The recent article ANC and Sinn Féin: when radicals move to the right cannot go unanswered. I would not wish to comment on its assertions about the ANC, and indeed to conflate the two is both simplistic and wrong. But on the issue of Sinn Féin and the political struggle in Ireland, it is both factually incorrect and devoid of serious assessment of the struggle in Ireland.
Sinn Féin have not ‘moved to the right’, but have led a political struggle which has brought the prospect of Irish unity and self-determination a much closer reality. They have delivered a peace process and a political strategy which maps a real way forward, something that many in the left in Britain could do well to learn from.
For a start, the article only focuses on the north of Ireland. Sinn Féin are an all-Ireland party, and are in fact leading a struggle not only to unify their country, but are opposing austerity, inequality and proposing a very clear economic way forward, in a nutshell, based on investment to stimulate growth. Again, the left in Britain should take note. Sinn Féin is in a power-sharing government in the six county Assembly. The article failed to even try to understand why such power sharing arrangements are in existence. The piece simply swallows the analysis of one individual – Tommy McKearney – without looking any further into the issue.
Prior to the current political process, there existed one-party unionist rule and domination. The current power sharing arrangements are there for a reason. People were no longer willing to be forced to be second class citizens in their own country, denied representation and facing discrimination in every aspect of life. As Declan Kearney, the Sinn Féin chairperson, put it quite succinctly in his recent London speech, these arrangements are enforced because the unionists cannot be trusted to share power without them.
Sinn Féin has not ‘come to terms with partition’. Leaving aside the clear fact that Sinn Fein fights for the reunification of Ireland at every opportunity, it has in reality mapped out a way to get there. The Good Friday Agreement itself provides a way for that to actually take place, through a referendum. The political, economic and demographic dynamics all point to this being a real prospect in the not too distant future. Indeed this prospect is something the British government – and the left – needs to think about now.
And to say that Sinn Féin ’happily sign up to orthodox neoliberal economic policy prescriptions’ is a travesty and a lie. Sinn Féin advocates the strongest opposition to austerity and cuts not just of those parties in Ireland but of any party anywhere in Europe. Just take a look at their policies on the economy. In the south, Sinn Féin forms a strong opposition to the austerity Labour/Fine Gael coalition government. They put forward a clear programme calling for state-led investment as an alternative, fairer taxes, investment in infrastructure and public services and for workers rights. In the north, the story is the same. The difficulty is that Britain still has jurisdiction in the six counties, and the Tory coalition, which won not one vote in the north of Ireland, is imposing huge cuts. Currently Sinn Féin is challenging these cuts at every turn, most recently over the Welfare Reform Bill. Obviously in a united, independent Ireland, a British Tory – or any other – government would not have this unelected power.
Apparently, according to the piece, Irish political leaders are unable to experience ‘the prospect of high office’ (whatever that means –getting elected, presumably?) without having the effect of ‘sterilising many people who were once ready to put their lives on the line for the cause in which they believed’.
It fails to notice the number of Sinn Féin elected representatives who did indeed step forward and put their very lives on the line in the past, including those who stood in elections and faced assassination attempts, and who are still involved in struggle in new times for republicans.
Sinn Féin’s electoral support has grown and grown, north and south. Is the author really saying that people should not try to get elected, that to win power of any kind is always corrupting? Is opposition preferable? Does the author believe this is the case in Britain, and that there shouldn’t be a Labour government rather than a Tory government, or that left wing people should never try to win elections anywhere because of the ‘sterilising effect’? Or does that only apply to Irish people in politics. Of course, the reality is that it has been a huge advance for Ireland and for the left that Sinn Féin’s support has risen. They have achieved this because increasing numbers of people see that they have a clear and progressive way forward, including on economic issues which affect ordinary people of all communities.
Far from ‘entrenching and extending’ the sectarian state, as asserted, the Good Friday Agreement, and Sinn Féin’s leadership, has challenged this sectarian state more than anything else in the past period. It has taken a huge struggle and immense skill, in particular through the past four decades, to achieve that. It is still an ongoing process. The people Sinn Fein represent clearly do not feel ‘wiped out of the equation’, on the contrary, despite problems and obstacles put up by unionism and the British government, their vote continues to grow.
The left in Britain should do far more in solidarity with Ireland’s right to unity and self determination. It should be in an alliance with parties like Sinn Féin in support of that, and in opposition to austerity and the cuts. But unlike Ireland, Britain doesn’t have a party like Sinn Féin. More’s the pity.