The Adaptable Sinn Féin

Over its long history, Sinn Féin has shown itself to be a left-nationalist party that is more nationalist than left.

Last March, Syriza’s Euclid Tsakalotos addressed the Sinn Féin conference in Derry with a rousing message: “Syriza, Sinn Féin, Podemos and others are part of a great realignment in European politics that has become apparent over the last couple of years.” For Sinn Féin member of the European Parliament Martina Anderson, the affinity between the parties was clear: “Republicanism is on the rise. In Athens it’s called Syriza, in Spain it’s called Podemos, in Ireland it’s called Sinn Fein.”

There has been no shortage of articles in the Anglophone media, both mainstream and radical, analyzing Syriza and Podemos as new left parties. But much less attention has been paid to Sinn Féin, which has made spectacular political gains in the Republic of Ireland since the global economic crisis began and now looks set to become the main opposition party in that state after the recent general election. It also forms part of the regional government in Northern Ireland, where it has been at the heart of a standoff over Tory welfare cuts.

But how should we understand Sinn Féin’s “republicanism,” and what kind of threat does it pose to the Irish establishment? To answer those questions, we need to examine the party’s history and ideology.

The Origins of Left Republicanism

Sinn Féin has long been the public face of a movement with a clandestine military wing, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) — now stood down by its leaders to cement the transition to mainstream politics. The republican tradition can be traced back to the United Irishmen and Fenians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, militant separatists who were willing to take up arms against British rule to establish an Irish republic. The movement assumed its modern form during the War of Independence that followed the 1916 Easter Rising: Sinn Féin won resounding electoral victories and built the infrastructure of a parallel state with its own courts and parliament, while the IRA organized a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the British army and police force. This twin-track struggle brought London to the negotiating table, resulting in the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

For republicans, the treaty had two principal shortcomings. To begin with, the “Free State” recognized by London did not cover the whole territory of the island: six northern counties; where the Protestant-unionist majority was concentrated were excluded and remained part of the United Kingdom. What’s more, the new state was still part of the British Empire, and its parliamentarians would have to take an oath of allegiance to the crown. As a result, the treaty was followed by a split and a short but vicious civil war. The Sinn Féin label was inherited by the vanquished camp that opposed ratification.

Over subsequent decades, the constitutional status of the southern state was gradually transformed by Éamon de Valera and his Fianna Fáil party after they broke with Sinn Féin and took power through the ballot box in 1932. The oath of allegiance was abolished, the British navy was evicted from so-called “Treaty ports,” and Ireland remained neutral during the Second World War, despite pressure from Churchill to join the Allied camp. The final break with the Commonwealth came in 1949, and a republic was declared. From that point on, militant nationalism ceased to have much traction in the South: its citizens may not like the state very much, or trust the people who run it, but most of them consider it to be legitimate from a nationalist perspective.

The republican movement might have withered away as a result, if not for the treaty’s unfinished business in the north of Ireland. From the start, Northern Ireland contained a large Catholic-nationalist minority that was excluded from political power and faced systematic discrimination in housing and employment. The Unionist Party which ran the local government could fall back on emergency legislation to stifle any challenge to its rule. The focus of the IRA thus gradually shifted toward the northern statelet, where it could still hope to strike a popular chord among nationalists — although its attempts to launch a fresh campaign of guerrilla warfare against British forces would not bear fruit until the 1970s.

In the meantime, some republicans had begun to experiment with a different strategy. After its split with Fianna Fáil, the IRA adopted a left-wing program under the influence of socialist republicans like Peadar O’Donnell and Frank Ryan and sought to redefine itself as a movement of the dispossessed. This left-republican synthesis could draw on two key influences. One was James Connolly, the founder of Irish Marxism, who had established a working-class militia, the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA), after the 1913 Dublin Lockout. The ICA took part in the failed 1916 insurrection, and Connolly was executed along with its other leaders, securing his place in the Irish nationalist pantheon.

Connolly had long argued that the working class should lead the fight for Irish independence, combining the national liberation struggle with the battle for social emancipation. But in the end, he opted to join an uprising without any explicit social content, hoping to strike a blow against a government then prosecuting a bloody slaughter in the Great War. Connolly left behind an ambiguous legacy for all sections of the Irish left to puzzle over; far above the other 1916 leaders as a thinker, his writings remain a touchstone for radical thought in Ireland.

Connolly’s influence was combined with that of Liam Mellows, an anti-Treaty republican executed by the Free State in 1922. Much more of a traditional Fenian than Connolly, Mellows instinctively grasped that the bedrock of support for the treaty came from the propertied classes — the “stake in the country people,” as he dubbed them — and believed that the movement would have to adopt a social program to win popular support. His jail notes became another source of inspiration for left republicans.

