Irish Republican News · September 17, 2009
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
IRISH REPUBLICAN NEWS: Might Sinn Fein merge with Labour?
Might Sinn Fein merge with Labour?
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By Tommy McKearney (for Fourthwrite)

Denis Bradley’s proposal in his column in the Irish News that Sinn Fein should concentrate exclusively on advocating Irish unity while eschewing socialism is misguided. To do so would leave the party increasingly isolated in the South while confining it to a dangerously narrow brand of nationalism in the North. For republicans, after all, uniting Ireland politically is only a means to the end of establishing a republic across the entire island. What form that republic takes assumes ever greater importance as the global economy tumbles deeper into recession. Indeed, Gerry Adams would be well advised to seek a much closer formal alliance with the Irish Labour Party rather than move away from Left politics.

Following the recent elections South of the border, Mr. Adams’s party finds itself in political ‘no-man’s-land’. At a time when economic hardship has led to widespread disenchantment with government policy and practice, the party failed to capitalise on a tide of resentment that only a few years ago would have resulted in handsome dividends. Prospects of a breakthrough in the Republic are fading and with these plummeting hopes, go a carefully crafted strategy that has been at the core of Sinn Fein efforts for over a decade. Party leaders know that this lost momentum will not easily, if ever, be regained.

The most telling aspect of the setback is not that Sinn Fein failed to gain a significant number of extra seats but that it was unable to stake out any identifiable ground for itself. At local government and European level, Labour increased its quota of elected representatives, as did smaller left-wing parties such as the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and Seamus Healy’s WUAG in Tipperary. Clearly there was a rise in support for the Left. Equally obvious from Sinn Fein’s flat performance is that, in spite of its overwhelmingly working class base, the organisation is not deemed a left-wing party.

Nor did the collapse of Fianna Fail, the ‘republican party’, benefit Sinn Fein. A majority of southern voters are convinced that the northern issue is resolved and see little point in pursing it further. Irish unity is viewed by many in the Republic as a vague aspiration and one they are not currently willing to prioritise. This outlook might well change but only if an all-Ireland state were to offer something much more tangibly attractive than a hazy promise to merge the current departments of transport and health. Reality for Sinn Fein is that it has failed to carve out a distinctive niche for itself in southern Irish political life, making it difficult to avoid the conclusion that at best, the party will stall indefinitely in its current marginal position.

However gloomy prospects may be for Sinn Fein in the South, its plight cannot be a source of comfort for left of centre parties and especially not for Labour. In spite of a heartening result, Eamonn Gilmore and colleagues are aware that in the midst of the most severe economic crisis in half a decade, their party has secured the support of less than 15% of the Republic’s electorate. If a general election were called at the moment, Labour could aspire only to acting as junior partners in a Fine Gael led coalition. Displacing Fianna Fail might cause a degree of satisfaction among party activists but it would not break any mould nor would it lead to significant redistribution of national wealth and income. Longer term, the party would very likely pay a price once again for its cyclical relationship with the strongly free-market Fine Gael.

One option for both organisations would be to end the long standing rift between working class republicans and the Irish Labour movement that emerged post-Treaty. A split that has perpetuated Civil War politics by throwing up on one hand the unlikely pairing of Labour and Fine Gael while simultaneously allowing a right of centre party claim the loyalty of a large section of modestly waged citizens. As a consequence, Irish politics has stagnated for decades as two very similar political philosophies exchanged office but with little change in direction.

A pooling of Labour and republican electoral tallies would, on recent results, produce a total approaching that of Fianna Fail. Allowing that other left leaning parties and independents would, at least, give critical support to such an initiative, the basis for a real challenge to the revolving door of Irish politics would exist. North of the border, Sinn Fein would surely benefit in the long run by clearly identifying itself as socialist and thus affording it an opportunity to avoid a pitfall it now faces of becoming merely the 6-Counties’ ‘Catholic’s Party’.

For these changes to come about there would have to be bold and generous behaviour from key players in the two main parties and a great deal of understanding from their members. Unlike the deal between Democratic Left and the Labour Party, a successful partnership would not see one group submerge its identity into that of the other. In order not to leave significant numbers behind it would be important to combine both constituencies into a republican labour party.

There is no evidence that the leadership of either party is contemplating such a move at present but the underlying logic is compelling. Sinn Fein has put its insurrectionary past behind it and is striving to make as telling an impact on Southern political life as it has in the North. Its socialist credentials are a tad threadbare but its support base is working class and feels more comfortable with social democracy than neo-liberalism. Labour’s socialism, on the other hand, is somewhat jaded but still strikes a note with many of its supporters. In short, there is little to separate the parties ideologically and cavilling from either about skeletons in the cupboard would ring hollow in light of history. More important is the fact that on their own they have limited options, while together; they could provide the catalyst for realignment in Irish politics at a time when the opportunity is greater than ever.

If, as Denis Bradley suggests, the time is appropriate for a debate within Sinn Fein about its policies, then a more productive discussion might take place around the benefits of amalgamating with the Irish Labour Party. And for those who dismiss such a prospect out of hand, it’s only necessary to point out that for parties which brought us the Mullingar Accord and the Chuckle Brothers; a republican and labour partnership sounds a relatively modest and plausible proposal and one that promises more than appears to be currently on offer.

© 2009 Irish Republican News