Gaza onslaught exposes Sinn Fein
2 November 2023
Sinn Fein president, Mary Lou McDonald
A moment of acute crisis such as we are going through now with the Israeli assault on Gaza and the looming threat of global war throws into sharp relief the true nature of things. On a macro level it reveals the nature of Ireland as an economy and a state. It is also true on a micro level for political parties. One such moment of revelation came for Sinn Fein last weekend (29/10/23) during a solidarity rally for Palestine in Belfast. It was addressed by a number of speakers from the platform representing various solidarity groups and political parties. What was a largely subdued and sombre gathering sparked to life when high profile Sinn Fein representative Declan Kearney was introduced. Even before he began, he was greeted with boos and heckles from a large section of the crowd. As he proceeded with his address, he was frequently interrupted with shouts of “shame” and “get off” and chants of “expel the Israeli Ambassador”. One man approached the platform and shouted: "This is a defining moment for Sinn Féin."(1)
All of this seemed to take Sinn Fein and the organisers of the rally by surprise with high profile members of the party posting indignant responses on social media (see graphic below).
The content and tone of these reflect a party that, on the issue of Palestine, has misjudged the mood of its supporters within the nationalist working-class. That the hostility towards the party should come as a shock shows the degree to which it has lost touch. It was clear that discontent with Sinn Fein’s stance on Gaza had been building up over the previous week. Much of this centred on the party’s refusal to back calls for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador to Ireland. They were forced to go on the public record about the issue when a motion on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza (which included a call for the severing of diplomatic relations) was put before Derry & Strabane Council. While the motion was passed Sinn Fein councillors abstained. One of its councillors - Chris Jackson - said that while deaths in Gaza cannot be ignored, they could not support such a motion right now. He claimed:
“…the information and the feedback that we're receiving on a daily basis from leaders within Palestine is that they want to focus on the immediate cessation of the indiscriminate bombing and for international law to be completely respected. It's been ignored for decades now. The focus needs to be on those key asks.(2)His failure to identify which Palestinian leaders the party had been talking to made the claim rather suspect. It also directly contradicted calls for diplomatic sanctions against the state of Israel that had already been made by various civil society groups within Palestine. These dubious claims drew a fierce response from solidarity activists with the most notable intervention coming from John Hurson, a pro-Palestinian campaigner from Tyrone. He accused Sinn Fein of "selling out" Gaza and claimed that the party was more concerned with "losing VIP friends in Washington". For Hurson the vote on the motion was “a leadership diktat that goes against the grain of the overwhelming majority of Sinn Féin members and representatives on this island.”(3)
The focus on the Israeli ambassador was initially sparked by the comments from President Higgins criticising the carte blanche given to Israel on behalf of the EU by Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen. This drew a rebuke from Israel's ambassador to Ireland, Dana Erlich, who accused Higgins of making “inflammatory” comments and of “spreading misinformation”. She went on to slander Irish people in general saying that: "there is a strong feeling in Israel there is an unconscious bias against Israel in Ireland.” Although not stated openly the clear implication is that Irish people hold deeply ingrained prejudices against Jews. The Irish government was compelled to respond to these comments with Minister Simon Coveney telling RTE Radio 1's Today show: "I don't think it's helpful when an ambassador starts to make pointed comments in relation to our president. I think Michael D. Higgins has reflected the view of many in Ireland.”(4) It is because the comments of Higgins do indeed reflect the views of most people in Ireland that the government is compelled to defend him and why they are treading very carefully around the whole issue.
The actions of Israel in Gaza and the provocative statements made by its ambassador to Ireland made the proposition of a diplomatic rebuke entirely reasonable. That other countries (Colombia, Chile & Bolivia) have already downgraded or broken off relations with Israel sets a clear precedent. The question for Sinn Fein is why have they not followed suit. This is particularly pertinent for the party as it is a demand they have made in response to previous assaults on Gaza. They called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador as recently as 2014.(5) Why not in 2023 in response to something of even greater magnitude?