Some historians maintain that the left-republican marriage of convenience was bound to prove barren, blending ideologies that were fundamentally incompatible. This view relies more on assertion than evidence, but it does point toward a central question about the IRA’s left turn: was it a pragmatic attempt to secure greater backing for the existing Fenian program, or did it involve a real transformation of the movement’s ideology?

For figures like O’Donnell and Ryan, it made sense to use the IRA as a vehicle for socialist politics. Ireland’s left wing was unusually weak. Its Labour Party hovered around 10 percent in most elections, and was afraid to challenge a Catholic Church whose bishops were militantly hostile to socialism of any variety. Irish communism went through several mutations, but never had more than a few hundred members and faced popular hostility. The IRA might now be marginal, but still had a real presence in Irish politics, and could not easily be presented as an alien import. Others in the IRA leadership accepted the case for a left turn on pragmatic grounds, but quickly backed off when they faced a virulent red scare orchestrated from the pulpit. O’Donnell, Ryan, and others then broke away to form the short-lived Republican Congress in 1934. Their failure ensured that left republicanism would remain dormant for another three decades.

The Provisionals

Gerry Adams and his associates are often referred to as “Provos” — a label that dates back to the early 1970s, when Adams first entered the scene as a Belfast commander of the Provisional IRA. The Provisionals had broken with the existing IRA leadership in 1969–70, accusing them of betraying the movement’s core purpose: to lead an armed struggle against British rule in Ireland. They successfully laid claim to the republican tradition and took advantage of a political crisis in the North to spearhead the longest insurgency the island had ever seen.

The IRA had entered the 1960s with its fortunes at a low ebb. Its 1956–62 Border Campaign had been a complete failure, roundly ignored by Northern nationalists. A new chief of staff, Cathal Goulding, turned back to the ideas of Connolly, Mellows, and O’Donnell, gradually steering the movement leftward. By the end of the decade, Goulding’s IRA was committed to open political agitation in pursuit of a socialist republic. It wasn’t clear where armed struggle fit into this schema, and many traditionalists looked upon Goulding’s “new departure” with intense distrust.

Still, the turn bore early success. Northern republicans helped launch a civil rights campaign modeled on the American example, uniting liberals, communists, and moderate nationalists. But when protest marches were attacked by the Unionist police force, the IRA’s militarist faction saw this as an opportunity to relaunch the war against Britain. They split off to form the Provisionals and recruited a new generation of militants in Northern Catholic ghettoes. By the end of 1974, more than 1,200 people had been killed in a conflict that would continue for more than two decades.

Goulding’s “Official” IRA transformed itself into the avowedly Marxist Workers’ Party, ditching much of its republican heritage and carving out a space on the Southern political stage as a scourge of the Labour Party; by the end of the 1980s, it had overtaken Labour in Dublin and won 5 percent nationally, although it would be consigned to the margins by a split after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Provos, for their part, were initially hostile to left-wing ideology of any kind. Their early statements often had a strongly McCarthyite flavor — claiming that “Red agents” had infiltrated the movement under Goulding’s supervision — and a militarist bent, deeming armed struggle to be the only tactic needed for victory.

By the late 1970s, however, it had become clear that British withdrawal was not an immediate prospect, and a new leadership team that crystallized around Gerry Adams turned once again to the left-republican synthesis in the hope of broadening their popular base.

Adams and his comrades put together a new strategy with three main planks. In the North, Sinn Féin would establish itself as an electoral force and displace the middle-class nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). In the South, the party would secure a foothold in parliament by campaigning on a left-wing program. Adams recognized that south of the border, militant nationalism wouldn’t be enough to win votes: “You can’t proceed on the basis of what’s happening in the North, on the basis of Sinn Féin being an IRA support group. You can’t get support in Ballymun because of doors being kicked in by the Brits in Ballymurphy.” Hope was also placed in the left wing of the British Labour Party shifting its policy to one of withdrawal from Northern Ireland and taking power in London. In the meantime, the IRA would continue its armed struggle, chipping away at Britain’s will to hold on.

By the end of the 1980s, all three objectives had proved illusory. Sinn Féin had not overtaken the SDLP; its Southern wing hadn’t managed to win any seats in the Dublin parliament; and Labour’s center-right leadership had trounced the Bennite insurgency. On the military front, the IRA had been contained; it could not easily be defeated, but nor could it hope to win outright. Strongly influenced by global events — especially the path followed by their African National Congress (ANC) allies in South Africa after 1990 — the Provo leadership began moving toward the center, playing down their hard-left rhetoric and making new friends in corporate Irish America and the Clinton administration.

