Latest post on Left Futures

Just how left wing is Sinn Féin?

There is a political party in the United Kingdom – and I use the geographical expression advisedly – content to serve as junior partner in a rightwing-dominated coalition committed to austerity, reductions in public spending, privatisation, the PFI and tax cuts for business. And no, I am not talking about the Liberal Democrats.

Unfortunately, such has indisputably been the evolution of Sinn Féin since it entered the Northern Ireland Executive on the day of that body’s inception in 1999, in alliance with the creationist homophobes of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Yet rather than attempt to draw up an objective assessment of the last 13 years, Sinn Féin’s cheerleaders on the British left have typically carried over the unconditional support accorded to Irish Republicanism during the period of armed struggle, and instead talk up an ostensible radicalism long abandoned in practice.

So it was that a post on this blog last week, touching on the evolution of Sinn Féin in recent decades, attracted a rapid rejoinder from Jayne Fisher of Sinn Féin’s London office, who insists that ‘Sinn Féin show a progressive, left way forward’. Would that we had a similar party in Britain, she wistfully concludes, as if that were somehow possible.

Reasoning such as Jayne’s is in line with Sinn Féin’s self-image as a socialist formation, a designation to which it officially clings despite enacting a programme in the Six Counties that its opponents on the Irish left have memorably dubbed ‘Stormont Thatcherism’.

Let me make clear from the get go that I am not attacking Sinn Féin from the standpoint of the vicarious romantic ultranationalism that some Trot sects in times past adopted by way of a point d’honneur. The Good Friday Agreement had to happen, and in so far as it led to the dismantling of what was infamously ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’, it has meant genuine progress.

But it cannot be a definitive solution to what we used to call the Irish Question. It should not be forgotten that the Good Friday Agreement leaves Unionists with a veto over Irish unification, and it entailed Sinn Féin signing on the line for de facto acceptance of both partition and the union.

In addition, it has replaced Orange supremacy with an uneasy institutionalised stand-off between the two communities, in which context the only progressive route out of the impasse is a political project with a class agenda.

That is precisely where Sinn Féin has failed the test of office; not only has it offered little beyond verbal resistance to the neoliberal programme imposed on Northern Ireland by Westminster, but it has actually incorporated free market-based notions into its own DNA, in much the same way in which nominally socialist and social democratic parties across the world have done since the Thatcher-Reagan period.

So ‘London made us do it’ is not the all-purpose Get Out of Jail Free card Sinn Féin would like it to be. Its new direction of travel has long been clear, even prior to David Cameron’s arrival in Downing Street, and it is towards the right.

For instance, Sinn Féin ministers have held the education brief ever since the NIE was established. During that time, they have gone ahead with a drastic reduction in provision for children with special educational needs, overseen a major school closure programme, and adopted PFI mechanisms to replace school buildings. The outcomes have been especially damaging in rural and disadvantaged areas.

Sinn Féin was the first party to call for the Assembly to have the power to slash corporation tax for Northern Ireland businesses. Unsurprisingly, the idea is hugely popular with the likes of newspaper billionaire Tony O’Reilly.

Sinn Féin has taken this stance despite EU stipulations that cuts to regional rates of corporate taxation must be offset by an equivalent reduction in central government funding, so that all of the money that ends up in the pockets of the rich will disappear from the block grant. Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK has estimated that this would see the loss of £300m without guaranteeing a single extra job.

Far from ‘challenging the cuts at every turn’ – as Jayne seems to believe – Sinn Féinmembers of the Social Development Committee unanimously approved plans to adopt a copy of the Coalition’s scheme to introduce workfare earlier this year.

Sinn Féin ministers have also paved the way for privatisation of water infrastructure and much of the public transport network, and supported DUP efforts to facilitate local government privatisation. These are clearly not the decisions of a progressive leftist party.

Where my first article was admittedly incomplete is failure to mention the role of Sinn Féin in the South, which underwent a very obvious shift towards the left in the 2011 general election. But even in the 26 counties, the party has not at this point adopted a coherent socialist programme, and it is not yet certain whether what we have seen represents a permanent development or merely a tactical feint. Indeed, the turn may not survive a future offer of coalition with a revamped Fianna Fáil.

Finally, in describing Sinn Féin as a neoliberal party, I do not use that term as a gratuitous insult to the grass roots activists that make up its base. I employ the word objectively, in the same way that it can correctly be used in relation to the Labour Party of which I myself am a member.

A comparable ‘to join or not to join, that is the question’ dilemma applies to democratic socialists on both sides of the Irish Sea, and I fully understand why many Irish comrades will decide to sign up to Sinn Féin. What matters now is what they seek to do inside it.

Left Futures has commissioned a piece from a Sinn Féin elected representative in the north of Ireland which will apear in the near future.

19 Comments

  1. Stephen says:

    “There is a political party in the United Kingdom – and I use the geographical expression advisedly – content to serve as junior partner in a rightwing-dominated coalition committed to austerity, reductions in public spending, privatisation, the PFI and tax cuts for business..”

    swap “junior partner in a rightwing dominated coalition” for “with a working a parliamentary majority ” and you could be talking about the SNP..

