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The Forward March of Sinn Féin – Halted. June 7, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Election 2007, Irish Politics.

I’ve been meaning to come back to this for a while now. Well, two weeks to be precise. Because it sort of dawned on me over that two week period since the election that something very strange happened to Sinn Féin.

Okay, we’ve all heard the reasons why they didn’t do well, and actually lost a seat. Gerry Adams did not acquit himself well on the debate. Mary Lou McDonald was a blow-in in Dublin Central. Unable to garner even the same number of first preferences as Nicky Kehoe back in 2002. Their candidates underfired in all the constituencies they contested, even to the point of a nail biting conclusion to the vote in Dublin South Central where two left candidates vied for the final seat. The fall out from delayed full decommissioning and incidents in the North in the past two years left them weakened.

And all of this is true. Every single element. But…you may have heard here that Sinn Féin had somehow inherited the old Workers’ Party vote and was building upon that. I’m not so sure any longer. Or if it were true, say five years ago, it may not be true today.

I’ve noted previously that the left was in retreat, in part because their vote was on loan from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and when the chips were down and a real prospect of some sort of contest between the two larger parties was apparent that vote went home as rapidly as was humanly possible. Bleak news for the left. We appear to have reverted to the early 1980s, albeit that Fine Gael is less strong than it used to be and we see a more fissiparous left with a greater number of parties. More cheeringly the pattern is of stagnation rather than disintegration.

But…let’s consider the Workers’ Party vote again. I’ve wondered if the Sinn Féin leadership consciously modeled their approach on the WP (not in terms of policy but in terms of overall strategy). That is strong community activism, a fairly coherent ideological approach with a clarity of line and a rigid political discipline. If so they would have studied the runes and portents from 1997 onwards where SF made its first inroads into the system with – no doubt – some pleasure. One seat. Then five. All in all, not that different to the progress of the WP which had 1 then 2, then 4, then 7 before it’s self-immolation in 1991. Again this was built off well over a decade of community activism which saw WP candidates launch themselves again and again at an electorate that was initially hostile, then indifferent, then interested and finally supportive.

Hold on, though. Ideological coherence and clarity of line? Consider that the WP in 1987-88 announced something of a rapprochement with the market – not bad going for Stalinists (or all too typical some might say). And yet maintained a strong distinctive democratic socialist identity. There was no serious modification to this line in 1989, when it gained 7 seats, although noises off included Eoghan Harris and his poignantly simplistic appeal for the “Necessity for Social Democracy” (or: Destination Fine Gael for the more cynical amongst us). Furthermore there was no indication that the WP was particularly interested in sharing power with other formations, particularly those on the right. Indeed the exercise of power was regarded as something much further down the road. The interim aim was – at least to some degree – to replace Labour. Now implicit in recognising the market was perhaps a recognition that electoral politics was where it was at, and that being the case coalition was a future option. But it certainly wasn’t sold as such to the rank and file – and I think it’s telling how difficult it was to convince the membership of DL some years later that the FG/Labour coalition was a useful proposal (I didn’t agree with that proposition then and I don’t agree with it now).

Now compare and contrast with Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin made it clear from the get go that it sought power. It began to jettison policies with all the abandon of a man in a sinking lifeboat throws the food supplies overboard while the sharks are circling. It may buy you precious extra moments afloat, but chances are if you survive you won’t survive long… Corporation tax? Not a problem… Splash.

So at a crucial point it abandoned the core discipline and seemingly core policies in favour of a naked – I won’t call it electoralism because it didn’t work – hunger for power. That’s a trick you can only play once successfully and I think it will take time for it to regain credibility on these issues.

But… more importantly it demonstrates the dangers of pitching towards the electoral centre when everyone else is doing so. Problem is everyone else can do it more convincingly. And, arguably the oppositional section of the SF vote saw little to be gained by it joining an FF government. Look at the current events with the Green Party where it’s clear that a significant portion of their base is extremely unhappy at the thought of an FF/Green coalition. It probably won’t split the party, but…as with DL it might cause a slow march away from that particular site of struggle leading to a serious problem for individual TDs in 2012.

