The Sinn Fein Ard Fheis and the collapse of Republicanism
31 January 2007
The vote at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis to support the police force and judicial system of the Northern State is dramatic evidence of the collapse of republican consciousness. Publication the week beforehand of the ombudsman’s report into police collusion with UVF paramilitaries in the murder of Catholic and Protestant workers, and the evidence that this was covered up by senior officers who refused to co-operate with the enquiry, shone an embarrassing spotlight on what was at issue. That, after all this, and the acknowledgement that no one would be held accountable, the Ard Fheis voted by around 95% to support the re-branded RUC and the judicial system that protects it, is proof, if further proof were needed, that Sinn Fein has no progressive role to play in Irish politics.
This is a damning judgement that is both inescapable and yet many who think of themselves as an alternative seem oblivious to the facts. During the series of meetings preceding the Ard Fheis Gerry Adams felt able to say to his critics that ‘he was not the enemy.’ In doing so he called the bluff of many critics, confident he would not be contradicted, or if he was, confident that any affirmative answer would be widely seen as taking opposition too far. In effect his critics were disarmed. Those few inside the hall voting against the leadership motion were keen to assert their loyalty and avowed that they would rally round the leadership after the vote was taken, even if it meant the motion was passed. In effect they were declaring continuing support for a leadership that was declaring support for the PSNI. Their support for the latter is therefore one step removed but nonetheless real for all that.
Among the socialist organisations there are many who have sought a united ‘left’ that includes Sinn Fein. Will this those involved now support the PSNI or will the question simply be ignored? The extent of confusion among those opposed to Sinn Fein’s latest capitulation to imperialism was evident in rumours that republican opponents wanted Eamonn McCann of the SWP to stand as an anti-PSNI candidate. These people are either ignorant of the SWP’s call for unity with Sinn Fein in the South or just don’t get it. McCann has however made it clear that opposing the PSNI is not something he will emphasise - as open an admission of political bankruptcy as one can imagine. For this sort of left having to pay a couple of hundred pounds in water charges (the issue of privatisation has always been secondary to those demanding non-payment) is more important an issue, more fundamental a political question, than the murder of workers by agents of the State.
These harsh judgements are only a reflection of the harsher reality exposed by the latest report into State collusion with sectarian murder. The objective role of those who seek to minimise its importance is unwittingly to conspire in the cover up.
Before the Ard Fheis
There are four aspects to the collapse of republicanism evident in the ‘debate’ on policing. For many republican supporters the question has been posed in terms of the ability to report petty, and not so petty, crime to the police. In the ‘Inside Politics’ TV show on the day of the debate Martin McGuinness said he didn’t want to see republicans dancing on the head of a pin explaining why people couldn’t report crimes such as rape to the police.
In fact it has been Sinn Fein who has insisted that political opposition had to entail complete non-co-operation over such matters, an echo of their quasi-religious non-recognition of the State from years ago when they refused to file for permission to march, refused to stand in elections and refused to recognise courts when arrested and charged.
Of course political support for the police is not about reporting ‘ordinary’ crime. Socialists oppose the system of exploitation built around the wages system but this no more stops us accepting wages than opposition to finance capital stops us taking out a mortgage to buy a house. Similarly non-support for the police is not about failing to report burglaries in order to claim insurance (very few people actually believe the PSNI will catch thieves) or seeking to prevent the arrest of rapists. It is about failing to provide political support for the inevitable political role that the police perform as defenders and servants of the State.
This is what Sinn Fein has signed up to. In letters to ‘The Irish News’ before the Ard Fheis correspondents wrote that Sinn Fein will ‘critically engage’ with the police. What rubbish! The demand from the British, US and Irish governments and the DUP was not for ‘critical engagement’, it was for support for the PSNI. This is what the Ard Fheis motion proposed and this is what the party has promised to deliver. This includes, but is not limited to, participation in the local District Policing Partnerships and the Policing Board. Their role in this will be to legitimise and provide cover for the actions of the PSNI, which will remain under the control of the British.