  2. Andy Newman says:

    Dave says:

    Far from ‘challenging the cuts at every turn’ – as Jayne seems to believe – Sinn Féinmembers of the Social Development Committee unanimously approved plans to adopt a copy of the Coalition’s scheme to introduce workfare earlier this year.

    Perhaps Dave doesn’t follow the news.

    Not only did SF decisively adopt a policy of opposition to Workfare at its Ard Fheis, but the news is full of practical SF opposuition to workfare:

    http://newrytimes.com/2012/10/30/need-to-protect-the-most-vulnerable-against-the-tory-welfare-reform-agenda-brady/

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-19836040

    http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/22270

    THE TORY-DRIVEN Welfare Reform Bill being imposed by the British Government in Westminster will be voted against by Sinn Féin “without significant amendment”, Alex Maskey MLA has said.

    “Sinn Féin is fundamentally opposed to the austerity policies and cuts agenda of the British Tory Government,” Alex said. “The Tory Welfare Reform Bill is unacceptable to us in its current form. We will seek to make fundamental changes to it in the Assembly. Without significant amendment we will vote against this legislation.”

    He added:

    “These cuts are bad for communities and they are bad for public services. They are targeted at the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society.

    “The electorate here rejected in overwhelming numbers the Tory agenda when it was put before them at the last election. It is clear that the British Government intend to drive ahead with their welfare cuts agenda.”

  3. Andy Newman says:

    Dave Osler says:

    Sinn Féin ministers have also paved the way for privatisation of water infrastructure

    Gerry Adams says
    http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/22974

    “In the North, Sinn Féin has prevented the introduction of water charges and the privatisation of the water services and will continue to do so.
    “Here we have proposed that investment in water services should focus on repair of the infrastructure to stop the massive waste of water leaking from pipes, instead of imposing more pressure on people already struggling in this economic crisis.”

  4. Andy Newman says:

    Dave Osler says:

    Sinn Féin ministers have also paved the way for privatisation of water infrastructure

    Sinn Féin spokesperson on environment, community and local government Brian Stanley says:
    http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/23042

    “Sinn Féin fully understands the challenge that lies ahead for the water sector. This government has used the crisis as an opportunity to promote their right-wing agenda of charging ordinary people for the use of something they already own and pay for in their taxes. Our approach is different, it is based on ensuring that water provision remains in public ownership and paid for through progressive taxation.

  5. Andy Newman says:

    Dave Osler says:

    Sinn Féin ministers have also… supported DUP efforts to facilitate local government privatisation.

    Though strangely SF’s local govt manifesto opposes privatisation of servcie,s and calls for an end to PPP.

  6. Andy Newman says:

    Dave Osler says:

    Sinn Féin ministers have also paved the way for privatisation of … much of the public transport network

    The only thing can find about this is a tendentious article from the Iriash socialist worker, which refers to the fact that SF wants public transport to remain in public ownership, but that gaps in service could be open to private sector bidding, and use the bus stops provided by the public sector.

    Some privatisation!

  7. Dave says:

    Andy, SF minister Conor Murphy presided over the transfer of large parts of the water network to the private sector, most notably the Dalriada consortium. Fact or not?

  8. Dave says:

    And Murphy’s Transport Act 2011 paves the way for the privatisation of Ulsterbus, Metro and Northern Ireland Railways. Translink will become just another transport operator, forced to tender for contracts in competition with privately owned companies.

  9. Dave says:

    Sinn Fein supported the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2010, which will give local councils the power to privatise services. Actions are more important than manifesto commitments.

  10. Dave says:

    *All* SF members of the assembly’s Social Development Committee – led by Alex Maskey – voted in favour of the Jobseekers’ Allowance (Work Experience) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2012, didn’t they Andy? Yes or no will do …

  11. andy newman says:

    What a load of nonsense Dave. I dont have good internet now so.i will reply later.

    However Northern Ireland Water is on the public sector and SF opposes its privatisation.

    You have signslly failed to demonstrate that SF deviates from the norms of left social democratic parties

  12. Petra Andrée says:

    I feel rather uncomfortable reading the comments of Andy Newman here,
    … (the remainder of this comment has been deleted for infringement of the Comments policy – Ed)

    1. Petra, you are in breach of the comments policy, which states:
      “Don’t make personal attacks on other commenters, Left Futures’ bloggers or the subjects of posts on the site. By all means challenge the things people say or do, but don’t be personal and keep it civil. Play the ball and not the player.”

  13. Mick Hall says:

    I feel Dave makes some fair points, especially about the nature of the Stormont administration which is a sectarian stitch up. Myself I feel SF would have been far better to have been an active opposition, but then I am not a politician, and clearly they are aiming at the big picture having moved their centre of gravity south.

    If they are going to bring about the end of partition they need power in the 26 counties, and everything they do in the north today reflect that aim.

    I feel especially in his first article, Dave misunderstands the nature of organizations like the ANC and SF, they are broad coalitions not socialist or even social democratic parties as we understand them.

