From Socialist Voice, March 2011

Sinn Féin: left alternative or political chameleons?

The recent general election has thrown up a number of historic results. Fianna Fáil’s vote collapsed, while the Labour Party, Sinn Féin, left and independents returned a record number of deputies.
     This should be welcomed, even if the Labour Party has gone into coalition with Fine Gael. It shows some progression in how people voted and that they believed, at least, the Labour Party to be “left.”
     As soon as the votes were counted the mainstream media seemed perplexed by Sinn Féin’s gains. The party ran an excellent campaign, building on Pearse Doherty’s resounding by-election victory. They reaped rewards from the decline in support for Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party’s increased identification as a party of the establishment.
     They did their best to present themselves as the “left” alternative, and many voters turned to them in desperation. During the campaign (and since) the mainstream media have framed them as such and are unwilling or incapable of properly examining the party.
     So, what credibility, if any, have these claims?
     Sinn Féin have been vocally opposed to the previous Government’s four-year plan of savage budget cuts, and this was the cornerstone of their campaign. In the first week of the new Dáil they were at it again, attacking the coalition’s programme for government as a “dolled-up version of the Fianna Fáil/Green Party four-year plan.” Fair points; but up the road in Belfast they passed a four-year budget that includes £4 billion in cuts, pay freezes, and increases in rates. Opposing cuts in the South and supporting them while in power in the North—hypocrisy, or partitionism?
     Yes, it is only an “Executive” and not a government as such; but cuts are cuts. Their hands would be similarly tied in Dáil Éireann by budgetary regulations set by the European Union, not to mention the EU-IMF bail-out deal.
     Voters should be wary of such opportunism from a party unable or unwilling to fight cuts imposed by the British government. Are their claims of standing up to the EU and “kicking out the IMF” believable?
     They allege that they are different, offering “new ideas, new politics, and real leadership”—a rather weak assertion if we look north once again. The recent water scandal there left forty thousand homes and businesses without water. Conor Murphy of Sinn Féin, as Minister for Regional Development, was the person ultimately in charge, yet in the face of mounting pressure he refused to resign. In fact his party colleagues Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and John O’Dowd lined up to support him, branding the calls “pathetic” and “politically motivated.” In the end the chief executive of Northern Ireland Water resigned, all but letting Murphy off the hook.
     We have become accustomed to ministers in this state refusing to resign. This lack of political accountability has had Sinn Féin politicians howling from the other side of the Dáil for ten years. Are we to suppose there is one rule for the North and one for the South—or one in opposition and another when in power?
     Sinn Féin’s recent history in Southern politics is questionable. Before the last general election, in 2007, they were desperate to enter a coalition with Fianna Fáil, a stance that the electorate punished them heavily for. At the 2010 ard-fheis two motions called on Sinn Féin not to enter government with parties such as Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, and secondly “not under any circumstances [to] enter into coalition or any other electoral pact with Fianna Fáil before, during or after a General Election.” The Ard-Chomhairle put forward an amendment that any decision to go into coalition would be made by a special delegate conference, and this was overwhelmingly carried.
     Martin McGuinness later added: “We have absolutely no interest in government with Fine Gael.” One can surmise that the only coalition partner of interest was Fianna Fáil—an argument furthered by Gerry Adams, who, when questioned on this issue, said, “When you can do business with Ian Paisley you can do business with anyone.”
     The collapse of Fianna Fáil makes this argument irrelevant, but it illustrates their thinking. They now seem intent on castigating the Labour Party for going into government with Fine Gael.
     The growth of Sinn Féin is welcome. It’s another progression away from Civil War politics. But the party needs to decide about the republic it wishes to replace partition with.
     Sinn Féin remains a party of compromise and can be summed up in a similar way to how the great Tony Benn once described the British Labour Party: “The Labour Party is not a socialist party, but it has many socialists in it.”
     On this evidence the establishment can rest easy. Apart from a commitment to Irish unity there is little to suggest that Sinn Féin is radically different from what has existed in Dáil Éireann for years: an Ireland united in cuts, united in hardship.
“Ireland as distinct from her people is nothing to me; and the man who is bubbling over with love and enthusiasm for ‘Ireland,’ and can yet pass unmoved through our streets and witness all the wrong and the suffering, the shame and the degradation brought upon the people of Ireland—aye, brought by Irishmen upon Irish men and women—without burning to end it, is in my opinion a fraud and a liar in his heart, no matter how he loves that combination of chemical elements he is pleased to call ‘Ireland’.”—James Connolly

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