In the last few years (especially in recent elections), Sinn Féin (SF) have seen an enormous comparative growth in their political party and grassroots support, almost doubling their vote in some areas. As a result of this, it is worth examining what they offer to working people. They claim that their main aim is a 32 county ‘democratic socialist republic’. This aim, along with SF’s practices, will be examined in the following piece.
Studies show that age has a strong impact on party choice, with Sinn Féin appearing more radical and having more support among the young than does the SDLP. Their history of militant republicanism is attractive to strands of angry young men and women and the ‘graduates without a future’, who feel disenfranchised by the current system. This is what distinguishes SF from other social democratic parties in Europe and draws in a section of young people who would most likely be trade-union/socialist activists-while at the same time holding only moderate positions on the economy.
The emotional appeal of SF is strong. All the sacrifices, suffering and struggle of the past, in the name of freedom, inflames nationalist sentiment. Histories’ powerful influence cannot be understated. However it can be easy to associate SF’s past with a radically progressive future and real freedom. The consequence of this attraction is that the most radicalised layer of the working class Catholic youth in the north and generally working class people south of the border are being lost to republican nationalism.
To some degree their economic policies are seductive to the working class. They claim that they will abolish the water tax and household tax and put a stop to cuts on welfare. They appear to offer an easy escape route from economic hardship. However, on examination, their policies are contradictory at best. They simply cannot fulfil their promise of a socialist republic. All of these aspects of SF’s policies will be examined in this piece.
It must be remembered that it is not too long ago that SF politician Gearoid O’Hara stated that SF ‘’... have no problem with capitalism’’ .
To believe in their ‘democratic socialist’ rhetoric would be a mistake. Many within Sinn Féin genuinely believe in this ideal, however Socialism must be created by the masses and cannot be brought about by decrees from above.
Although anarchists are in favour of reforms, they are against reformism as a dead-end tactic and it is yet to be seen whether any of these proposals will be implemented. The list of forgotten party manifestos’ is endless. It will be illustrated that Sinn Féin are a business party. They look out for the interests of the business community north and south of the border, while using populist rhetoric to gain a significant foothold in elections south of the border.
The apparent past success of reformist parties in setting up the welfare state and other measures has encouraged some to reassert the ability of social democratic parties to take the state and improve working class conditions. This ignores the very reason why these systems were set up in the first place; to stymie the threat of revolution. As one Tory politician said in 1943, “we must give them reform or they will give us revolution.”
It is worth quoting Solidarity Federations ‘fighting for ourselves’ in length to illustrate this point:
From its very beginnings the political representation of the working class has never served the working class. It cannot. As even Lenin recognised, the state serves capitalism and cannot be made to serve the interests of the proletariat. This does not only apply to the Labour Party, but all political parties. Consider the German Green Party, who once in government sent riot police against protesters trying to stop nuclear waste being transported through their communities – precisely the kind of green activism they had once supported. In 2001 they supported the invasion of Afghanistan as part of a coalition government. In Ireland too, the Green Party went from vocal supporters of the ‘Shell to Sea’ movement against the Corrib gas project to actually implementing it. Green minister Eamon Ryan was put in charge of the project, the Greens having dropped their election promises in order to enter a coalition government.
SF’s primary aim is to gain a majority percentage of the vote and reform the system until it is unrecognisable. They are going to ‘chip away’ at capitalism until it can finally it will abolished by an act of government-at least this is what many grassroots activists believe and hope for. Ignoring their lack of an international perspective, this is a fallacy common among the left wing of social reformists and completely unrealistic. From the rollback of the NHS in England to the famous Nordic models, the reformist approach has proven itself to be bankrupt again and again. As soon as the threat of trouble or revolution abates, the elites begin to dismantle the welfare system.
