Return to Recent Articles menu

Sinn Fein and the limits of optimism

A second Sinn Fein government in Ireland will not advance the interests of the working class

28 February 2020

"All is changed! Changed utterly!" That's the claim many analysts make in the wake of Sinn Fein's election victory in the 26 County state.

There are some grounds for optimism. Years of austerity, a 'recovery' that left workers impoverished and central state services in collapse, have now bent the political structures out of shape.  The ruling parties have received a minority vote. Sinn Fein has now became the major party by vote share and the likelihood that the other parties will unite to exclude Sinn Fein and form a  national coalition, largely identical to the last austerity government, would sharply escalate class tensions and lead to much greater political instability.

However many on the Left are mistaking the wish for the deed and are producing carefully worded ambiguities that diverts from many real and direct problems. An prime example is provided by journalist Dan Finn's article in International Viewpoint (Ireland's left turn).

It is reasonable to call the vote a left wing vote, but the definition of “left” as merely wanting more public investment and "radical change" is extremely dubious, as is the claim that the Irish party system has been “demolished”. The simple logic followed is that this left vote, from which Sinn Fein benefitted, means that Sinn Fein is a left party which is defined as "the party of choice for those who want to register their discontent."

However the picture becomes more confused. The writer quotes Sinn Fein's Eoin Ó Broin as listing a “hierarchy of objectives”  meaning that Sinn Féin can track towards the left or towards the centre, depending on what seems most advantageous at the time, and goes on to say that Sinn Féin is a left nationalist party for which nationalism comes first. However the article descends into obscurantism when it proclaims: "Sinn Féin’s time in government north of the border hasn’t resulted in any major social-democratic reforms".

This remarkable understatement fudges the issue. Sinn Fein has in the recent past agreed the "Fresh Start" programme that is in the process of delivering eye-watering austerity in the North and now the foundation document of the restored Stormont Assembly; "New Decade, New Approach" promises even deeper cutbacks.

Historian Brian Hanley, writing in the Guardian, makes a stronger case:

"Sinn Féin’s success is a left-wing phenomenon. The party campaigned on the need for massive public investment to deal with a dire housing crisis and a crumbling health system. Sinn Féin has eschewed anti-immigrant rhetoric; one of its TDs (MPs), Martin Kenny, suffered an arson attack after condemning racist activity. (The Irish far-right characterises Sinn Féin as “globalist”). The party supported both marriage equality and the repeal of laws outlawing abortion in recent referendums. Under proportional representation, Sinn Féin transfers also helped to elect members of smaller socialist parties."
Hanley highlights the sustained attacks on Sinn Fein from the Right, which includes the intervention of Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, around the issue of claims that the IRA (long decommissioned) was controlling the party.  Harris is a former RUC officer and has been accused of covering up collusion between Loyalist gangs and the British forces. Hanley highlights the hopes for change among thousands of voters and, as with Dan Finn, speaks approvingly of Eoin Ó Broin's zig-zags towards socialist rhetoric.

However in summation he is more realistic:

"Sinn Féin no longer says “socialist” in its literature and the more far-seeing of Ireland’s business community have been less hysterical about the election’s outcome than some commentators. Indeed Sinn Féin’s record in government in Belfast often reveals them to be ruthlessly pragmatic".
Hanley's analysis is an example of rigor when compared to the reaction of Solidarity-People before Profit, the Left group in the Dail. From the beginning the group led the charge in voting for Mary-Lou McDonald for Taoiseach, linking that to an appeal that she form an imaginary Left government with them, even as Sinn Fein simultaneously lobbied Fianna Fail for a place in coalition.

They have now completely descended into fantasy, arguing that they can pressure Fianna Fail and Fine Gael into abstaining to allow them to elect Mary-Lou McDonald Taoiseach. At the same time they continue to urge Sinn Fein to form a minority Left government while warning that they will not support a "left led coalition", which is the 'Shinners' term for coalition with Fianna Fail. The actually existing Sinn Fein coalition with the extremely Right wing Democratic Unionist Party in the North is set aside because what matters is the sentiment among voters in the South.

The profoundly mistaken idea that you can anoint Sinn Fein as 'the left' and then withdraw that absolution is political madness, these illusions which Solidarity/PbP are now feeding to workers will serve to disarm them in the future.

