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The onward march of Sinn Fein halted?

18 October 2014

The election of Socialist Paul Murphy in the Dublin South West by-election was a body-blow to Sinn Fein, made the more shocking by recent polls that indicated that it was level pegging as largest party with Fine Gael and was outright the largest party in Dublin.

There is no doubt what caused the upset. Murphy stood on the single issue of water charges and advocated non-payment. He outflanked Sinn Fein on the left when their leaders indicated they would pay the charge and when there was a growing anger among workers at their imposition.

However this reflects a deeper difficulty for Sinn Fein. Its meteoric rise in the Southern state is based on a dual strategy, where one element contradicts the other. In working class areas it presents itself as a republican party of the left, committed to social justice.  To the capitalists it presents itself as the party that made the Northern conflict go away, the party willing to kiss the Queen’s hand, a party of austerity and government in the North and a party ready for government in the South.

In reality the conflict is imaginary – backed into a corner Sinn Fein always moves right. The lure of a role in a capitalist government always wins. It is in fact their main strategy – to be simultaneously in government North and South.

So Sinn Fein have produced a series of budgets, all claiming to be anti-austerity but all matching Euro for Euro the bailout payments that have drained the economy.  In the North they have already agreed austerity budgets and the recently agreed loan which they and the DUP arranged means that they are required to sign off major welfare cuts within weeks as a condition of the loan. Their position on the household charge was to propose voting them down in the Dail but to obey the law and pay in the interim. The same line on water charges ran up against much greater level of public anger.

Threat from the left?

It is relatively easy to expose Sinn Fein’s left pretensions, difficult to displace the party. Paul Murphy did not put forward the programme of his party, but stood behind the mask of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and the single issue of water charges. His election shows a burning anger in the Irish working class which is seeking expression.

However the Socialist Party statement following the election did not fill one with confidence that the party would advance a more detailed political challenge.  They boasted of the positives of the AAA arising from the defeat of the Property Tax campaign, with no acceptance of their own part in that defeat or that the AAA simply involved seizing an electoral base from the ashes of a much bigger mobilisation in a sectarian squabble with the almost identical SWP sect. The election of 14 councillors is seen as a significant gain although recent struggles have shown that elected officials represent only the slightest of defences against attacks by the bosses.

The SP proposal of “mass non-payment and protest, and on building political pressure that no government can ignore” shows how they continuously underestimate the nature of the austerity and search for a reformist solution. Lacking any anti-imperialist consciousness, the hand of the Troika, the European Central Bank and the IMF are left out of their calculations. 

In the long run they represent little threat to Sinn Fein because their long term aim, frequently expressed, is for a labour party mark II that sets the clock back to the mildly social-democratic flavour of the ‘70s.

Sinn Fein can in fact take heart from the other by-election that took place on the same day. In Roscommon–South Leitrim Independent Michael Fitzmaurice defeated Fianna Fáil’s Ivan Connaughton, indicating that Fianna Fail’s electoral suicide in imposing the austerity has not been reversed and that a space remains for a populist party willing to wrap the tricolour around itself.  It is still possible that Sinn Fein will repeat its performance in the North, where it replaced the capitalist SDLP with its Sinn Fein mirror image.

The footnote of the Dublin byelection was the poor performance of labour. It is unlikely that the weak election budget, mainly benefiting the rich, will save them from electoral annihilation. The pattern across Europe has been that reformist parties that take centre stage in applying the austerity are committing suicide. However the workers have also reacted in a conservative way in relation to parliamentary politics, abandoning one failed weapon to hold tightly to other reformist parties that position themselves slightly to the left.

If this model holds then it is likely that Sinn Fein will continue its evolution to become Ogra Fianna Fail. It is possible that a loose coalition of the left, if they can overcome their endemic sectarianism, can put together a mock-up of Labour mark II.

Building a revolutionary party of the working class is will not occur in the electoral field, in the councils or in the Dail. It will take place on the streets and in the factories around a programme that rejects not this or that consequence of paying for the bailout, but the whole edifice of capitalist and imperialist domination.

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