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Sinn Fein meeting fails to resolve contradictions of electoral strategy

John McAnulty 

15 August 2009

The Sinn Fein emergency meeting in Navan on August 10th set itself the task of resolving the strategic and political crisis that has faced it since the outcome of the European elections. It failed utterly. The contradictions facing it are much deeper than it is willing to admit and the nature of the organization is such that it cannot resolve these contradictions.

The meeting itself illustrated many of the weaknesses of the party. The lack of any real internal democracy - the meeting was an 'ard chomhairle plus' meeting. It wasn't a meeting of the leadership or a meeting of delegates because all decisions are made by a tiny circle and party structures mean nothing. The lack of internal democracy is only matched by the absence of internal debate, with one of the main internal critics, Tioreasa Ferris, stressing her absolute loyalty to the leadership and its policies and indicating that the only issue was the need to make southern voters aware of their good fortune in having such a leadership to vote for. Long-standing members who had resigned were abused and slandered. The Adams leadership was confirmed in place, reiterating old contradictory strategies and setting a meaningless target of three extra TDs in order to have extra parliamentary privileges.

The overall strategy of Sinn Fein was not discussed. Signing up to the northern settlement had made them the darlings of Irish capital. The Provos intended to capitalise on their new popularity by expanding their electoral base. This would enable them to gain a place in government as junior partner to Fianna Fail. In some unexplained way Sinn Fein in two partitioned assemblies would advance the cause of Irish unity.

Despite initial success it was a strategy doomed to fail. Sinn Fein's popularity was based around its claim to have solved the national question. If their claim was true, what need for Sinn Fein? In any case the smell of corruption from the Sinn Fein/DUP administration in the North was eating into their credibility. The organization reconfigured as a miniature Fianna Fail, but Ireland already had a Fianna Fail party. The outcome of the European and local government elections drove their failure home. At a time when the Fianna Fail vote was collapsing they made no gains and their flagship candidate, Mary Lou McDonald, was defeated by Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party.

That failure threw Sinn Fein unto the horns of another dilemma. In order to speed up their alliance with Fianna Fail and retain their new supporters they presented themselves as a 'party of government' - that is a party of the right. Nowhere was this more the case than in relation to the economy. This tended to weaken support in their core vote in sections of the urban working class. The proposal being made by some members is that they adopt a more left and populist policy to retain this base and fuel future growth.

In reality this road is not open to Sinn Fein. A party established in a colonial administration, in coalition with a far-right sectarian party and with the aim of joining a right-wing coalition in the 26 county state can't really hope to present itself as a left party. In any case such a strategy would require many years to implement. Sinn Fein doesn't have that time. There is all the difference in the word between being a growing party in the South linked to an apparently popular and successful Northern administration and being a fringe party with no very clear purpose linked to a decaying and corrupt Northern administration. The real urgency of the present crisis for Sinn Fein is that their position is unraveling not only in the South, but in the North also. They trumpeted their position at the top of the EU poll in the North, but this was the outcome of Unionist division. In reality their vote plateaued, even falling slightly. They have nowhere to go but down. At the same time there has been a growth of traditional republican organizations. While they are unable to win large-scale support for positions identical to those of Sinn Fein 15 years ago, the Shinners respond by supporting state repression and this in turn leads to a falling off of both members and votes.

The Navan meeting had one strategic outcome. Sinn Fein would do what it had been doing already, only more intensely. It would appeal to the capitalists as a potential party of government while appealing to the working class as a radical left party. The mechanism for this strategy would be the second Lisbon treaty. As a left party it would campaign against Lisbon. As a potential party of government it would underline its support for the European capitalist project, of which Lisbon is simply the latest element.

The only people likely to fall for this are the small socialist movement. In the first Lisbon referendum, with no other aim than a big vote, unwilling to deal with class issues, they were happy to promote onto the left not only Sinn Fein, but also the Green party, then in government and supporting the Lisbon treaty.

After Lisbon 1 the Greens lost both members and their vote. Socialists were unable to gain from their fall, even though it was clear that the party stood in the way of the building of a working class movement because they were much less willing to provide a critique of the Greens than the dissident members of that party.

The same argument applies in spades to Sinn Fein. A genuine working class campaign opposing European capital would derail the Shinners pretenses. To a much greater extent than the Greens, Sinn Fein, in collaboration with imperialism yet posing as radicals, represent a barrier to the working class. Their greatest boon to Irish workers would be to shuffle off the stage of history. It is the duty of socialists to help them on their way. 


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