Another facet in the rise of social democracies are the trade unions. The Swedish model, which is often lauded by social democrats due to its apparent success, was actually created primarily by the labour movement and its demands-not political parties-which only came afterwards to legislate on the demands. Firstly, we must study how and why this model came about. It clear that the primary reason for the advent of the Swedish model’ was not the action of political parties but instead that of trade unions. Sweden is the most thoroughly unionized of the advanced capitalist countries - union members account for roughly 85% of the labour force. In no other country can it be as reasonably claimed that organized labour has been so influential and militant. This is the primary reason for the previous high level of services available to the general populace of Sweden. It was the labour movement which pushed through laws to protect workers and extend social services-not the parties- which only acted as legislators in the aftermath of trade union action. Party leaders at the time of the 68-76 reforms did not subscribe to its ambitions. The Swedish model is a perfect example of where labour militancy extended the rights of workers (although they failed to go as far as they wished), not an example of successful political social democracy in action.
In fact, the social democratic parties proved to be dampeners on the momentum and militancy of the trade unions by promising far reaching reforms and failing to carry them out - thereby channelling some of the energy of the movement and dissipating it through electioneering. In general there is also a correlation between increased unionisation, trade union militancy and a rising in living standards of working people. If Sweden is taken as instructive, then SF activists genuinely wishing to see social reform would be better served getting involved in trade unions. They should push for democratisation and an increase in militancy in order to achieve both their short term goals and primary long-term goal of a democratic socialist republic, which can only be achieved through revolution.
In Sweden over the 15 years prior to the crisis in 2008, public spending fell by more than 20 percentage points of GDP. The governments have privatised the railways, airports, air-traffic control, motorways, postal services, fire departments, water systems, and schools to some degree or another. Carl Bildt’s Cabinet made it possible to privatise health care at the county level . For those who argue that privatisation is more ‘efficient’, the main conclusion is that no general link has been found between efficiency and the type of ownership” . However, it has been often observed that the state runs down services in order to prepare them for privatisation. As anarchists, we should always advocate for direct worker control over production. Privatisation results in working people paying twice for their services, once through taxation and again in the private sector. In practice, privatisation means a huge transfer of wealth from the working class to already rich elites and kills any potential democratic influence over these services.
A similar process has been seen in Australia under the leadership of Tony Abbott. On his first day as Prime Minister, Abbott introduced legislation into Parliament to repeal the Carbon Tax. Overall, his leadership has been one of sweeping cutbacks. A Galaxy Poll for News Ltd. papers published on Sunday showed 75% of voters thought the budget left them worse off. Billions of cuts have been made to schools and hospitals.
The budget ends federal contributions to a range of pensioner concession schemes. Abbott said: “We made the decision in a very tough budget that if the states wanted to continue those concessions they could do it themselves.”
The working class can create a minimum of gains by frightening the ruling class into reforms for a time. However, these gains are an ideological threat to neoliberal elites. As with the Greater London Council of the eighties, these gains will be eventually rolled back, unless these services are defended through grassroots organising .
A more ominous aspect of Sf’s reformist policy is it’s channelling of justified anger into manageable electoral directions. This is likely not a conscious effort on the part of SF to destroy these movements (it is an attempt to control them), simply a result of playing the electoral game. Workers are disempowered and misled by the calls for elections and see it as their only means of change. This is despite the fact that little can be done through elections.
To quote Kevin Doyle’s Parliament or Democracy:
Parliament is a means of diffusing democracy, of channelling real struggles into a safe dead-end. Time and time again it has become a graveyard for the workers’ movement.
Any movement supported by SF or by others on the left as a means of gaining support for their electoral aims will follow this very same trajectory. A recent example of the CHAWT campaign (although not by SF) demonstrates the point. The campaign was split and demoralised, leaving it impotent and unable to mount further challenges such as the water tax campaign. The only hope to stop the implementation of water meters is for groups federating outwards and local residents to organise on a democratic model locally, regionally and nationally. There is even the possible option of linking up with other anti-austerity projects abroad to best confront austerity on a Europe-wide scale.
Another aspect of SF’s ‘democratic socialism’ is their complete failure to understand or integrate some basic tenets of socialism into their program. Socialism is not about nationalisation or public ownership of industry (de Valera did this-was he a socialist?). One of the core values of socialism right back to its inception is workers control at the point of production. This is where you begin. From there, you work outwards, dismantling and rebuilding (under collective community control) institutions which will serve the community as a whole. Illusions spread by SF about their ‘democratic socialist’ project only serves to spread fallacies within the working class about socialism. It is inhibiting the development of a real autonomous working class movement that can challenge the state and the capitalist elites.
