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Bonfire of the Vanities

Sinn Fein conference ends in a fog of delusion

28 November 2019

The end of Sinn Fein's Derry conference saw a range of controversies over the "silent vote" which saw deputy leader Michelle O'Neill see off a challenge from former Stormont minister John O'Dowd, despite her obvious failings as spokesperson.

The tally was eventually released, leading to further claims that the vote was a sham and decisions were made behind the scenes by the army council.

The dispute misses the point. It is true that seven elderly men make the key decisions, but they can hardly be described as an army council when their activity is esigned to preserve the current peace process.

The real story is that the peace strategy is collapsing. The Stormont executive has been missing in action for three years and most of the associated structures are in deep freeze. Sinn Fein is keeping a low profile on workers rights, given that they signed off on the "Fresh Start" austerity programme and some delays and mediations meant to reduce its impact are about to be withdrawn. The likelihood is that their vote will decline in the UK election, something that they are trying to avoid by voting pacts which extend so far as to include sections of unionism.

Yet their major problem lies in the formally independent area of the island. Their strategy for winning support has always been contradictory. On the one hand they were a party of the IRA, of radicalism, and of the left. On the other hand they were the party of peace and stability, a safe pair of hands, suitable for capitalist government. In the last elections that strategy collapsed and their vote halved.

The new strategy is based on remarks by Gerry Adams after the defeat. Essentially it is plan A all over again. Calls for a United Ireland are ramped up to secure their base, while stressing to the capitalists that unity is a complex issue to be resolved in the future - unity, but not just yet. The fact that both British and Irish governments immediately rejected their call for a border poll caused no upset.

But this is a lame duck strategy. Their publications company, based on playing up a radical history, is now operating at a loss. The smell of gunpowder is now too faint to generate interest and their future  is as a party of government. Calls for a return of the Stormont administration showed the desperation of Sinn Fein. The last agreement involved the most limited references to Irish language rights but still was utterly rejected by the DUP. There is a real instability in Unionism following Boris Johnson's revelation of their minor position in British politics, but this is pushing them towards a closer relationship with the Loyalist paramilitaries rather than towards accommodation with nationalism.

Current signs are that Sinn Fein zig-zags will go nowhere. Their vote is likely to decline in the North and is unlikely to recover in the 26 county state. This represents a problem for the trade union leaderships and for the reformist Left. Talk of a broad Left party and a "Left" government had alliances with Sinn Fein at their heart and will now amount to nothing.

The decline of Republican and leftist reformism will demoralise activists and strengthen capitalism and imperialism in the short term. Claims by these groups that their reformist strategy represents a defence of the working class are illusory. A realistic assessment of our position in the aftermath of the credit crunch, social partnership between government and unions and the outcome of the Good Friday Agreement is long overdue.

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