Supporting the police will mean collaborating in all the activities that the police have always got up to, including repressing dissent and opposition. Day to day actions will be under the ‘operational control of the Chief Constable’ and overall the British government will control strategy. For Martin McGuinness to claim that Sinn Fein will ‘boss’ policing or for Adams to claim that they will put ‘manners’ on them is simply laughable. Even if the Policing Board had any real power to enforce change how would Sinn Fein achieve it with two or three members out of nineteen? The police ombudsman can expose what is already more or less known but the fact that little or nothing happens afterwards only demonstrates that things continue very much as before.
Sinn Fein has claimed that MI5 has now been excluded from ‘civic policing’, thanks to them, but as one wag pointed out, MI5 was never going to be involved in ‘civic policing.’ The idea that MI5 will not continue to run informers and will not also have agents in the PSNI to protect them is too naive to be taken seriously. Sinn Fein even failed to get rid of plastic bullets and despite a ceasefire, decommissioning and virtual disbandment of the IRA is still ‘negotiating’ on ‘on the runs’ - republicans facing charges from the days of armed conflict who are still unable to return home. What was glaringly evident at the Ard Fheis was how little Sinn Fein could claim in order to justify the switch to supporting the PSNI. The erection of a large building in Co. Down to house MI5 is a much more important indicator of the role MI5 will play than the meaningless separation of policing from MI5 that Sinn Fein has claimed.
Sinn Fein got nothing for its promise to support the PSNI. Even its deal to receive a DUP promise to enter power sharing with them was withdrawn. Their decision to go ahead regardless was humiliating.
None of this was enough to generate an opposition inside Sinn Fein. The vote against the motion did not even have to be counted. The journalist covering the Ard Fheis for ‘The Irish Times’ recorded that it ‘had all the signs of a rubber stamping exercise.’ Another contrasted it with the 1986 decision to abandon abstentionism, noting that ‘there was never any doubt about the result.’ Commentators such as these tend to put this down to a combination of the military style discipline of the Sinn Fein organisation and the political skills of the leadership and its party machine. These are undoubtedly factors of some importance but they cannot be the whole explanation.
There exists a wide layer of republican supporters opposed to or unhappy with the decision. These include people who have risked their lives and could not be accused of lacking physical courage. Unfortunately what they have lacked is a political foundation to their opposition, a positive framework to articulate a principled position that does not rely on wrapping the green flag round oneself and declaring fidelity to the patriot dead. Appealing to the dead generations who did not fight and die to support a re-branded enemy police force is all very well, but it fails one decisive test. If the dead generations would have opposed the current leadership why do the majority of survivors, who could so easily have also been among the dead, now support the Sinn Fein leadership?
Republican martyrs might not have fought for support for the police force of the Northern State but then neither, until relatively recently, did the current leadership. The debate, such as it was, between the Sinn Fein leadership and its opponents was not won by Adams and co. because of their superior political skills. Even a cursory examination of Gerry Adams’ Ard Fheis speech reveals a miserable and sorry platform that only a demoralised organisation could endorse.
His speech was an admission of failure. He gave a significant section of it over to the revelations published by the police ombudsman and then to how he had given Tony Blair a file on collusion ten years ago. So what happened then Gerry? Did Tony stop the collusion?
He rhetorically asked the question - who authorised the killings? - but absolved Blair of all responsibility. In fact he declared that it was Blair’s responsibility to sort things out! Who’s ‘more powerful than the British prime minister’ he asked, as if Tony just had to show some interest for the terrorising of Irish workers to stop. This and the continual reference to collusion in the past tense amounted to Sinn Fein joining in the cover-up, which has as its main theme that all this collusion is in the past and is now over.
It is absolutely necessary for Adams to claim this because Sinn Fein is now a supporter of the system that has been exposed. It has now hitched its reputation to that of the PSNI and must now claim that it will ensure such things will not happen again. The main responsibility for preventing it however, according to Gerry, apparently lies with the same people – the British State – responsible for it in the first place – ‘I also told Mr Blair that British policy in Ireland has to change.’ Oh really? So the centuries old Irish question is to be solved by asking the Brits politely to behave!? Only slightly less fanciful is the idea that the Irish government will also help clean up the mess by acting as ‘equals’ when meeting the British. Apparently it is Sinn Fein which will help them do this despite Sinn Fein complaining only weeks before the Ard Fheis that Bertie Ahern was hardly speaking to them.