An IRA ceasefire, and lengthy peace talks, resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Sinn Féin eventually took its place in a power-sharing administration with unionist parties in a Northern Ireland that remained very much part of the United Kingdom, reversing their long-standing refusal to accept any “partitionist” settlement. Yet the party’s Southern strategy still depended on staking out ground to the left of Labour, and it was on this basis that Sinn Féin began making political gains after 1997.

Sinn Féin Thought

Sinn Féin has always taken ideas seriously, much more so than its chief rivals, and Gerry Adams is a prolific writer, having published a series of books since the 1980s articulating his vision for Ireland. Sinn Féin has also been far more dependent on its activist base than the mainstream parties — especially in the South, where until recently it had few jobs to offer supporters, and where it still faces vociferous media hostility. It therefore needs to be able to justify its orientation — and the frequent changes of line — in a way that keeps that base motivated. Where does Sinn Féin’s anti-austerity stance fit into this ideological package?

The first thing to be said about Sinn Féin’s brand of left-wing politics is that its sharper edges have been carefully sanded down over the years. In 1979, Adams told supporters that “we stand opposed to all forms and all manifestations of imperialism and capitalism” and drafted a program for the party that was Marxist in everything but name:

With James Connolly, we believe that the present system of society is based upon the robbery of the working class and that capitalist property cannot exist without the plundering of labour; we desire to see capitalism abolished and a democratic system of common or public ownership created in its stead.

By 2005, although Adams could still describe Connolly as “the republican [sic] who most clearly defined what the dream of a free, just and equal Ireland should be,” his latest book contained a blueprint for an all-Ireland state where social-democratic reforms would be carried through in the framework of a capitalist economy:

Its economic policy would take all practical steps to encourage indigenous enterprise and investment. It would welcome foreign capital while ensuring that foreign economic and financial interests did not become too powerful an influence on national economic policy. It would uphold worker and trade union rights and ensure decent standards of working conditions and pensions for all its citizens.

In the South, Sinn Féin’s platform, with its commitment to a public health service, strengthening of workers’ rights and other such reforms, still places it firmly on the left. So, too, does its defence of Irish military neutrality, its critique of the European Union, and its positive view of immigration. Sinn Féin cannot be bracketed with the UK Independence Party or France’s National Front; the party’s variety of nationalism puts it closer to the Scottish National Party or the Republican Left in Catalonia. But that nationalism remains an essential part of Sinn Féin’s program, and is explicitly given priority over the party’s social agenda.

In 1986, Adams put forward a plan for a two-stage revolution, dismissing “the ultra-left view, which counterposes republicanism and socialism and which breaks up the unity of the national independence movement by putting forward ‘socialist’ demands that have no possibility of being achieved until real independence is won.” One of the party’s leading activists in Dublin, Eoin Ó Broin, noted the implications of this approach: “Sinn Féin’s socialism, relegated to a future point in the struggle, would always be underdeveloped, as the more immediate needs of the national struggle took precedence.”

The fate of their ANC allies in South Africa after liberation shows where that road is likely to end.

North of the border, this hierarchy of objectives has meant taking part in a regional government whose economic policy is firmly neoliberal. Sinn Féin has explained away the gap between rhetoric and reality on two main grounds: firstly, that the sectarian mold of Northern Irish politics forces them to work with the hard-right Democratic Unionist Party; secondly, that the power-sharing administration lacks the authority of a sovereign state. But Sinn Féin leaders in the North have shown little sign of chafing under these shackles. Martin McGuinness, the party’s Deputy First Minister, embraced New Labour’s Private Finance Initiative — a boon for private investors, but a fiasco for public services — during his stint as education minister: “It is now clear that PFI does offer real potential for value for money solutions to the pressing capital investment needs of our schools.”

McGuinness went on to call for a cut in Northern Ireland’s corporate tax rate, describing this ill-conceived proposal, whose value as a tool for promoting economic development has been dismissed in a series of reports, as “an exciting opportunity for the regional economy.” Having reached beyond its traditional working-class nationalist base after the IRA ceasefire to become the party of choice for the Catholic middle class, Sinn Féin has shown little inclination to pursue a radical course.