"Party politics aims at capturing the state, but when you capture the state, the state also captures you".
To build a new kind of society, grassroots activism is essential for any movement. Here again, SF falls short. They place little emphasis on activism, except where it can boost their electoral gains outside the electoral arena (on an individual basis) and none on direct action against austerity. Even SF’s own self stated goals of ‘a new republic’ and an ‘Ireland of equals’ cannot be achieved without serious grassroots organising. This goal would take the mobilisation of thousands of activists across the country. Their complete failure to do so in the face of the water tax shows just how serious they are about their ‘democratic revolution’. Simply put, if SF wanted to stop the water charges now, they could have. Given their resources, it would have been within their ability.
Sinn Féin also refused to call out their activists to build an anti-household charge campaign, nor would they advocate non-payment of the tax. This stems from a desire to appear respectable and not alienate small to medium business owners or the upper classes (who SF wishes to attract) by being too militant. It also derives from some practical considerations within SF, the party will likely soon be in government- if they wish to govern the country, they cannot be telling the people who they will soon be ruling to break the law through civil disobedience. The desire to attract the upper classes to SF’s nationalist project further stunts any chance of change in government.
It can only serve to stymie the building of a real working class culture and movement in Ireland. Although the party and its individual members have been involved in campaigns such as FEE, there has been little concerted effort to build these campaigns as effective forces. The vast majority of its resources are poured into electoral politics- as expected. Only a mass movement of active working class people can successfully defeat austerity.
Their lack of emphasis on direct action, which builds confidence and militancy within the working class, further disempowers people interested in far reaching societal change. The electoral route sows illusion within the working class and teaches people to be passive and apathetic about decisions which affect their lives.
The primary aim of all socialists should be to build a mass democratic grassroots movement whose successes will embolden the workers to demand more. In the face of civil disobedience and the fear that the working class may eventually demand more than they can accommodate, elites will give in. The aims of the workers will be most likely to progress to that of full workers control of the economy after continuous struggle emboldens them. Without this, a ‘workers republic’ can never be achieved.
Sinn Féin is a nationalist party. Nationalism as an ideological tool is a smoke screen to gloss over tensions that exist within society. These tensions take the form of antagonistic class relations-that is a society composed of classes that are radically opposed to each other in their short- and long-term interests. The workers interest lies in extending their control over their workplace and increasing their wages in the short term and in the long term abolishing the capitalist system altogether-the bosses and owners of the means of production have a strong interest in maintaining strict control over their workforce and driving wages as low as possible to maximise profits. The state mediates between these two classes to ensure the long term stability of the capitalist system.
Nationalism and republicanism in Ireland have become so intertwined that they are indistinguishable from each other. Fundamentally, nationalism obscures a real analysis of society as it proposes that these two antagonistic classes have common and similar short-/long-term interests. Its primary aim is to maintain harmony within a divided society. Until nationalism is completely abandoned, no gains will be made by working people who should know no arbitrary borders when it comes to solidarity. This of course does not mean that national liberation struggles are not worthwhile-imperialism can never have a beneficial role in developing a community-however the form that these struggles take is important. Many anti-imperialist struggles around the world were based on the principles of solidarity between peoples and with the aim of creating a democratic socialist society. From the Ukraine to China and Korea these struggles were radically successful in overturning imperialism however they did fail to establish lasting socialism. Sinn Féin defends and perpetuates the nationalist legacy in Ireland. A regressive and reactionary legacy. This legacy harks back to a mythical Ireland which only vaguely (if ever) existed and is certainly now gone. So long as nationalism is used to divide working peoples across the globe and to cover over class tensions at home, no socialist society will be created.
Northern Ireland and Sectarianism
So let me be very clear Sinn Féin is not anti-business. We are pro-business. Sinn Féin wants to see businesses thrive. We want to see investment in areas like West Belfast - Gerry Adams
SF has pursued a neoliberal policy north of the border, implementing and signing off on cuts against public services with only a minimum of complaint. Other options were available to SF and the republican movement; accepting the assembly and the neo-liberal order was a choice. A peace settlement could have been negotiated without taking power.
