Sandy Boyer (SB) interviews Tommy McKearney, (TM) the Northern organiser for the Independent Workers' Union via telephone from Co. Tyrone, about US donations to and the economic policies of Sinn Féin. Thanks to TPQ transcriber for working on this.
Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City
7 March 2015
SB: We're going to Tommy McKearney, former IRA prisoner, currently the Northern organiser of the Independent Workers' Union, about a very interesting, apparently strange meeting between the leadership of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald, the heir apparent, and major but unnamed US business interests. Tommy, what are we to make of this?
TM: Well, I find it somewhat strange myself, Sandy, although possibly not entirely surprising. Apparently this was revealed by The Irish Times' Thursday and Friday editions when they detailed the vast amounts of money that was being provided to Sinn Féin through the organisation the Friends of Sinn Féin in the United States. And arising out of that, those reports that as you said, senior business men in The States had asked for a meeting with Sinn Féin. They were concerned apparently that Sinn Féin was hostile to business interests and the Sinn Féin leadership reassured them that that was a mistake – that they were quite pro-business and as recently as yesterday Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin - and while preparing for the Sinn Féin annual conference - again reiterated the point that Sinn Féin is pro-business which is - it's a very worrying thing, Sandy, because as you well know - and I'm sure many of your listeners know - this cliché about pro-business actually, while it sounds very good, really in reality means that business receives priority. And there's a false impression created so many times that being pro-business means that you're concentrating on employment and what not. In fact, businesses – we all know - business concentrates on the bottom line on making the maximum profitability and has little influence at the end of the day on anything else.
And that's something - in Ireland we have a very high unemployment rate. We have an unemployment rate this is disguised by effectively massaging the figures – a lot of people are on what you would describe as work fare projects which technically take them out of the register, off the live register of the unemployed. There's a lot of people who have given up hope and there are sadly, too, a huge amount of our younger people have immigrated over the last years. So it's employment we need not being pro-business. Pro-business – also business as I've said - taking the bottom line is quite content to even to off-shore or out-source its business so Sinn Féin really needs to look at this very seriously if they are claiming to be a party of the centre-left, if they're a party of democracy on this island of Ireland and if their interest is really in promoting the betterment of the Irish people and the working people rather than the so-called minority interests that are concentrated in business.
SB: Tommy, I found the description of the meeting from Jim Cullen, the president of Friends of Sinn Féin, very interesting because he talked about the reaction afterwards, after the business leaders had left, and he said Sinn Féin leaders were saying: My God! Those guys had a good point. And wouldn't it be terrible if anybody thought that just because we said we're against austerity we might be pro-labour or anti-business? And boy, we really want to/have to reassure them on that.
TM: Yeah, yeah and that really is, to a certain extent, this is something some of us have been saying for some time, that - Sinn Féin is very much a populist party as distinct from a party of the working and ordinary people.
Sinn Féin swings with/in the wind but ultimately is really trying to win-over that section of society that has considerable financial assets and as such then is going to have to trim its sails to adjust to and accommodate those with the very fat wallets and healthy bank accounts that can support, financially, the party. It's also a gambit in an attempt to win support from significant sections of the business class not just in the United States but also in Ireland because as you well know there's a significant interaction between the business cartels all over the world but in the United States and Ireland as well.
But certainly it's very surprising. This is a period of prolonged austerity in Ireland. And austerity is a very, if you'd like, euphemistic phrase to cover up what is increasing poverty. I mean, we've had some serious difficulties here: charitable organisations in our city of Cork, the second (biggest) city in The Twenty-Six Counties that is, talking of increasing numbers of people asking for charitable dinner services and things like that - this country is far from being comfortably off. We need to concentrate on not on accommodating a small number of business interests.