The party’s leaders in the North were keen for their Southern comrades to enter government as a complement to the power-sharing deal in Belfast. Expecting to make substantial gains in the 2007 general election, they pressed for the long-standing policy of raising the corporate tax rate in the South to be abandoned weeks before the poll. This U-turn would have made it easier to form a coalition with Fianna Fáil. Instead, Sinn Féin had a disappointing election, attributed by many pundits to its lurch toward the center, and was lucky to find itself on the opposition benches when the global crash hit Ireland the following year.

After the Crash

Since 2008, political life in the South has been turned upside down, and is yet to congeal into a familiar pattern. The first big shock came with the onset of the world recession and the near collapse of the Irish banking system; the second followed the arrival of the troika at the end of 2010. Fianna Fáil lost the dominant position it enjoyed for eight decades; the Labour Party was catapulted to its highest ever share of the vote, before tumbling back down again; while Sinn Féin is still riding the crest of an anti-austerity wave. There have been greater shifts at the ballot box during the past five years than over the previous five decades.

Labour was the first beneficiary of a leftward swing in the 2011 general election, doubling its vote, but threw those gains away immediately by forming a coalition with the right-wing Fine Gael party and accepting the troika’s blueprint in its entirety. The initiative then passed to Sinn Féin, and the party’s vote increased steadily from 7 percent in 2007 to 10 percent in 2011 and 19.5 percent in 2014. This electoral base is predominantly working class, and surveys have established that “the area where Sinn Féin voters stand out most compared to the rest of the electorate is their attitude toward the government’s fiscal policies.” The rise of Sinn Féin forms part of a broader shift away from the traditional parties: in the 2014 European election, support for Sinn Féin, independents, and two small left parties reached 42.6 percent.

The pro-troika parties have responded to Sinn Féin’s surge with a barrage of criticism focusing on the role of Gerry Adams as an IRA commander during the Troubles: allegations of complicity in “disappearances” and the cover-up of sexual abuse would be enough to sink most politicians, but Adams has pushed on and the party’s poll ratings have not appeared to suffer as a result — although this baggage may also have prevented it from advancing any further.

A very different challenge has been posed over the last year and a half by the eruption of the biggest social movement in decades. Protests against water charges brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets in the autumn of 2014, and a vigorous movement took shape in working-class communities, largely driven by a sense that “austerity has gone too far.” In summer 2015, the Fine Gael–Labour government was forced to admit that non-payment of the charges remained well above 50 percent. Sinn Féin proceeded cautiously in response, promising to abolish water charges if it entered government, but reluctant to endorse calls for non-payment lest it burn its bridges with the political center. This triangulation backfired in a by-election held in the working-class Dublin South West constituency in October 2014, when Sinn Féin found itself outflanked by the hard-left Socialist Party (SP).

Ireland’s radical left is small, but has a stronger electoral footprint than its counterparts in many neighboring states. The voting system in the South favors independents and smaller parties: there is no minimum threshold for representation and each constituency has several seats up for grabs. The Socialist Party won its first in 1997, and there were five MPs elected under the United Left Alliance banner in 2011, with all five coming from Trotskyist backgrounds.

The ULA proved to be short-lived: three far-left groups went into the alliance, but four came out. Its largest organizations were the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) — both linked to the British Trotskyist groups of the same name. Political differences between the SP and SWP are fairly minor, but their relations have never been warm — one of the key factors behind the alliance’s breakup. At present, both groups operate in broad fronts, the SP’s Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) and the SWP’s People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA); along with various bits and pieces elsewhere, they pose the main challenge on Sinn Féin’s left flank, and are mostly clustered in the larger cities, Dublin above all.

A less fragmented movement would find it easier to put across a coherent message — with independents and minor parties stronger than ever before, the new parliament will be even more cacophonous than the last one. Plans for greater unity have not advanced very far, although the AAA and PBPA ran on a joint slate in the 2016 election. The radical left was too weak and geographically concentrated to pose a challenge to Sinn Féin nationally, but turned in a healthy performance nonetheless, with 4 percent of the vote and five MPs elected at time of writing (two more could be added when recounts are completed); to this we can add three ex-ULA MPs who were reelected as left-independents. This will keep open an important space to the left of Sinn Féin.

Problems and Prospects

Sinn Féin now occupies a unique position from which it can shape the near future of Irish politics, North and South. The party’s Northern leadership has been embroiled in a dispute over Tory welfare cuts that are supported by the unionist parties (and by the Dublin government, which is keen to implicate Sinn Féin in such measures). Sinn Féin had previously endorsed the Stormont House Agreement, which committed the signatories to “a comprehensive programme of Public Sector Reform and Restructuring” that would result in “a reduction in the size of the NICS [Northern Irish Civil Service] and the wider public sector.” But with Northern Ireland’s trade union movement mobilizing against the welfare cuts, the party opted to take a stand over the issue.