Likud Party members in Belfast, 2016.
This isn’t the first time that Sinn Fein has been embarrassed on the issue of Palestine. In 2016 it was revealed that Sinn Féin had been hosting delegations from Likud, the party of Benjamin Netanyahu. One of its representatives present, Pat Sheehan, defended the meetings, saying that “dialogue is essential in dealing with issues in the Middle East and that Sinn Féin will continue to raise the concerns of the Palestinian people in all forums and at all levels.”
“Sinn Féin’s record of supporting the Palestinian people is clear and consistent,” he added. “Any meetings between Sinn Féin representatives and Israeli political parties are on the basis of critical engagement.”
“Those who represent the Palestinian people are aware that we raise these issues at all levels and wish us to do so,”(6)
It is notable that the language and reasoning used, and the claiming of Palestinian endorsement, is almost identical to the current justification for rejecting calls for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador.
The revelations around meetings sparked a backlash within Sinn Fein and also among Palestinians. Haidar Eid, a university professor and member of the steering committee of PACBI, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, he claimed that news of such meetings had been “very disheartening to us here in Gaza,”
“We call on Irish comrades to condemn these meetings in the strongest possible terms,” Eid said, urging people to write to Sinn Féin leaders and “even disrupt any future visits by Israeli officials. “War criminals and racist organisations should not be welcomed in the new Ireland,” he added.(7)In response to this controversy Sinn Féin made a formal pledge at its 2018 annual conference to “fully support” the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions. As part of that pledge, Sinn Féin would not meet any “Israeli government grouping” until “Palestinian representatives” requested or approved such discussions.(8) Yet in 2021, in clear breach of this commitment, it was revealed that Sinn Fein took part in preparations for an Irish visit by Israeli “community and political leaders.”(9) The principle of “constructive dialogue” promoted by Forward Thinking, the group behind these meetings, was completely at odds with the principles spelled out in the 2005 Palestinian appeal for a boycott of Israel. It is actually closer to the approach taken by Thatcher and Reagan to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
This episode illustrates Sinn Fein’s lack of commitment to the cause of the Palestinians. What it also reveals is a lucrative industry that has arisen in which politicians, both unionist and nationalist, are paid to promote the Irish peace process as a model for other parts of the world. This model, with its emphasis on community identity, dovetails neatly with the two-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Partition and sectarianism are accepted as legitimate while the role of imperialism is completely left out of the equation. It is never conceded that this model has failed everywhere it has been advanced. In Ireland there is the farce of continually collapsing political institutions. In Palestine there is the tragedy of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Two state solution
The close association between the Irish peace process and the two-state solution for Israel-Palestine is the reason that Sinn Fein clings so steadfastly to its position on Palestine. One of the consequences of revising it would be to invite examination of the failure of its own strategy in advancing a united Ireland. The party is sensitive to criticism over its stance on Palestine because it is never just about Palestine it is also about Ireland; about the nature of Irish society and how Ireland fits into the international system. These are uncomfortable questions that Sinn Fein are determined to avoid.
Part of this is the ruthless curtailing of debate within its own ranks. We saw an example of this earlier this year with the expulsion from the party of Belfast based Palestinian activist Farrah Koutteineh. According to her account she was expelled after making a contribution to a meeting on the issue of Palestine in which she called for Sinn Fein to update its policy on Palestine. She has described the current policy of a ‘two-state solution’ - as “a so-called ‘solution’ that is void in a settler colonial reality.”(10)
Belfast Lord Mayor Ryan Murphy and US Special Envoy Joseph Kennedy III.