And returning to the Workers’ Party one last time – it isn’t the path the WP took. It remained focussed on constituency and community – at least until the post 1989 period when the parliamentary party became too strong a group and was able to detach itself firstly (and perhaps laudably) from the party apparatus and secondly (and much less laudably) from the party membership. But then the WP didn’t have the luxury of having a measure of power across the border. Nor did it have a globally recognised leadership. All it had was work on the ground. Plod, plod, plod (Unfortunately some of that was the sound of the TDs marching away…).

That’s what SF will have to do now. And not just SF.

This is not to ignore other facts. Perhaps the Adams/Paisley photographs allowed a section of the recent SF vote, loaned from FF, to abandon it, confident that peace had been achieved. Perhaps the demographics are going the wrong way – arguably a factor in the loss of the Socialist Party seat, a Socialist Party that continually eschewed the blandishments of power. Perhaps the left is screwed whatever way it goes.

But then again perhaps people – at this point in time – don’t want left parties that are willing to join government with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil with apparently unseemly haste and instead want there to be strong oppositional voices in society and in the Dáil. Maybe people don’t want the left in power, but they want it to act as joker and conscience to those who are in power. That’s enormously unsatisfactory, isn’t it? But it does suggest that Labour, the Greens and Sinn Féin had better come up with a much more coherent approach in the future, one that doesn’t mistake arriving in government with the achievement of their basic objectives.

and for more on this consider Michael Taft


1. Ed Hayes - June 8, 2007

Allow me an Eoghan Harris moment. Even though I have voted for them in the past (didn’t this time because the candidate was Mary Lou) I was happy to see SF get a wake up call. Their smugness, arrogance and general air of invinceability needed taking down a peg. The fact is that Adams and co still have not come to terms with the fact that they led a war which achieved nothing and argubly made Ireland a worse place. The problem with SF is what they see as their strength to quote Brian Feeney’s book ‘the only principle is success.’ Therefore dropping their tax policy because the free staters didn’t like it is normal for them. Theres no bottom line whereas there was for the WP (or most of them anyway). During the election Gerry A and Jim Gibney informed their party in the south that coalition with FF was their preferred outcome; what a grand vision! Now apparently they have decided that the election shows that they got the ‘republican’ vote in Cavan/Mon, North Kerry etc and that the urbanites are uninterested in socialism; therefore more flag waving the next time, a more strident version of FF. But, though I hate sounding like the SINDO, the bottom line is, much as I hate FF and FG and especially the PDs, none of the above have 2,000 dead on on their hands. its about time someone sat down and looked at what went on in the north and how it started and when you look at it the Provos bear a huge amount of responsibility for that war. They were not simply a reaction to British repression or Unionist misrule and they are sanitising their own history. I didn’t always think this, in fact 20 years ago I thought the opposite but looking back on key events and decisions taken I think that was the case.


2. Ed Hayes - June 8, 2007

BTW I think that in order to avoid sounding like the SINDO a lot of people on the left now give the Provos a easy ride historically. Perhaps some former WP people do it in a reaction to that party’s myopia on that issue.


3. Joe - June 8, 2007

I’m beginning to think that SF could be in serious crisis after this election. What motivated SF activists down the years? The old activists were motivated by their ONE BIG ISSUE – a United Ireland, defeat the British, fight back against the repression. And they were hugely motivated – every volunteer lost, every killing (committed by them or their enemies) motivated them, gave them the passion which they then transferred to the electoral and local community work which they’ve been developing for the last 20 years. Those older activists were then joined by younger heads who joined a winning team – SF were going places, were doing good things in hard-pressed working class communities. It was easy to get on board. I honestly think that there is a serious possibility of serious disillusion setting in to the SF machine post the election. How can that drive and motivation be reinvigorated? Add to that a membership with no experience of renewing their leadership – a leadership that might now be being seen as having feet of clay. A membership that probably can’t conceive of removing their leadership and replacing them.
I just honestly can’t see SF recovering from this.


