Sinn Fein has always been an electorally pragmatic party, but with elections north and south of the border expected in the not too distant future, as well as the looming centenary of the Irish Civil War, could the surprise tactic for the party be to swing it to the Hard Right and rebrand it as the unassailable heroes of Patriotic Nationalism?
Of course, republican strategists will point to the party’s standing in opinion polls showing Sinn Fein to be the most popular party on both sides of the border.
If these opinion polls become election results, president Mary Lou McDonald will become Taoiseach in Leinster House and current deputy First Minister will take the First Minister’s post in the Stormont power-sharing Executive.
So republican election workers may be yelling – if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Why change ideological direction and indulge in political rebranding if the opinion polls suggest voters are happy with the current Sinn Fein make-up?
But the pollsters have got it wrong in the past. What happens if those same opinion polls are merely serving as a warning to the establishment parties on both sides of the border that voters want them to change direction and are using Sinn Fein as merely a protest?
If that’s the case, then come election day, is Sinn Fein merely being viewed as some ultra-Left protest party rather than a serious party of government which can deliver stable Irish unity?
Perhaps the real way for Sinn Fein to kill off the perception it is merely the wee puppet of the Provisional IRA’s ruling Army Council is to relaunch itself as a Right-wing populist party under the banner of either ‘Putting Ireland First’ or ‘Ireland for the Irish’?
In the current Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Fein is already in bed politically in the power-sharing Stormont Executive with what was once perceived to be one of the most hardline of the Right-wing loyalist movements, the Democratic Unionist Party.
While the DUP was clearly Hard Right on the constitution and Union, it was equally viewed as a quiet soft Left party on bread and butter issues because of its Protestant working class roots. In spite of this supposed ‘soft socialism’ of the DUP, there is no way under the late Paisley senior’s leadership – or even the current Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as party boss - it could even have been branded a Marxist movement in terms of economic policies.
Any future Assembly poll (expected next May if the Protocol storm eases before Christmas) could more than likely see the SF/DUP dominated Executive returned as Sinn Fein finally puts what remains of the socialist-leaning SDLP under boss Colum Eastwood to the electoral sword, and the DUP pulls yet another poll rabbit of its magic hat to fend off both the challenge from a supposedly resurgent Ulster Unionist Party (if the last Lisburn and Castlereagh council election is taken as a benchmark and not the European poll disaster) as well as the Alliance ‘bounce’ under Naomi Long.
In the Republic, Sinn Fein urgently needs to field more middle class candidates if it is to avoid the same pitfall as the last Dail election.
It needs enough TDs elected so that Sinn Fein will either emerge as the majority party in Leinster House, or leave Fianna Fail or Fine Gael with no other choice but to form a coalition government with Sinn Fein.
If the Dublin Dail ‘Big Two’ – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael- can form an historic coalition to keep Sinn Fein out of power, then it is conceivable that Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael, still known in some circles as ‘The Blueshirts’ because of the party’s past history in the 1930s with the fascist Blueshirt movement which stomped about Southern Ireland, could even form an FG/SF coalition government.
Some might say – why should Sinn Fein give up its hardline socialist principles simply to climb into bed politically with Fine Gael, for example, when it did not need to perform an ideological U-turn to enter Stormont with the DUP in 2007 following the St Andrews Agreement?
The core problem is not for Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, but in the Republic, where memories of the bitter Irish Civil War of the 1920s still run deep in many republican families.
Again, Sinn Fein spin doctors could box clever, play ‘the red card’ and indulge in some historical revisionism by emphasising that the 1916 Easter Rising was inspired by the openly Leftist Irish Citizens Army, and fanatical socialists, such as James Connolly, the Scottish communist who formed his own Irish Socialist Republican Party – not to be confused with the terror group the INLA’s political wing, the Irish Republican Socialist Party.
However, an historical hurdle which republican revisionists have to leap is that the failed Dublin Easter Rising came a year before the 1917 Leninist-inspired revolution in Russia. The Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizens Army were active at a time when the core foe was Right-wing imperialism, and particularly the British Empire.
The Rising was a shotgun marriage between the fundamentalist Catholicism of Patrick Pearse and Connolly’s militant socialism.