SB: And Tommy, let's talk a minute about Sinn Féin in The South in The Twenty-Six Counties – in the North in The Six Counties – two separate jurisdictions – one is under British rule - one under Irish rule – but Sinn Féin says it's one party – North and South – that's their proudest boast. But it's kind of mysterious. In the South they're at the top of the opinion polls - everybody thinks they'll be in the next government - but that's because they say: We're anti-austerity - we're anti all the cuts that you've been talking about all the cuts you've been talking about – we're against water charges – boy! we're the people you can count on.
But then the same party in The North where they're actually in government - they seem to behave a little bit differently. Can you tell us about that?
TM: Well, they do. And North of the border actually a significant plank in the Sinn Féin economic policy is to reduce corporation tax in level with what's happening in The Republic. Now, corporation tax in The Republic is twelve and a half percent (12.5%) which is one of the lowest corporation taxes in the western world actually – and it's significantly lower than anything I'm aware of in the United States and the rest of western Europe - and this is one of their big policies in The Six Counties - to bring down the rate of corporation tax which effectively is a donation to make business.
But at the same time and in line with, as you have said, in line not with their policy of anti-austerity and against the cut backs of government and state-run services in The Republic, but in The North of Ireland they're now in line with the policy let out by the Conservative Party in Britain which is to cut back the state – this whole idea of cutting back on entitlements that people are expecting. And entitlements are not privileges. They're not gifts. These are payments for unemployed people, for the elderly and for the most actually the biggest contribution from the state goes to the elderly for pensions and for their health care.
Sinn Féin has signed up under the Stormont House Agreement very recently to introduce a wide swathe of cuts which will lead to the sacking of up to twenty thousand public sector workers which will also have a seriously detrimental effect on many of the public services that people depend upon. And they're doing this quite shamefacedly and now there's talk of cutting back on the number of teachers to be employed possibly - the figures have been mentioned as a thousand to fifteen hundred teachers - to be let off over the next few years. And keep in mind in the northern part of Ireland, The Six Counties, we're talking about a population of one point eight million people - it would fit into one of the wards presumably of Manhattan - and cutting back a thousand or fifteen hundred teachers - that's a huge reduction in the teaching population.
SB: Tommy, I guess Sinn Féin thinks that The North has a surplus of teachers – that you don't need very many teachers and you should get rid of them - put them out of a job!
TM: Well, I mean that's possibly the Sinn Féin view and it'd be a seriously erroneous view obviously. In fact, we need more teachers. Every society can do with teachers because that's the wealth of society – our children - always we've said – our children - that is our wealth – and the enhancement of the wealth – that is our children – can only be increased by education and education comes via teachers. It makes no sense to put back on that particularly as we're changing the way in the northern part of Ireland – what was for well for over a century heavy industrial work - globalisation has moved that on. There's very, very significant unemployment, particularly in those areas that had been used to the heavy industries, and are now badly, badly in need of a huge injection of education to promote the new economy. But this is happening.
And what we're also noticing in the cutbacks of education is that the rural schools, small rural schools, are being closed. And believe it or not the Deputy Speaker until recently and now the MP for Mid Ulster, Francie Molloy, a Sinn Féin MP for Mid Ulster, his local school – the school he attended and the school his grandchildren attend, Clonmore, there's an attempt to close it and I think it's quite eminent and it's being closed by the Sinn Féin Minister for Education.
And you have to keep in mind, and I'm sure it's probably the same all over the world – in The States but certainly here in Ireland – a small school in a rural area is one of those key elements in maintaining society in a rural community because once the school closes young parents tend to leave the district for obvious reasons – they have to have their children educated and it's a responsibility that most parents take very seriously and if there isn't an adequate primary school – that's first year, the first level - I can't remember what Americans call it but it's for four to twelve year olds – if there's no adequate school in the district people - young parents - very often just move on. And once young parents and young children leave a district the district becomes sterile – it ages and becomes depopulated. So that's happening and it's a serious reflection on the Sinn Féin education forsee in Northern Ireland.