4. WorldbyStorm - June 9, 2007

Problem is Ed, that there was an over reaction by the WP, particularly in view of their history. And…it was also responsible for a bloodstained history, yet those who fully supported it get a pass out of jail free while those who came a longer distance don’t. I think it’s unuseful, to coin a word, to start casting aspersions at this point.

And Joe, I’m not sure you’re absolutely right, although I share much of your analysis. I think that they will survive and not just in certain areas. There is a serious commitment there which isn’t going to fade away. But survival doesn’t necessarily mean expansion. I could see a situation where there are 5-7 SF TDs for quite a while yet.


5. ejh - June 9, 2007

Adams and co still have not come to terms with the fact that they led a war which achieved nothing and argubly made Ireland a worse place

It does seem to me that there has, in fact, been some coming to terms, but on the other hand you really can’t expect people to fully co-operate with an ideological process which permanently demands that they consider themselves the devil and renounce themselves.


6. WorldbyStorm - June 9, 2007

And to add to your point ejh, which I entirely agree with, what is the purpose of such an exercise in real terms other than to provide a continual source of satisfaction for those whose political projects are entirely antithetical to them?


7. Tom Griffin - June 10, 2007

“Corporation tax? Not a problem… Splash.”

I think the one element that people are missing is that there may have been more to that than simple electoralism. A cut in corporation tax is the one aspect of an all-Ireland agenda that all the major parties in the north are agreed on.


8. WorldbyStorm - June 10, 2007

Fair point, but, it required perhaps more careful introduction and promotion of that policy so that it didn’t appear a one minute to midnight act of desperation and/or electoral calculation.


9. Tom Griffin - June 10, 2007

No argument there,

Perhaps the charitable view is that they were catching up with events. Who would have expected the all-Ireland party to be behind Paisley in pushing a key plankof the all-Ireland economy?


10. Ed Hayes - June 11, 2007

WBS, fair points, except that there is a difference between killing 70 plus people and eventually stopping, no matter how wrong or terrible this was, and killing 1,800, many for highly dubious reasons and presenting it as a struggle completly forced on you by the Brits/Unionists and for which you had no responsibility at all. A struggle that inevitably led you to your current position and therefore has to be honoured and played up as valuable and neccesary. To make myself clear: I don’t blame the Provos for the 3,500 or so deaths in the Troubles (which some very lazy hacks do), I don’t blame them for starting them either but I do think that they played a big part in the drift towards war in 1970/71. And sometimes when I listen to Gerry A and Marty preach about responsibility I think you hypocrites.


11. ejh - June 11, 2007

There’s a fair amount of hindsight and distance involved here, though, isn’t there?


12. WorldbyStorm - June 11, 2007

I can’t entirely disagree with you Ed, there is much in what you say, but without taking away culpability for at least part of the situation I’ve always felt that 1970-72 was a period where it was almost inevitable that the rupture within the North/Northern Ireland was going to lead to a spasm of violence. Perhaps it’s glib to point to how there were pseudo revolutionary situations elsewhere in Europe, and genuine revolutionary situations beyond it, but the educatative effect of those was I’d guess reasonably significant, if only in preventing people from standing back at certain key points. Meet a state or proto-state, such as NI, with no real capacity to restrain itself from an agressive and confrontational semi-armed response and ally that to a broadly alienated Nationalist working class (and sectors of the middle class also) and I just can’t see how a non-violent way forward was possible. I particularly think this because a non-violent alternative was apparent (SDLP) and yet it was largely shunned by a significant cohort of those within the six counties. I also think, and this is not to legitimise or delegitimise people, that structural support for armed Republicanism would not have been gifted to them on the scale it was were it not for a profound alienation.

Having said all that, I think the mistakes were made much earlier in the century and that is when the situation might have been altered.


