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What’s so radical about Sinn Fein?

Joe Craig

26th March 2002

The weekend pre-election rally of Sinn Fein in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin was the unofficial start of that party’s campaign for the approaching general election.  It was an opportunity for the party to present its policies and for others to measure them.  It is an opportunity to take Gerry Adams at his word and ‘argue these issues with us,’ an important task because most expect Sinn Fein’s electoral performance to show a strong improvement on previous results.

Helpful in this regard is a comparison with the policies outlined by the Irish Labour Party which also held its conference at the weekend.  This party it should be recalled was most famously ridiculed by a former Fianna Fail leader, Sean Lemass, as ‘the most respectable party in the state.’  Sinn Fein on the other hand are very keen to present a radical image - a recent letter to the ‘Irish Times’ from a spokesperson from Ogra Sin Fein protested at coverage in that paper that described them as only ‘formerly revolutionary.’

Such a comparison and analysis of the speech by Gerry Adams reveals just how far away republicans are from being revolutionary in any sense.  In relation to the North the short to medium term priority is ‘bedding down and stabilising the Good Friday Agreement’ that is the new partitionist parliament at Stormont, the coalition government with extreme unionism and continuance of overall British control.  Hardly anything radical nor distinctive here.  In fact Adams appears to be putting forward a new version of the nationalist family strategy by calling for a new ‘Alliance for Irish Unity’ which he says will promote the republicanism other parties (he particularly means Fianna Fail) are now increasingly adopting and over which he claims Sinn Fein have no monopoly.


It is in relation to the issues immediately facing southern voters, however, that the conference was really focused.  What is the republican programme for working people of the southern state?  Hardly different from that of the Labour Party it would seem.  Both promise a new health service and Sinn Fein promises one free at the point of delivery and funded from general taxation.  The Irish Labour Party are rather more specific in identifying amounts of money required and funding mechanisms - apparently raiding the national pension fund will do the trick.  Both make promises on housing a big feature of their plans and both are keen to castigate the inequality created by the existing coalition government.

While the Labour Party and Sinn Fein both promise to remove the lowest paid from the tax net, and the Labour Party promises no new McCreevy type tax cuts for the rich, Sinn Fein promise only ‘A full review of the income tax system, to be completed and implemented within the lifetime of the next government.’  Since they also promise that ‘indigenous industries should receive the same aid as foreign companies’ it is quite clearly implied that corporation taxes are not to be increased.  Indeed in the past Adams has floated the idea that the low corporate taxes in the south should be introduced in the north.  How exactly a new health service is to be created without radical increases in taxes on the rich is unexplained.  At least the Labour Party acknowledge a problem and propose a once off ‘creative accounting’ style solution that Charlie McCreevy used in the last budget to postpone public expenditure cuts until after the election.

What both parties make clear, by omission rather than honest and open declaration, is their attachment to the overarching policy of pursuit of multinational investment as the dynamic for the economy and society.  Sinn Fein just makes more noise about helping indigenous capitalists but since these are more and more subordinated and dependant on these multinationals the effect could not help but be much the same.

No mention is made by Sinn Fein of promoting the trade unions to break from the disastrous social partnership deals that have hobbled worker’s organisations for the best part of fifteen years.  Indeed their promise, like the Labour Party, to focus public spending on health, education and infrastructural development, without saying either how it would be financed or what spending would be cut, is to take place in a new ‘partnership’ with the trade unions and ‘other representatives of the wider society.’  Their vision of equality is a utopian one of maximum local self sufficiency – ‘a return to a sustainable practice of local quality produce for local markets,’ and of ‘equality’ defined by each of the oppressed having the opportunity to become the oppressor – ‘greater assistance and funding for women in business.’


There is not the slightest acquaintance with socialist ideas which assert the independent interests of the working class from other classes.  Nor is there any sign of understanding that the socialist answer to the power of multinationals and the world market is an international struggle for socialism that will seek the transformation of Ireland to the extent that the rest of the world is also transformed.

Thus while Sinn Fein criticises the EU, its alternative is only to turn the clock back and attempt to strengthen the nation states comprising it, when the centralisation of the EU that is taking place is in recognition that there is no future for the indigenous national capitals of the EU countries unless they unite in competition against the biggest companies from the USA and Japan etc.  The Nice Treaty is only criticised for its impact on the so-called policy of southern neutrality but nothing is said of the neo-liberal agenda that the Treaty and the EU as a whole embodies.

No mention at all is made of women’s reproductive rights despite the recent referendum and even the Labour Party promises to legislate for the X case.  On the other hand, and despite the activities of the armed republicans of the IRA, ‘more resources’ are promised to the Garda.

The North - Health

In one sense it is unnecessary to look at what Sinn Fein promises for the south because it already sits in ‘government’ in the north.  Indeed the party’s experience in the north is held up as reason for support in the south.  Attacking critics Adams says: ‘Some of those who are saying we can't be trusted are the same people who are commending our two Ministers in the north - Martin McGuinness Minister for Education and Bairbre de Brun Minister for Health.’  Just why right wing politicians in the south would congratulate Sinn Fein’s performance in the north is not addressed.  So let us do it instead.

