Sinn Féin’s exciting economic and social agenda needs to be weighed against its ambivalence on violence, its cultism and its environmental weaknesses.
By Michael Smith.
Village believes equality of outcome, sustainability and accountability are the most important policies. So how does, now rampant, Sinn Féin fare under these criteria?
Of course Sinn Féin has been attacked for the alleged profligacy of its manifesto.
For me its manifesto is an impressive piece of work and the high point of Sinn Féin’s offering.
Nevertheless, economically, it uses smoke and mirrors and it is not clear by how much it would exceed the alleged fair-weather fiscal space of €11bn.
Sinn Féin plans to abolish the USC for incomes under €30,000 (costing €1.2bn) and abolish the local property tax (costing €485m). It would increase stamp duty on commercial property and introduce a 15.75 tax rate on employers’ PRSi on salaries over €140,000. It would increase CAT from 33% to 36%. It would impose a 1% wealth tax (over €1m) and a 5% high-income levy. Exciting and progressive stuff.
It would spend an additional €6.5bn on house-building and €1.6bn on health over a five-year government, It would giveaway €2.4bn in tax reductions every year, and increase overall taxation by €3.8bn annually It claims it will run a surplus every year, rising to €3.4bn by 2025, and misleadingly claims that the Department of Finance has somehow endorsed its package as a whole.
This generation has been so profligate in terms of consumption and environmental degradation that it should be aiming to live more within its means and only to borrow for the benefit of the rising and future generations.
To this end, Sinn Féin’s economic and social manifesto seems a proportionately radical approach.
It is regrettable it is not proposing increases in capital gains tax, even on windfall land rezoning profits, and it is offensive that a republican party would not tax property, an atavistic regression to the Irish obsession with the land, ill-befitting a modern party with left aspirations.
Its proposals on REIT and IREF property vehicles are informed and appropriate. It proposes increasing the Dividend Withholding Tax (DWT) for REITs and IREFs from 25% to 33%, applying a rate of 33% Capital Gains Tax on all property disposals by REITs and IREF and applying the full rate of commercial stamp duty on REITs and IREFs . This is targeted stuff: someone in Sinn Féin’s been talking to subversives in real estate.
However, it again betrays a lack of seriousness for a socialistic party in eschewing increases on our 12.5% corporation taxes, or financial transaction taxes.
Of course the manifesto is not everything, particularly in circumstances where coalition is its only route to government.
Sinn Féin’s commitment to actually implementing a radical left agenda is unclear bearing in mind its defining preference for irredentist nationalism first over socialist ideology second, and its willingness to coalesce with Fianna Fáil or even Fine Gael.
Nor is its track record in power impressive. Its performance at local-authority level is consistently banal. In Northern Ireland, apparently unbeknown to Mary Lou McDonald, there seem to be more homeless per capita than in the Republic (a 2017 report from the Northern Ireland audit office, for example, said that “since 2005-06 around 20,000 households each year have presented as homeless with an average of 50% accepted as statutory homeless“; and its health service is by far the worst in the UK. The governance Sinn Féin has provided North of the border is not distinctive or particularly leftist.
More generally Sinn Féin is cultist, over-disciplined and secretive, hitched to supportive plutocrats in the US, and ambivalent about democracy and transparency. Its internal elections never seem fully open. It had a serious internal bullying problem. Its leaders lie casually about its, and the IRA’s, past.
It was certainly the case in the past that Sinn Féin leaders deferred to the IRA army council. It is alleged, with some evidence – e.g. Máirtín O’Muilleoir’s consultations with veteran republicans as Stormont collapsed, and Mary Lou McDonald’s volte-face on a border poll – still to be the case.
If it is no longer the case – and this is definitive – at the very least Sinn Féin should explain when and how the transition occurred.
Many Sinn Féin leaders accept that overall the IRA campaign, which killed 1800 (out of 3500 killed in total during ‘the Troubles’ was a mistake, despite the systemic and evil provocations.
The single biggest move that might attract nay-sayers to Sinn Féin would be to apologise for its largely blind support for the inexplicably still-undisbanded IRA.
As it is, it is vulnerable to the, sometimes disingenuously contrived, efforts of the media and other political parties, to highlight the litany of Sinn Féin ambivalence to IRA violence, such as the focus on its dubious role in imputing criminality to Paul Quinn who the IRA appear to have murdered, after the cease fire.
Nationalism, particularly irredentist nationalism, is a dead end and ultimately incompatible with equality which seeks to eliminate barriers, including borders, to treating people equally. In Sinn Féin’s case nationalism has taken the shape of support for violence. It seems to me that violence, in the North, verged too often on the anti-egalitarian. If you support shooting someone you are in effect saying not alone are they not equal, or somehow worth less, you are saying they are worth nothing. That was a bad start for an egalitarian agenda.
If not sectarian, Sinn Féin is at least tribal. It is systematically scathing of Unionism and it is anti-British.
