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Sinn Fein Ard Fheis

Gerry Adams steps down. Sinn Fein glides towards coalition and eventual oblivion.

5 December 2017

The Sinn Fein Dublin Ard Fheis on November 18th was dominated by the news that Gerry Adams would step down as leader, facilitating a hurried rush for the party to achieve a junior partnership in the next capitalist government.

It was all meant to end so differently. A cheoregraphed plan for the joint leaders of Sinn Fein and the remaining leaders of the IRA to step down  in triumph and hand over to a new leadership unmarked by the gunsmoke of the past, ready to enter government in both Irish states

Instead we have the death of Martin McGuinness alongside the collapse of the Northern administration. Gerry Adams read his own political obituary to an adoring crowd, but the southern strategy now is a junior partnership with Fianna Fail - a strategy that wipes out claims of leftism and has an unbroken record of leading to the destruction of the junior coalition partner.

But this is not a tale of a series of unlikely accidents. Rather it is the unfolding of path from revolutionary to constitutional nationalism through the mechanism of the Irish peace process that had the failure of Sinn Fein built into it.

False axioms

The Irish peace process was built on a number of axioms:

The most powerful was the assertion that Britain had no selfish or strategic interest in Ireland. Now the British government is in formal alliance with the DUP and say they will never be neutral on the Irish question.

The second assertion was that the road to democracy and a united Ireland lay through a policy of "unity of the two traditions."  Now sectarian division is everywhere and the loyalist parties prefer to collapse the executive rather than make concessions to nationalism.

Finally there was the conception of the "Nationalist Family." Sinn Fein, in alliance with Irish capitalism, would present an overwhelming force for unity. Yet the whole basis of the Downing Street declaration, on which the peace process was founded, was designed to bury the national question and the threat to Irish capitalism that it represented. Today open support for imperialism and the British royalty is at an all-time high and many define their nationality in terms of a 26 county state.

Many commentators suggest that Adams plays a central role in holding the disparate elements of the party together: north and south, former IRA and new middle class recruits.

There may be some truth to this, but the fragmentation that will visit Sinn Fein arises from political failure. All of the lies and contradictions of the peace process were to be resolved by becoming the premier nationalist and populist party in Ireland, yet the organization has passed its zenith and is beginning the glide towards decay. It cannot be long before questions are asked about the purpose of the massive political concessions that they made to facilitate the failed northern settlement. In the South they are abandoning a rather flimsy leftism in the drive for a place in government, leaving only a role as a more radical Fianna Fail - but in the long run there is room for only one Fianna Fail.

Former radicalism, fake feminism

The former radicalism of Sinn Fein ensured wide support among nationalist workers in the north and a section of the southern working class. Embracing the peace process meant the entry of a large layer of the middle class and a requirement to trim policy in the interests of imperialism and local capitalism. The contradiction between these divergent class interests can only become greater.

The new activity at the conference was to shift left on the question of abortion in an attempt to burnish a tarnished radical façade. Those who see this as a significant shift do not know Sinn Fein. Anti-imperialist pro-choice feminists who joined the party during and after the hunger strikes of the 1980s were easily persuaded to abandon the right to choose in the broader interests of the party. Today conservative Catholics in Sinn Fein bite their lips and hope the issue does not move beyond electoral rhetoric.

In many other countries the extremely restrictive proposals for medical and legal supervision of the most limited forms of abortion would not be seen as left wing. Even in Ireland they fall far short of proposals by the citizenís convention.  They should be a warning to Irish feminists of the limits of a legalistic movement to amend the constitution and of how little will emerge from a process focused on resolutions and deals struck in the Dail.

Swan song

In the unstable environment of a collapsed Stormont, crisis in the Dail and the car crash of Brexit, Gerry Adams will want time to construct his swan song as a peacemaker. Yet the task of turning a decaying organization by 180° is not new. It is especially easy in a militarist organization where there is no political discussion and no coherent ideology beyond that of physical force.

Adams special talent was to accomplish all this with relatively little internal violence and without a united opposition emerging. This was made possible by utter ruthlessness and an immense ego. He built a persona as military strategist, superb counter-intelligence expert and political guru.

Yet the whole history of the provisional republicans was of disaster. Plans for immediate victory was replaced by a long war of attrition. Mass defence structures were replaced by isolated cell structures. The movement was penetrated by British intelligence at every level. Political status was abandoned in negotiation with the British and attempts at recovery forced by prisoners and their families led to secret diplomacy and unity with the Catholic Church, the most reactionary elements of Irish America and of Irish capitalism.

Capitulation led into government in the North and political growth in the south. We have now reached the beginning of the end.

Despite agreement by both the Provos and their enemies that the northern struggle was in its essence an armed revolt led by the IRA, in fact it gained its energy and longevity from a mass movement of many currents based on the nationalist working class in the North. Republicanism offered a physical defence for that movement but in the long run nationalism and militarism were not a sufficient basis for a successful struggle. Republican ideology covered up class alliances and often demobilised the movement at crucial junctures

As the environment of collapse and crisis grows so too will the calls for a new movement. This will not arise from Sinn Fein but on the rubble of its failure. The new movement will grow on the repudiation of collaboration, the assertion of opposition to capitalism and imperialism and for the independence of the working class around their own programme.

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