“Sinn Fein has won the election,” declared party leader Mary Lou McDonald (with some justice) in early February, as results confirmed that for the first time in the history of the Irish State, neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael had achieved a clear majority or path to forming the next government, while “Ireland’s left-wing nationalist party” had witnessed an unprecedented surge in first-preference votes. Self-identified socialists, in some cases shocked by the “voter revolt” that had just occurred, took the opportunity to proclaim the return of radical politics to the realm, interpreting Sinn Fein’s electoral ascendancy as symptomatic of “a working-class backlash” against austerity and “a burning desire for radical change”, which the all-island party was in a unique position to deliver. “Sinn Féin’s ultimate aim is the creation of a thirty-two-county socialist republic”, read one commentary in the New York-based journal, Jacobin, which also praised “Sinn Féin, in particular” for channeling “discontented working-class nationalism in a progressive and anti-imperialist direction” in recent years. Hopes were high indeed.
As the new (if also somewhat familiar-looking) centre-right government has finally formed and is beginning to settle into its groove, now may be as good a moment as any to reflect on the election that was, and specifically the euphoric claims made for Sinn Fein as a force for progressive change. Bearing in mind that there are other, and arguably more important, ways of measuring radical and mass consciousness than votes (a point often ignored by the self-aggrandizing Left in general), it’s nevertheless true that Sinn Fein, running on a broadly worker-oriented, social democratic programme, received the endorsement of communities suffering the real-time effects of an engineered lack of adequate and affordable housing, healthcare (including childcare), education, and other basic services in the State. In other words, the Sinn Fein vote, and the accompanying leftward transfers, was one expression of a wider disaffection with neoliberal austerity and systematised inequality peddled by the two mainstream parties for years. Likewise, few would deny that concise, targeted, and eloquent media performances by Mary Lou McDonald throughout the election helped to boost the party’s profile – certainly compared to the smug, boy’s-club self-satisfaction exuded by Varadkar and Michael Martin, and perhaps also in light of the (at times hysterical) hostility shown to Sinn Fein by a number of media outlets.
Northern Ireland: Sinn Féin in government has not alleviated poverty
Significantly, the fact that over the past two decades Sinn Fein have been shopkeepers for austerity in Northern Ireland, where 300,000 people are now estimated to live in poverty, barely featured in the critiques levelled by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael against their emerging rival. Instead, both attempted to portray the party (whose most prominent spokespeople during the election included Eoin Ó’Broin and Pearse Doherty) as terrorists. “Outrage about the IRA looked strange”, one Sinn Fein organiser accurately noted, “when espoused by a government that wanted to commemorate the notorious ‘Black and Tans’ just months earlier.” This being said, the contradictions of Sinn Fein’s dual record, North and South, the at times considerable gaps between its rhetoric on the air and its record on the ground, are nonetheless live issues for any forward-looking Leftists, anticipating the political struggles to come.
Sinn Fein’s anti-racism and anti-imperialism, mentioned above, are arguably cases in point. To give credit where credit is due, in the context of rising xenophobic violence and fascist organising across Ireland, Leitrim TD Martin Kenny proved himself enough of an anti-racist to have a death-threat issued against him and an arson attack on his car 28 October 2019. His statements made a difference, and he wouldn’t have done so if there wasn’t some kind of anti-racist culture or tendency within Sinn Fein as a party.
Other individual examples could be cited to support this view. There is an obviously problematic element, however, in the (highly elitist) claim that Sinn Fein has uniquely and consistently channelled “discontented working-class nationalism in a progressive and anti-imperialist direction.” Such an argument sidesteps – perhaps deliberately obscures – the issue of Sinn Fein’s complicity, once again, in creating and upholding austerity programmes and accommodating themselves to political corruption of various kinds in the North, all of which surely deepens said working-class discontent. And as for the supposedly unwavering internationalism of Sinn Fein, such principles were notably absent in its decision to host a delegation of Israel’s murderously right-wing and racist Likud party, trading solidarity with Palestinian struggle for what was apparently a cheap PR effort to portray itself as a ‘peace-building’ organisation. “This is very disheartening to us here in Gaza,” said Haidar Eid (a university professor and member of the steering committee of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel) in the context of the continuing Israeli annexation, siege, and apartheid: “We call on Irish comrades to condemn these meetings in the strongest possible terms.”
While one may argue that no party gets it right all the time, but relies on the processes of democracy and transparency to hold it and its members to account, the lapses and discrepancies above are telling. This is particularly the case in view of Sinn Fein’s ever-developing habit (albeit one indulged equally by other tendencies of the Irish Left) of dismissing any party or electoral candidate that can be perceived as not adequately committed to the grand socialist project of getting Sinn Fein into government. “Honest questions [need] to be asked of the various left-wing independents” who supposedly encroached on Sinn Fein’s electoral turf during the 2020 election, we’ve ben told, while “the various Trotskyist parties” have also been criticised, fairly, for the overtly factional electoral strategies introduced in certain constituencies (including Dublin Bay North).
Voting records show that socialism comes second for Sinn Féin
Critique, of course, is a necessary part of the political fray, radical or otherwise. But the fact remains that “honest questions” could equally be asked (and have rarely been answered) of Sinn Fein regarding its penchant, both locally and nationally, for rejecting or abstaining on votes of key social concern, including public housing, and most recently the Special Criminal Court (which continues to be opposed by Amnesty International). Put bluntly, the party seems forever capable of conceding its political principles to appease or reinforce the consensus of the political establishment; in some instances (such as abortion rights and the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment), moreover, key political figures in the party have proven skilful in adjusting their profile to reflect the radical tide of public opinion, after the high-water mark has been reached. Observing this pattern, one writer dubbed this “The Adaptable Sinn Fein” syndrome.
The disconnect between rhetoric and reality often seems palpable, and never moreso than when party organisers remind their (considerable) audience that “left-republican politics is best practiced in communities, workplaces, and on the streets rather than in parliamentary chambers.” This is certainly true. But the fact remains that if, as a movement or organisation, your only presence in “communities, workplaces, and on the streets” is promoting your own brand or looking for votes, and if your party furthermore has a proven record of supporting centre-right policies, either as a coalition partner or by abstaining on crucial votes, then your politics comes dangerously close to pageantry. As the cases of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece have shown, if your rhetoric and analysis are centred on socialist revolution, but your tactics and practical goals are designed primarily to increase your party’s chances of getting into government, no matter the cost, you can very easily end up by sending ‘the masses’ home to wait for a radical change that never quite happens: settling for social reforms that can easily reversed by the next centre-right (or even far-right) government that bulldozes in after you’ve failed to deliver, as occurred in Brazil, with the rise of Bolsonaro.
Can Sinn Fein’s socialism meet the demands for radical change slowly coming to the boil, North and South? Time will tell. But Leftists would do well to take heed of Sinn Féin’s 2020 spokesperson on Housing, Eoin Ó’Broin, when he drew the conclusion and caveat in 2009 that in the contest between the party’s republican and socialist tendencies, the latter had always been “relegated to a future point in the struggle, would always be underdeveloped, as the more immediate needs of the national struggle took precedence.”