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Sinn Féin's Contradictions
On how electoral success and the actions of the party hierarchy have disguised the natural tensions in their coalition
Over the past month I read Agnès Maillot’s short book “Rebels in Government: is Sinn Féin ready for power?”, blurb below. I’m going to post some extracts and observations here as it gives me a chance to crystallise my thoughts on Ireland’s largest party and their relationship with their own voters.
(Note: where I refer below to the actions of SF or their political environment, competitors etc, assume I’m referring to the south.)
Something the book consistently highlights, which I think is true, is that SF is not a stick of rock with “Tiocfaidh ár lá - Irish Unity” written all the way through. There are three tendencies in the party jostling for position that sit awkwardly with each other - the progressive (that is culturally radical) preferences of the leadership, the traditional nationalist views of it’s historic members, and new voters whose political priority is housing. All three tendencies overlap, but the average difference between them can cause tensions to arise.
The problem isn’t new. The author states that “Sinn Féin has successfully transitioned from being mainly identified with self-determination and national unity with radical, left-wing orientations.” But even in the 1980s and 1990s, when this change gathered pace, she notes that “it’s leaders were careful not to brand too precisely this anti-imperialistic, anti-capitralist and pro-proletarian focus. This was a niche Sinn Féin set itself out to occupy but was careful to do so without antagonising its basic constituency.”
The issue of abortion and the role of women in the party in an example of a time when that antagonism resulted in blowback :
“Sinn Féin had been well ahead of most of it’s counterparts in the issue of women’s rights with the creation in the early 1980s of a women’s department… (they were) the first party in Ireland to adopt a pro-choice stance on the issue of abortion in 1985, although the vote was reversed the following year due to the controversy it generated among members… The women’s department was replaced in the mid-1990s by an equality department and it’s radicalism diluted.”
In the author’s view, the changes in Irish politics after the 2008 crisis gave SF the opportunity to lean more fully into their identity as a full spectrum left-wing party, though they were still wary of frightening the horses:
“Sinn Féin put a focus on social and cultural rights at the top of it’s agenda, with a focus on gender and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights and anti-racism. But maintaining a coherent line sometimes proved problematic. The stark reality is that the movement and the electorate in general might not always have been fully behind radical approaches to societal issues.”
The party’s attitude toward immigration is another example of how the tensions played out in reality. The manifesto for the most recent general election (2020) states that SF does not believe in open borders. They also noted that “we believe all states must manage migration” and that migration policy should primarily have an economic rather than humanitarian or ideological basis. Immigration was not a debated issue in that election, and it was significant that they were the only party to make such statements in writing.
This cagey stance is not reflective of their actions, however. The author notes that SF have published comprehensive policy doucments on anti-racism and immigration, called for a No vote in the 2004 citizenship referendum, called for all non-nationals to be given the right to vote in general elections, endorsed NGO calls for an immigration amnesty, and chaired the joint committee that recommended the disbandment of the Direct Provision system. Their “No Open Borders” stance has yet to find concrete expression.
The author summarises SF’s position as follows: “while the commitment to immigrant rights is solid, it would seem that this is not an issue with which it chooses to be closely identified during an election campaign.” All parties lie by omission and evasion to their voters and potential voters; certainly all irish ones do, particularly on immigration. I’ve highlighted in the past there is some evidence that SF voters are more immigration-restrictionst than average. So the tendency on the part of SF leadership to take even greater steps than other party leaders to disguise their real views and record in this area is revealing.
One of the reasons SF is evasive about their stance on social and cultural issues is because of what it says about their relationship to the major legacy parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. At the beginning of the book, the author asks if SF’s “radical left wing approach to social issues, which directly contradicts the very make-up of Irish politics, (is) the best possible approach in an age of globalism and neo-liberalism?” Later on, a Fine Gael TD is quoted as saying re SF, “we agree on practically nothing.”
To the extent that avowedly left wing parties have been in power in recent years, it’s been as junior partners. So any legislation that has been passed in that time has been done under the auspices of what the book describes as “right-wing” “conservative” governments. This includes the legalisation of abortion, legalisation of gay marriage (first country in the world to do so by popular vote), an immigration amensty, the passing of hate speech/ hate crime laws, and gender self-ID laws. The latter have been cited by activists as a model of how such laws should be introduced without attracting too much attention.
It’s certainly true that SF often endorsed more radical versions of these changes than were eventually passed. But there is a cross-party consensus on the direction of change, and SF is a part of that. On social and cultural issues of this type, it’s truer to say SF and FG agree on practically everything than practically nothing. What does that mean for a party whose unique selling point is that they are outsiders representing a threat to business as usual? And that’s before you even get into the unresolved question of whether their voters actually like many of these policies.
SF are the political phenomenon of the last decade and a presumptive next party of government, but are carrying a larger number of contradictions than the average political party. Right now Brexit, the housing crisis and their status as the most battle-hardened grass-roots political organisation in the country are helping them keep the whole package together. The question is what happens when that combustible mixture comes into contact with the heat of real political power in the south.
They may turn out to be a normal party of government, which is to say full of big promises but ultimately a compromised disappointment. While it doesn’t seem likely to me, there’s always the possibility their plans around housing could be successful to some degree - which you sense is the outcome that really keeps FF and FG up at night. The content creator in me hopes for the third option, which is that the contradictions the party embodies intensify to such a degree that they, their voters and the whole island are forced to look those right in the face. That may be the unlikliest of the three outcomes, but wow, wouldn’t it be fun?