The ideals of republicanism have a natural inheritor- that is socialism. The question must be asked though, ‘what kind of socialism?’
Will it be a statist, authoritarian approach, focusing on state ownership of industry and the financial sector? Or will it be based on radical democracy and the communal/societal ownership of industry which would effectively stymie any degeneration into dictatorship.
Democracy v The State
The PKK in Turkey and Syria has abandoned its aim of building a centralized nation state- recognising that real democracy and genuine freedom are incompatible with the centralized state. The Kurdish movement now has set its aim on ‘democratic confederalism’. It is an inclusive project involving all religions and peoples in the region. The goal is to be the development of a "democratic, ecological, gender liberated society" in the shell of the existing society through a system of neighbourhood councils, participatory communities and mass assemblies which would be really making the decisions. All this as part of an overall body called the Democratic Society Congress bringing together political parties, councils and civil society. This option is still available to genuine republicans in the north and border counties who believe in their ideals. The first step on this path is to start local campaigns against austerity and forge links with campaigns south of the border. These campaigns would have to be inclusive and appeal to all sections of the community by placing mutual economic interests above old divisions.
To be in anyway successful in creating far reaching change and individual freedom, these community campaigns must aim to engage and empower as many participants as is possible, bringing ordinary people into the struggle and decision making process of the campaign. This will empower individuals and give them confidence in their collective power. The next stage of development will ideally be local mass assemblies or community syndicates, which will be directly democratic, based on administrative committees, with powers resting always at the mass assemblies and all major decisions made by these mass assemblies. After this, the communities should strictly mandate any delegates sent to higher committees or assemblies (for co-ordination between areas/sectors and implementation of the decisions made at the assemblies)-in a federation- to maintain the democratic nature of the campaigns. These delegates should be immediately revocable to the communities they came from and have a limited amount of bargaining/leeway in the mandate prescribed to them.
Republicans could have devoted their resources to trade unionism, promoting socialism and encouraging democratic community campaigns in communities under their influence and this is still an option for those who feel disenchanted with the Adams/McGuinness leadership. This option would have had the benefit of appealing to the Protestant working class and lessening sectarian tensions in the north without the central focus being on the border-although an issue. It will be common material and social aspirations which will bring an end to sectarianism in the north. The Stormont assembly and the GFA settlement simple keeps a lid on the tensions without providing a realistic option for ending them.
The neo-liberal agenda which the DUP and SF seem to agree upon includes privatisation, education cuts and health cuts. While SF opposes these cuts with strong rhetoric, in reality they are part and parcel of accepting constitutionalism and the northern statelet. It also importantly includes the promotion of foreign (read US) capital investment. This is without a word about the people who will be subject to these companies’ strict rules on unionisation and workers’ rights. It is a matter of fact that when a party takes power within capitalist institutions, it becomes a business party out of necessity. Overall, SF (along with the DUP) north of the border can only be described as another typical business party which manages business affairs quite well for the capitalist class.
Sinn Féin and the GFA (although preferable to a pointless and futile war of national liberation to create a united capitalist state) has enshrined in the politics of Northern Ireland a system of institutionalised sectarianism. Both Sinn Féin and the DUP have held polar opposite positions on the 'sectarian political spectrum' . The parties of this ‘sectarian state’, as it has been called by prominent republican Tommy McKearney, often utilise emotional nationalist rhetoric, evoking historical resistance to oppression in an effort to distract the working class from its real enemy. It is an attempt to divide and conquer. We need to transcend nationalism and unionism altogether.
The politics of the past hold no hope for a future united working class in Northern Ireland, one capable of challenging the neoliberal agenda currently being forced on them.
Tommy McKearney has also argued that the republican movement missed a real opportunity to build a mass movement aimed at left wing advances before the GFA. This opportunity was squandered in favour of becoming ‘constitutional revolutionaries’, in the words of Gerry Adams, and shows where the SF leaderships real concerns lie.
