Where is Sinn Féin Going?

Socialist View Summer 2001

Ciarán Mullholland writes about Sinn Féin in the North

Kevin McLoughlin writes about developments in the South

In the North - Ciarán Mullholland

Sinn Fein made dramatic gains in the recent Westminster and local elections in the North. They went from two to four MP's, compared to the SDLP's three, and gained dozens of new local councillors. Their overall share of the vote, at 21.7%, was sharply up on the 9.9% they gained at the last General Election in 1997, though the rise is less dramatic when compared to other, more recent, elections.

Sinn Fein has now overtaken the SDLP to become the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland. They gained 21.7% of the total vote to the SDLP's 21.0% and are the largest party on many councils, including Belfast. They will extend their lead in the next period. However the war of attrition they have fought out with the SDLP in the electoral field over the last twenty years is now likely to become a rout. Eventually; and perhaps very soon, they will become the dominant force of Northern nationalism. This is in no way a positive development.

These changes have been mirrored in the Protestant community by the growth of the DUP. They gained three new seats in the general election and like Sinn Fein have also made significant gains in the local councils. The UUP are under considerable pressure and at some point a major split in their ranks cannot be excluded. Such a development would lead to a realignment of Unionism, with anti-agreement UUP members linking up with the DUP and becoming the major political bloc within unionism. Even without a split in the UUP, the DUP may overtake them as Protestant alienation grows.

decline of the SDLP

It is almost inconceivable that the SDLP wil1 now be able to make up the ground they have lost. Whilst Sinn Fein's overall lead is narrow they are far ahead amongst young and working class voters. The three SDLP MP's are all towards heading retirement. Seamus Mallon's seat in Newry/Armagh is certain to fall to Conor Murphy of Sinn Fein when he goes. The SDLP are further ahead in John Hume's Foyle seat and in South Down but they are vulnerable and Sinn Fein are likely to expend considerable energy in winning these seats.

Sinn Fein are seen as young, dynamic, in touch with their voters and on the move. The SDLP are seen as middle aged, middle class and out of touch. Now that the "war" is over it is difficult for the SDLP to differentiate themselves from the more hardline nationalism of Sinn Fein. They certainly can't "out- green" them and despite all the talk of "post-nationalism" they have no other political message. Many Catholic voters will opt for the more robust party in these circumstances. This is the legacy of the peace process and the Agreement -the strengthening of the hardline parties in each camp and increased polarisation.

According to Hume Sinn Fein have "absolutely and totally and completely" no chance of overtaking the SDLP as the predominant party of Northern nationalism. The SDLP are "the leading voice of nationalism and socialism in Northern Ireland". He is wrong on both counts. The reference to socialism is laughable. Mark Durkan, Minister of Finance, is as orthodox as any of his counterparts in Europe. He fully accepts the dictates of the market. Sean Farren, Minister for Higher Education, has backtracked on the SDLP's promise to abolish student fees.

In the aftermath of the elections the leadership of Hume and Mallon is being openly questioned. Some within the SDLP are proposing that they gracefully retire and that the party then skips a generation and looks to Mark Durkan as a new leader and Alex Attwood, as his deputy; to revitalise their shaky structures. A major problem for the proponents of this "dream ticket" is that Attwood and his brother Tim were the strategists behind the decision to put Brid Rodgers into West Tyrone in order to stem the onward march of Sinn Fein -a strategy that ended in disaster. Attwood also presided over a collapse in the SDLP vote in West Belfast of nearly 10,000 - Gerry Adams won 27,096 votes or 66% of the total.

Overall the election results demonstrated that there is less and less political ground for any forces outside the main four parties.

The Alliance Party are in terminal decline, their vote falling everywhere, losing councillors and leaders and with no prospect of reversing their fortunes. They won only 3.6% of the vote against 9.2% in 1997 (though these figures are distorted by the fact that Alliance stood down in favour of pro-Agreement parties in many seats). Deputy Leader Seamus Close resigned in late June citing differences over the direction of the party. The fate of Alliance is shared by other parties outside the big four. The Women's Coalition has two members in the Assembly but did poorly in the local and Westminster elections. They only fielded one Westminster and eight council candidates despite the torrent of favourable publicity they have received over recent years. Similarly the PUP's vote was squeezed. The total vote gained by parties outside the big four was historically low at 8%, down 5.5% on 1997.

