Sinn Féin’s commitment at its Ard Fheis last month to campaigning vigorously against ‘Brexit’ in the UK’s June referendum is a denial of its Republican credentials. Its rhetoric of seeking to turn the EU into a “Social Europe” – with all of the weight of Ireland’s less than 1% EU Council vote? – is derisory.
Since Provisional Sinn Féin was set up in 1970 it has opposed handing over Irish sovereignty to the EU in every referendum from that on the original EEC Accession Treaty in 1972, through the referendums on the Single European Act 1987, the Maastricht Treaty 1992, the Amsterdam Treaty 1998, the Nice Treaty 2001 and 2002, the Lisbon Treaty 2008 and 2009, up to the Fiscal Stability Treaty of 2012. Opposition to EU integration and supranationalism was central to Sinn Féin’s political stance for forty years, alongside its support for the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’ in the North.
That Sinn Féin should embrace the EU at a time when that entity is in disarray and getting more such, what with the euro-currency crisis, the migration crisis and the Brexit crisis, and losing popular support across the continent by the day, adds to the irony of this change.
It would seem that this policy turnabout stems at bottom from the party leadership’s search for political respectability, whether in the eyes of Ireland’s political Establishment and media, or to please the American and British Governments that have backed the Good Friday Agreement and to whom Brexit is anathema.
It is over a decade now since the Sinn Féin leadership announced that its policy on the EU was one of “critical engagement”. This spindoctor’s phrase could mean whatever one wanted it to mean. It implied that Sinn Féin was at once critical of the EU while supporting it at the same time. And it kept the party members happy, especially in the South.
However the Brexit referendum has forced the leadership off the fence. It is mainly the Northerners that have pushed this significant change. “We must not have a Little Englander mentality”, Martin McGuinness told his Ard Fheis. “The future of Ireland, North and South, is in the EU”, he says.
One factor influencing the Northerners has been the millions of EU funding that have gone into the ‘peace process’ there, for local community groups, the employment of ex-prisoners and the like.
As Britain is a major net contributor to the EU budget, all money for EU projects in the UK is effectively British taxpayers’ money being recycled through Brussels. But as Northern Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson told the European Parliament recently: “The EU has supported the Irish peace process and projects aimed at reducing the impact of the border through INTERREG and Peace funding, with examples like the footbridge uniting Pettigo in Co Donegal and Tullyhammon in Fermanagh…There are thousands of my constituents with no faith in a British Government replacing these funds post-Brexit”.
At the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis there was much talk of the desirability of an “agreed” united Ireland and the need for cross-community reconciliation in the North, while at the same time a practical opportunity to influence Unionist attitudes towards Irish reunification was being thrown away.
It is obvious now that the only way to bring about a United Ireland over time is to win a section of current Unionist opinion to that position, however long that may take, so as to bring about eventually a majority in the North for ending Partition. For if the Unionists are Irish, as they are, that should in principle be possible.
By opposing Brexit, which mainstream Unionism in the form of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party supports, Northern Sinn Féin can now lapse comfortably back into the usual Catholic- Protestant, Nationalist-Unionist confrontation in the referendum, despite the rhetoric of cross-community reconciliation.
It would truly have been an historical development if Sinn Féin had sided with such Unionists as the DUP against the mainstream policy of the British Government and Prime Minister Cameron by supporting Brexit. This would have opened further opportunities for a more progressive direction by Unionism over time. Instead Unionists are likely now to look even more cynically at Sinn Féin in view of the convolutions of their EU policy.
Another consequence of Sinn Féin embracing the EU at its Ard Fheis is that it removes the most significant policy difference between it and the other Dáil parties, and in particular Fianna Fáil. It thereby clears the way for a Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin coalition down the road, in which Sinn Féin would be the smaller not the bigger party. For if the choice for voters is between Fianna Fáil ‘Lite’ – a pro-EU Sinn Féin – and Fianna Fáil ‘Heavy’, most of them will surely go for the genuine article.
For Sinn Féin to advocate Brexit would have been tricky in presentational terms, but it could have been done. It would not be so tricky however if the Sinn Féin leadership had carried out a sustained campaign of education in the party’s own ranks and amongst the wider Irish public on the anti-democratic and anti-national character of the EU over the years, building on its record of referendum opposition to successive EU Treaties.
The leadership shrank from tackling that. It contented itself with rhetoric about “a Republic of equals”, “an agreed Ireland” and talk of “leading the Left”, while rarely mentioning Irish independence, which has always been the central value of Irish Republicanism and national democracy. National unity is both logically and politically a subordinate value to national independence. Ireland was a united country under British rule in the 19th century. It could be united again under supranational EU rule today. Unity in independence is however a different matter and is unattainable in the EU.
Sinn Féin wants free water, but imposing charges for water is an EU policy. It wants more spending on health and other public services, but supplementary budgets to pay for such must have EU approval under the Stability and Growth Pact. In these and countless other policy areas the “elephant in the room” is the EU, but Sinn Féin, like the other Dail parties, now does its best to ignore it.
That great Socialist Republican Peadar O’Donnell used to say that Republicanism and Nationalism were the most “left-wing” thing in Ireland until the country had attained real national independence. By that he meant that any ‘leftist’ or radical-sounding talk that does not give priority to establishing a genuine rather than bogus national independence was so much codology, meant to deceive the gullible.
It is ironical to see the Sinn Féin leadership lined up with the most conservative forces in Europe and the USA – from Goldman Sachs and Wall Street to the British, German and other EU Governments, the American Government, the Brussels Commission and EU-based High Finance and Transnational Capital AGAINST those people on the Left, Right and Centre of British politics who want to get back the right to decide their own laws and international policies.
But perhaps the biggest irony is that by effectively abandoning a meaningful Republicanism through support for the EU, Sinn Féin is moving down the same road as the erstwhile “Stickies” – i.e. Sinn Féin the Workers Party and Democratic Left – from whom they parted company so acrimoniously in the 1970s. They are using virtually the same radicalsounding slogans and demands as Proinsias de Rossa et al did in their day, including embracing EU integration as “progressive”. Will contemporary Sinn Féin end up in a decade’s time as their ‘Sticky’ predecessors did, though absorbed by Fianna Fáil rather than by the Labour Party, with perhaps some dissident throw-offs along the way?
Motion 25 at the 2016 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, proposed by the Ard Chomhairle and adopted without dissent
“This Ard Fheis reiterates our policy of critical engagement with the EU and reaffirms our support for the campaign for the North of Ireland to remain in the EU.
Sinn Féin will continue to work with progressive allies in Europe to enhance the positives of the European Union, combat the negatives and hold the institutions to account. Sinn Féin will continue to resist the dilution of national sovereignty and protect the competencies of the Member States. Sinn Féin will resist any encroachment on Irish neutrality.
Sinn Féin will oppose and campaign against any attempts by the British Government to withdraw from the EU.
Increased or full withdrawal by the British state from the EU has negative implications for Ireland, North and South. It would represent a major set-back for the political process in the North, and directly challenge the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement as an internationally-binding treaty. It would also undermine all-Ireland co-operation and harden partition.
A Brexit is opposite to the interests of local people. The combined financial loss of EU investment, subsidies and funds to the North of Ireland (and the Southern Border counties) arising from a Brexit would be in the region of £2.5bn.
This Ard Fheis moves that in the event of Britain leaving the EU, an immediate referendum on Irish unity be triggered”.