With an estimated size of anywhere between 70,000 and 250,000, Saturday’s End Austerity Now Demo marked the strongest form of organised opposition towards government cuts in years. And, encouraging as it was for the left, I can’t help but feel the presence of Martin McGuinness as a guest speaker took some gloss from what was by most accounts a huge success. Put simply, Martin McGuinness speaking at an anti-austerity demo is similar to having Sepp Blatter speaking out against corruption (a video of which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdY_2vA-LPI).
In the first instance, McGuinness preaches a message of anti-austerity yet advocates a purely symbolic policy of abstention from Westminster, in turn abstaining from the most effective place from which austerity can be fought, the benches of the commons itself. The abstentionist stance of Sinn Féin, whilst ideologically rooted in history, is now little more than a source of great convenience due to the smokescreen it provides for the lack of real progressive social policy. This may appear less surprising when viewed in the context of Sinn Fein’s insistence on commemoration and institutionalisation of the past in the form of marches and the naming of playing parks after IRA members respectively. Undeniably, tensions remain high between both sides of the divide and to expect the past to disappear may well equate to naivety.
That being said, the people voted for a peace in overwhelming numbers, a peace which Sinn Féin themselves agreed to. Consequently, to consistently refuse to let sleeping dogs lie raises the question of whether Sinn Féin want a society focused on standards of living as opposed to conceptions of national identity. This rings particularly true when considering the fact that Sinn Féin’s symbolic abstentionism fails to extend to the financial realm, with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) claiming that Sinn Féin MPs received £666,808 in allowances during the parliamentary year 2013-2014.
One of the loudest rounds of applause was given to McGuinness following his remark that Sinn Féin’s rejection of welfare reform is a clear example of their absolute rejection of Tory cuts. What he forgot to mention however was the fact that he initially backed welfare reform as a necessary evil, before realising the err of his ways and making a rather embarrassing u turn. For some, this represents a form of pragmatism to be commended. I accept the former as true, this was a pragmatic move. Unfortunately however, the pragmatism evident in this instance is symptomatic of Sinn Féin’s tendency to concede the bare minimum in terms of what is deemed acceptable, a drip feed consisting of a relative negligence in terms of socio-economic needs strengthened with a few shots of petty symbolism and shallow tribalism. The latter particularly evident in Sinn Fein’s bizarre Star Wars themed sectarian headcount in an effort to win the North Belfast seat.
To be fair to Martin, he did take care to commend the Unionist working class on their rejection of the Conservatives in the North. Unfortunately, however, the same acceptance of Unionism has recently served as a trojan horse for a bowing to austerity. Specifically, under the guise of an historic meeting between Sinn Féin and DUP in West Belfast where plans to lower corporation tax were discussed at length, despite the dearth of evidence which suggests to do so would have minimal benefits in terms of job creation, and actually prove fiscally counterproductive.
Perhaps the strongest suggestion of Sinn Fein’s hypocrisy is most clear in the treatment of one of the few genuine anti-austerity candidates in People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll. Carroll’s rejection of sectarian headcounts in favour of an all inclusive, collective opposition to Westminster was a breath of fresh air for many in West Belfast, except his opponents, resulting in many of his election posters spending a few nights in the local Colin Glen Forest Park. Then again, to regard this as evidence of Sinn Féin hypocritical approach to austerity may be short sighted. More specifically, it can’t be said conclusively that it was in fact Sinn Féin who decided to derail democracy in this instance – after all, it could have been anyone of those in West Belfast who deemed Gerry Carroll a sufficient threat to the current state of affairs, Sinn Féin or otherwise.
Fortunately, Carroll still made a serious dent in the seeming invincibility of the West Belfast seat, and his 7,000 votes seems to suggest that more and more are beginning to wake up to the divide and rule tactics employed by Sinn Féin as a means of dodging those issues McGuinness claims to tackle.