The departure of Gerry Adams was set to herald a new era for Sinn Féin. But after a spate of disappointing elections, questions are being asked about the direction of the party under Mary Lou’s leadership. What is behind this sudden decline? Tommy McKearney—author of the The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament—gives his take.
Over the course of a brief eight-month period between October 2018 and May 2019, Sinn Féin’s long-term strategy was dealt a series of devastating blows at the polls. While most of the visible damage was confined to the party’s electoral machine in the Republic of Ireland, these reversals impacted on its calculations and prospects across the board.
Following the death of Martin McGuiness and Gerry Adams stepping down as president, the party was seemingly in a position to put distance between itself and the past. And with its two newly appointed female leaders, Sinn Féin believed itself capable of winning over the middle ground. Yet incredibly, an organisation that seemed to be almost unstoppable a short three years earlier is now at risk of at best stalling, or possibly worse.
The extent of the setback in the 26-Counties is difficult to ignore. In late 2018 presidential candidate Liadh Ní Riada received less than 40% of the total vote gained by Martin McGuinness seven years previously and worse was to follow. In May of this year, two of its three MEPs were defeated while at the same time; half of the party’s councillors in the 26-Counties lost their seats.
Early comments from Sinn Féin spokespersons in the South indicate that they were offering several bland explanations for the disappointing results. They pointed to the low turnout in working-class constituencies and seemed surprised and even peeved by this. Other members argued that the anger arising from post-bailout austerity measures has largely dissipated and thus opened a space for the Green Party, which had, almost fortuitously, captured the Extinction Rebellion zeitgeist. Then there was a school of thought suggesting that Dáil spokespersons had maybe been too strident when questioning and or criticising government ministers.
Significantly though, no serious question was raised, in public at any rate, about the party leadership, its policies or its programme.
Results in the North
While Sinn Féin was losing heavily in the Republic, it seemed to be at least holding its position in the North. However, from the party’s point of view there was worrying slippage. Although topping the poll at the European election, Martina Anderson lost almost 33,000 first preference votes since her victory in 2014. Moreover, the seat itself will almost certainly disappear post Brexit.
At local government level, the party emerged with the same number of councillors overall. Nevertheless, this disguises the fact that some local representatives lost out in traditionally republican areas of Belfast, Derry-Strabane, Mid-Ulster and Fermanagh-Omagh. For the leadership there is now a nagging doubt that even in the North its position is no longer quite as unassailable as it once appeared.
Clearly, Northern Irish politics follow a distinctly different pattern than do those south of the border. In spite of an Alliance Party surge with its questionable claim that old identities are becoming increasingly redundant, the constitutional issue continues to have an enormous impact in the Six Counties resulting in a degree of political stasis that often discourages rapid change.
A Return to Stormont?
While still by far the largest non-unionist party in the North, Sinn Féin is nevertheless faced with agonising choices. The Stormont Assembly has been suspended since early 2017 and restoring it not only poses problems for the party but also leaves it in a damned if they do and damned if they don’t scenario.
Without a functioning Assembly, the party risks falling into the type of twilight zone that drained vibrancy out of the SDLP in the 1980s. Technically Sinn Féin MLAs, while still public representatives, would find themselves shorn of meaningful power. Consequently, people would search for and find other statutory or non-governmental outlets to address their needs. Damaging too if the British government cuts payment to MLAs leading to office closures and staff redundancies.
Yet, returning to an operational Assembly will not be straightforward either. From the outset there is a question about the institution’s lack of fiscal authority to resist harsh Tory cuts to the welfare safety net with the inevitable criticism for implementing these measures. Moreover, unless the DUP suffers an entirely unlikely meltdown, the deHont system ensures that Sinn Féin will face the choice of partnership with Arlene Foster (or her successor) or remaining out of office. The DUP maintains its power base by being aggressively hard line unionist and as a result tends frequently to alienate even the most easy going of republicans. Add to this the seemingly unending stream of scandals linked to the DUP which, when taken together, make it difficult to return to the uncritical halcyon days of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’.
So what does this mean for Sinn Féin in particular and equally important, for the left in general? Several questions cry out for answers. How or why did such losses in the Republic happen? What will or indeed can the party do to improve its position? Is this a temporary setback or is it a turning point signalling the beginning of a long decline and if so, how will this impact on the left?
There are a number of issues to be considered when examining this situation. On the wider canvass though, Sinn Féin has paid the price for its blatant and unprincipled eclecticism on one hand while holding a facile conviction that playing the Clinton/Blairite politics of triangulation would prove successful on the other hand.
In a relatively short period the party has done a series of U-turns. It has reversed its long held position of outright opposition to EU membership and crafted a too-clever-by-half position of now being ‘EU critical’. For a section of the republican core, there was also the vexed issue of meetings with the British Royal family and ambivalence about wearing the British Legion Poppy.
Most damaging to its reputation in the Republic was changing its position on coalition government. Once it had been adamant in its refusal even to contemplate coalition. This was then diluted to accepting it but only if Sinn Féin were the lead participant until last year it rolled over completely and stated its willingness to enter government as a junior partner with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. As a trade union leader said, ‘… it used to be vote Labour, get Fine Gael now it seems to be vote Sinn Féin, get Fine Gael’. Or as the old Wobbly song used to ask, ‘Which side are you on?’
