From Euphoria to Despair

Sometimes a piece gets written and for whatever reason fails to appear on The Blanket. On occasion they are printed elsewhere but more frequently they just settle at the bottom of the ‘for later’ folder and then slip off the radar. The following piece was penned last year and fortunately did appear in the radical journal Fourthwrite. Now is an appropriate time to let it do another lap of the course. The issue it flags up – Sinn Fein’s incessant lurch to the right of the political spectrum – was evidenced once again in Stormont when the party voted for a programme described by one BBC presenter as much further to the right than even Margaret Thatcher would venture. It was left to the SDLP to strike a worthy note of discord by opposing the programme.

From Euphoria to Despair

“We now have an electoral contest and the people in their very great wisdom will cast their votes and they will decide the composition and the balance of forces in the next Dáil.” – Mary Lou McDonald

In the months that have passed since the Republic’s general election the dust thrown up by the frenzy of the contest has now settled on the political landscape there. Without the mist of hype and spin, and as the political class beds down for the next lot of years, the contours shaping the governmental sphere come into sharp focus.

Those with the biggest wounds to lick are Sinn Fein and the Progressive Democrats. The latter were at least anticipating the worst and went prepared for meltdown. Despite senior northern Sinn Fein official Declan Kearney’s post-poll reflection that it was never going to be his party’s day its leadership - replete with all the arrogance and wrong-headedness of Hitler thinking he could conquer the USSR - stepped into an electoral winter wearing summer attire. Led by a cultish figure convinced that his persona would compensate for his lack of knowledge regarding the territory he sought to vanquish, the party found the natives impervious to northern nonsense.

As Sinn Fein predicted, the party was indeed the ‘big story’ of the election, but only because of its abysmal performance. ‘We are not going to go into this blind. We'll be ready for negotiations on the morning after the results are known’ a senior Sinn Fein official said. The problem is that there was nobody to negotiate with. No one was interested in courting the fringe party.

If Sinn Fein did not go into the election blind as it claimed it seems to have come out of it blinkers firmly in place. Party explanations since the calamity emit the sound of desperation whistling while it shuffles past the graveyard. The party can pretend to take solace in the rise in its overall vote. Conspicuously it fails to mention that it ran in 11 more constituencies in order to make the rather inconsequential rise possible.

In spite of the glaring need for accountability no Sinn Fein leader has shown the slightest appetite for stepping up to the blame plate in order to take the large portion each of them, with varying degrees of culpability, duly deserve. The one redeeming factor has been that no suitable Friedrich Paulus has yet been found upon whose shoulders the blame can be exclusively laid as a foil against the leadership being forced to take its oil for the dismal display.

Seemingly the party is intent on glossing over the defeat rather than seriously analysing it. In the long running discussion that took place in the pages of An Phoblacht/Republican News no one apart from Eoin O Broin attempted a serious analysis. Others continued to play Queen’s We are the Champions rather than the more appropriate Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere.

Joanne Spain’s proffering that the televised performances by Gerry Adams were not absolutely brilliant beggar belief. Why the reluctance to state that the performances were absolutely incompetent? It seems that dropping the Adams brand marketing strategy, arguably a producer of diminishing returns, is not up for consideration. No concession there to the more apt journalistic description of Adams as ‘a vacant lot on the political landscape of the Republic.’

Yet unless the Adams Northern bull is taken by the horns Sinn Fein cannot realistically expect to shed its fringe status in Southern politics. Making sure that Adams was more important than the candidates proved to be an electoral game plan bereft of strategic wisdom. The election campaign was more about promoting the leader than the policies.

This fixation with a personality cult can only continue to damage Sinn Fein in the Twenty Six Counties. Can ‘healthy’ be an apt description for any party that is lumped with the same leader for a quarter of a century? Is Sinn Fein really so short of potential that it can only find one person to lead it over such a prolonged period?

Personality politics cannot hope to alleviate the serious structural weakness that afflicts the Sinn Fein base in the Republic. In the North canvassers from the South don’t feature on the Northern doorstep. In the South legions of workers from West and North Belfast were bussed in to make up the deficit. In the Republic Sinn Feinism has a feel of the imported rather than the indigenous to it. Ultimately, success in the Republic will be home grown. Under the dictatorial Adams this will never be allowed to happen.

