Comment: Sinn Féin wants to change who manages the country – not how it’s managed

The revolutionary socialist direction that… I was fighting for has been dropped. And all Sinn Féin have done is become another SDLP. The sort of people who have come into Sinn Féin are not the sort of people I would have associated with during the IRA struggle. They’re middle-class, career politicians.

  • Brendan Hughes

Do you want a gaff? I want a gaff. And there’s a gaff for everyone in the audience. G’wan Mary Lou!

  • Darren Conway

In the summer of 2021 I visited the Sinn Féin Bookshop and bought the issue of An Phoblacht commemorating the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Irish republican hunger strikes.

I’d thought that Sinn Féin had toned down the rhetoric that led to its unexpected 2020 electoral success. The party no longer talked about fighting rentier capitalism. It seemed to avoid all mention of the IRA. I wanted to see if party members spoke differently, in the pages of Sinn Féin’s magazine, among themselves.

They did.

Writing of his time in Long Kesh, Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan, once a former hunger striker and now a multi-property landlord, said he has “always been, and still remain(s), proud to have been a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army and to have taken up arms to resist the oppressive and malign British occupation of our land”.

The incongruence between the powerful symbolism of the hunger strikers and the material reality of Sheehan extracting rent from tenants seemed to epitomise the modern mainstream republican movement, which on one hand invokes revolutionary imagery and on the other works to uphold the status quo.

Are these the barbarians? And they’re through the gates?

When Sinn Féin says that now is the time for change in Ireland, what it’s really referring to is simply a change in who manages the country, rather than how it’s managed.

After the February 2020 election it had felt like Ireland was on the precipice of something new: the political duopoly that ruled this country for nearly 100 years was nearing its end, replaced by a party holding rallies and looking to bring about a fairer society.

“I hope Leo and the lads get over their allergy to public meetings,” said Mary Lou McDonald, addressing a packed crowd in Liberty Hall, at the time. “I saw somewhere a headline or a remark that the barbarians are at the gates. Newsflash: the barbarians are through the gates.”

A populist left-wing party taking power from rapacious capitalists and ending the housing crisis. It certainly looked as though that was happening. This is where Sinn Féin thrive – conjuring symbolically powerful moments that mask middle of the road, centrist policies.

It's unlikely such hordes had gathered because they were enthusiastic about what Sinn Féin has offered: increased cost-rental housing builds; a tax credit of one month’s rent for all renters; and a housing policy that regards expropriating apartment buildings from the giant piles of cash buying up half of Ireland as “not necessarily the answer”.

Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party would have you believe that once in office, Sinn Féin will declare a dictatorship of the proletariat and begin rounding up its enemies, from Micheál Martin to the staff of Mediahuis.

I wish the party posed this much of a threat to the social order. It doesn’t. If the goal of Irish republicanism is to establish 32-county socialism, then it’s time the IRA was dragged before a committee and forced to fully account for its links to Sinn Féin.

Don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows

For all its revolutionary posturing, Sinn Féin has come up short on some of the biggest issues affecting Ireland over the past two decades.

It likes to boast of its pivotal role in the movement against water charges. The record tells a different story – the party’s opposition to privatised water services was never hardline. In an interview on Morning Ireland in September 2014 finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty indicated that the abolition of water charges wasn’t a red line for Sinn Féin during potential negotiations to enter a coalition government. That same year the party criticised left-wing organisers who suggested mass non-payment as protest. It was only once it was clear the party had misjudged public opinion that leadership announced they’d changed their minds.

In the years preceding the repeal of the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution, Sinn Féin adopted reactionary positions on the right to bodily autonomy. It supported legislation for legalised abortion when a woman’s life is in danger following the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012. But as socialist academic Kieran Allen highlighted in an essay on Sinn Féin, the party insisted that this legislation be restricted to cases of rape, incest, or sexual abuse, with no room for actual choice on the part of those seeking abortions. Sinn Féin ultimately campaigned for repeal, with Mary Lou McDonald and others speaking well on the issue, but it wasn’t until June 2018, after the eighth amendment was gone, that the party officially changed their policy on the right to choose.

These are the actions of inveterate fence-sitters, not revolutionaries.

It doesn’t seem like voters – particularly young voters – have noticed. Sinn Féin remains the most popular party in the state and will possibly lead the next Dublin government.

Capitalism with republican characteristics

Gerry Adams, a pariah in parts of the world due to his association with the IRA, grinning next to President Joe Biden. Michelle O’Neill, leader of Sinn Fein in the north, meeting with King Charles at his coronation. Both of these recent images sent a message: forget all that stuff from before, we can work with the Yanks and the Brits – we’re people you can do business with.

As it closes in on power, Sinn Féin is pitching itself to elites as a kind of diet Fianna Fáil.

Pearse Doherty has met with multinationals, towards which the country’s economy is already unduly catered, assuring them his party poses no threat. Spokesperson on social protection Louise O’Reilly has liaised with perennial opponents of any increases to the minimum wage ISME, with the business lobby referring to Sinn Féin as dropping its “opposition rhetoric”. Meanwhile, Eoin Ó Broin has had friendly chats with property developers like Ronan Group. Sinn Féin, a chief executive of a major housebuilder told the Business Post earlier this month, is just trying to implement its own version of the current government’s Housing for All Strategy.

Perhaps the most remarkable change Sinn Féin has made in order to put the establishment at ease is related to the Special Criminal Court. Before 2020, the party’s position was in line with human rights organisations like Amnesty International, which has called for the abolition of the court. Now Sinn Féin says it opposes the court in its current form and last week once again abstained from the annual vote on the Offences Against the State Act.

Sinn Fein’s grand strategy: reuniting Ireland on the terms of capital. It wants, if possible, class conciliation, not class struggle.

When James Connolly said that without socialism, England would still rule an independent Ireland through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country, he didn't mean republicans should become mere custodians of capitalism.

At the time Connolly was writing, Irish nationalist politics was dominated by the Irish Parliamentary Party, who were synonymous with the interests of the Catholic professional class. William Martin Murphy, the infamous owner of the Irish Independent and tram system whose mistreatment of his workers sparked the Dublin Lockout of 1913, was a prominent party member, as were many of Ireland’s leading businessmen and landlords.

Connolly saw that without taking on the ruling class, the people in this country who permanently wield power, independence would largely be pointless. History proved him right. Refusing to challenge the interests of capital left Ireland a mere source of cheap food and labour for Britain.

Reuniting Ireland’s 32 counties, but managing them the same way their last caretakers did, will be just another failed revolution.

Paulie Doyle

Paulie Doyle