13. Redking - June 13, 2007

I think Ed is broadly correct. And, while we can all be wise with hindsight, the re writing of history from the Provos is truly galling. As for Workers Party condemnations of the Provos being over the top-well just consider that the Provos were not just apostates they actually tried (and succeeded) in killing WP members. Difficult to be nice to people who are murdering you and your comrades. I’ve often pondered the suggestion of nationalist alienation from the NI state as a predetermined explanation for the extreme reaction of the Provos. I don’t quite think it was all preordained (despite the Border campaign and institutional sectarianism) By 1972 it was though complete there’s no doubt -but like Ed I cannot absolve the Provos of a lot of the blame for this-they drove the war and it seems every bombing and shooting rachetted up the violence-of course it’s not the full picture Unionist reactions and the crass military responses of the British state-Falls curfew, internment and Bloody Sunday created a groundswell of support for militant republicanism. But yeah-all for what a useless sectarian “campaign” (I won’t even consider it a war) that has made Ireland a worse place.


14. WorldbyStorm - June 13, 2007

It’s a difficult one to square. As I say I agree with almost all Ed says, and indeed yourself. But… I still think that there was a sufficiently strong internal dynamic to lead to some sort of armed conflict with the state. But whether it had to last as long as it did is a different matter, and that certainly was ramped up by elements within PIRA first, arguably, the revanchist nationalists who later went on to RSF, second a complete misreading of the situation in the North (ie. seeing it as a simple imperialist struggle etc) by the politically more savvy Adams group. And the absolutism that ran through PIRA and PSF didn’t help either, although it was more than matched in some respects by OSF/WP in later years. I also take on board what you say about the feuds, although in truth neither side was blameless, and they too were arguably inevitable…

Still, to me the bottom line is that for all the pretensions the conflict was played within very clear demarcations for almost all the period. There was never a serious attempt to say, take out Loyalist leaders, or Unionism, or indeed the British Establishment. And much of this was down to the realisation,even if unspoken, that such attacks would possibly unleash a civil war in the six counties. That’s what irritated me then about a lot of the rhetoric of ‘occupation’ and ‘imperialism’ because at the end of the day the fetishisation of armed struggle became more totemic than meaningful (not that I would support any such campaigns). This I think in the current period is best seen in RSF and 32CSM who despite having no campaigns still wax lyrical about the ‘right to take up arms against the occupier’.


15. Redking - June 14, 2007

WBS-I agree with much of what you say too-and insightful stuff it is-the great thing about this site is that things can be discussed in a calm manner (!) -as mentioned in another post, on other sites streams of invective would issue forth at the very mention of the North/Provos/Sticks etc. On alienation- (my God it sounds like a Leninist tract) there was definitely an internal dynamic present after all Operation Harvest proved that support although limited at that time could sustain a very low level attack on the state. But whether the intensity and longeviety were inevitable is a moot point. I think they weren’t for reasons mentioned above. The sheer scale of the horror of 1972 was something that spiralled almost out of control-and the Provos sought such a scenario. It’s very true what you say about the misreading of the conflict-and the fetishisation of violence-and also I would add the “death cult” of the hunger strikes too. And, I do think the trhetoric about war etc would be laughable if not so tragic-the Provos declaring 1972 as a “Year of Victory” and then declaring 1973 as the new “Year of Victory” and then 1974 until they settled down to the squalid sectarian melee they had hleped create. Your’e right about the feuds too -as you know my sympathies lie with the WP but even here I know that machismo aggression underlay a lot of the “political” issues and simple familial and local issues may have been dressed up as the later.


16. franklittle - June 14, 2007

“for Workers Party condemnations of the Provos being over the top-well just consider that the Provos were not just apostates they actually tried (and succeeded) in killing WP members.”

Apostates? Good grief.

I also seem to remember WP supporters and the OIRA killing Provisionals, trying to wipe out the IRSP and continuing to shoot the occasional political opponent up to the 1980s.


