Sinn Féin edging towards social democracy

The decision by Sinn Fein to allow its Dáil deputies negotiate for a minority position in a future government coalition in Dublin, indicates that the party is now embedded within the parameters of centrist social democracy 


The announcement of his retirement by Sinn Fein’s long-serving president Gerry Adams was deemed by the media to be the most noteworthy happening at the party’s recent ard-fheis. After 34, often turbulent years at the helm of a movement, ridiculed and lauded in almost equal parts, it could hardly have been otherwise. 

The Adams tenure has had a significance that goes well beyond his own organisation. No matter how one views the man, it is impossible to deny the impact he has had on Irish politics over the past decades. Under his stewardship, Sinn Féin not only emerged from the shadow of the IRA but has become a formidable electoral force both north and south. 

Yet in spite of media focus, it was another decision taken at the annual convention that will have greater significance in the days to come. Sinn Fein’s declared willingness to participate as a minority partner in a coalition government in Dublin has ramifications that go beyond the party. Taken at a time when it might reasonably have been anticipated that an incoming leader would have had time to adjust, the latest brouhaha involving Francis Fitzgerald and the Department of Justice has hastened developments.

For over a decade, Sinn Fein has straddled a position somewhere between radicalism and reformism. There was doubt as to whether the party was vying to replace Fianna Fáil as ‘the republican party’ or attempting to introduce discipline to that fragmented radical community inside and outside the Dail. Signalling an intent to enter government as a junior partner in a coalition resolves this conundrum and is a clear indication of a determination to conform within establishment parameters.

Although the Fine Gael led coalition will survive the latest upheaval, the longevity of this government must be in doubt.  The high-wire game of bluff between Varadkar and Martin has damaged confidence between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and questions the durability of the confidence and supply arrangement. While opinion polls are currently suggesting little change in the event of an election, it is possible that post-polling-day arithmetic could present the option for a Fianna Fáil/Sinn Fein administration. 

Have no doubts either about Micheál Martin’s position vis a vis coalition. Faced with the temptation of entering office or underwriting the inevitable mess of a hung Dail and the risk of yet another election, Michael Martin will accept Mary Lou McDonald as his Tánaiste.

While it is reasonable to point to the failure of other minority partners in coalition arrangements as an indication of where Sinn Fein would find itself, this is almost to miss the point. The  bourgeois parliamentary system is created for self perpetuation. In other words, it is not a question of whether those in cabinet are of sterling character or unbending republican principle. In the final analysis it is  down to the role of the state in capitalist society where as James Connolly said, governments are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the ruling class. 

Let’s be clear on this point. Connolly’s observation is not some outdated piece of left-wing hyperbole. No serious political observer believes that the cabinet exercises absolute power in the Republic of Ireland. In the first instance, the Dail gives way to the constitution guaranteeing the right to private property and this will be upheld by the judiciary restricting elected deputies ability to redistribute wealth.


Then there the state’s subjugation to the European Union which in effect amounts to conceding a large measure of economic sovereignty to Brussels. Moreover, huge influence is exercised covertly by other agencies such as the privately owned media, financial sector entities, speculators and foreign multinationals. The outworking of this is that a minority partner in a coalition government will have little ability to make meaningful change and in reality smaller  parties change well before the state’s free-market system begins to creak. 

This analysis should not be taken as simply another swipe at Sinn Fein but rather as an  assessment of the wider political situation in Ireland at present. The decision  to accept a junior partnership role in coalition has reverberations across the political spectrum. Around us there are grave issues demanding solutions as all the while we are witnessing a vacant space on the left highlighted by the latest Sinn Fein decision, coupled with the Labour Party’s decline.

Meanwhile, there is a real erosion of credibility in the state apparatus. How can it be otherwise as key institutions are faltering and urgent responsibilities neglected or discarded.  

Look at what is happening with one of the basic elements required for the exercise of state power; control of the administration of justice and policing. Chaos reigns unchecked in both these areas. The Department of Justice is apparently unable to exercise authority and cannot manage itself or its emails. Running parallel with the department’s woes are a series of seemingly unresolvable scandals within the Garda Siochana that has eroded the force’s prestige in the eyes of all but dyed in the wool right wingers. 

If that’s not enough, the state’s two largest parties have sweated hard and long to agree a sweetheart deal for reasons of political expediency, rather than sack the minister of justice for obvious incompetence.      

Adding further to the state’s ebbing authority is a raft of social problems. Housing shortages remain at crisis point with every indication that the situation will get worse. Austerity continues to hurt many working class families who see little opportunity to escape its grip. Zero-hour contracts, depressed wages, a diminishing welfare safety net and reduced social wage make life increasingly difficult in a lot of households. Moreover, addressing these social and economic problems is rendered virtually impossible by the Republic’s ruling class’ slavish adherence to the European Union and its neoliberal dictates.

Against this backdrop of damaged state credibility and widespread social disadvantage, there is space and need for a clearly defined left movement. The Irish Labour Party is in disarray while Sinn Fein is edging irreversibly towards centrist social democracy. The field is, therefore, opening up for a genuine socialist alternative and signs are that this is now a real possibility. For example, left-wing trade unionists in the Right to Change movement are exploring options in this field.

 Positive signals  are also coming from some smaller political parties and elected representatives as they combine in the Campaign for Public Housing. Meantime, the Peadar O’Donnell Socialist Republican Forum continues to provide an arena for political discussion facilitating the development of an ideological consensus around a programme for progressive transformative change.  

Nevertheless, nothing changes without a conscious and coherent effort and we must not forgo this opportunity to make progress. It would be unforgivable if we fail to measure up to the requirements of the new day. We must, as civil rights activists said in the 1960s, ‘Seize the Time’.

Tommy McKearney … 28 November 2017 …. This article first appeared in Socialist Voice Dec 2017

This© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com