Sinn Féin and Labour… February 27, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.
A provocative piece by David Adams in the Irish Times under the heading “Alliance with SF would be devastating for Labour” certainly caught my eye yesterday morning. In it Adams asks:
How stupid is the Labour Party? The question arises following last weekend’s call by Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams for Labour to do its “duty” and form a left-leaning alliance with Sinn Féin “and others” in opposition to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
If Labour responds positively to Adams’s suggestion, then the answer is, very stupid indeed. As its name suggests, the Ourselves Alone Party does not do friendly, reciprocal relationships with anyone, most especially rivals for votes. Doubtless, there are Labour members who have been courted relentlessly by Sinn Féin prior to last weekend, and as a result may be tempted by what Adams is proposing.
Good stuff – eh?
There are a number of aspects to this which I think are instructive. Firstly Adams appears to know very little about the recent history and make-up of the Labour Party. The idea that they would be enticed by the blandishments of Sinn Féin, particularly given their composition following the merger with Democratic Left, but also given the fact that they already have within them a strong strain which is averse to Republicanism (no doubt infused by earlier mergers with the Democratic Socialist Party and indeed the long shadow of Conor Cruise O’Brien), is an unusual proposition. Indeed as someone who has watched the parties jostle and vie for attention and political advantage over the years it has always seemed to me to be a big ask, given the varying cultures and the history, that they could work together with anything other than gritted teeth. That Seanad deal two Summers ago although good to see in itself hardly heralded a massive change in relations.
That said time changes everything. Eventually. But whether there has been sufficient eventually is the question.
For him the clinching argument is that they… the Labour Party…
…would be well advised to study the recent history of their sister party in the North (not to mention that of the Ulster Unionist Party) before making any rash decisions.
Before trotting out the rather tired formulation that:
Although it remains debatable whether the SDLP was sacrificed to the peace process or to John Hume’s ego, what is not in question is the nature of the sacrifice itself. The SDLP got too close to Sinn Féin (who, if nothing else, are masters of media manipulation), and was almost destroyed as a result.
Let’s stop there for a second. This John Hume ‘ego’ trope (second time I’ve used the word in a week – ah well) only takes us so far. What I find intriguing is that it appears to be forgotten that he was the leader of the SDLP and that that party demurred only slightly as the process continued.
But Adams has a different view…
Its policies were hijacked and presented by Sinn Féin as its own. Every setback for nationalism, both inside and outside political negotiations, was attributed to the SDLP; and every victory claimed by Sinn Féin.
There is an element of truth in this. And yet, it’s not the whole truth. As the situation changed Sinn Féin took full advantage of the opportunities that opened up. Dominant voice in nationalism and Republicanism? That will do nicely, thank you. Work power-sharing institutions based within Northern Ireland? Ditto. Eventually accept the PSNI. Ditto squared.
But it is only if one considers these events in isolation that it seems like Sinn Féin simply supplanted the SDLP and assumed its positions. When one looks at this as a process it is evident that they occurred across a decade and more, that each came grudgingly slow and that the process was never quite as inevitable as its most avid proponents suggested. And such a viewpoint ignores fundamental changes that occurred during the process from the eventual demise of PIRA to the acceptance by Republicanism and Nationalism of “an Orange Green state” as Martin McGuinness said as recently this weekend. Is David Adams seriously arguing that the constitutional dispensation in the North in 1990 was identical to that in 1998? That nothing had fundamentally changed? Because that appears to be the logic of his argument.
But if the context and dispensation had changed then it follows on that the likelihood was that all else within that context would change.
And even if it were true that what Sinn Féin settled for was ultimately a version of a solution that was available in 1972 to 1973, that is to ignore that in 1972/3 large tranches of Unionism and all of Republicanism were simply unwilling (and psychologically unable) to give their assent to what was proposed. That did not materially change for decades afterwards, and more pertinently the SDLP alone was unable to sell that solution until eventually Republicanism joined it.
But let’s look at it a bit more deeply. One could ask David Adams what the point of the SDLP was? Was it just to continue as a political formation or was its purpose to deliver something approaching peace to the North? The answer is of course a blend of both, but in a global sense it has to weigh more to the latter than the former – unless we’ve lost all moral compass.
And it’s not that Adams has his lost moral compass, but merely that he looks at this in a party political zero-sum game. What is good for Sinn Féin is consequently bad for the SDLP and what is bad for the SDLP is consequently bad for everyone.
The reality is that the SDLP was not ‘sacrificed’ to the peace process, although such a sacrifice would – in my view – be well worth making by any democratic party worth its salt.
In a classic divide and conquer tactic, employed recently against the Rev Ian Paisley and First Minister Peter Robinson in an unsuccessful attempt to split the DUP, care was taken to separate in the public mind “good” SDLP members from “bad”. Good constituted those who wholeheartedly supported the alliance, whereas bad would have been those like Séamus Mallon, who never hid his contempt for Sinn Féin or his suspicions about the party’s true intentions.
At the finish, the once largest and by far the most capable nationalist party in the North was almost completely hollowed out.
This too is an odd argument. Are parties meant to be near eternal formations, gifted their position by right? That’s an argument we often hear, again implicitly, but it simply doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny. And Adams, who surely cannot be that very much older than myself must himself have experienced such, not least since he was once a member of the relatively short-lived Ulster Democratic Party (it lasted 20 years), the loyalist party close to the UDA. Did he consider when a member of that party that he should not attempt to supplant the bigger battalions of the UUP and the DUP? Did he ponder the changes in that party’s programme from support initially for independence for Northern Ireland in the EU to eventual support for devolution.
