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Sinn Féin and the politics of the struggle

Ireland’s largest party of the left may soon have us at last, whether we like them or not

By Rory O’Sullivan

Gerry Adams, the President of Sinn Féin from 1983 to 2018, published five Audacity of Hope-style books – part-autobiography, part-political manifesto – during the most intense phase of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The last one, which came out in 2003, was entitled Hope and History: Making Peace in Ireland. “Hope and history” is from those lines of Séamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy which are quoted constantly: “Once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up,/And hope and history rhyme”.

The Cure at Troy, first staged in 1990, is a version of the play Philoctetes by Sophocles, in which the Greek heroes Odysseus and Neoptolemus try to convince the wounded archer Philoctetes to return with them to Troy. A prophecy states that the Greeks will need Philoctetes’ bow of Heracles to help win the Trojan war, but at its beginning Odysseus had marooned Philoctetes on Lemnos; he had been bitten by a snake and his screams were distressing the crew. Heaney’s play is clearly about Northern Ireland, with the characters’ eventual conciliation a kind of symbol, and a roadmap. The Cure at Troy is really a play about getting over the wrong someone has done to you in order to share a future with them.

But this is not quite what the Philoctetes is about, since in the end what Philoctetes agrees is to go back and fight a war which will end in destruction and massacre at Troy. During the sack of the city, all three men will commit sacrilegious acts, things which today we would call war crimes. They will in turn be punished by the Gods for them, and all of this is foreshadowed at the moment of conciliation with which the play ends. Philoctetes is not simply a guide to achieving peace or justice; it asks what justice can really mean in a world of endless conflict and guilt. 

And it is out of these two sides of the mouth that Gerry Adams speaks in the title of his book: “Hope and History”, the man who put down the armalite to fight with the ballot box instead; “Making Peace in Ireland,” the man who did it, not to reconcile with Unionists, but to defeat them. Even in 2003, it would never be ‘Northern Ireland’. 

Adams, now retired, has a blog called Léargas where he posts from time to time; he posted an entry last Friday, 24/1/20, entitled “Keep your eye on the prize”. He offers a Sinn Féin-centred view of the peace process, saying of the Good Friday Agreement that “we had in fact established an alternative – a peaceful way to win freedom for the first time in our history”. He closes by saying, “Unity is no longer an aspiration – it is achievable. It is a doable project. It is the prize. There for everyone on this island. All of this is part of the continuum of struggle”.

Peace, or Irish unity: which is the prize? It depends who you ask; and if you ask Sinn Féin, it depends who’s asking. In the book, Hope and History, Gerry Adams describes the Sinn Féin tactic of “love-bombing”, which unnerved and bewildered Unionists during the peace process. When Adams and the UUP’s Ken Maginnis appeared together on America’s Larry King Show after the Ceasefire in 1994, Adams repeatedly tried to shake his counterpart’s hand and pat him on the shoulder. Maginnis stiffened up and didn’t know what to do. He looked out of date. 

The standard Unionist charge against Sinn Féin is that they committed to ‘Northern Ireland’ in the Good Friday Agreement only in order to destroy it, and have spent their time in Stormont using power-sharing against itself. Of course, this is a regressive point on Unionists’ part since it amounts to a demand that, as a precondition of peace and power-sharing, Republicans profess loyalty to the Union. But it is also true that Adams and McGuinness had long-believed that the Republican movement needed to be mainstream to win, and that this meant putting the political above the military as a matter of strategy. 

In his book, ‘Blanketmen’, the hunger-striker Richard O’Rawe claims that Adams ordered strikers to die so as to increase support for Sinn Féin and open the political theatre of the struggle. O’Rawe’s claim is disputed, but it is clear that by 1986 Sinn Féin’s leaders were carefully laying out the path that the Republican movement would follow through the 1990s and 2000s. In that year’s Ard-Fheis the party ended its policy of abstentionism in Leinster House. It was over precisely this question that Provisional Sinn Féin had split from the party in 1970; and the 1986 decision caused another split, with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and the party’s Southern old guard breaking away and forming Republican Sinn Féin, whose military wing is the Continuity IRA. 

Ó Brádaigh gave a fiery speech at the 1986 Ard Fheis, excoriating Adams and McGuinness for betraying the core values of Republicanism. He said that ending abstentionism meant recognising the ‘Free-State’ as the government of Ireland, and therefore its army as the Irish army. In other words, and in contrast to Unionists like Maginnis, he argued that Sinn Féin were repudiating the principles behind the armed struggle. He ended the speech by saying:

“In God’s name, don’t let it come about…that Haughey, Fitzgerald, Spring and those in London and Belfast who oppose us so much can come out and say “Ah, it took sixty-five years, but we have them at last”. 

