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Fun facts from Feile an Phobail

29 August 2018

Number one: Victory as Sinn Fein ride a wave of apathy.

One statistic that passed unremarked at this year’s Feile an Phobail in West Belfast was that, for the first time since start of the Troubles, there were no nationalist bonfires in Belfast.

This should not be surprising. Is often forgotten that this was the main purpose of the festival when it was established and of the millions poured into it since. Nationalist youths were to be diverted with raves and reality stars as the carrot on the one side and a triangle of Sinn Fein, the police and the local council forming a substantial stick on the other.

There are many legitimate reasons for objecting to bonfires. Sectarian taunts associated with nationalist bonfires in Newry and Derry highlight some. The fact that the Derry fire is now on the 15th of the month rather than the 8th indicates a political shift from the protest against internment to a previous Catholic religious holiday.

With this background it should not have taken decades for Sinn Fein to suppress bonfires. The fact is that, following the Good Friday agreement, Sinn Fein had declared victory and saw no further need for either bonfires or for any form of spontaneous protest by youth. In addition their policy of reaching out to loyalism meant that they supported the continuation of loyalist bonfires with some restrictions.

So the festival did not function to mobilise to protest the growing austerity, to protest the “Fresh Start” agreement cutbacks, Brexit, or the blatant disregard of rights by the Unionists and the British from under the cover of an undeclared direct rule. Protest was confined to tableau of sad victims calling on the British government to play fair and these were carefully policed by Sinn Fein officials.

There was no need for youth to be active or to be political. They could attend the “Planet Love” rave, the Olly Murs concert or, for Republican nostalgia, a Wolfe Tones concert.

However the triumph of Sinn Fein is sustained not by fervent support but by a wave of apathy. Most working class people in West Belfast know their lives are little better than before the troubles and that they are likely to get worse, but they see no alternative to Sinn Fein.

This is unsustainable. The political and economic crises are growing deeper, Sinn Fein is moving right and proposing government with Fine Gael, the political institutions in the North have collapsed and the Brexit offensive is moving forward. The smoke and mirrors of Sinn Fein corruption will not work for much longer.

Number two: A new left alliance - but it includes the blueshirts!

Alongside the overall project of dumbing down opposition, the West Belfast Festival always involves careful structuring to best present Sinn Fein’s current strategy. There are many old faithfuls; the insertion of the police and state forces in an attempt to justify the current levels of collaboration, a similar exercise involving loyalism, where the loyalists are inserted into the Festival as representatives of the Protestant working class.  Another long-running theme has been the gradual rapprochement between Sinn Fein and the one side and the Communist Party and Workers Party on the other. Apparently past descriptions of Sinn Fein as green fascists by these parties are no longer to be remembered now that the green fascists are the leading party and they all play the same reformist tune. This alliance has a new use in that Sinn Fein are making desperate attempts to expropriate the legacy of the civil rights movement and need all the help from the CP and WP that they can get.

Another old project with a new direction is the “left” debate. In the past the main function of this event has been for everyone to agree that Sinn Fein is a party of the left despite endless evidence to the contrary. It is a left debate rather than a socialist debate because the majority of participants are either former members or supporters of coalitions in capitalist governments.

A completely new project is a new reference for James Connolly, with the opening of a Connolly Museum and a new Connolly lecture given by the  deputy general secretary of the Services, Industrial, Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU), Ireland’s largest union.

And there’s one other fact that dominates all the rest. This year’s Festival was opened by Leo Varadkar, leader of Fine Gael and the leader of the current austerity government in Dublin. His arrival followed a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis that endorsed the possibility of coalition with the blueshirts.

This means that we are now in completely new territory. Up until this year Sinn Fein have held out to the reformist left and the trade unions the possibility of a left government with themselves at the centre. Now they are proposing much more traditional leftism operated by the Irish Labour Party. That is, supporting a right-wing coalition in return for specific concessions proposed by the trade union leadership.

This poses no problem for SIPTU, who are able to back both the Labour Party and Sinn Fein and await the outcome of the coming election. It does pose a serious problem for groups such as the Socialist Workers Network/People Before Profit. Their last conference offered a strategy of mass recruitment to make themselves the new left party. This is their default strategy over decades and the leadership know how unlikely this is. For years they have an endorsed a popular front of the left in government, with Sinn Fein, the Greens and the Irish Labour party as potential candidates. Now to stay on board they have to endorse a government of the right.

What Sinn Fein propose now is inclusion in coalition of the right whose main function will be to secure and stabilise capitalist rule. This will pose a serious problem for SWN/PBP members as it will do for Sinn Fein supporters, trade unionists and socialist and community groups.

It’s not a problem for the trade union leadership or the Sinn Fein leadership. They have after all been practicing this sort of conduit in the North when Stormont was up and running, though everyone is shy of admitting that Sinn Fein is the left path for a deal with the administration for fear of upsetting the Loyalists.

The right coalition is second nature to the union bureaucracy.  It should however be remembered that the last right coalition of the Labour party saw its decimation. The main function of these arrangements is to save capital at the expense of labour. The cost is always the destruction of the “left” component. This will be Sinn Fein’s fate.

This should mark an opportunity for the socialist groups.  Instead it is a crisis. Their reformist strategy is simply a left version of the Sinn Fein drive for government.  They have recruited a number of young people in the past years and directed them towards electioneering and the Dail. Can they lead them a further step towards a right government or are they able to shift 180° towards working class organisation and mass mobilisation?

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