But of this not a whisper… instead we are treated to:
It [the SDLP] was left not so much with a crisis of identity, but with the task of trying to convince a by then former electorate that it still had any identity (and purpose) of its own left.
Still, there’s something profoundly contradictory about the following:
Long outdated revolutionary rhetoric [really? He can't have been watching the same reports I did] and a portfolio of policies which constitute little more than clichés and soundbites, has the party stuck on low percentage points in the polls [that's incorrect too - their poll ratings are actually quite healthy in the South]. Moreover, it is incapable of moving beyond that position without help.
And that, of course, is where the Labour Party would come in useful.
Leaving aside for a moment the obvious dangers to Labour, one is at a loss to imagine how such an alliance would hold any attraction for the electorate.
Well, if such an alliance held no attraction to the electorate surely it is unlikely that Labour and SF would pursue it?
Yet, he glances off the substance of the situation when he mentions ‘It [the SDLP] was left not so much with a crisis of identity, but with the task of trying to convince a by then former electorate that it still had any identity (and purpose) of its own left’ but he doesn’t follow it up. The reality was, just as Sinn Féin supplanted the Irish Parliamentary Party following the 1916 Rising, so a later incarnation supplanted the SDLP as the dominant voice of Nationalism and Republicanism in the North. The key word is ‘purpose’. What purpose did the SDLP have in a context where SF had leveraged its way to the centre of the discourse, where it was dealt with as something near to an equal (at least in functional terms, if only briefly) by the governments involved, when it presented a much younger and more dynamic image. And as with that earlier Sinn Féin it also presented both an image of opposition to that which had come before, and in and of itself was a manifestation of change and difference. Where, more importantly, the SDLP had had twenty years to reach a solution and had failed given the configuration of forces extant at that point.
The Irish Parliamentary Party became a husk, hollowed out, to use Adams term, by long decades of engagement and conciliation. The situation wasn’t quite identical for the SDLP, but its very longevity counted against it, and it’s clear lack of ability to progress what had by the early 1980s become essentially a stalemate (and let’s not even get into class aspects of all this).
That this change and difference – ironically – elided to some degree with formulations previously championed by the SDLP is, and this I entirely understand, a bitter pill for some. Yet the crucial aspect of this is that it was centred within the North. That polity has its own very distinctive features.
But equally it is the nature of the dynamic of the Southern polity which is crucial in understanding what the future may hold for SF.
Firstly, I think it is inconceivable that Sinn Féin could supplant the Labour Party in the way that he implicitly suggests. This isn’t a case, as in the North, that Sinn Féin can become a clearly dominant voice on a particular ideological axis. The Labour Party has been out of power for well over a decade. It doesn’t ‘represent’ the left in quite the same way as the SDLP represented Northern nationalism or that it itself represents Republicanism. It can’t be superseded in quite the same way as the SDLP was on that ground. And that’s before we get to political contexts on the ground and the distinction between Parliamentary elections under FPTP and Dáil and Seanad elections under PR (granted the institutions of the GFA operate under PR, but they came relatively late in the political rise of SF and perhaps represent a consolidation of their support). My own sense is that SF might capture 6 seats, perhaps on a very very good day 8, at an election. On a bad day? They might be down to 2 or less. But even taking the higher figure this is still considerably below the number of seats captured by Labour even during their worst election results.
Secondly they’re almost but not quite fishing in the same pond. Similar, absolutely and with considerable cross over, but not absolutely identical. As we saw with the Workers’ Party in the 1980s and early 1990s – and Democratic Left after, even when those parties which had a much more explicitly left wing platform (although arguably a greater appeal than SF) – they didn’t damage Labour hugely, indeed Labour in 1992 was able to gain 33 seats while four DL seats and one WP seat remained.
Thirdly, and in a sense this follows on from the previous point, the culture of Sinn Féin in the South is one that is positioned within a more clearly left wing approach than that which seems to be evident in the North. Part of that is the opportunity to be more oppositional, part of it distinctions which were arguably pre-existing long before the ceasefires. But this makes it difficult for SF to present itself as being as entirely pragmatic as it can do in the North (and incidentally, fascinating to reflect on the very slightly divergent tone on the EU from their two MEPs… one based in the North the other in the South). But this culture means that a broad-based appeal – like that that Sinn Féín could lock into in the North – is much more limited, if it exists at all. Here SF is hobbled by the existence of too many first movers… Fianna Fáil for constitutional nationalism with a very slight edge (and granted we don’t hear much of that these days, but again its a matter of tone), Labour and a plethora of other groups on the left and so on.
Add to that the not exactly small matter of the public perception of Sinn Féin, perhaps fading somewhat but still inevitably linked with the previous decades, and it is clear that for them to establish a break-out from the mid single digit figures in terms of representation would be quite some achievement.
Indeed the fascinating aspect is that Sinn Féin has managed to carve out any political representation at all in the Dáil given these circumstances which on the face of it seem to stack up in a manner profoundly negative to their project.
All this simply seems to point to the idea that the rise and rise of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland was a function of very specific circumstances just as its apparent stalling in the South is the result of very specific circumstances.
And that is why I doubt that even should such an alliance come into being, and there’s simply no evidence of any appetite for same, that Sinn Féin would in some sort of hegemonising fashion sweep the Labour Party aside. A much more likely outcome would see Sinn Féin remaining a junior partner for quite some time to come, if not indeed indefinitely. And, let’s get some perspective here, we’re talking about smaller parties here, parties with – so far, although this may be changing – limited appeal in a polity dominated by two larger centre right formations.
All that said I think such an alliance would be a useful step forward, even if it were on a very limited basis initially, and could benefit both parties. And if David Adams, fine fellow though he is, says it shouldn’t be so… well, I’m more than ever convinced of the opposite…