Neither Ó Brádaigh nor the Unionists were wrong, exactly, in their criticisms of Adams and McGuinness, but neither had managed to see the pair from both sides. What drove Sinn Féin through the peace process and into Stormont was a pair of contradictory principles, each espoused in turn to different listeners. The only concession Sinn Féin made in principle on Good Friday was an acknowledgment that the democratic will of Northern Irish people mattered more than who was right. But in practice, this involved recognising the legitimacy of the Northern Irish state. Sinn Féin have never admitted to it and continue to refer to the ‘North’ and ‘South’, rather than ‘Ireland’ and ‘Northern Ireland’. But in their actions they have conceded the point.

Ó Brádaigh was right that, by continuing what they began in 1986, Sinn Féin have essentially abandoned their past and become another constitutional nationalist party. At the same time, when Ó Brádaigh left Sinn Féin he became a nobody, whereas Adams and McGuinness would define the next two decades in Irish politics. They were able to use the IRA as leverage to negotiate a political settlement in Northern Ireland which favoured them. Now, as a direct result of what happened then, they are inches from being its largest party.

But, however you cut it, Ó Brádaigh has not been vindicated completely. Sinn Féin have not become ‘just’ another constitutional nationalist party. No one in Irish or British politics believes that they ‘have them at last’. This is in part because of the Good Friday Agreement’s effect on every other major party in the Dáil: none are meaningfully nationalist anymore. Much has been written about the 1993 Downing Street Declaration, where Britain stated it had no interest in Northern Ireland apart from that of enacting the democratic will of its people. Yet Downing Street was not simply a British concession. It was a part of a decade-long process by which the Irish and British governments merged their stances on Northern Ireland so that they could work together. 

The result of that process was that in exchange for Britain’s theoretical acceptance of a United Ireland, the Irish government adopted a policy of tacit Unionism. Ireland’s constitutional claim to all 32 counties was dropped, and any discussion of unification has since been hushed by Irish politicians warning against causing sectarian trouble. Ireland’s mainstream has moved on from the national question; not even its constitutional nationalist parties are constitutional nationalists anymore. The approaches of today’s Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael towards Northern Ireland would have shocked even their parties’ founders, of whom themselves neither was slow to destroy radical Republicanism by force. 

Meanwhile, in the last two general elections the issue of Uniting Ireland has been the top item on Sinn Féin’s manifesto. They have not dropped the point, and its persistence has survived the death of McGuinness and retirement of Adams. It has survived criticism from high-level party figures such as Eoin Ó Broin, who has spoken out several times against his party’s tendency to put the national struggle above the economic one. 

In a new generation, the struggle is finding new forms: Michelle O’Neill’s speech when Stormont reopened earlier this month was clearly modelled on Nicola Sturgeon’s political positioning in Scotland. They are also the most Eurosceptic of Ireland’s mainstream parties, and in the European Parliament have aligned themselves with the United Left grouping that includes Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza. But these new forms have not changed the Sinn Féin formula: they are not only Nationalists, but Republicans, and they are Republican before they are anything else.

Here is another way of putting it. There is a kind of imagined arc in Irish politics where a militarised Republican party inevitably moderates into a quietly Nationalist one. Sinn Féin have often been compared to Fianna Fáil: in March 2009, when the Continuity IRA killed PSNI Constable Stephen Paul Carroll, Martin McGuinness denounced the killing from the steps of Stormont. “These people”, he said, “they are traitors to the island of Ireland”. The Irish News called it “a De Valera moment”.

Now, as an aside, it is fascinating that even then – under such tense circumstances, in 2009 – McGuinness did not say “Northern Ireland”. But ask yourself: how is this a De Valera moment? McGuinness had joined a compromise political system which he would have once opposed, and was condemning those who recklessly and hopelessly stayed fighting instead. But that is not what De Valera did at all. Fianna Fáil did not toe the line of the Irish Free State: they destroyed it, rewrote the constitution creating a Republic in all but name, and ruled Ireland as theirs for a century. 

De Valera’s brutal suppression of the IRA in the 1930s continued the Free State policy, but for different reasons than Cumman na nGaedheal. For Cosgrave, it was to protect the Free State; for De Valera, like Robespierre or Washington or any other political revolutionary, he needed to cripple his extremist flank to win. If Fianna Fáil became an establishment party, it was only because they remade the establishment in their image.

And that is what Sinn Féin would like to do, if they had their way altogether. Today they are the most anti-establishment party in the Irish political establishment. If they are coalition-toxic and transfer-toxic to the loyal followers of Ireland’s old political parties, it is because they know that, with a terrifying single-mindedness, Sinn Féin are coming after them. They have been proud sponsors of every anti-political cause for the last decade: water charges, property taxes, ministerial pensions. They are younger, and better at social media, than any of the others. None of the party’s TDs drink in the Dáil bar. 

In the interviews and TV debates of this election, Varadkar and Martin have both made dark references to the party’s Ard Chomhairle, alleging that there are ex-IRA puppeteers behind Sinn Féin. Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s current President, has labelled such accusations sexist, but Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been slinging them for years. When Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley wore an Easter Lily in the Dáil in 2013, an outraged Charlie Flanagan said, “He’s only carrying out orders”. Whether anyone is pulling the party’s strings or not, it is with the form of Sinn Féin’s politics that the establishment parties are most uncomfortable; they believe that they treat politics like it is a war. 

