How soon is now? August 21, 2006Posted by WorldbyStorm in Ireland, Irish Politics, Marxism, Northern Ireland, The Left, Uncategorized.
The relationship between other parties and Sinn Féin in the run-up to the General Election has already been discussed here. That looks like a serious can of worms. However, an even more interesting can of worms must be the status of Sinn Féin as a possible coalition partner in government. To date most parties have ruled out such a coalition – which is interesting in itself.
Sinn Féin is, apparently, for the moment beyond the democratic pale. Or…not quite beyond the pale, as it is permitted to stand in elections at all levels within the society, but the idea that it might actually enter government at this point in time is somehow anathema. Now the great contradiction is that the political dynamic of parties within the Republic of Ireland has at least rhetorically, as expressed in numerous Dáil debates and elsewhere, for Sinn Féin to give up violence and become a ‘normal political party’, and moreover for it to do these things in part so that it could exercise power in a devolved administration at Stormont. The rationale between the strict differentiation between the ‘national’ parliament in Dublin and the ‘regional’ or ’subsidiary’ assembly/executive at Stormont. That both exercise power over citizens (or more accurately subjects in the North) appears to be less important.
I’ve posed this question before on Politics.ie, and one response I received was that if SF went through the same process as the DL, ceasefires (while the OSF), a change of name, a reconstruction of the party, the jettisoning of the party leadership then, and only then, would it be ready for government.
To be honest I think this is inadequate, and worse, a misreading of history. Firstly DL didn’t go through that process – or not exactly. And it strikes me that it overstates image over identity. (Incidentally I’m always entertained by the charge that Sinn Féin is in some respect ‘Marxist’. I don’t think so. Left wing reformist – at best, to use the jargon. And to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen…I’ve been a member of a Marxist party, and Sinn Féin are no Marxists).
Let me explain, it is true that the Workers’ Party went through a number of name changes. There was Sinn Féin, Official Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin – The Workers’ Party, The Workers’ Party, and then the Great Split where the leadership of the WP effectively reconstituted themselves as the Democratic Left in the early 1990s. But what’s important about this is the following. The names changed, but the personnel didn’t. Those who had leadership positions within the party during the 1970s still held leadership positions during the 1990s. Indeed – whisper it quietly – some have gone on to do quite well in another party.
The reconstruction of the party is a different issue – and it was one that the WP’s opponents used to use as a stick to beat it with on a continual basis. The WP, as with many supposedly Marxist parties, organised through the principle of democratic centralism, in other words once a decision was agreed democratically by the party it was meant to be adhered to with a rigorous discipline. Often that meant the decision was never resubmitted to the party membership and it allowed the core party leadership to retain considerable control over the membership. This isn’t unusual in political organisations, but openly adhering to this principle elevated it’s significance.
DL dropped ‘democratic centralism’ but – perhaps inevitably due to the small size of the membership – tended to be driven by the leadership rather than the membership.
Ceasefires. Hmmm…tricky one this. Official Sinn Féin certainly did ceasefire back in the early 1970s. However, as Vincent Browne has maintained (throughout something of a career of studying the WP in an earlier incarnation of Magill), a ceasefire is not a decommissioning. The unfortunate reality is that the Official IRA maintained an existence throughout the 1970s and on – and if we are to believe the FBI and the UK security forces it still exists. Indeed, it’s hard to countenance anyone who was a member of the WP in the 1980s and early 1990s being unaware of the nebulous existence of such a body. And it wasn’t entirely nebulous either. Yet, no decommissioning was ever carried out by the OIRA. And it’s arguable that the activities it appears to have been involved in – such as counterfeiting – posed as great, in not a greater, potential threat to the state than the localised, often murderous, activities of the PIRA.
If one is to argue that PSF sought to overthrow the Republic of Ireland and replace it with a different state, is that in itself radically different from the variation on a theme that the Workers’ Party also proposed? Both argued (although it’s interesting how SF is moving towards more mainstream positions) that a revolutionary change was necessary that would utterly transform this state.
The chronology is interesting. Democratic Left sprang into being in 1992. By 1994 it was a part of a Fine Gael led government and by 1999 it had merged with the Labour party. I don’t for one second wish to impugn those who were members of the party, but this is a remarkable transformation from hard-line Marxism, which was the particular political brand the WP promoted, linked to a still extant paramilitary organisation that had not jettisoned any of it’s weaponry (and it’s worth bearing in mind that at the time of the original PIRA/OIRA split the latter was for some time the larger organisation in terms of personnel and weaponry, and even the attrition during the 1970s and the further split with the INLA left it – so it is believed – with considerable firepower).
Compare and contrast with Sinn Féin. A process of political engagement from the 1980s onwards. A number of cessations during the 1990s leading to a complete end of armed activity against the state in the North and South. An internationally monitored process of decommissioning carried out thoroughly enough to satisfy the hard-headed individuals overseeing it and most recently the disbandment of the Provisional IRA. Indeed the background noise of paramilitary inspired violence (punishment beatings etc) has reduced to a whisper. Granted PIRA was an organisation that was directly responsible for the death of many more individuals than OIRA. Yet the journey it took and the destination it arrived at suggests greater effort and – arguably – greater sincerity on the part of those who made it, however self-serving, or deluding, that might have been.
And worst of all is the sense that while Fine Gael may take a decade or more to deal with Sinn Féin, that too is but a matter of time. Some day, and apologies if I’m upsetting anyone, there will almost inevitably be a coalition involving SF, FG and Labour.
With Fianna Fáil and Labour that eventuality is probably much closer.
And time for what? To expiate all previous sins? Is that actually possible? I’m not sure that it is. It’s worth considering the Sean MacBride who was Chief of Staff of the IRA during the 1930s was part of the first Inter-Party government as Minister for External Affairs.
But if we hold Sinn Féin to a standard it is interesting that we appear to hold others to a different standard. And although I can see differences between the Workers’ Party and Sinn Féin they’re not on such a scale as make the comparisons invalid.
Finally, I’m raising these issues not because I think Sinn Féin in government is necessarily a good thing, or a bad thing, but simply out of curiosity as to the reasoning behind the current seeming fatwa against their participation and a further curiosity as to how long such a fatwa is expected to last.