There is also reason to be sceptical of claims by Sinn Fein that they challenge US officials on international issues, such as Palestine, when they meet with them. There is no evidence to support this. Indeed, earlier this year, during the visit of President Joe Biden to Ireland, when Sinn Fein were presented with the perfect opportunity to raise these issues, the party explicitly ruled it out. Questioned whether she would raise concerns about Israel with the president, Mary Lou McDonald said: “I’ll meet him today. I’m not sure what opportunity I will have to have any length of a conversation with him.” She emphasised that her “first port of call with the President is Ireland and Irish affairs. . . Today, this visit is about Ireland.” Her praise for the US was effusive:
“The political opportunities that I want us to grasp with both hands, and the United States of America is a partner in that, and for the criticism of their foreign policy, be very clear, Ireland, building peace in Ireland, the success of all of this, is very much an American foreign policy triumph, and is very, very much to their credit.”(11)Such statements make it very clear where Sinn Fein priorities lie. They place a much higher value on their relationship with US imperialism than on solidarity with the Palestinians. Further evidence of this was on display last week when a US business delegation led by Biden appointed Special Envoy Joe Kennedy III visited Northern Ireland. Given the background of the Israeli onslaught on Gaza the need to raise the issue of Palestine couldn't have been more urgent. But again, there wasn’t a word of criticism of the Biden Administration. Quite the opposite. At a reception at Belfast City Hall, Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Ryan Murphy, heaped praise on the United States.
“It’s a welcome opportunity to celebrate the many very special connections we have with the US from diplomatic relations to investment, knowledge sharing, tourism, education, and cultural exchange.”(12)It was ironic that he mentioned diplomatic relations given that the issue of the Israeli ambassador was about to become the lightning rod for discontent directed at his party.
The most obvious reason Sinn Fein has left itself open to charges of hypocrisy is the contrasting positions it has adopted on Ukraine and Gaza. In the wake of the Russian attack on Ukraine in 2022 the party voiced its support for a whole range of economic and diplomatic sanctions directed against Russia. Moreover, Sinn Fein took an even more hawkish stance than the Irish government with its call for the Russian Ambassador Yuriy Filatov to be expelled from Ireland. Mary Lou McDonald set out the reasons for making such a call:
“Russia has closed the door on dialogue and through its criminal actions it has thus far rejected avenues for diplomacy. Far from demonstrating a willingness to engage in peace negotiations, Russia has escalated its ferocious violence through the indiscriminate targeting of civilians.”(13)Whether you agree with this or not it is obvious that such reasoning is equally applicable to Israel’s ongoing onslaught against the Palestinians in Gaza. So, what accounts for the contrasting approach? It could be put down to hypocrisy but this would be a superficial reading of Sinn Fein’s motivation. At a more fundamental level it is a reflection of a party that is adjusting itself to fit with the interests of the Irish ruling class and of US imperialism.
This has been going on for a long period, dating back to the early nineties and the early period of the Peace Process. But even prior to that, the Provisionals' approach to international solidarity was ambiguous. Geared primarily around building up and legitimising their own movement it saw them present different faces to the diverse components of its support base. In Ireland, and across Europe, Sinn Fein were pleased to talk up its affinity with the struggles against apartheid in South Africa and Israel’s occupation of Palestine, but such comparisons would never get an outing in front of its conservative supporters in the United States.
These are the inevitable contradictions of a bourgeois nationalist party that is seeking to build a cross alliance and even sees a progressive role for imperialism in Ireland. With the electoral success of Sinn Fein and the growing prospect of the party being the lead party in a new Government these contradictions have become even more pronounced. As the next general election approaches Sinn Fein has been throwing off previous commitments, particularly in relation to foreign policy, at an increasing rapid rate of knots. In May of this year the party confirmed that it had dropped its pledges to withdraw from the EU common defence arrangement known as Pesco and from Nato’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) project. Questioned on the issue, a senior party source said that the party was seeking to “refine” its policy “in a way that’s contemporary”. “It’s not about throwing long-held policies out the window — it’s about what’s achievable.”(14) Sinn Fein, like the current parties of government, makes the risible claim that being attached to NATO is compatible with military neutrality.
