Sinn Féin and its travails… part 2 June 30, 2009Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The Left.
A while ago Splintered Sunrise made what I thought was a pretty good point about Sinn Féin and dissident Republicanism and I quoted it then, and I’ll quote it now…
Here’s the thing. It’s often said in dissident circles that the Provisionals have given up on the goal of the 32-county socialist republic. But, while you can make some rhetorical hay around them sitting in the Stormont executive, it’s not true to say they’ve ditched the goal. It’s on the first page of their programme, after all. You can talk about people being corrupted, or institutionalised by a process they thought was going in another direction, or simply worn down by war-weariness, but you’re still, in the main, talking about people who want to be republicans on some level. That’s why the parades, and the tributes to past heroes; that’s why Martin McGuinness was talking just there about winning the republic by 2014.
I think that it’s also possible to say that they also – in the main – people who want, however widely drawn we offer that term as a definition, to be of the left… Now In some respects this is a cultural affiliation, one doesn’t spend decades knocking around with leftish liberation movements of various stripes without taking on some aspects of their approach. Nor is it possible in an Irish context to ignore the reality of an history, even if a rather weak strand in the broader context, of the left Republican approach that has almost instinctively pushed the bulk of Republicanism towards that widely drawn and of times ill-defined definition of leftism. And in purely pragmatic terms, where first mover status was gifted to Fianna Fáil, an appeal to a more narrowly drawn class constituency made a certain degree of sense – not least in that such a constituency delivered at least two political groupings, Clann na Poblachta and the WP, certain dividends during the 20th century.
With that in mind the fact that the SF vote has stabilised at about 7% is a little remarked oddity. That’s somewhat higher than the Workers’ Party at their best, lower – obviously, although not by a huge degree – than Labour. That they returned about the same number of Councillors as last local election (which saw them increase their numbers substantially on the previous one) equally so. After all, neither of those seem to presage total collapse, now do they? Indeed one could argue that simply to arrive at such a point is an achievement in itself all things considered.
On this matter Eoin Ó Broin’s recent piece in the Irish Times has some useful thoughts. It’s suitably chastened, and in fairness realistic – noting that Sinn Féin had actually, and contrary to some media reports, held its own other than the loss of the MEP (a near-foregone conclusion given the disposition of seats in Dublin this time out and a strong and strongly transfer friendly alternative left candidate). That said it seems a little thin on what precisely the way forward might be and curiously lacking in an ideological approach.
Ó Broin argues that…
We went into this latest election with 51 city and county council seats, and came out with 54. We made important breakthroughs in Limerick, Wicklow, Cork, Tipperary and Kilkenny. Our European vote was up overall, and up significantly in the South and East constituencies.
He doesn’t mention that the FPV at the local elections was marginally down. Still, he also notes that this was came…
IN 2004 … a major leap forward in the 26 counties by trebling its council representation, securing a Euro seat in Dublin, and coming very close to taking a second seat in the North West.
Crucially, our vote across the State, in real and percentage terms, was up on the poor performance in 2007.
However, on a number of councils, Dublin city in particular, our vote share was down. We lost three seats on the city council and one in Fingal.
He notes that despite:
…detailed proposals on job retention and creation, and on tackling the public finance deficit. We also outlined many positive alternatives on issues such as the banking crisis, housing, health, and local government service provision.
We called on voters to turn their anger towards the Government into positive action for change at local, national and European levels.
While many people heard this message, a significant number chose the Labour Party over Sinn Féin. In Dublin, a smaller but nonetheless significant number of voters chose other left-wing parties and individuals.
He leaves the reasons he thinks that SF ‘failed to close the deal’ with voters frustratingly vague:
Why this was the case is a matter for discussion within the party. Issues of organisational capacity, access to and use of the media, and clarity and credibility of our policies and message will all be scrutinised in coming days.
Clearly, Sinn Féin has more work to do in convincing people that the need for a politics without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael is in the best interests of all. Equally, we have more work to do in demonstrating that, in addition to sound principles, our party has the policies and the ability to deliver real change when elected.
Crucially, the positive reputation for hard work and honest representation which our party enjoys in many of the State’s most deprived communities has yet to be translated into a more general belief that Sinn Féin can and must be a party of government.
That last statement begs a question. Does he mean local government, or national government or both? I’m presuming the latter but… that begs yet further questions because the potential routes to national government are limited.
Indeed, looking at results in major urban centres such as Dublin and Cork, it is clear that there is an appetite for a political future without Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Dublin and Cork cities now have a clear left majority, and if others are willing to step up to the plate, real change on a broad range of social, economic and political fronts can be delivered.
The others, one presumes, would really be Labour. Problem is we’ve seen Fine Gael and Labour acting in tandem in various contexts these last two weeks. And it is hard to see Labour diverting itself from its current date with destiny to lend a fraternal hand to Sinn Féin.
And that’s ignoring the further issue that as it stands Labour isn’t in and of itself sufficiently strong to take power, even with Sinn Féin making up numbers, as a ‘left’ alternative. Or so the polls seem to indicate. So what precisely is the strategy? For years some of us at the CLR, and elsewhere, have been pushing the idea of some form of left unity, but… the last two years have been a hard education. At every point where such unity could develop we have seen parties resile, for a variety of reasons it has to be said. Some have gone into government. Others have eschewed it. Others still have made moves towards government through changing policies and so on. At no point have we seen any serious moves for coordination of the left. And I can’t see that changing in the near future.
