Northern Ireland: The national question, Cuba, permanent revolution….

Why I left Sinn Fein and joined the Socialist Party

For twelve years I was a committed member of Sinn Féin. Like other members of the party I shared a total commitment and even loyalty to the concept of a ‘thirty-two county democratic socialist republic’. It was something I would have sacrificed everything for but the realities of daily struggle were often very different from this vision of socialism in one small island. Like many other republicans I opposed sectarianism and racism but worked on a day to day basis within a party largely limited by communitarian politics.

Over time, the contradictions seemed to grow more antagonistic. When our socialist commitments met the hard realities of political power, it always seemed to be the status quo that won out. The party seemed to prioritise ‘not scaring the horses’ as many leadership figures would say when people like me questioned political decisions. Everything seemed amenable to sacrifice if they could get a stable working relationship with the DUP in the new institutions. This they held in some lofty analysis was critical in getting to a united Ireland. In the end, it boiled down to the fact that the socialist part of the vision could be sacrificed as necessary to enable the nationalist agenda to be fulfilled; a return to de Valera’s strategy that ‘labour must wait’.

Press conference with Domhnall O Cobhthaigh and Socialist Party (CWI) MEP, Joe Higgins

One year ago, I finally decided to leave the party and give up my council seat following the Ard Comhairle endorsing the Dublin government’s bank bailout but was unsure of where to go with my politics and I encountered huge internal pressure to stay involved. One of the things you hear a lot is that people who leave ‘go nowhere’ as there is ‘nowhere to go’. The underlying message is that ‘There Is No Alternative’, a not unrelated party political parallel to Thatcher’s TINA.

So I stayed on but decided to experiment with political engagement outside the party. I went along to the People Before Profit Alliance meeting ahead of the last election, started up a few blogs, re-established contact with the Irish Socialist Network and headed down to the Corrib gas pipeline protests in Mayo, for some first hand action alongside the local community. While it was sometimes exciting, I was left with a sense of being directionless. What was needed was what Lenin wrote of one hundred years ago in ‘what is to be done’: a disciplined democratic centralist organisation which was absolutely committed to revolutionary politics.

At that stage looking back it seems it was natural that I was heading to the Socialist Party. Indeed, what had kept me away so long was concern about their take on the national question and Cuba. I was surprised to hear that they viewed the fundamental problem as having being caused by British imperialism but half way agreed when I heard of their criticisms of the IRA’s military campaign. I had always felt that it could never have succeeded and I understood implicitly how it had undermined the possibility of a cross-community socialist movement. It was the realisation that this latter movement that constituted the only force that would resolve our problems that made my mind up. Joe Higgin’s documentary on Che Guevara convinced me that the party’s position on Cuba was not sectarian but consistently revolutionary nor was it grounded in the abysmal theory of ‘state capitalism’.

Nationalism had never been my motivation; I had been a socialist before I joined Sinn Féin and I would be one when I left. I had believed that we could bring people to socialism through their commitment to Irish Republicanism, that socialism represented the ‘ultimate’ in republican democracy. My disillusionment with Sinn Féin was primarily caused by the realisation that the party’s nationalism was getting in the way of its socialism; in effect, the verification in concrete political terms of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. It was not a huge step for me to join the Socialist Party.

I realise that building a Socialist Party will not be easy. People have their naive prejudices about socialism and socialists. But the tide has definitely turned. The collapse of neo-liberalist economics is manifest today, soon I believe the neo-Keynesians will be exposed and those who are not content to give up on macro-economics altogether will once again have to wrestle with Marxist economics which best explains the current dynamics.

The era of austerity, heralded by decisions to bailout the financial capitalists and their institutions will also radicalise people. Whole layers of society are just beginning to experience a traumatic reversal in their living conditions. A generation of youth is at risk of permanent exclusion from the labour force. In such circumstances we can make great strides forward.

I am deeply thankful to the Socialist Party for accepting me as a member. I am totally committed to socialism and look forward working alongside others in building up a revolutionary movement capable of delivering the goods. My one regret is that I didn’t decide to join the Socialist Party a lot earlier.

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