The friends of Sinn Fein

The membership of Sinn Fein is largely working class though there is a significant rural component. Until recently there were no careers to be made within its ranks, unlike in the ranks of establishment parties such as the Tories and New Labour in Britain and Fianna Fail, the Labour Party and Fine Gael in the South. Members of Sinn Fein were, and to a lesser extent still are, subject to harassment by the state and live with the constant risk of assassination. By and large they live in working class areas and do not visibly benefit from their political involvement.

Does this mean that they are an anti-establishment party; a radical party or even a socialist party? The answer is a resounding no. Their record in the Executive and on the ground in the areas tells the story.

Sinn Fein has been actively courted by a cabal of Irish American multi-millionaires, and by sections of the Irish, British and American ruling classes over the last decade. The Republican leadership are like rabbits caught in the headlights of an oncoming lorry. They are heart scared to offend their new allies. When a Sinn Fein councillor visited the US recently she was forbidden by the leadership back in Ireland to visit a political activist on death row in case the nose of a vital friend of Sinn Fein was put out of joint. Right-wing Congressmen who prosecute the blockade on Cuba are feted in west Belfast. The dollars are flooding in and any socialist veneer that Sinn Fein once had is long gone.

Ex-Belfast IRA commander Brendan Hughes has described how he found it difficult to obtain employment on building sites in West Belfast after he was released from prison. He is ostracised as a dissident from the line of the Republican leadership whilst low pay employers are allowed to exploit with impunity as they are loyal to the leadership.

Sinn Fein is certainly not anti-establishment in any real sense of the word. Are they anti-sectarian? Again the answer is no. Their record on the issue of parades illustrates the point.

The parades issue

There has been genuine anger in some Catholic areas for many years over deliberate coattrailing by the Orange Order. In some cases this was extreme and very provocative. There is no doubt however that the issue has been used by Sinn Fein. They have a clear strategy of establishing political and social control in "their" areas. In order to do so it is necessary to geographically separate the working class. Territory is marked out by flags and murals and areas are routinely and repeatedly described as Catholic/nationalist/Republican. The result is to create a situation of near total control by the two wings of the Republican movement. Dissident Republicans are hounded, the SDLP harassed. Punishment beatings and shootings are welcomed by some working class people whose lives are blighted by crime. Such barbarism is unjustifiable on any grounds. There is also ample evidence that such barbarous tactics are used against those who cross swords with the Provos and not just against alleged "hoods". A number of dissident Republicans have been "dealt with" in this way. Many residents groups do have a real base but they are also used by Sinn Fein as a vehicle to advance their aim of dividing the working class more and more permanently; This can be seen clearly in largely Protestant towns such as Ballymena, Antrim, Larne and Newtownabbey; Catholics in these areas have undoubtedly suffered from sectarian abuse and attack over the years. The response of Sinn Fein is to mark out certain estates as nationalist territory and to raise the issue of parades. Such tactics are less about asserting Catholic rights than they are about establishing new redoubts for Sinn Fein.

Sinn Féin in power

The two Sinn Fein members in the Executive have not distinguished them- selves from the other Executive parties (the SDLP, DUP and UUP) in any way: Martin McGuinness rejected the claim of the term time workers to a wage over the school holidays. He is now spearheading the privatisation of our schools. Bairbre de Bruin explains the need for cutbacks in the familiar language of establishment politicians everywhere: "I have to be realistic because resources are tight and my fight for more resources is well documented. I will not promise to do things that we cannot afford but for me 'resources permitting is not a get-out clause but a statement that there are limitations to what can be achieved".

The Hayes Report on the future of Northern Ireland's health service, commissioned by de Bruin, is couched in the familiar terms of senior civil ser vants with their eyes on the purse strings. It recommends huge cuts in services and a massive increase in reliance on the Private Finance Initiative. The report has already been welcomed in broad terms by John Kelly and Sue Ramsey of Sinn Fein. Francie Molloy has stated that he has no principled objection to private medicine. Hayes is proposing more or less what past direct rule ministers proposed. Nothing has changed as far as social and economic issues are concerned.

Sinn Fein's strategy is to keep the Agreement in place, at least for now. They are making significant electoral advances and have nothing to gain by a return to war. Ultimately they hope to become the largest single party in the North and to enter into government in the South. Their tactics, of cantonising the North under the guise of fighting for the rights of Catholics, could backfire however and bring the Agreement institutions down. Even then of course their support will increase as a result of increased sectarian tension and a feeling amongst many Catholics that the unionists are to blame.