Let’s take health first.  De Brun’s first action as minister was to close a maternity hospital and later to set up a review of acute facilities in the rest of the north under Maurice Hayes, a former top civil servant under British direct rule.  As an aside, it is easy to pass over this without noting the irony.  Here is a movement that killed the most minor and junior ‘collaborator’ with the British state, including workmen and the most menial caretaker, yet in government appoints to determine the future of hospital services under its responsibility a top ‘collaborator,’ and no one in Sinn Fein even notices!

The Sinn Fein record in government has been one of failure only postponed by the now notorious tactic of delaying difficult decisions by farming them out for review by ‘experts.’  At the beginning of March it was reported that hospital waiting lists in the north, already the longest in the UK, had increased from under 48,000 a year before to 57,704 at the end of 2001, an increase of 14.5%.  This despite a solemn promise from the Sinn Fein minister that they would actually be reduced.  One in ten people waiting for cardiac surgery will die before they reach the operating table according to research carried out by a nursing lecturer at the University of Ulster. (Irish News 08/03/02)

The response of Sinn Fein spokespeople, including de Brun, is to blame the British for insufficient funding while claiming credit for new developments which are also the result of this funding.  All of a sudden Sinn Fein apologists write letters to the press explaining how difficult a job health is and how no one else wanted the job.  Could anyone else be expected to do better?

The crucial points to understand here are that inadequate funding from the British state only cruelly exposes how Sinn Fein in government is merely the mechanism for delivering a deteriorating service. The north of Ireland is not even receiving the same increases in health service spending as England with a shortfall of £83m in 20001/02 and a forecast shortfall of £214m in 2003/04.   Sinn Fein thus becomes the instrument of a failed system where the natives receive less than the ‘mother country.’  Doubly so since the new found understanding among Sinn Fein supporters for the ‘difficulties’ of the job mean they are no longer a force campaigning against the poor service but are the standard bearers of excuses for those in charge of it.

The North - Education

The situation in Education also exposes the radical rhetoric as a sham.  On 21 March Martin McGuinness announced spending of £107m on new school buildings, £53m through Public Private Partnerships (PPP), that is privatization, where private firms design, build, maintain and run ‘non-core’ services in new schools.  Once again this is an exercise in rationing, but with Sinn Fein making itself responsible for it, £500m is needed (on one estimate) to tackle the problem of schools waiting in the top priority bracket.
he obvious glee with which Martin McGuinness sits behind his new ministerial desk has blinded him to the real problems that PPP’s are piling up and which are the price for the photo-opportunities provided to him in opening new privatized schools.  Union research show that the running costs of such projects, the cost of paying the private sector for building and running the school, will put severe pressure on education budgets.  Allyson Pollock, professor of public policy at University College London, argues of similar schemes in England ‘that buy-now-pay-later PFI schemes will make serious inroads into school revenue budgets, making it even harder to tackle teacher shortages and over-sized classes.  “Education is a hugely labour-intensive service …The only way these new buildings can be paid for, without significantly raising public spending, is by taking funding away from existing services and distorting local school budget priorities.  This means lower not higher standards.’ (Public Finance Feb 8-14 2002)

These schemes are motivated by concerns to reduce government borrowing that might arise from the state building the new schools themselves.  In fact the state is just as committed to paying back the costs of the new building to the private sector as if it had taken out a loan, except that the cost will be greater to allow the private companies to make a profit.  This is an attempt at what accountants call ‘off-balance sheet’ accounting: if the school is not financed by a loan the future cost does not appear in the government’s books.  It is entirely appropriate to note here that it was precisely such ‘off-balance sheet’ accounting that was involved in the Enron scandal when America’s seventh largest company collapsed.  On the day of the announcement of the school building programme the ‘Irish News’ reported that the Department of Education had spent £750,000 on consultancy costs for these PPP deals over the previous year.

The other major initiative of the Sinn Fein minister of education is the Burns report on the11-plus, the means of selecting young children for either grammar school or secondary education.  The effect of this initiative so far has been to present the choice available as one between the existing iniquitous system and a new one that fails to guarantee equality.

No wonder right wing politicians in the south, not to mention the British, have no reason to complain about Sinn Fein’s performance in government.  Who said that they needed to be ‘house trained?’


With all this in mind it is simply laughable to hear Gerry Adams say that ‘the real question is not, and never has been whether they (Fianna Fail etc) will go into government with us. The real question is whether we would go into government with them.’  Having gone into coalition government with Ian Paisley’s DUP how could anyone believe that there would be the slightest problem supporting a Fianna Fail government in the south.  Only the most blind of Sinn Fein members could possibly be deceived.

In summary Sinn Fein does not represent any sort of alternative to working people in the south in the next election.  They represent a serious dead end for anyone looking for a radical alternative to the corrupt politics of the southern establishment.  The party will inevitably disillusion many who will place confidence in it to represent anything significantly progressive.  Neither their policies nor clientelist, parish-pump practice represent anything new.  Like the Workers Party, Democratic Left and Greens before them they represent a false alternative that will be found wanting and yet another testimony to failure to build a real revolutionary left force in the country.



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