But the modern Ireland which commemorates the Rising annually is a different political animal from the Ireland which witnessed the failed coup; a coup which saw some Dublin residents spit on the rebels as they were marched into captivity by the British. It was only the uncompromising decision of General ‘Bloody’ Maxwell who insisted on having the Rising leaders executed which turned them from political upstarts and nuisances into republican icons.
If Sinn Fein is now to capitalise on future Rising commemorations, the centenary of partition and the formation of the Northern state, as well as the centenary of the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Irish Civil War, it must use them to create a new brand of Right-wing Patriotic Nationalism.
To achieve this rebranding, it must eliminate the view that modern-day Sinn Fein is a communist party under a new banner.
Likewise, while Sinn Fein’s propaganda machine has worked effectively in wiping the political landscape on one hand with the SDLP, and on the other, ensuring dissident republicanism does not become a significant electoral force in the same way as in the Unionist community, the No Camp parties against the Good Friday Agreement – especially the DUP – eventually overtook David Trimble’s Yes Camp UUP.
While the Donaldson-led DUP is still trailing Sinn Fein in the most recent Lucid Talk poll, it is still closing the gap on the republican movement in the race to become the largest Stormont party.
Sinn Fein must now convince the Southern electorate it has the political maturity – in spite of all Sinn Fein’s rantings against austerity and Brexit – that it is a party fit for government in Leinster House. The only way Sinn Fein can achieve this is for party president Mary Lou McDonald to swing her party to the Hard Right to avoid an Ian Paisley senior-style coup within her own ranks.
McDonald can hide behind the excuse of not fielding enough candidates in the last Dail showdown, but she needs to march into Leinster House after the next Dail General Election with enough TDs to at the very least, become a minority partner in a coalition government.
What Irish republicanism now as an ideology needs is a new radical Right-wing party – not Sinn Fein spinning out more left of centre rhetoric about saving the working class.
For years after the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, the Southern electorate rejected Sinn Féin because it regarded it as the Communist Party under another name. Could that perception of being too Hard Left have been the reason for the party’s poor showings in both the council and European polls in the Republic in past years?
If Sinn Féin did relaunch itself as an ultra Right-wing nationalist party under the banner – Ireland for the Irish and nobody else! – would than be enough to dispel the view it is only a protest party rather than a competent party of government?
Sinn Fein activists aligning themselves with Left-wing policies might have been ‘cool’ in 1916 in the days of Connolly and Larkin, but it has become a major millstone in the third millennium.
Irish Labour’s recovery is at a snail’s pace; the Stickies’ agenda (Workers Party) has faded into the dustbin of history, and the struggling new kids on the Left block, Peadar Toibin’s Aontu is viewed as a one-trick pro-life party.
Other leftist republican parties – such as the IRSP, Republican Sinn Fein, Saoradh and the 32 County Sovereignty Movement – will be nothing more than fringe organisations.
Former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams had talked in the past about his admiration for radical Irish Presbyterianism. Could the solution to Sinn Fein’s political migraines following the last Southern poll disaster (not running enough candidates) be to turn Sinn Féin into an Irish National Party with the slogan – Be Proud to be a Patriot.
One of Ireland’s greatest Protestant nationalist patriots was the Lisburn journalist Ernest Blythe, who became a leading light in General Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirt movement.
To stop young republicans - for whom the 1994 Provisional IRA ceasefire is merely a date in a history book - becoming Saoradh radicals, Sinn Fein should launch the Greenshirts – a radical Right-wing youth movement which instils disciplined Irish patriotic values, folklore and culture into its ranks.
The Greenshirts could help eliminate the nationalist scourges of joyriding and recreational rioting.
Mary Lou should announce that the ‘Shinners’ are amending their title to Sinn Féin, the Nationalist Patriots Party.
If you want a radical Right-wing Presbyterian to explain this much-needed new Irish Patriotism to the unfaithful, give me a shout at my Twitter account @JohnAHCoulter
As a life-long Rangers fanatic, even I might be tempted to swap my beloved Glasgow blue top to don the shamrock shirt of the Greenshirt movement. Right is might, Mary Lou!
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Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.