How a tiny State that has already surrendered part of its territory to imperialism is expected to reverse policy and stand up for itself is left unanswered. Adams in his speech criticised previous Irish governments for ignoring murderous attacks by British agents within the State’s jurisdiction, but now expects them to stand up for Irish citizens outside their jurisdiction.
Adams performed the rhetorical trick much used by loyalist spokesmen (who get away with it because of a compliant media) of using the arguments of the opposition but then drawing the contrary conclusion. Only complete confidence in being unchallenged could allow one to use the ombudsman’s report on collusion as material in a speech in support of the PSNI.
It was reported that while Adams appealed to the head (!) Martin McGuinness appealed to the heart of his audience, which must explain his incredible statement that the IRA ‘had fought the British army to a standstill’, which invites the question why the British Army didn’t call a ceasefire, decommission and disband.
To this pathetic performance the opposition could only declare how awful the decision would be –‘against the ideals and principles of Sinn Fein’ - but then contradict their own claims by saying that they would still support the party regardless! If opposition speakers were in the least bit serious about their arguments then no reconciliation with the Adams leadership or continued membership of the Sinn Fein party would be possible. That they did not say so and did not walk out, as the majority of delegates must have known, meant that no one in the hall could have been convinced of the seriousness of what they had to say. Adams, for them, had to be right to claim that the decision to support the police was only yet another question of tactics
If support for the PSNI was a betrayal of republican principles then opposition to it must have meant a declaration of opposition to the leadership. Unfortunately the ‘opposition’ fell back on a bedrock principle that ironically lies behind many of those who supported the motion – trust in the leadership. This in itself is a reflection of the fact that the republican movement is a defeated movement and cannot be saved or reclaimed. A vibrant, confident and critical movement would fight for its principles, not surrender them on the demand of its enemies.
All this goes some way to explaining the failure of republicans to build an opposition to the policy of the leadership of Sinn Fein. Many have so far failed or refused to accept that opposition to the policy of the leadership means opposition to the leadership itself, and opposition to the Sinn Fein party. Just as those inside the hall performed the role of loyal opposition, many outside have played the role of a loyal public opposition. Even those declaring an intention to stand against Sinn Fein in the elections are doing so, they say, in order to get Sinn Fein to ‘see sense’ and to win them back. In effect their standing is only a form of lobbying which fails to educate Sinn Fein supporters on the enormity of the party’s betrayal and fails to put on the agenda the necessary tasks of creating an alternative.
The confusion of the opposition can be seen by the fact that such opposition includes some who still support the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement despite support for the police being written into this agreement and despite all the subsequent retreats that inevitably flowrd from this capitulation. Indeed the qualitative degeneration of the republican movement from an anti-imperialist one (with all the limitations to it that socialists have argued) to a pro-imperialist one can be dated to the original Ard Fheis decision in to support the Good Friday Agreement. This included acceptance of the unionist veto; the legitimacy of the Northern State and imperialist intervention; deletion of articles two and three of the Southern State’s constitution and pursuit of office inside a Stormont regime. Those for whom supporting the police is a bridge too far have to explain why all this was not.
They need to do this because opposition to the police and opposition to imperialism can only be grounded on opposition to the Good Friday Agreement, and its successor in the St Andrews Agreement. Such opposition requires elaborating a democratic alternative and a means of organising support for it. It means a review of the failure of the republican struggle and a determination not to suffer defeat again, not as a result of any act of will, but because of political lessons learned.