Indeed paradoxically the only way some form of left unity might occur seems to be through that aforementioned ‘make up the numbers’ process whereby FG, or less feasibly FF, might need more than one other party of the left (in all its glory – depending upon your definition) to successfully take power. The last such shot-gun wedding of Labour and Democratic Left led to the subsuming of the latter by the former (which was a certain irony for those of us who recall how bitter were the relations between the two during the FF/Labour coalition). Now that’s a dynamic unlikely to be replicated by any other party plus Labour/Sinn Féin coalition, but since Labour, or at least parts of it, appear disdainful if not openly contemptuous of SF such a coalition seems unlikely to be constructed except in extremis.
Which oddly may be quite good news for Sinn Féin which can position itself to the left of Labour in advance of that party possibly going into government. Indeed one could argue that a holding position now is the best possible position to be going forward because they will be well sorted to attract support on the left that Labour sheds if it does tie the knot with FG. And five years further down the line? Well, we’ll all be five years older, but by then SF will – I suspect – be a much more congenial political partner for some.
What’s also striking is that Ó Broin – particularly in his Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism – explicitly articulates a clearly left Republican viewpoint, and is clearly of the party as it now stands. For some that is merely a cosmetic facade, and yet such a position is deeply rooted in Republicanism. And for all the complaints about selling out and diluting their leftism thus far they still seem wedded to a position on the left of the political spectrum. Now, that can change. But one could wonder, even quite cynically, why they would seek to do so at this point when a little bit of patience might reap dividends in terms of further electoral support?
There’s also oddities about the position of SF in both parts of the island.
And this leads to a thought that has been nagging at me for quite some time. Because it seems to me that Sinn Féin has many of the characteristics of a regional party. Now, as Ó Broin notes, they now have representation in all but one of the 32 counties, but it’s impossible to consider the current state of Sinn Féin without noticing the remarkable imbalance in terms of support and power across the island. It is, as perhaps it always has been in the modern period, concentrated on the North and North East of the island. And beyond that its reach is limited. That said, let’s not underplay the reality of four TDs and the prospect that at the next election that number could be joined by at least one or two more. It’s purchase, as evidenced by the local elections remains tenacious. But that support is attenuated compared and contrasted with the North.
Now I’m not quite comparing SF to say a regional party like the Christian Social Union in Bavaria. The situation in Northern Ireland doesn’t allow for such pat comparisons – there is no clear-cut CDU like partner in the South (obviously due to ideological reasons that too doesn’t allow for pat comparisons). Nor is it true that Sinn Féin in the South is simply a creature of the Sinn Féin in the North. But there seem to be clear structural and cultural distinctions between its impacts North and South (and these presumably will increase as time progresses and if the institutions in the North remain extant). It has also been very clear that there are no great economies of scale operating in terms of increasing the vote South of the border. In part that may be due to the simple fact that the slow drudgery of government has pushed Sinn Féin from the headlines that it dominated in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Where this leaves Sinn Féin in the short term, though, is a different matter. There’s no doubting that the recent departure of a number of councillors has been – in terms of the optics – far from healthy. The loss of the European seat leaves them weakened on a very specific front, this at a time when Lisbon II would offer them a perfect opportunity to gain publicity in a leading role in the NO campaign. That that role will now be most likely taken by Joe Higgins won’t improve their position in any respect (although I’ve never been entirely convinced that Higgins is that interested in the EU, the SP line on that matter has always seemed to me to be a bit pro forma, not entirely surprising that since they never had any direct interaction with it… Having an MEP may tighten up their critique and who knows, Joe may begin to enjoy engaging with that larger stage). Their limited representation in the Dáil and Seanad has presented them with a mountain to climb simply to be able to articulate their individual position on a raft of issues in that forum. That’s hardly likely to change.
And yet, they remain in the Dáil and Seanad. They remain at a reasonably strong figure nationally. And, looking briefly at a specific issue, while there are often quite lazy comparisons between Sinn Féin and the Workers’ Party, if we are to take local government as a yardstick then it’s worth reflecting on the rather interesting fact that in 1991 the WP gained 7 seats across the 26 counties at the local elections bringing their total number to 24. This was at the time when the WP had its greatest Dáil representation of 7 TDs. The implication being that Sinn Féin has a broader and somewhat deeper pool of support and has managed to retain that from the relative good times of 2004 to the rather more difficult period it now is in.
Their biggest problem will simply be keeping the show on the road. They will have to be seen to do well at Lisbon II – a difficult proposition given the range of forces stacked against them, and the new status accorded to Joe Higgins. They have to demonstrate a clear alternative in the Dáil, tricky considering their current marginal status. They will have to increase their representation at the next election even if only marginally, a repeat of 2007 would be a dismal outcome. And beyond that they have to if not grow at least cohere.
Of course that future seems unknowable. Is Sinn Féin likely to pick up seats at the next election?
It’s seems clear that Sinn Féin may be reaching an upper limit to its growth in the South. It’s overall vote in the high single digits might be the best it can do. It’s problematic. Unlike Labour which for decades subsisted politically on not dissimilar figures, but had the advantage of a clear concentration of its vote in useful areas, Sinn Féin seems to depend upon rural redoubts and simply not be making the impact in urban areas that one might expect it would on paper. So it can continually gain 7% or even higher in national polls and yet only return one to – possibly – six or seven TDs.
Of course TDs aren’t the only game in town. But they are crucial to a party which has so clearly time and again articulated a vision of government as being central to promoting its agenda.
And there are other problems. 2016 is racing towards us. It would be a brave person who was confident that Sinn Féin could double its representation in the Dáil prior to that date, a doubling which would only result in eight seats. Better than the Workers’ Party in its heyday achieved, and certainly tailor made for coalition, but a long way from the decisive shift to a larger party size that is sought.
So far they’ve found a niche and adapted to it. Whether they can make more of it than they currently do is the question. It doesn’t seem likely that they’ll let go anytime soon.