SB: And Tommy, you mentioned Francie Molloy and I have to come back to that because Francie did something that's very rare for a Sinn Féin elected official – he told the truth! He said Sinn Féin is enforcing British rule in Ireland. You don't hear that very much from Sinn Féin.
TM: No. Effectively Sinn Féin, by participating in the Stormont administration, is effectively participating in the administration of British rule in The Six Counties of Northern Ireland. Now, there's different arguments and sides to this but having said that there's a difference: arguments have always circulated within Republican circles about the value or otherwise of abstention and abstentionism from the parliamentary process. But there does come a stage where you are party to the administration of something as detrimental as the very severe austerity package that was forced upon the Stormont administration recently by the London government. Now you would have expected the party that's claiming to be the party of the working people and the hard working people that it would have simply refused to administer that.
The point about it is that: Sinn Féin appear now to be in the position, vis-à-vis Stormont, that they will maintain the institutions at all costs - so they will accept anything on the agenda rather than bring down the institutions. And that's a huge weakness in their programme because it's tantamount to having a trade union that is afraid to go on strike or that refuses to go on strike. The old axiom or received wisdom is that: once a trade union refuses to go on strike then it effectively is emasculated and that's the problem for Sinn Féin in The Six Counties that it is determined to maintain the institutions of the Stormont administration and as such will therefore be bound to administer whatever is put on the agenda by the London government.
SB: Yes, that's not just an abstraction – when the British government says to The Six County government: This is how much money you can spend. Now you Paddies can divide it up however you like – we don't much care – but this is what you're getting and if you accept that then you do things like lay-off a thousand teachers.
TM: That's precisely what happens. There is a dearth of economic imagination within the Sinn Féin party north and south - that's why they're resorting to positions such as “we are pro-business” rather than having a creative alternative. They resort to those old mantras of: “we're pro-business and business creates jobs” – I mean I would challenge that seriously. And also north of the border in The Six Counties they're talking – as I've said earlier in the interview with you – that they wish to reduce corporation tax – the idea being it'll attract foreign direct investment, which again is a very questionable policy, but they don't have an alternative economic policy and they lack the confidence to challenge the British government's diktats vis-à-vis austerity and lacking that creative, powerful, economic alternative then they just simply fall in line with the dictates of London when they're in The Six Counties of Northern Ireland and in The Twenty-Six Counties they tend to fall in line with whatever's the received mantra that is coming from people like the business lobby or whatever's the latest popular theory being run out by the establishment media, either the broadcast or print media, or some of the so-called intellectuals who talk about whatever's the current establishment view of economics.
SB: Well Tommy, you could say that in The South they've replaced London with Berlin; effectively Chancellor Merkel now calls the tune instead of Prime Minister Cameron. But to return to Sinn Féin – they're now the most popular party in The South. There's a lot of talk that they're going to be in government in 2016 – which would be a huge – then they would claim: Hooray! We have a united Ireland – we're in government in The Twenty-Six Counties. We're in government in The Six Counties. But there's very interesting noises coming out of Gerry Adams, who of course is the president of Sinn Féin, who says: We are not going to go into coalition with any party that wants to enforce austerity. Not us! We'll never, ever do it. What do you think of that?
TM: Well, Sinn Fein has done a considerable number of U-turns over the last twenty or twenty-five years. At one stage Sinn Féin ran on a programme of “never return to Stormont” and they appear to be quite comfortably ensconced in the building and its institutions now.
Look, we're seeing what's happening at the moment to Syriza. Syriza in Greece is coming under huge pressure and bear in mind that they had a much more aggressive programme than Sinn Féin are attempting to run out. Sinn Féin? It remains to be seen what they will do. But Sinn Féin seems incredibly able to “accommodate itself” to the positions of power. Effectively there is no well-publicised, well-grounded economic alternative to what's present.