The reality is that the Irish state has never been politically neutral and since its creation has leaned towards imperialism, firstly Britain and now the United States. Despite the myths Ireland was not neutral during WWII, during the Cold War or the various wars that have ensued since the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Ireland’s pro-imperialist position has become more overt since the turn of the millennium. The Iraq War of 2003, when Shannon Airport was turned into a transport hub for the US military, was a major accelerator in this process. The current war in Ukraine, where Irish military personnel have provided weapons and mine clearance training to the Ukrainians, has seen a further ramping up of this collaboration.
The pro NATO position of the Irish state is a reflection of the degree to which Ireland is dependent on and dominated by imperialism. This is seen first and foremost in the economy with much of the country's GDP accounted for by multinational companies; and most of the government's revenues deriving from these same companies which use the state for tax avoidance purposes. It is this economic relationship between the Irish state and imperialism (particularly the United States) from which everything else (the political and the military) flows. Sinn Fein are well aware of this and are adjusting themselves to this reality. At this acute moment of crisis even the token and performative actions that Sinn Fein have indulged in are too much and must be abandoned. Viewed from this perspective the positions the party has adopted on Russia and Israel aren’t contradictory at all but completely consistent with support for imperialism.
All of this has consequences for the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign which has viewed Sinn Fein as a key component. If they want to keep Sinn Fein on board then the campaign will be severely limited and won’t get beyond calls for boycotts and a two-state solution, a platform that has been rendered defunct by events.
If the campaign is to have any impact it will have to challenge the hold that imperialism has over Irish politics. The fact the people of Ireland are generally sympathetic to the Palestinians (overwhelmingly so in the case of the working-class base Sinn Fein) is an advantage but sentiment alone is not enough. It has to be mobilised by demands (such as breaking diplomatic relations with Israel) that challenge the Irish government and the political parties. We can see evidence for the influence of public opinion in the comments made by President Higgins on EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the Irish government's own modest criticism of the EU’s stance on Gaza.
This pressure, in terms of activity and arguments, has to be ramped up to a level that compels political parties and the Irish government to break from supporting this latest war in the Middle East and the broader drive of US led imperialism towards WWIII. The primary task of any solidarity and anti-war movement is to stop the state in which it is active being a collaborator. Ireland may be a relatively small country but as part of a worldwide movement, which we already see coming into formation, Irish people can make a difference. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
(1) Belfast rally in
support of Palestinians hears calls for Gaza ceasefire, BBC News, 28/10/23
(2) Derry Sinn Féin
councillors abstain from supporting Gaza motion, Derry Now, 26/10/23
(3) Sinn Fein accused
of ‘Gaza sell-out’ over refusal to back expulsion of Israeli ambassadors,
Belfast Telegraph, 27/10/23
rift grows as ambassador's 'pointed comments' about Michael D Higgins met
with stern criticism, News Letter, 23/10/23
(5) Demand for Israeli
ambassador to Ireland to be expelled reiterated, Sinn Fein, 21/07/14
(6) Palestinians urge Sinn
Féin to end Likud meetings, Electronic Intifada, 11/08/16
(8) Does Sinn Féin
fully support a boycott of Israel?, Electronic Intifada, 26/10/21
(10) To stand with
Palestinians, Sinn Féin must not silence us, The New Arab, 16/05/23
(11) McDonald: Sinn
Fein shares US foreign policy concerns but boycott ‘wrong choice’, Independent,
(12) Warm welcome for Joe Kennedy III’s business delegation on first day of Northern Ireland, Belfast Telegraph, 24/10/23 https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/technology/warm-welcome-for-joe-kennedy-iiis-business-delegation-on-first-day-of-northern-ireland-visit/a691776188.html
(13) Mary Lou McDonald
TD reiterates call for expulsion of Russian Ambassador, Sinn Fein, 06/04/23
(14) Sinn Féin
drops pledges to withdraw from EU and Nato defence arrangements, Irish