One of Sinn Féin’s leading northern strategists, Declan Kearney, upped the stakes in June 2015 by arguing that a lower corporate tax rate for the region could no longer be afforded. Kearney warned that George Osborne’s budgetary plans would reduce the power-sharing institutions to “delivery mechanisms for the austerity agenda of a Conservative Government and party with no electoral mandate in the North.” However, the party leadership blinked in November 2015, signing up to the “Fresh Start” agreement, which transferred responsibility for gouging welfare cuts back to Westminster. The deal also contained a massive handout for business, with a pledge to slash corporation tax to the Southern level by 2018. Sinn Féin will face a serious challenge from the left for the first time since the peace process began in this year’s Northern Ireland Assembly election, with a real prospect that the People Before Profit Alliance will gain seats at their expense.

In the South, Sinn Féin pledged to stay on the opposition benches unless it was the largest party in any coalition during the run-up to the general election. As Adams told the 2015 party conference: “Sinn Féin will not prop up either a Fine Gael or a Fianna Fáil government. Sinn Féin wants to lead the next Government.” That left the door open to a coalition with Fianna Fáil, independents, and one of the minor parties if the numbers stacked up. Those on the Left who favored this option, implicitly or explicitly, argued that Fianna Fáil was so keen to get back into power that it would sign up to almost any program for government as long as it could have a few cabinet seats. But in reality, Fianna Fáil is so deeply embedded in the Irish ruling class that its leaders would rather face complete oblivion than do anything that would bring them into confrontation with those interests.

Any “progressive” government that included Fianna Fáil, even in a subordinate role, would have been set up for defeat from the start.

Electoral arithmetic ruled out that option anyway. Having been neck and neck with Sinn Féin for most of the campaign, Fianna Fáil pulled ahead in the final stages, while support for Fine Gael slumped, leaving the two conservative parties almost equally matched. Their combined vote slipped below 50 percent for the first time (in 2007, it was 69 percent). All signs point toward a “grand coalition” deal of some kind as the only pro-troika combination with a secure majority; a second election may alter the balance between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil somewhat, but is unlikely to change the bigger picture.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin saw its support trail off in the last fortnight of the campaign, ending up with 14 percent of first-preference votes: its best score since the 1920s, but a good deal lower than it polled over the past year. There will certainly be a postmortem after the party’s first real setback since the crisis began. One response may be to gradually withdraw Gerry Adams from a frontline role in the party’s Southern leadership in favor of a younger and fresher generation.

Adams has been Sinn Féin’s president since the early eighties, span in which Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour have been through five leaders each. If a “grand coalition” does take shape over the coming weeks, that will leave Sinn Féin as the main opposition force, with the old party system in tatters — a useful position to be in, especially if Ireland experiences more economic turbulence in the near future.

Three points must be stressed about Sinn Féin’s political character as it navigates this shifting landscape. First of all, the party’s radicalism on economic issues should not be exaggerated. Sinn Féin spokesmen are always keen to stress that its anti-austerity stance does not mean that the party is anticapitalist or “anti-business.” Its brand of leftism is social democratic, blended with Irish nationalism: put simply, Sinn Féin is a left-nationalist party which is more nationalist than left.

Secondly, it has a long record of ideological U-turns. Sinn Féin’s refusal to accept any “partitionist” settlement for Northern Ireland, even as a transitional stage toward Irish unity, was loudly and repeatedly declaimed, before it went on to accept the Good Friday Agreement. Similar shifts have been executed over IRA decommissioning, recognition of the Northern Irish police force, and other questions. This record of ideological pragmatism means that any pledge Sinn Féin makes today should be taken lightly.

Thirdly, Sinn Féin’s organizational culture will make it difficult for party members to challenge the leadership if and when they decide to move toward the center. Ó Broin describes it as “an organization which is both highly centralized in its distribution of power and vertical in its structure of command,” where “discipline and loyalty are often more highly valued than critical debate and internal democracy.” There could be no question of Sinn Féin members forming a current like Syriza’s now-departed Left Platform to oppose the leadership line.

With those factors in mind, anyone who wants to see Ireland take its place in the struggle against the Berlin Consensus would be wise not to invest too much hope in Sinn Féin. The party’s growth reflects a leftward shift on the part of a significant minority in the South, and in that sense constitutes a promising sign. But a more consistent and radical movement will be needed to convert that sentiment into a real challenge to capital.