By any relevant psephological indices, it is absolutely clear that Sinn Féin did exceedingly poorly—perhaps disastrously—in the recent local and European elections; and the results have clearly precipitated some reflective introspection by various party members.
For example, a defeated Sinn Féin candidate in Dublin, Lynn Boylan, has called for dialogue and co-operation with other “left-wing parties” in future, arguing that competition for votes had handed seats to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. She claimed: “I am a republican, I am a united Irelander, but I am a left wing activist.” Indeed she went on to claim: “That’s how we were able to stop water charges—it’s because the left came together and worked together.”
Let’s just leave aside Sinn Féin’s specific role in the campaign against water charges, which is contentious, and concentrate on the more significant ideological proposition about Sinn Féin and its relationship with “the left.”
Over the years the Provisional movement has undoubtedly flirted with socialism as an ideology. For example, the original Éire Nua programme articulated by the Provisionals had a reasonably well-defined social component, with the emphasis on a more equitable and decentralised distribution of resources. By the late 1970s, under a new “Northern” leadership, this trend was accentuated. This was perhaps most vividly expressed in Jimmy Drumm’s speech of 1977 (apparently written by Adams et al.) which stressed the need for social liberation and the importance of standing in solidarity with workers against British colonial rule and the “fascist” Free State. (The speech also, incidentally, rejected a reformed Stormont and power-sharing.)
In this period Adams not only criticised capitalism, he was fond of quoting Connolly, while Sinn Féin explicitly identified itself with the ANC, PLO, and Sandinistas. Some commentators even detected the influence of Marxism; and though this was hugely exaggerated, there was a sense in which Sinn Féin identified itself as an integral part of a global “left” movement. It undoubtedly established its radical credentials through community work and activism in working-class areas.
However, there was always another, more pragmatic and opportunistic dimension to Sinn Féin strategy. This could be detected during and after the Hunger Strike, when the process of politicisation sought to reconfigure Sinn Féin as an electoral force. It was confirmed in a very personal way to one of the writers of this article when a letter was smuggled out of Albany prison in 1983 (written by Eddie O’Neill and Ray McLaughlin, and signed by other Republican prisoners). This missive explicitly addressed “the left” and urged all comrades to show solidarity with the Irish revolution while calling for a “broad front” of left progressive forces to form a common platform against imperialism.
The correspondence was completely disregarded by the Republican leadership at the time. The writing was on the wall: Sinn Féin was moving towards conventional constitutional politics. It eventually came to see itself as the natural repository for middle-class Catholic votes and positioned itself as the successor to the SDLP as the primary representative of the “Nationalist” community.
In relation to the north, Sinn Féin eventually adopted the diplomatic strategy of “pan-nationalism,” which not only led to the so-called “peace process” but meant succumbing to a political process that was inevitably dominated by bourgeois nationalist elements in Dublin, the SDLP, and the “Irish lobby” in the United States.
In effect, the diplomatic strategy drew Republicans into a procedure whose dynamic they could not effectively control. In the process, not only was Sinn Féin’s tenuous link to socialism abandoned but long-cherished Republican ideals were dumped by the wayside. This was most graphically reflected in the grotesque spectre of Jonathan Powell editing the speeches of Sinn Féin negotiators in Downing Street, and “Republicans” bending the knee to British royalty.
Sinn Féin had become co-opted by a state it was once committed to destroying. Moreover, it was prepared to administer an agreement that effectively reinforced sectarian categories, because identity politics was hard-wired into the Good Friday Agreement.
When Sinn Féin talks about “equality” now it relates to notions of inter-communal equivalence in a squalid sectarian scramble for limited resources, rather than a more equal redistribution of material outcomes in order to reduce obscene levels of disparity in wealth. In the north, Sinn Féin power-sharing has meant subordinating itself to a neo-liberal agenda. This has led to the party endorsing cuts in welfare, supporting PFI, and facilitating a reduction in corporation tax, at direct cost to the block grant.
In effect, concessions have been made to the most egregious aspects of the capitalist system. The Provos, always anxious to evade the epithet of “sticky,” have been perfectly happy to emulate the “stoops.”
These observations are made not to lament the turning away from paramilitary tactics but to highlight the fact that the leadership of the Republican movement have actually made momentous choices at critical moments during the course of the so-called “troubles”—and they have made significant strategic errors. Rather than engaging in an inclusive debate with those activists at the cutting edge of the armed struggle, the leadership opted to back itself into negotiations with the bitterest of political enemies.
Compromise with the most reactionary representatives of Loyalism, Unionism and the British Establishment was always likely to end badly; and we now have a situation where it’s not even clear that Sinn Féin are republican, let alone socialist. Gerry Adams said recently that a united Ireland should not be something rushed into, while the party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, has confirmed that she would be willing to talk to anyone in post-election negotiations, because “that’s what grown-ups do.”
And here we can see the essence of the problem: principles cast adrift with the most vacuous of sound-bites.
In effect, in the hands of the Provisionals, Republicanism has become a multi-purpose ideology employed to lubricate the wheels of an electoral machine that is in the service of cynical, careerist politicians. Sinn Féin wanted working-class support without the more onerous task of rewarding them for their efforts, and they were punished at the polls.
There are lessons here, but there is little evidence that the leadership of Sinn Féin is capable of learning them. The most basic lesson is this: the idea of socialism without national sovereignty may be an illusion, but independence without socialism isn’t worth crossing the street for.