But the problem for today’s Sinn Féin despite all the success is that, North and South, they have nothing like the support Fianna Fáil had then. In the 1930s Fianna Fáil won over 70 Dáil seats and governed, first with the support of Labour, then on their own; Sinn Féin have 22 seats. They are the second largest party in Stormont, but still hold only 26 seats out of 90. With those results it is impossible for them to have their way altogether. The great question hanging over Mary Lou McDonald’s Sinn Féin has been that of which compromises they will make. Their choice in Ireland is between allowing into the party a version of the politics of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and leaning further than ever before into the ‘socialist’ side of Socialist Republicanism.

While Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on the one hand may believe they are too radical, many leftists outside Sinn Féin would make the same criticism as Ó Broin, who is now the party’s Housing spokesperson. They would say that Sinn Féin are ideologically Republican, but only tactically Socialist; when Sinn Féin join a movement like the water charges protests, it is for the sake of Sinn Féin rather than the movement. Their manifesto in the 2020 election is left-wing on housing, but coldly right-wing on issues such as the environment and crime. 

They are definitely more right-wing than the Fianna Fáil of the 1932 election, who were elected after promising protectionist trade tariffs, massive social housing schemes and the nationalisation of some industries; Cumann na nGaedheal repeatedly likened De Valera to Stalin. The fact is also that if Sinn Féin did achieve their desire of coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, they would most likely have to drop many of their most left-wing policies anyway, and perform the exact same about-face for which they castigated Labour. McDonald, no socialist herself, was a Fianna Fáil-er until she joined Sinn Féin at the beginning of the Millennium.

After the Local and European elections, most political commentators concluded that this was insurmountable: caught between two unthinkable compromises, Sinn Féin had nowhere left to go. Two of their three MEPs, Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Riada – who had run for President only a year earlier – lost their seats; the number of Sinn Féin councillors halved. But now they are polling near 20%, less than a boat-length behind Fine Gael. Sinn Féin do usually underperform relative to their polls, because their voters turn out less than others, and because they receive fewer transfers than Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. But even if they simply hold what they have, it would be a remarkable turnaround from last year.   

If it happens it will be because, even more than in the local elections, they have become the Sinn Féin of Mary Lou McDonald, the only serious left-wing alternative to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael; and, as those two become ever-more intertwined, their natural alternative. The new Sinn Féin have not abandoned their past but applied those lessons to a new time: they have combined establishment polish with a leftist sheen, committing seriously to neither. And now, having played the two compromises off each other, they are growing again. They have changed, but only to avoid changing. 

To centrist voters they pitch themselves as left-leaning but sensible, reliable and – crucially – different to the establishment parties who are all tainted by one another. To leftist voters, they promise they are an establishment-party in style but not substance. Take this election campaign, for example: while most of Sinn Féin’s online advocates declare they are the only alternative to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, McDonald has demanded that the parties consider a coalition with them. Pearse Doherty, Eoin Ó Broin and Louise O’Reilly are the finance, health and housing spokespeople: all three to the left of their Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael counterparts, but all on top of their briefs. “You have given everyone else a chance, so give us one now”, is the core of McDonald’s message in debates and interviews. “You do not have to like us”, is the subtext no matter who is listening: “But we are all you have”.

And it is working, because most Irish people agree with her; they believe that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are the same, and that Labour and the Greens will toe their line in any government. McDonald’s labels for Martin and Varadkar, “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”, sound like they were invented by a PR company but they encapsulate Sinn Féin’s pitch to the electorate. For their part, the efforts by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to make this a two party campaign have largely backfired and only highlighted how little separates the two parties by now. 

As the gap between them shrinks in the long-term, Sinn Féin’s ambition is to shift Ireland’s basic electoral psychology from Fianna Fail vs Fine Gael to Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael vs Sinn Féin. And that is why it may well be in their interest to avoid government this time around and force the two parties into an arrangement. It is possible that, despite their many protestations, Sinn Féin have no desire to enter a government after the election with either party at all, and the whole thing is an exercise in positioning. 

Going the way of Labour and the Greens has never been the ‘prize’. Instead, Sinn Féin have always sought to go the way of De Valera’s Fianna Fáil, and set the terms of life in a 32-county Ireland, whatever the cost. In the world of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, they are Odysseus: the man for whom hope and history rhyme only as the creations of their authors; for whom the ends justify the means. 

If they fail, it will be because they told too many people too many different things, but if they succeed it will be for the same reason. Finding that thin line is McDonald’s challenge now. 

For Ireland’s other parties, North and South, the fear is the same: that, as with Fianna Fáil a century ago, the day will come when Sinn Féin can finally say, “Ah, we have them at last”.