Again, the slogan is repeated ‘labour must wait!’
Their concerns do not lie in the advancement of labour which would make dramatic changes in the lives of the ordinary working man and woman, but in the conquest of political power. It should be said that the pro-imperialist/loyalist agenda also offers nothing to the working class, only a worsening of the economic situation and sectarianism. Neither nationalism nor unionism offer a way forward.
SF’s anti-establishment veneer and populist rhetoric has led to their growth in the polls. However, it’s obsession with respectability and desire for power have stunted any revolutionary or radical potential that the grassroots of the organisation once offered in Northern Ireland, and to a lesser degree in the border counties. This should come as no surprise to an anarchist or socialist. Nationalism and republicanism are bourgeois ideologies borne out of the French revolution - only afterwards did socialism/anarchism come onto the scene, once the limitations of the freedom achieved by these revolutions became apparent. Soon republicanism was abandoned by the most radical working class revolutionaries in favour of real freedom - economic and political. Republicanism has its roots firmly planted in the ideology of property owners. From the leaders of the 1798 rebellion to suppression of workers during the tan war, nationalism/republicanism has always sided with the men of property.
It is worth quoting Sean Mathews on republicanism:
Nearly 100 years on, Irish republicanism is at a cross-roads and has reached its critical mass. The armed struggle over the last 30 years has delivered little of its objectives apart from providing a bargaining weapon for Sinn Féin for its complete integration into the British state and imposition of a right wing neo-liberal agenda. Their only answer is either a return to militarism or rebuilding the relic of left republicanism. But republicanism is unable to build a united working class movement that can transform the island and link up with similar movements internationally’.
To add to this point, every political party in Irish history has at some stage professed revolutionary politics or derived from a radical armed wing, and all have abandoned their revolutionary fervour in favour of parliamentary respectability. It is the natural progression of playing the electoral game. Across world history, all leftist parties have eventually shifted to the right once they reach a certain tipping point, dropping their revolutionary content in favour of a chance at governmental power. SF will most likely do the same south of the border. SF simply followed this natural progression of all political parties, today they are slowly moving to the centre right and we anarchists should not be surprised.
South of the border-the fallacy of who makes decisions
‘’Yes, friends, governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class.’’ James Connolly
SF are not the radical democratic socialist party they would like us to believe and that many honest grassroots activists believe they are. In fact, they are quite different and their claims of wanting to ‘complete the revolution’ are void because of the lack of radical theory.
SF is yet to prove whether it will bring about any slight advantages for the working class, as stated for the reasons below, this is unlikely at best. The likelihood of SF entering into a coalition government is high, which will further water down their social democratic programme. All parties must accept compromises and pragmatism as integral requirements for entering coalition government, and with these compromises the party manifesto will soon be shed.
Within SF’s ‘broad church of republicanism’, which is similar to their ‘pan-nationalist alliance’ project of the past, the most radical voices are drowned out by calls for unity and pragmatism. This will lead SF to take a more centrist position in future as the radicals are side-lined in favour of the moderates and make their aim of a ‘democratic socialist republic’ all but impossible. Their desire for respectability and eagerness for political power stymies the growth of what would be a potent autonomous movement and curbs real opportunities for working class advances.
The lock (on policy) is very simple. If something happens here, say, increasing workers' salaries, that the bondholders don't like, that's going to cut down their short-term profit, they'll just start withdrawing from the bond market, which will drive interest rates up, which will drive the economy down. - Noam Chomsky
The above quote illustrates the problems faced by any government, there simply isn’t a lot that can be done within the current capitalist system without a mass movement. SF would be unable to bring about real change as they fail to understand who really holds the reins of power over government. According to Noam Chomsky and classical economist Adam Smith, the ‘principal architects of policy’ are those who ‘own the country’ . In other words, the corporations, banks and big business are the principal designers of policy. They have the greatest resources at their disposal for lobbying government, supporting (and therefore buying) candidates. All state institutions, such as laws, are geared towards maximising the profits of big business through loopholes in tax law, tax exemptions and direct hand-outs in the form of grants (of course, this is all framed to be somehow in the interest of working people by the mainstream media).They only give into working class demands when it suits them or when their own interests/power are challenged in a very real way.
