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The West Belfast Festival and its aftermath

Sinn Fein face a host of problems

24 August 2016

The yearly West Belfast Feile an Phobail is an opportunity for Sinn Fein to showcase itself and advance current political projects. For many years this has involved the contradictory tasks of placating loyalism and promoting the police on the one hand and presenting themselves as a left organisation on the other. 

This position was challenged by a group called the Irish Republican Prisoners Welfare association, who named Feile staff and claimed that they were using British funds to normalise the police. Sinn Fein, outraged, mounted a campaign to denounce the threats.

However, as followers of the Corbyn saga in the British Labour party will know, there is more to any dispute than tearful cries of intimidation. Sinn Fein are right to say that the naming of Feile staff was intimidation. However IPRWA were quite correct in saying that Sinn Fein are receiving British funds and normalising policing. In these circumstances it was something of a surprise to see local People Before Profit representatives sign up with Sinn Fein without referencing the wider context of the dispute. 

Civil rights

And on their side the republicans have concrete reasons for complaint. In a return to the good old days a republican parade was barred from Belfast city centre and Sinn Fein stepped to the side of the parades quango, insisting that its rulings be obeyed. The ruling was extremely important because it was founded on the argument that there is no civil right to march. That has been replaced by a balance of sectarian privileges that can be adjudicated by the British.

The republican opposition was easily pushed aside. That section that carries out armed action are used by Sinn Fein to justify their policy of collaboration. Generally the republicans are riven by splits and faction fighting. Campaigns around prisoners, internment by remand and MI5 dirty tricks do not gain traction among a population terrified of a return to war who believe the current settlement will evolve towards a genuine democracy.

Left credentials

Another central element of the festival is burnishing Sinn Fein's left credentials. The most successful meeting was one involving Sinn Fein,  the Workers Party, the Communist Party and People Before Profit. This was a mirror image of a last year’s meeting, with the new element being Sinn Fein's sign up to the savage austerity of the "Fresh Start" programme for government. Presumably the participants did not see this as a bar to Sinn Fein being a left party.

The same motivation explains two days of the festival being given over to the Palestinian cause. Unfortunately this came adrift when it was discovered that Sinn Fein were simultaneously meeting the Zionists of the Likud party.

In truth this is more of a problem for the Palestinian movement than Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein supporters are well used to them speaking out of both sides of their mouth. For the Palestinian support movement, dependence on Sinn Fein and the trade union leadership has severely constricted policy, political discussion and levels of organization.

Battle of the bonfires

Alongside the festival ran the battle of the bonfires. While there is certainly a case for the regulation of nationalist bonfires, traditionally lit on the anniversary of internment, it is unlikely to be made by a programme of physical suppression led by Sinn Fein and the police, especially when loyalists escape any form of control, can build bonfires across hospital gates, force the removal of children’s playgrounds, and can literally burn down houses with the state offering impunity. The fact that the nationalist bonfires went ahead in the face of determined opposition was a demonstration of the extent to which control of youth in nationalist ghettos is slipping out of Sinn Fein's hands. 

In Derry a joint operation between Sinn Fein and the police to remove a bonfire led to it being re-sited on a main road and attended by hundreds of youth. The bonfire was plastered with Sinn Fein election posters.  The extent to which the Provos have lost the plot and contact with republican youth was illustrated by one Belfast councillor who tweeted a picture of a burning union jack on a bonfire with the tag “not in my name.” He was outdone by a Derry MLA who threatened her constituents with the law, saying that the burning of their election posters was a “hate crime.”

Hunger strike commemoration

Yet the hunger strike commemoration at the end of the festival was the most telling. There were thousands of marchers. The Shinners yet again showed a love for dressing up in old-time costumes. Many showed their utter shamelessness by dressing as blanketmen and claiming posthumous support for the current settlement, with the most extreme form of historical revisionism being a claim that the blanketmen supported gay rights!

Sinn Fein staged a show of force. Their supporters turned out. There was little in the way of political opposition. Yet around the march and Feile an Phobail was a vast space of indifference. The wheels are coming off the Provo wagon and a mass wave of austerity, endorsed and directed by Sinn Fein, is on its way.


As if the party were not discrediting themselves enough, the post-Feile period was dominated by NAMAgate, where Sinn Fein’s Stormont committee chair was found conspiring with the ultra-loyalist James Bryson to rehearse evidence to the committee investigating corruption in the sale of property to vulture capitalists. The chair immediately resigned and it was claimed that he was working alone, but as one opponent said; “Sinn Fein don’t do lone wolves, they do scapegoats.”

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