The "party of freedom?"

According to Martin McGuinness Sinn Fein is "the party of liberation, the party of freedom. We are the largest Nationalist party in the North". What this freedom will look like is not entirely clear but we have a few clues. It will involve the freedom to exploit the low paid for the employers and the freedom to suffer low pay for the working class. Sinn Fein's message is the same as it was 80 years ago -"labour must wait". Under Sinn Fein the wait would be interminable. More than ever the cause of labour is the only way forward. As Lenin argued an ounce of experience is worth a ton of theory. The experience of Sinn Fein in power, especially at a time of increased class struggle, will open the eyes of more and more Catholic workers and young people to their real agenda. In the next period major battles are likely to open up in the public sector that will pitch large groups of workers into conflict with Sinn Fein ministers. Events will change everything.

Sinn Fein stand for sectarian division and are a right wing nationalist party. They deliberately foment a triumphalist mood in Catholic areas and a mood of uncertainty and insecurity in Protestant areas. Their attitude to Protestant workers is deeply sectarian, regarding them as unthinking dupes of Britain and the unionist leadership. In reality they deny Protestants a say by deriding everything they do say; They have nothing to offer. The task now is not to wait for future developments but to begin to build a real socialist alternative, for Catholics and Protestants, today.

In the South

Kevin McLoughlin

The defeat of the Nice Treaty showed that the anti-establishment mood in the South is looking to find expression. The collapse in the authority of Fianna Fail, Labour and Fine Gael has opened up a political vacuum to the left. Is Sinn Fein set to become a significant force south of the border? Are they capable of filling the political vacuum?

Views about Sinn Fein vary significantly. Some working class people see Sinn Fein as principled fighters but others see them as a divisive group who use thuggish methods. It is easy to understand where such divergent opinions are coming from because in the south Sinn Fein is full of contradictions and spin.

Republicans do use intimidation and isolated acts of violence and these methods are not the way to deal with issues like anti-social behaviour. Such activity must be opposed. This is not from a pacifist point of view but because communities have no control or check on such activities which can lead to gangsterism and intimidation of people who represent minority but legitimate political views. It also in the longer term doesn't work because it never gets to the root causes of the problems. On the other side, however, Sinn Fein is growing and many of the members and supporters of the party are genuine activists and want to fight on the issues that effect working class communities.

However, what some of the members want and what the Sinn Fein leadership want are two completely different things. The Sinn Fein leadership want to become a party of government, North and South. In trying to step into the political vacuum, they have some big advantages. Not a day goes by without significant, generally positive, coverage in the media. Because of their past they are seen to be outside of the establishment and not the same as the careerist politicians from the other par ties. To try to tap the anti-establishment mood they pose as defenders of ordinary people by putting forward populist ideas and even in the case of Ógra Shinn Fein mention socialism.

Election gains?

As things stand they are likely to make important gains in the next general election. With considerable resources they have targeted certain constituencies, opening offices and developing the profile of their candidates. It is impossible to predict but Sinn Fein could get three or four or, depending on the context of the election, possibly more TDs elected, with an outside chance of holding the balance of power. Apart from their work on the ground the key reasons for their potential to grow are, on the one hand, the removal of the obstacle that the military campaign represented to extending their base beyond the most economically depressed areas and, on the other, the strong desire for a political alternative that exists generally.

But Sinn Fein is speaking out of both sides of its mouth at the same time. As it has done in the past, populist and even socialist rhetoric is put out for public consumption when it suits. This is then dropped when the serious business starts like the period before the negotiations with the British and Irish governments on the "peace process". This is holiday speechifying. There isn't a serious theoretical understanding or practical commitment to class struggle or socialism within Sinn Fein. More than once in private conversations, long standing members have dismissed the possibility of a serious challenge to capitalism.

In the early and mid 1990s when socialist ideas were being attacked constantly by the establishment, where was Sinn Fein's defense of the socialist goal? In fact at that time the Sinn Fein leadership had in reality accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist market just as the ANC and the PLO had done.

These changes in the political character of Sinn Fein are reflected in other ways. Funding from US big business invariably compromises Sinn Fein further. This is not a tactical issue, it should be a point of principle for a party that purports to represent workers. The membership of Sinn Fein is growing but it is also changing. Sinn Fein are recruiting in working class areas but also in the middle class and amongst students. However, it is undoubtedly the case now that in some areas activists who had maintained Sinn Fein for years have stepped back. In some cases this is because of what they consider to be a sell-out on the national question but others because of the party's rightward shift on politics.