Sinn Féin is committed to remaining within the Euro – committed to remaining within the European Union. It's one thing to say we'll not implement austerity - it's something else to say how you will emerge from this position of austerity. And that's where Sinn Féin, instead of courting the hard-nosed business people of Wall Street and the City of London and Berlin, really what we must do is look for an alternative economic strategy to be looking to those that are in desperate straits in Spain and Portugal, Cypress and Greece and Italy to find those people that wish to break free from the shackles of the financiers in Berlin and London and Wall Street and look for a viable alternative and promote a viable alternative. And it's actually emerging in southern Europe at the moment so I can't understand why we in Ireland are not promoting that alternative which is an alternative to the poverty and hunger that's the only outcome of what's coming from as you said “The Berlin Agenda” and look, it always goes back to the old one of Connolly: You can remove the Union Jack. You can take away the British Army in the morning but if England still controls you through her finance houses, through her banks, through her stock exchanges - you don't have sovereignty. And that's effectively what's happening to Ireland at the moment- both North and South.
SB: But again, I want to return to this idea of coalition government. Now many would say, and I might even agree with them, that when it comes to the end of the day Sinn Féin will take whatever is offered because they have to be in government in 2016 – that's of course the anniversary of the 1916 Rising. They have to be able to say: that is the united Ireland. And also, some would be fairly cynical, me included, and say: Gerry Adams is getting on in years. This might be his last chance to be in government – maybe even to be the Prime Minister, the Taoiseach, and who knows - that could lead to being the President of Ireland. But if he doesn't take the chance now who knows if it will ever come again?
TM: Yes, that's a possibility. I don't necessarily though subscribe to the view that Sinn Féin will immediately go into coalition – I can see that they would find it attractive to be in a government in the Republic of Ireland in 2016 but there would be certain disadvantages for them to do so particularly if they were part of the minority government or if they couldn't be Taoiseach.
Now, if they become the biggest party after the next election – yes – I think we'll see them attempting to form a government but short of that some people say that Sinn Féin will go in under any circumstances. I'm not so sure that they will because there is the realisation that that would lead to a very immediate decline since they would be then be bound to implement even more stringent policies. So I think we have to be careful that we don't ascribe to Sinn Féin less awareness than they have. What they might do is support a minority government. There's different possibilities here – they might play the long game and swallow hard for 2016 and I think we've got be be reasonably analytical in this than rather than wait for Sinn Féin to make mistakes. I think we've got to be careful about predicting that.
SB: I think one thing we can say is that they won't build a movement north and south of the common working people to resist austerity both at the ballot box and on the streets and in the workplaces - because it's interesting - in The North you have the trade union movement against the Stormont House Agreement which Sinn Féin signed – and they're not particularly radical – so that I think what we can rule out – that Sinn Féin will go to the streets – go to the workplaces – and lead a radical movement against austerity.
TM: Yes, I think that can be taken now for granted – it can be taken as read. As things stands at the moment, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions is organising a movement and a protest against the cutbacks that are emanating from the Stormont House Agreement and it's receiving considerable support from the trade union movement. Obviously from the teachers' unions because they're going to be impacted immediately from the public sector unions – they'll be immediately impacted - and that is building up.
Sinn Féin is very sensitive to the criticism that's coming from the trade union movement in The Six Counties. And you're perfectly correct in saying Sinn Féin will not attempt to build that movement because Sinn Féin is wedded in the end of the day to what we may call “the establishment” - North and South. And that establishment has no intention of counter-acting the interest of business. So Sinn Féin will fall into that and has comfortably fallen into it in The North.
Sinn Féin talks the same talk as any other middle-of-the-road right-of-centre political party that you would find right across western Europe or even in the United States - they're not challenging. The point about a mass-movement of the states - and Sinn Féin will turn up – for example – at anti-water charge meetings in Dublin and around The Republic - but only after they've seen the streets filling up – Sinn Féin...
SB: ...Tommy, on that note I think we're going to have to let you go because we've run out of time here but thank you very much for coming on. That was Tommy McKearney, former blanketman, former hunger striker now an organiser for the Independent Workers' Union.