcement afer their AGM? I used to come from a country with communities who made things and occassionally enjoyed life - not some trumped up, half-assed corporation full of egotistical cock-up merchants. We've had over two decades of this nonsense from the establishment and they've failed.

    If we take the Greens involvement with FF, we don't see a broad based political movement anymore. They ran a political platform on many general so-called green ideas with a dollop of aspirational causes. Once the leadership saw a glimmer of power, they jettisoned every aspirational policy. The Yups wanted power and money. They thought they'd be the harbingers of new plug-in energy technologies which would provide the economic basis for their party into the future. They thought they out Fianna Fail at their own gombeen game. As a result they screwed themselves short term. Energy politics is here to stay though, and the opportunity to provide sustainable, community oriented energy policies is open to any party which takes the initiative for the right reasons.

    Let other leftist parties worry about their own business. They're very apt to attack SF at every opportunity but very short on providing concrete alternatives to the establishment parties. (Rarely do we see lengthy critiques of FF, but we can access any amount of one leftist org attacking every other leftist org ad nauseam.) If they're approach is so shit-hot, and their policies so laudable, they should be governing the country by now.

  13. An Giorra, I would agree that prior to going into government the Green's had already taken the step to accept the neo-liberal political economy. Thus, the no line over which they would not cross. Sinn Fein have not yet gone that far, I agree.

    However, let us suggest SF's line is social democratic political economy (the Public Finance Document). At the minute, the MSM deride SF's economics for this very reason and this is so far off the agenda, despite the economic crisis, that neither FG nor FF would touch them.

    In fact, the only chance of getting it on the agenda, I believe, is a left coalition. This will take time.

    Sinn Fein, however, are being pressed by the national issue. And, I would say with some confidence that SF will go into coalition if it can get movement on the national issue?

    My question is this: Is it worth it? Ireland's neo-liberal development model will roll on and the party, I would assume, will be hit in the South by proping it up.

    The only point at which I would suggest it would be worth it, is if it brought SF's northern representatives into the 26 County polity in a real way and therefore increased its ability to then push forward for social democratic change. However, I find this a distant prospect due to Articles 2 and 3? I cant see strengthening of cross border bodies doing this?

    As leftists, I would presume, while we recognise the national struggle and its 'bourgeois' nature, we seek to uphold working class interests in it, and ultimately struggle for socialism?

    SF are at a cross roads, but the decisive turn has not yet been made; SF can still take the right path?


  14. Anonymous

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply, and I have taken some time to think it over.

    But, although you make same valid points about the position of the CPI, I want to highlight some inconsistenices in ther critique.

    If the CPI were genuinely engaged in the struggle over the National Question, and hold the view that SF is retreating from it, this would form the basis of a withering critique, and justifiably so. But this was not the substance of their critique. It was almost entirely focused on the stance take on coalition in the South, plus a criticism of policy in relation to the EU.

    "If the opportunity arises of entering a Dublin Government, a majority at any special conference for taking that decision will be Northern delegates, who will approach such participation from an entirely different set of political priorities."

    This is a polite version of the charge that SF are opportunists, including all the Northern delegates. The ANC is in power in S Africa, and there ae some who criticise its economic policies in particular. But the SACP has never, as ar as I am aware accused the ANC of opportunism.

    But does it have any substance? There is no-one in SF who believes that the party would go into coalition government with either FF or the Blueshirts. In an ideal world, we would be able to go into coalition with the LP. Trouble is, they have an economic policy of supporting the cuts, they simply argue over where those cuts should take place. It is a 'Left' variant of FG's policy. At the same time, the party they are most hostile too is SF. These two are related. The LP is one which accepts the actuality of Partition, without ever doing anything to challenge it, and the economic policy of the gombeen men in the South. SF accepts neither. As for the CPI, they stand somewhere between the two. More militant than the LP on social questions in the South without ever realising they are the legacy of colonialism and its beneficiaries among the gombeen men. They are AWOL on the National Question.

    You misunderstand the Rosa Parks analogy, I think, or the period we are in. The Civil Rights Movement both here an in the US and here was a struggle for equality, a democratic demand. They could never have been won if the demand was to take over the bus company. That is a task that lies ahead. In the South, we are waging defensive struggles, against cuts to services, jobs and pay. Taking over the bus company is not on the agenda currently. And if anyone on the Left purports otherwise they are deluding themselves, or posturing.