The whole picture appears as a bizarre pantomime; Fine Gael and Fianna Fail hold preliminary talks that lay the groundwork for a national coalition of the Right, Sinn Fein demonstrates vigorously for a place in government with Fianna Fail at indoor rallies, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar denounces these 'radical' meetings as insurrection and People before Profit, wearing an anonymous hat, organise a march for … “Change”!  ... in practice a call for Sinn Fein in government.

Absent from all the discussion is any real acknowledgement of the actual practice of Sinn Fein.  In the North they not only support reaction and austerity, they are involved in corruption and patronage at all levels of the State and civic society. The homeless crisis in the North mirrors that in the South and their 'left turn' in the South comes directly after their courtship of the Irish bourgeoisie, where they cosied up to British royalty and kowtowed to Orange reaction.  Alongside the current 'left turn' were a series of messages to the right, including calling for nationalists to join the Northern police and walking back opposition to the draconian Offences Against the State Act.

In the midst of all the brouhaha there is no examination of the actual proposals on housing. In fact Sinn Sinn Fein's housing policy is based on the current investment policy placed on steroids with substantial wealth taxes (the wealthy are those earning over €1million). Public land and infrastructure would be donated to developers who would then provide "public" housing leased to local councils and "affordable" homes subsidized by councils. The market model that dominates housing and that led to the current crisis is not addressed.

In the International Viewpoint article Dan Finn claims:

 "At a time when left parties in Europe have been losing ground to their rivals on the Right and center, the Irish election bucked the trend".
That's not the case.  Rather than the Irish coming early to the next left revival, they are coming late to the reformist wave that swept across Europe and which was based on the assumption that austerity could be reversed within the constraints of a capitalist economy.  Those movements failed and it is no surprise that that failure was followed by an advance of the Right.

So a protest vote clearly based largely on the housing crisis comes at the ebb of a struggle. The trade union movement organised a national Homeless and Housing coalition in 2018. In October of that year, under the banner of “Raise the Roof," ICTU organised a major rally of the Dail alongside a Solidarity-PbP motion inside the Dail calling for the declaration of a housing emergency.

Although the government resisted the calling of an emergency, they did bring forward a large budget aimed at housing. ICTU obviously believed that they had a deal, because from October onwards the campaign was gradually ran down. 2018 and 2019 saw occupations and in some cases the deployment of 'Security' companies ran by 'ex' Loyalist paramilitaries operating alongside State forces to enforce evictions. In a number of cases these confrontations produced the use of significant force.

The Unions, PbP and Sinn Fein were at arm’s length in these struggles.  For them the housing crisis would be resolved in the Dail, within the constraints of the sovereign debt, the strictures imposed by the European Central Bank and the need to secure foreign direct investment. For all the varieties of political reformists involved the parliamentary road was not a platform for these struggles.  It did not prioritise the street protests or seek to mobilise the organised working class - that would require confronting their 'friends' in the trade union bureaucracy. Rather the reformists were embarrassed by the conflicts and looked to smother them.  In December the street action had shrunk to such a low level that the homeless themselves had to organise a protest on their own outside the strait jacket of the reformist groups.

The truth is that the housing crisis is not on the cusp of resolution and the Vulture funds and the Banks are very much in charge. The boiling up of sentiment around the Sinn Fein vote reinforces the reformists' opportunist belief that Sinn Fein now presents an opportunity to move forward. Yet it is that opportunism that has smothered a living movement on housing.

Sinn Fein are a capitalist party. Their programme is within the constraints set by Irish capital and subservient to the domination of imperialism. The Dail is the instrument of capitalism and imperialism. While it is possible to intervene in that forum, it should be as the representatives of an independent working class movement. It doesn't work in the opposite direction - from the Dail to class action.

The Irish housing crisis will not be resolved without challenging existing property relations, without expropriation and, most of all, without a working class movement willing to act independently and defend themselves.

The vote for Sinn Fein implies discontent with the political system.  It also expresses despair at an unending struggle for survival that continues despite claims of a 'recovery'. An opportunistic falling into line behind Sinn Fein will only lead to working class demoralisation and further despair.

This is however an opportunity to place a revolutionary perspective before the working class; to point to the limits of their traditional leaderships and to call for immediate self-organisation, mass mobilisation and direct action, to demand seizure of State resources being sold off by vulture funds and to demand that mass public housing be provided by the State - noting that the real locus of class struggle is outside the Dail and if they fail to respond the working class mobilisation on the streets, and especially in the workplaces, must ultimately confront and overthrow the decadent capitalist system and its State.

Return to top of page