Unfortunately the republican opposition shares many of the basic assumptions that inform Sinn Fein. Ultimately the failure of Sinn Fein is a failure of nationalism and their opposition to seeing politics in class terms. A Marxist analysis tells us that the class interest of the various parties is primary and explains the interests of the British; why its involvement is accurately called imperialist, and why the various parties of the Irish capitalist class have supported it against all democratic opposition. Because class interests are primary the struggle for Irish democracy is primarily a class struggle involving all the issues facing the Irish working class. The old refrain of ‘labour must wait’ has time and time again proved self-defeating for republicans for this very reason. To address this glaring weakness the republican programme would thus have to be much more than simply a republican one, it would have to be socialist. But all the past formulations of socialist republicanism or republican socialism have tried to gloss over this fundamental choice. Left republican have always been just that – republicans with left wing opinions but a republican programme devoid of class content which uses left phrases to promote nationalist priorities.
Sinn Fein has quietly justified each surrender with the perspective of gaining political power in government North and South. Opponents can argue that they will always be a minority in the North and doubt their ability to ever be a majority in the South, and point out that while pursuing these pipe-dreams they meanwhile drop everything that makes them republican, until now there is nothing left. These objections are true but are not fundamental. The fundamental truth about Sinn Fein’s strategy is that the class interests of British imperialism means it doesn’t give a damn about the democratic rights of the Irish people and will no more feel compelled to recognise now an Irish majority in favour of its leaving than it did ninety odd years ago. The Irish capitalist class seeks no more than political stability under the tutelage of the EU and US multinationals and is also opposed to the democratic aspirations and activity of the Irish people. Its State exists to defend their class interests and cannot be used as a weapon against imperialism. Rather it exists to defend the imperialist settlement reached in 1921 and crush its opponents, something it has been doing regularly for a long time.
The truth is that the democratic aspirations once embodied by republicanism have had the context in which they could be achieved transformed by partition, the development of the capitalist economy in Ireland and the international subordination of the whole island to multinational capital. Whoever thinks national liberation means anything outside of socialist revolution at an international level is refusing to acknowledge the profound transformation Irish society has undergone. The confusion and degeneration of republican consciousness displayed in the proceedings of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis is a result of failure to do what Gerry Adams says republican must do – think big. Adams has no idea how big that think has to be or the transformation in republican politics that is required.
This is true for the opposition. Traditional republicanism must change even more fundamentally than that evidenced in the Ard Fheis, but its transformation must be towards socialism, otherwise the failures of republicanism that led to this sorry conference will arise again and again as it has so often in the history of Irish republicanism.
What impresses many sincere, and not so sincere, supporters of Sinn Fein is the growth in their party. The opposition, they remind themselves, is small and divided. The alternative however is being prepared and is being prepared by the actions of Sinn Fein themselves. The reason why so many have opposed support for the PSNI is not primarily because these are republicans who oppose the police on principle, but because the PSNI and its actions have created republicans. The PSNI will continue to produce opponents but now with the more and more open support of Sinn Fein. In this way Sinn Fein will demonstrate to more and more nationalist workers that their hopes are not served but obstructed by this party and that if they want to advance they will be compelled to seek an alternative.
The second part of building an alternative will require the intervention of socialists over what sort of alternative this will be. A socialist movement that abstains and treats the question of imperialist domination as a republican one will fail these workers and fail itself. The future opportunities created by this decision of Sinn Fein will only help move the cause of Irish workers forward if socialists can contribute to combating the collapse of republican consciousness and clarify the fight for an alternative. This involves drawing a clear line between our politics and those of Sinn Fein, and arguing for a democratic, socialist political alternative to this party and opposition to those who either want to remain dissidents, yet remain members of the republican family or seek to repeat the mistakes of the past with the pursuit of yet another disastrous military agenda.
The coming elections North and South present
an opportunity to put this alternative. Unfortunately there is no
evidence that the left intends to point out that only revolutionary change
could possibly prevent future State sponsorship of sectarian murder.
There is no evidence it will present a revolutionary and anti-imperialist
platform that addresses all this confusion. Socialist Democracy exists
to put forward this political programme and will continue to argue against
false and failed reformist conceptions whether peddled by Sinn Fein or
their ‘left’ suitors.