Simply put, the State is the protector of private privilege, power and wealth. It is an instrument of the elites who use it to their benefit and it cannot be anything else unless it is forced to make concessions by mass movements. Even then, it will only go as far as business elites allow it to, especially in the era of neoliberal international capitalism.
With the likelihood of a coalition government, SF’s policy plans will be further eroded. It is probable that the party will abolish some of the austerity measures, such as the water tax, but this will only bring people back to a position before the Fine Gael government, not radically forward. However, it is easy to envisage progressive measures such as gay rights and abortion being introduced which SF will use to justify their meek approach to the economy and further changes. The limits of the capitalist system will put a brake on any economic advances SF will want to proceed with. SF’s project of further chipping away at capitalism can go nowhere.
SF’s plan of furthering democratic socialism is implausible within the current system. It cannot function effectively without international capital constraints – which would act as a restraint on the virtual parliament of the markets, which holds real power by withholding investment and loans. No matter how good the intentions are and how strong the determination, SF simply cannot deliver significant gains for the Irish working class without a mass movement threatening the elites. It also completely ignores the international working class-other than expressing solidarity with them.
Money is power and without control of the flow of money, the country will be left bankrupt. This is not an argument for extreme social democratic measures but simply advanced to demonstrate the emptiness of SF’s aims and ambitions on their own terms.
A recent example of this happening was in Brazil when, in 2002, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was elected on a platform of fighting poverty and redistributing wealth. A year earlier, the party had produced a document titled Another Brazil is Possible, laying out its electoral programme. In a section entitled "The Necessary Rupture", it argued,
Regarding the foreign debt, now predominantly private, it will be necessary to denounce the agreement with the IMF, in order to free the economic policy from the restrictions imposed on growth and on the defence of Brazilian commercial interests.
What happened is instructive and striking. It clearly illustrates how much nation states are at the mercy of the invisible hand of the international markets. In the three months between his winning and being sworn in, the currency plummeted by 30% and $6bn in hot money left the country. The international virtual parliament had spoken. Some agencies gave Brazil the highest debt-risk ratings in the world. "We are in government but not in power," said Lula's close aide, Dominican friar Frei Betto. "Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital."
Multinationals, not nation states, rule. The nation state is the only slightly democratic entity that remains (corporations being complete private tyrannies). But given the scale of neoliberal globalisation, it is clearly not up to that task of social reform.
Of course capitalism can accommodate many working class demands when forced to, but only a complete restructuring of the institutions of power from the bottom out-wards and upwards can effect real and permanent change in the lives of working people and the marginalised.
To summarize, for socialists or for anyone who wants real and meaningful change in the world, the politics of parties such as SF offer no hope. They are an illusion, a dead-end. The allure of the republican movement is very real, especially its militant tinge, and this should be acknowledged because, in part, there is real potential within its grassroots, real people who believe in a better Ireland and world. The ideas of republicanism are noble - liberty, brotherhood and equality - but if we are to take these ideals seriously, we must take socialism seriously and not be dragged down the path of electioneering or reformism. It would be a shame if all the ideals from which republicanism stems were to be lost to the capitalist culture. SF are unlikely to go into a majority government, weakening their position and forcing them to abandon their more left wing proposals to realise the ‘realities’ of government.
As anarchists we must challenge the false ideology of Sinn Féin at every step, making clear that they offer only a quagmire for people and no real long-term left alternative. The faith of the movement in their leadership and the politics of nationalism have lead them to waste their energies. If this is not countered, another generation will fall out of politics, disgruntled and disillusioned, similar to what has occurred in the US since President Obama’s election.
Until you get to the source of power, which ultimately is investment decisions, other changes are cosmetic and can only take place in a limited way. If they go too far the investors will just make other decisions, and there's nothing you can do about it. To challenge the right of investors to determine who lives, who dies, how they live and die, that would be to make a significant move toward Enlightenment ideals, actually the classical liberal ideal. That would be revolutionary.’ - Noam Chomsky
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