The announcement of his retirement by Sinn Féin’s long-serving president, Gerry Adams, was deemed by the media to be the most noteworthy happening at the party’s recent ard-fheis.
After thirty-four often turbulent years at the helm of a movement ridiculed and lauded in almost equal parts, it could hardly have been otherwise. The Adams tenure has had a significance that goes well beyond his own organisation. No matter how one views the man, it is impossible to deny the impact he has had on Irish politics over the past decades. Under his stewardship Sinn Féin not only emerged from the shadow of the IRA but has become a formidable electoral force, both north and south.
Yet in spite of media focus it was another decision taken at the annual ard-fheis that will have greater significance in the days to come. Sinn Féin’s declared willingness to participate as a minority partner in a coalition government in Dublin has ramifications that go beyond the party. Taken at a time when it might reasonably have been expected that an incoming leader would have had time to adjust, the latest brouhaha involving Frances Fitzgerald and the Department of Justice has hastened developments.
For over a decade Sinn Féin has straddled a position somewhere between radicalism and reformism. There was doubt about whether the party was vying to replace Fianna Fáil as the “republican party” or attempting to introduce discipline to that fragmented radical community inside and outside the Dáil. Revealing an intention to enter government as a junior partner in a coalition resolves this conundrum and is a clear indication of a determination to conform within establishment parameters.
Although the Fine Gael-led coalition will survive the latest upheaval, the longevity of this Government must be in doubt. The high-wire game of bluff between Varadkar and Martin has damaged confidence between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and questions the durability of the “confidence and supply” arrangement.
While opinion polls are suggesting little change in the event of an election, it is possible that the arithmetic after polling day could present the option of a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin government. Have no doubts either about Mícheál Martin’s position vis-à-vis coalition. Faced with the temptation of entering office or underwriting the inevitable mess of a hung Dáil, and the risk of yet another election, Mícheál Martin will accept Mary Lou McDonald as Tánaiste.
While it is reasonable to point to the failure of other minority partners in coalition arrangements as an indication of where Sinn Féin would find itself, this is almost to miss the point. The bourgeois parliamentary system is created for self-perpetuation. In other words, it is not a question of whether those in the Government are of sterling character or unbending republican principle: in the final analysis it is down to the role of the state in capitalist society, where, as James Connolly said, governments are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the ruling class.
Let’s be clear on this point. Connolly’s observation is not some outdated piece of left-wing hyperbole. No serious political observer believes that the Government exercises absolute power in the Republic. In the first instance the Dáil gives way to the constitution guaranteeing the right to private property, and this will be upheld by the judiciary, restricting the ability of elected deputies to redistribute wealth.
Then there is the state’s subjugation to the European Union, which in effect amounts to conceding a large measure of economic sovereignty to Brussels. Moreover, huge influence is exercised covertly by other agencies, such as the privately owned media, the financial sector, speculators, and foreign transnationals. The working out of this is that a minority partner in a coalition government will have little ability to make meaningful reform; and, in reality, smaller parties change long before the state’s free-market system begins to creak.
This analysis should not be taken as simply another swipe at Sinn Féin but rather as an assessment of the wider political situation in Ireland at the present time. The decision to accept a junior partnership in coalition has reverberations throughout the political spectrum. Around us there are grave issues demanding solutions as all the while we are witnessing a vacant space on the left, illustrated by the latest Sinn Féin resolution, coupled with the Labour Party’s decline.
Meanwhile there is a real erosion of credibility in the state apparatus. How can it be otherwise when crucial institutions are faltering and urgent responsibilities neglected or discarded?
Look at what is happening with one of the basic elements required for the exercise of state power: control of the administration of justice and policing. Chaos reigns unchecked in both these areas. The Department of Justice is apparently unable to exercise authority and cannot manage itself or its e-mail. Running parallel with the department’s woes is a series of seemingly intractable scandals within the Garda Síochána that has eroded the force’s prestige in the eyes of all but dyed-in-the-wool right-wingers.
If that’s not enough, the state’s two largest parties have sweated hard and long to agree a sweetheart deal for reasons of political expediency, rather than sacking the minister for justice for obvious incompetence.
Adding further to the state’s ebbing authority is a raft of social problems. Housing shortages remain at crisis point, with every indication that the situation will get worse. Austerity continues to hurt many working-class families, who see little opportunity to escape its grip. Zero-hour contracts, depressed wages, a diminishing welfare safety net and reduced social wage make life increasingly difficult in a lot of households.
Moreover, addressing these social and economic problems is rendered virtually impossible by the slavish adherence of the ruling class to the European Union and its neo-liberal dictates.
Against this backdrop of damaged state credibility and widespread social disadvantage there is space, and a need, for a clearly defined left movement. The Labour Party is in disarray, while Sinn Féin is edging irreversibly towards centrist social democracy. The field is opening up, therefore, for a genuine socialist alternative, and the signs are that this is now a real possibility.
For example, left-wing trade unionists in the Right to Change movement are exploring options in this field. Positive signals are also coming from some smaller political parties and elected representatives as they combine in the Campaign for Public Housing. And the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum continues to provide an arena for political discussion, facilitating the development of an ideological consensus around a programme for progressive transformative change.
Nevertheless, nothing changes without a conscious and coherent effort; and we must not forgo this opportunity to make progress. It would be unforgivable if we fail to measure up to the requirements of the new day. We must, as civil rights activists said in the 1960s, “seize the time.”