For a party that had at one time appeared to be rigidly inflexible, it now seems capable of performing astonishing somersaults. Disenchanted Belfast republicans illustrated this well in May when they published two photographs. One showed the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor shaking hands with Prince Charles while simultaneously party members, including an MLA, were protesting the royal visit with a banner of Britain’s crown prince dressed in the uniform of a British paratrooper.
Roots Within the Establishment—North & South
Herein lies the essence of the problem for Sinn Féin strategists. Over the past three decades the organisation has consciously moved towards the political centre ground or conventional mainstream with a determined plan to capture the parliamentary commanding heights in Dublin and Belfast. A leading member of the party outlined their thinking to a Belfast journalist two decades ago as one of where they envisage having Sinn Féin holding office on both sides of the border at the same time. The understanding was that an all Ireland republic would thereafter evolve organically. To some this may appear fanciful but in the absence of a defined alternative strategy it seems to encompass the totality of their thinking.
At the heart of Sinn Féin’s dilemma is the old problem faced by social democracy everywhere. How to get elected on a programme that satisfies a working class electorate while simultaneously reassuring the middle-class and the oligarchs that their wealth and privilege is secure? This predicament is particularly pronounced when, as at present, neo-liberalism is in the ascendant.
Running parallel with its cautious policy programme is the concomitant issue of tepid and over-managed involvement at street level. In order to be seen as ‘fit for government’ in the eyes of the middle ground, Sinn Féin for example advised against non-payment of household charges and argued for the same stance with water charges. On occasion there was even mention of the need to observe the law of the land.
For a party that for so long outraged and disturbed the Establishment by its very existence, it had somehow contrived to lose that label and with it the confidence of many working class communities. The party appears to have missed the point that it is the Establishment that oppresses less well off working people and that is why they were willing to support those who are prepared to challenge the status quo. To do so requires more than an exclusive focus on electoralism, or parliamentary cretinism if you will.
If a progressive policy is to become a reality, it is necessary to alter the balance of economic forces on the ground. The best example of this in practice recently was Right2Water. That movement and campaign changed the dynamic in southern Irish politics and undermined the old two-and-a-half party arrangement however temporarily.
In fairness to Sinn Féin the party has introduced and supported progressive legislation in the Dáil. It did so in relation to zero hour contracts and making employers pay tips to workers. It has also spoken out against Vulture funds, rack-renting landlords and union busting multi-national corporations. Although such actions are important and beneficial, there is no substitute for the type of disciplined and coordinated mass action mentioned above. Mass action not only gives confidence to working people but it allows them to directly influence how they are governed. This empowers the grass roots while simultaneously undermining the clientelism of social democracy with its, ‘give me your vote and leave me to take care of you’ pitch.
The question then arises whether Sinn Féin can or will change its direction. While there are left-wing thinkers and activists in the party, it is doubtful if they can exert sufficient influence to recalibrate what has become embedded theory and practice over the past two or three decades. To change in a radical left direction would require a root and branch restructuring of the party’s position on: global imperialism, neo-liberalism vis-à-vis the EU and the Euro, its attitude towards private (as distinct from personal) property, clarity about wealth and income distribution and an honest self-critical critique of parliamentary cretinism. Simply put—it just won’t happen.
Will the party melt away? Not in the short term at any rate. Sinn Féin has a large and experienced base north and south. It has shown remarkable resilience in the past. It has recovered Westminster seats lost in West Belfast, Mid-Ulster and Fermanagh South Tyrone and in 2011 made a spectacular recovery in the Republic following a crushing blow at the 2007 general election. Nevertheless, while the party will not disappear or slip into irrelevance like the Workers Party, the question is where it will find itself if it cannot assume power on its own terms. The spongy centre ground is already well occupied and as pointed out above, the prospect of it moving towards revolutionary socialism is unlikely at best.
The only other option may be to focus on ending partition. This would have a certain attraction for Sinn Féin in that it offers the party an opportunity to bring its membership across the island together around an issue they can all agree on. Nor should such an initiative be automatically dismissed or disparaged. Breaking from the United Kingdom is a necessary step along the way towards ending the institutionalised sectarianism that plagues Northern Ireland. It is also a crucial step on the road towards a workers republic.
However, and this is where the left should really consider its response to the Sinn Féin situation. It is pointless criticising the party for not being revolutionary socialist because in spite of occasionally using the iconography, economically the organisation is solidly centrist. Therefore, where and when that movement acts progressively on the national question, let’s endeavour to ensure that the key social and economic element is not sidelined.
Looked at from this perspective, Sinn Féin’s discomfiture may be a blessing in disguise. It would, as the old saying goes, be a pity to waste a good crisis.
 On just one day … 28/06/19 … the Belfast Telegraph carried three reports of questionable practice by DUP members of parliament. 1) https://bit.ly/2RzUCnw 2)https://bit.ly/2Nkf7X6 3) https://bit.ly/2FH1n2q
Tommy McKearney is a left wing activist and author of