Bin tax sellout

Regardless of how careful they are of maintaining a radical image, particularly before an election, inevitably practical examples of their acceptance of capitalism and its dictates emerge. Sinn Fein got three councillors elected in Sligo in 1999, in the process declaring their opposition to double taxation service charges. Since then they once abstained and then last year actually voted for the charges as part of a deal for their councillor, McManus, to become the Lord Mayor. This wasn't just a local decision. This is a targeted constituency and Sinn Fein obviously wanted the mayoral position for the purposes of developing their profile and being seen as a respectable, responsible party; An Phoblacht produced a long article to try to justify the position. Reports were included about the activities of Sinn Fein in different areas, fighting on the charges but then it went on to say that in Sligo the situation was very difficult. They argued that Sinn Fein's votes mattered and that the council was under threat of being abolished; that this would be a blow to democracy as an unelected official would be appointed to run the council; that they had to vote for the charges but only did so having made sure that the most hard pressed people would benefit from the waiver scheme etc.

In other words the electoral prospects of Sinn Fein are more important than making a principled stand against doulble taxation or making a stand against the real threat to democracy from the Minister of the Environment. A party that is really committed to fighting on behalf of working class people would have stood up to the threat. If the council was abolished, a huge campaign could have been launched and linked to the campaigns around the country. This would have posed a serious opportunity to demand a reversal of the decision and to raise the key issue that the central government grants to the councils must be increased and that all local charges must be abolished.

Sinn Fein also compromised themselves when Dublin Corporation brought in refuse charges earlier this year. There was a consensus among all the parties to bring in the charges but, in order to try to confuse ordinary people, a deal was done whereby some of the parties would split their votes, so as to allow some of their candidates to say they opposed the charge while the vote was carried. Sinn Fein's contribution to this charade was to have two of their four councillors vote against, while the other two were absent and to oppose the recording of the vote for the public record when that was called for by independent TD Tony Gregory.

In this instance because a broad campaign has been established and because of the overwhelming opposition to the charge, Sinn Fein may be forced to completely oppose the charge at a future date. For them, however, will be a tactical not a principled question.

Sinn Fein may cynically try to instigate mass campaigns for electoral purposes over the next months. But their approach, just as it was during the military campaign, is not to involve Ordinary people but to try to control developments themselves. Their refusal to build a democratic campaign with activists in all the estates in Drogheda was a crucial factor in the defeat of the anti-refuse charges movement in the town.

This flowed from the fact that they do not see the working class as a force for change. This also explains why they have no serious orientation to the trade union movement. As a party with serious resources they play no role in taking on the union bureaucracy and transforming the unions in to fighting organisations.

However, we are also likely to see their non-involvement on important but potentially controversial issues. Sinn Fein didn't in any active way support or participate in the recent Women on Waves initiative which successfully raised the issue of crisis pregnancies and the hypocrisy of the state on abortion. If there is a new referendum on abortion, it will be very interesting to see Sinn Fein's position but also whether they put as much into the campaign as they did in the recent Nice Referendum!


Sinn Fein faces ordinary people as an anti-establishment force but it also faces the establishment itself saying "we are respectable, if we are in power your system including your profits and privileged position will be safeguarded". The latter is its true face.

They are a capitalist, nationalist party which uses populism to extend its base. How and when Sinn Fein will be exposed will depend on events. It could be like the Labour Party in 1992 when, having campaigned against Fianna Fail, they brought them back into power in a very unpopular pro-business government.

Or it is possible Sinn Fein may not be in government after the next election and could benefit further from their fake anti-establishment stance. Either way it is only a matter of time before they are exposed. In the context of the development of economic recession, the intensification of exploitation and the increased desire for a fighting left-wing alternative, not only will the Sinn Fein leadership be found wanting but they will be a barrier to this struggle.

In the meantime they can raise the hopes of some working class people and cause confusion for others. Their growth in the next period doesn't affect the potential for the Socialist Party to become a very significant force electorally; in the communities, the work- places or amongst the youth.

The vacuum that is opening up in Irish society can best be filled by a fighting socialist movement. We remain committed to the ideas of revolutionary socialism, to building our party and, with other genuine activists, to launching a new mass workers party when the time is right.

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