17. Ed Hayes - June 14, 2007

True. But again so much is dressed up in mock outrage. People will still demand answers about shot Seamus Costello but not give a damn who shot Liam McMillen. Its of copurse unwise to play a numbers (as well as immoral at this remove and safely from our computers) but I’ll think you’ll find that the Provos killed a lot more Sticks than visa versa. But the bottom line is that non of them should have been killed and a great deal of it was avoidable.


18. WorldbyStorm - June 14, 2007

To address the points onwards from Redking, in retrospect so much seems futile, a whole generation of activists removed from even nominal unity of purpose by self-inflicted division. And I don’t say that glibly or ignore the reality that divisions were based on radically different worldviews. Machismo was part of it…definitely. But also wilful ignorance, lack of understanding, a conflict between radicals and traditionalists, between those in Belfast and those in Dublin, and so on and so forth. London and Dublin in many respects were also part of the equation. The only good thing is that as time moves on it is easier to see that there were people on all sides who although they made terrible errors of judgement, Costello being one, McMillen being another, were not without considerable virtues. In a way, because of the dynamic numbers games are unavoidable, but those were also factors of local strengths etc…

And what happens? Thirty years later we still have a pale shadow of a left, Republican and otherwise, in this country and arguably on this island.

Actually on P.ie a couple of years ago I recall a former WP member talking with an SF member hoped that they’d both be sipping pints in 2016 in a Republican Socialist Ireland, but suggested it was unlikely to happen (not because of SF per se, as I recall, but because the strategy they were taking wasn’t going to work…)…


19. Redking - June 15, 2007

Frank-I think in terms of historical accuracy it’s important to acknowledge that the WP were more sinned against than sinning in all of this. The WP neither planned nor instigated the IRPS split in 74/75, the events of late 75 or the Provo feud in 1977. What they did do was defend themselves.

While Costello certainly was assassinated by the Officials in 1977 (and the trigger man was a well known leading Official) the main efforts of the WP from 1972 if not earlier were to prevent violence and assert the primacy of politics over the squalid sectarianism of the Provos and IRSP. But in NI in these years the paramilitary culture meant that a brutal response was a factor of events-this is not to excuse any of it. So why is all this important 30 odd years on one might ask?
Well, for one the Provos and others simply can’t be allowed to distort history-surely most of the Left is agreed on this at least? For if we don’t have an accurate assessment of the past we may be doomed to repeat it and make the same mistakes.
It’s depressing that the Provos are the real beneficiaries of the mayhem that they helped create and sustain and the WP a footnote in history.


20. WorldbyStorm - June 15, 2007

That’s true Redking. And yet, I think of Costello, and perhaps this is because I’m close enough to the Gregory organisation, as a sound guy. But who knows… I just can’t see him supporting the slide into ultra sectarianism by INLA. And…remember, inside every organisation there was a dynamic of its own. As for PSF being the real beneficiaries, well, TG doesn’t think so, and I wonder, although I think they’re closer to what we want than most….


21. ejh - June 16, 2007

For if we don’t have an accurate assessment of the past

Is there any chance of actually arriving at such an assessment?


22. Redking - June 16, 2007

A fair point ejh-given the highly charged and emmotive nature of the subject – the history of modern republicanism, it may well be impossible, disputes about the nature of events will always arise. But Ed’s point about PSF deliberately distorting the past is very valid.

WBS-I think Costello was very much an enigma-prior to 1972 he was something of a “super Stick” in that he combined a tireless and effective electoralism with radical socialist politics -in many ways a model of how the WP wanted to operate across the country.

He was also enormously charsimatic and he knew exactly what he was getting into after 1973-he courted some of the most aggressive and unstable elements in OSF, and in many ways let the genie out of the bottle in 1974/75. He also knew that McMillan’s death was his own death sentence. As Tom Paine said time makes more converts than reason – this is true about how I now feel about Costello-sure he made serious mistakes but I view his demise as a tragic waste – as he was a remarkable political activist and as you say had many other virtues. I agree he may well have had second thoughts about the IRPS if he knew their subsequent trajectory after 1977.


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