Before I start I have to stress, this is neither an exercise in shinner-bashing nor shinner-praising – it is simply an honest and personal opinion on Sinn Féin, particularly in the 26 counties, and their potential role in any future government. The die-hard dissies might consider it a sell-out, the Republican puritans will call it partitionist, and the baby shinners will probably dismiss it as the bitter rantings of one of the former two! Ergo, here is why I will probably – as an unrepentant independent socialist-republican – begrudgingly give my first preference vote to SF on Friday.
Free State Sinn Féin
Despite their ever adamant claims that they are an all-Ireland party (or “all-island” as seems to be the new buzzword), SF operate very differently either side of the border. In the 26 counties the play the role of main opposition in Leinster House and remain defiantly anti-austerity and are always quick, rightfully so, to condemn any anti-worker moves by the Fine Gael/Labour government. On the flip-side in the 6 counties they happily implement Tory cuts and have agreed to a major decimation of the public service and sell-off of public assets. They (after much pussyfooting) are opposed to water charges in the 26 counties, yet meters are being freely fitted throughout the 6 counties with no opposition from Sinn Féin, as they claim they have no control over the government department in charge of this project. And the shinners are always quick to defend the rights of political prisoners abroad, whether in the Basque Country or in Palestine, yet republican political prisoners in the 6 counties are forced to live under a torturous and degrading prison regime, with many being interned by remand without any conviction, while more or less being ignored by Sinn Féín.
Of course, they will vehemently defend their actions in the North by claiming their hands are tied and that the situation is so delicate up there that they have to meet the ultra right-wing Unionist parties half-way to maintain order. As if defending the assembly in Stormont, carved-up on a sectarian basis, was as noble a task for republicans as establishing the Republic of Tone and Pearse. But if ya can convince your supporters that tipping the cap to the monarch you’re supposedly trying to oust is a step nearer to the 32 county democratic socialist republic, then you can bloody well convince them to believe anything! Nevertheless, it is clear that they approach their roles as ruling party in the 6 counties and main opposition party in the 26 counties very differently, and as such I will do likewise in the upcoming Leinster House elections. Some might call it being partitionist, I call it being a realist. But simply put, Free State Sinn Féin probably are the best party for this rotten brown envelope Republic in which I reside. So allow me to outline the reasons for my optimism/naivety…
Can they afford to blow it?
As history has shown again and again and again it is very easy for those in opposition to lambast the ruling parties on their failings, and quite a different thing altogether to shake things up when they take power themselves. Sher, even Kenny and Gilmore could have had us fooled during the previous government with some of their “radical” rants and rallying cries! Having said that, in defence of the shinners, they have a lot more on the line here than either Labour or Fine Gael ever had. Since the founding of the Free State whenever Fianna Fáil dominance has faltered, Fine Gael and Labour have always been there to step in and offer more of the same old policy, but in a different packaging! However, Sinn Féin have NEVER been in a position like they find themselves in now, with a very reasonable outsiders chance of leading the next government. So whereas FG and Labour can renege on all their promises and still have political careers, Sinn Féin might never get this opportunity again. It might be a very long time before they find themselves in such a prime position again, where the fruit is so ripe for the picking.
Having piggy-backed the mass opposition to water charges to position themselves at the forefront of the Right2Change movement, which is harnessing the strong sentiment among the masses for genuine progressive reform, were they to “sell-out” post-election by either partnering up with any of the old guard parties, or, not follow through on their promises should they get into power, then all the hard work they have done over the past decade or so to paint themselves as a left-leaning party dedicated to re-establishing the Republic of 1916 would be instantaneously undone. They have proven, both north and south of the border, that they are very intelligent and capable political strategists so I just can’t see them sacrificing a long-term prize for a short-term gain.
Who do they represent?