    The Provisional Movement have always had space for republicans from both left and right, as long as they stuck to the party line. Its main problem today is its centralised methodology, democratic centralism is the only way to describe it. Conferences can pass the most progressive policies but if the leadership believes it will not gain legs and advance the cause, they will bury it and if necessary bury politically those who insist on running with it.

    It is a very disciplined organization, which is hardly surprising given its history. There is much to admire about it, not least the way working class people have been brought through its ranks gradually.

    It is the only party within Ireland and the UK which can truly say it is a party of the working class, not least because the overwhelming majority of its membership comes from that class.

    No other political party which I know of has that honor.

  14. Andy Newman says:

    Ok, let us return to this.
    The problem with Dave Osler’s approach is that it smacks of the attitude that regards any engagement with the compromises necessary for real life politics as betrayal. One of the biggest obstacles for the left in the Labour Party is the perception that we are not interested in exercising government power, and are more interested in a set of abstract principles.

    It is revealing that Osler describes the Labour Party as “neo-liberal”. Really?

    Even in the Blair era, there was an enormous intervention into developing education and health services by the state, outwith the mechanism of market forces, that was a decisive break from the real neo-liberalism of the Thatcher era. So even the Blairites cannot be described as unambiguous neo-liberals. But the nature of the party is much more complicated than this.

    Dave’s mistake is to have a very naïve view of the social function of political parties. Parties are a complex amalgam not only of the members, but of the social constituencies that they represent, the aspirations of their voters, the associated ideology and iconography, the institutional interests that align with them, and the coalition partners prepared to work with them.

    In the case of the Labour Party, even the most resolute “modernizers” in the Blairite sense, were unable to reconfigure the basic social democratic aspirations of the voters; though the 5 million lost votes since 1997 are perhaps illustrative of a loss of faith in the party from voters, many of whom still consider themselves as basically Labour.

    Parties as social movements have a complex interaction between their function as parties of opinion, and parties of government. The case of the Iraq war for example saw a Labour government wage the war, but the single largest group of MPs opposed to the war were Labour MPs. Similarly, it has been affiliated trade unions and individual Labour Party members who have opposed PFI and PPP, even while Labour governments have implemented them.

    Currently there are Labour councils around Britain implementing spending cuts forced upon them by funding constraints imposed by a government, even though they would prefer not to be making cuts, and were there a Labour government, then those councils would have other options.

    In the context of Northern Ireland, SF are in coalition in highly unusual circumstances of an enforced partnership with the DUP as part of a conflict resolution process, and where the devolved government has no fiscal autonomy. SF are therefore in a position as junior partner seeking to articulate the best negotiation position with the British govt in creative tension with the DUP, and will not always get what they want. Certain compromises are forced upon SF due to the reality of government responsibility, and the limits of the political possibilities; while at the same time SF continues t articulate their own distinct opposition positions. As we see with their recent opposition to workfare, both campaigning in civil society, and seeking to pressurize DUP into taking a tougher stance against Westminster.

    Dave Osler’s contention is that SF has embraced neo-liberalism” into its DNA. However the evidence is that SF continues to oppose neo-liberalism ideologically, and as campaigning stances, and where possible within the constraints of their coalition obligations it opposes it in government.

    More ridiculously still, Osler accuses SF of not having a “coherent socialist programme” in the 26 counties. WTF is a coherent socialist programme in the modern era of globalization and supra-national bodies like the EU, WTO, etc?

    What SF does offer is an approach to republicanism that emphasizes the state’s obligation to its citizens, providing prosperity, equality and economic security, and that social justice is a patriotic duty; and it combines that in the 26 counties with a coherent alternative economic policy that would provide growth and jobs.

    Osler alleges that SF has accepted the border, when actually operating as a 32 county party they have a strategy of harmonizing the laws and tax regimes of the two states on the island, and reassuring people of all traditions that there will be mutual respect in any future united Ireland. That is a strategy for unification, not accepting division.

  15. Andy Newman says:

    I feel especially in his first article, Dave misunderstands the nature of organizations like the ANC and SF, they are broad coalitions not socialist or even social democratic parties as we understand them.

    What is more, in the case of the ANC , they are a party in government seeking to acheive economic development in a relatively poor country, and overcome structural legacies from the Apartheid era.

    It is revealing that the majority of unions in COSATU still support ANC, and want to see an ANC government.

  16. john P reid says:

    I think Sinn Fein can Be left wing , afterall It’s possible for A fascist to be left wing and their anti democracy ,supporting Murderous ways are anti democratic.

  17. Gary says:

    SF in my view are far from socialist in my view. Left leaning…possibly, but I believe even that could be considered in the hunt for new votes. The best evidence to support my view comes from the privatisation of Greenvale leisure centre in Magherafelt. This is an area where SF have a large majority of the council. The totally refurbished centre was handed to the private sector. Sickening. http://www.midulstermail.co.uk/news/local/public-service-union-condemns-greenvale-privatisation-1-3793584

© 2021 Left Futures | Powered by WordPress | theme originated from PrimePress by Ravi Varma