Whatever about the vicious lies told casually about Paul Quinn, Mary Lou McDonald took the opportunity to march behind an “England get out of Ireland” banner at last year’s New York St Patrick’s day and stated that Slab Murphy, convicted on overwhelming charges of tax evasion, was “a good Republican”.
Sinn Féin is still the party of anti-Black-and-Tan-bandwagonning and the late-night Tiocfaidh. Its efforts to reach out to Unionists in the North rarely seem tailored to actually appeal to sceptical Protestants.
Even in the South it is divisive. Sinn Féin’s campaign rhetoric has not been inclusive and its pitch is at working communities, and particularly at those suffering from the government’s incompetence on housing and health, not at Varadkar’s early risers or even the middle classes. This was very evident in Mary Lou McDonald’s tactics during the election leaders’ debates.
Perhaps this is justified on the basis of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. But clearly the Establishment assault on Sinn Féin indicates that it has skewered an exposed nerve.
Its social programme: housing and health
Sinn Féin intends to build 100,000 public houses over five years and increase the Part V obligation from 10% to 25%. It would impose a rent free.
Its detailed and structured health agenda (found elsewhere in this section https://villagemagazine.ie/in-terms-of-the-range-imagination-and-costedness-of-progressive-health-policies-sinn-fein-is-in-front/ to be the best of all the parties’ manifesto offerings on health) aims to increase spending by an additional €4.5 billion for Current and €1.58 billion for Capital spending.
Radical increases in expenditure are necessary if the agenda is to improve the lot of the worst off in this society. Sinn Féin is to be commended for the ambition of its agenda in health and housing. Nevertheless promises in a manifesto, for a party whose only chance of power is as an adjunct to a conservative party, mean little and a plausible assessment, in the Irish Times, of Sinn Féin’s promises to deliver 100,000 social houses finds it possible but highly unlikely, for practical reasons. Still Village favours the radical and the ambitious so pushing the possibilities is the right thing to do.
Elsewhere its commitment to equality is less clear. Nowhere does it mention the Gini Co-efficient or any other method of calculating whether society is getting more or less equal, and it apparently has no interest in monitoring quality of life.
On sectoral issues its instincts are often egalitarian. Its commitment to trans rights is very impressive. Its support for Travellers has been unwavering. And for a nationalist party it has bravely and steadfastly held a strong line against racism, even if its manifesto refers – in a dogwhistle – to mistakes made in Europe (for which read Germany) on immigration.
Sinn Féin’s support for those in Direct Provision has been crucial in seeing off a xenophobic fringe. And its post-colonial worldview and support for immigrants is what saves it from allegations that it is a Little Ireland party.
Sinn Féin is an insincere laggard on the environment and appears too arrogant to invest in researching and following a mainstream environmental agenda. It knows it is right-on to appear environmental but its policies, apart from its headline climate, policy, are lacking and weak, unimaginative and ill-thought-out. It has nothing to say on biodiversity loss.
Its record on planning is not strong in local government. However some of its manifesto planning policies are laudable and it goes into more detail than the Greens who should have this sphere sewn up.
For example Sinn Féin proposes removing the power for Ministers to issue mandatory planning guidelines, which has been used to deleterious effect by Fine Gael, making the Planning Regulator independent, increasing the vacant-site levy, and repealing guidelines increasing heights and reducing apartment standards.
Nevertheless, it has nothing to say about sprawl, one-off housing or implementing the National Planning Framework and balanced regional development.
In Northern Ireland Sinn Féin promotes roads to the detriment of public transport and in practice in the Republic it supports all the motorway plans suggested by Fine Gael.
Its manifesto is extraordinarily reluctant to tackle the agricultural lobby. And, driven by how it was outmanoeuvred on the left over the water tax, it is against a carbon tax.
Certainly it calls clearly for 7% reductions in CO2 emissions annually but given its populist instinct to offend no vested interest, it unsurprisingly has no ideas how to achieve that.
Village has generally mirrored the veteran sceptical approaches of the likes of Vincent Browne and Fintan O’Toole on Sinn Féin. Last week, O’Toole wrote: “There can be no progressive government in Ireland without Sinn Féin. That is not a value judgment. It is merely a fact that anyone who wants to see radical change on the four great issues of housing, healthcare, climate change and child poverty has to face…to keep Sinn Féin out in the cold is to keep Irish politics frozen in its all-too-familiar postures… If about 20 per cent of voters choose Sinn Féin, there is a real problem in telling them that their votes cannot count in the formation of a government”.
That is a plausible view. However, if Sinn Féin lets either the State or a radical left-wing agenda down, there is a danger it will be yet another generation before that agenda has another chance. That would give oxygen to the gasping ethoses of the civil-war parties.
There is also a difference in standards between that appropriate to support voting for a party; and that appropriate to justify its being a partner in coalition government.
My own stance is scathing about almost all of the political offerings at election 2020. To move towards equality, sustainability, accountability we need far more radical offerings. In advocating only the highest standards, it is notably easy to draw attention to the deficiencies, including fundamental deficiencies, of Ireland’s ascendant force on the left, the flawed and ambivalent but transitional and improving force that is Sinn Féin in 2020.