The Workers Party, which Sinn Fein now resembles more closely than it does its one time self, was in its day more successful than the current Belfast-led party. But whenever it took a hit it wheeled out the working class. Following in its time honoured practice of emulating the Workers Party an editorial in AP/RN tried the same thing. It rang false. With an estimated 46% drop in the party’s Dublin vote, the working class, it seems, is not as gullible as its Northern counterpart. It sees through the waffle.

Community workers in Dublin point to say Sinn Féin having lost some of its appeal in working-class communities. ‘The party is not as active in these areas as people would believe,’ one former Sinn Féin activist is reported to have said.
They are no longer associated with the anti-drugs movement, or even most community groups. Gerry Adams rambles on about the scourge of heroin in the city but on the ground the Shinners are doing nothing about it … They do a lot of talking but nobody believes a word they say round here. Local community groups see Sinn Féin in the same light as the other parties. They show up when they want something.

With this type of sentiment in mind Eoin OBroin called for a return to community-based campaigning and radical republican politics. Of course he was attacked by those eager to mask the move away from such politics.

This type of discourse which prioritises the working class has led to suggestions that a current debate within Sinn Fein centres on whether or not the party is a left wing outfit. If there is a debate it is to be welcomed in a body whose leaders treat unapproved ideas as a contagious disease. The assertion that Sinn Fein is part of the Left in Irish politics, however, is only partly true. A more accurate observation would be that part of Sinn Fein is part of the left in Irish politics. The part that is not belongs to the rightist northern leadership and its acolytes. There is a strong left wing culture in the party in the Republic which has not yet been destroyed by the leadership a la republicanism in the North. Its future is guaranteed only to the extent that it is able to shake off the shackles of the Northern leadership. Eoghan Harris sensing that Sinn Fein in the North is fully embracing the establishment advises the northern lot to ditch their southern colleagues. Sinn Fein in the south should move first and ditch the albatross up north whose record of preserving radical republicanism has hardy been less than catastrophic.

Ditching its leftwing policies Sinn Fein, as it chases the vote, gives little that would mark it out as radically different from other parties. It certainly waxes the most progressive on health policy but how long before that too is abandoned if the southern end of the organisation is unable to thwart the ambitions of its increasingly right wing northern leadership? The same leadership, remember, led the assault on the health service in the North through the introduction of PFI. It has also somehow managed to switch allegiance from Pearse to Paisley, in the process making the right wing sectarian bigot Western Europe’s only theocratic prime minister.

Sinn Fein’s ability to maintain a left façade in the Republic will face a serious impediment with the Greens rather than Labour having become part of a Fianna Fail led coalition government. With Labour still in opposition the Rabbitte body will acquisition the mantle of the Left under a leader with some knowledge of Southern politics. Sinn Fein’s leftist posturing will take the form of screaming at Mary Harney. It will be a poor substitute for hegemonising a left alternative.

This can only lead to increased tension with party members in the Republic seeking to remould Sinn Fein as a radical party, distinct from what it currently is, one prepared to talk left but strangle every leftist impulse in order to tart itself up as a well behaved spouse for Fianna Fail. Failing that Sinn Fein is likely to continue haemorrhaging as its left flows to groups like Eirigi. Either way a scenario in which Sinn Fein becomes a serious force in the politics of the Republic is as fanciful as a united Ireland in 2016.

Pubished in Fourthwrite, Summer/Autumn 2007


  1. good article. and i agree with much it.

    what advice would you give to those northern cumann members concerned with the issues you raise here? should they stay and try to move the party from witin, despite the presentation of shifts in positions of party, by the northern leadership, as almost some latent miltiary necessity?

    would those disillusioned members be safer leaving the party and employing their energy in other more radical groups?

  2. Harry, what possible reason would a radical have for remaining within Sinn Fein? There are fewer radicals now than there were. When there were more they failed lamentably to halt the slide. They are less likely to halt it with fewer of them about. Their continued membership of the party will do nothing to radicalise Sinn Fein. The party will deradicalise them. There may well be nothing that they can do when they do leave the party but that is a better position than to be complicit in the project the Sinn Fein leadership has manufactured. The radical groups outside SF are probably afflicted by the authoritarian malaise that helped suffocate republicanism within SF. What chance anything could be carved from such rotten wood?