Landlords, middle-class pseudo republicans and opportunist/careerist politicians aside, Sinn Féin is the only party in Ireland with a predominantly working-class grassroots. They may tend to aim for the middle of the road, wishy-washy student types when they organise in the universities, the sort of types that would have joined Labour a few short years ago, but then again universities are populated by middle of the road, wishy-washy student types. In fact it seems in Cork they have more or less abandoned the name of their UCC Cumann, named after hunger striker Martin Hurson, for the much less radical UCC Sinn Féin Society. Watering down their image and positions to pander to the middle class certainly is deplorable, but rest assured the lads climbing up the street lights to fix election posters and organising the commemorations to Ireland’s patriot dead are for the most part working-class with genuine republican sentiments.
The grassroots members of Sinn Féín, who make up the back bone of the party, and the traditional Sinn Féin voters are largely dominated by the working class. In the wider scheme of things, they espouse enough left-wing rhetoric to at least be described as somewhat left-leaning, but certainly not a socialist party and most defintiely not anti-capitalist. They are expertly playing the anti-austerity card to great effect, and have many genuine and decent socialists within their ranks, therefore I do not believe that were they to get into government that they would risk the backlash of a Syriza-style sell-out of their election manifesto and the Right2Change policy principles which they signed up for. This anti-austerity and social-democratic platform will be the main drive behind their electoral gains this year, any deviation to the right once in government would be detrimental. As such, I believe they are best positioned of all parties to improve the lot of the working-class should they get into power.
Why vote for Sinn Féin?
After a rather critical analysis you may wonder why would I bother voting for a party that I clearly clash with on a number of issues. Well, simply put, this is an election – not a revolution! We’re being asked to vote for who we think is best suited to more or less dictate our lives for the next five years, and I’d much rather a party made up of many working-class, socialist and anti-imperialist activists than one of the parties made up of the big farmers and businessmen. Elections don’t typically lead to any majorly progressive societal changes, but they certainly have a part to play. When Irish men and women voted in the Westminister elections in 1918 it was by no means a revolutionary act, yet the consequential formation of an Chéad Dáíl Éireann became one of the most revolutionary developments in Irish history. I’m not suggesting the prize is as big this time around, but the full implementation of the Right2Change policies will certainly make life a lot easier for many people in Ireland. It will not end the exploitation of the working-classes, but it will put their needs at the forefront of government policy.
I am under no illusions that a Sinn Féin lead government will bring about the end to all our woes and finish the work that so many strived for in the past. It will not bring us any closer to a united Ireland, it will not bring us any closer to a socialist republic, and it will not bring us any closer to an end to the class-based system of government where so few own so much and determine the quality of life of so many. Yet when you consider the over-zealous effort the establishment parties and media are putting into damaging and discrediting the shinners throughout this campaign, even more than their usual efforts., then it has to beg the question; when the political, media and business elite are all weighing together for their class interests, then surely we should do the same? Surely in this current space in Irish history, with no immediate hunger for revolution yet a real appetite for change, Sinn Féin represent the best chance for the suffering classes? So I’m not voting for Sinn Féin because I believe they are the answer to all our problems, I am voting for Sinn Féin because I believe that they are the best choice to start tackling theses problems.
I’m voting Sinn Féin because, as someone working in the health service, I want to see an adequately funded and staffed public health service based on need not wealth. I want to see an end to the current two-tier system which allows those without money to linger for years on waiting lists with worsening conditions and those with the means to go private skipping to the front of the que. I want to see hospital wards better staffed and better funded. I want to see prevention and health promotion through primary care in the community take the place of expensive and extensive treatment in the acute settings. I’m voting Sinn Féin because I don’t want my children, or any children, to grow up having to worry about the real possibility of water poverty. I want our human right to water to be constitutionally protected and to remain in the ownership of the public.
I could go on, but I’ve ranted enough, so I’ll finish with a final note. As someone who some might describe as a “dissident” republican I can list many reasons why I am not a supporter of Sinn Féin and list many criticism of their wider policies. But when it comes down to the reality we are facing – another five years of a right-wing Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil lead government – I can swallow my pride and accept that as a working-class man, Sinn Féin are the most suitable choice for me in this election. Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, has a lot more in common with me and the people living in my community than Simon Coveney, Mícheál Martin, Michaee McGrath and Ciarán Lynch do, that is why he is getting my number one preference on Friday. As far as the candidates go, he is the best suited for the job to represent our interests in Leinster House.
Lar Ó Tuama