The Long Game – Inside Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin is consistently polling ahead in the Republic of Ireland, and in Northern Ireland it is the biggest party. When the Assembly is restored in the North, and in the aftermath of the next general election in the South, the party once synonymous with a paramilitary campaign could be in power in both jurisdictions. They have pledged to pursue a ‘border poll’ and the goal of a united Ireland.  

The spotlight will increasingly be on Sinn Féin. The Long Game – Inside Sinn Féin, by Aoife Moore, promises “revelations” and “groundbreaking telling of contemporary Ireland’s biggest and most elusive political story”. While true revelations are thin on the ground for anyone who has followed Sinn Féin’s trajectory, the Long Game does provide illuminating interviews with former and current members of the party, the IRA and from the broader Irish republican movement. Although Sinn Féin refused to cooperate on the book and most of those quoted do so anonymously, the Long Game often underscores the analysis of the republican movement made by the Committee for Workers’ International over decades.  

The republican movement split in 1969 in the midst of vicious Unionist state repression against the civil rights movement and with the danger of a slide into all out civil war in the North. As the CWI said at the time, the tops of the labour and trade union movement in the North failed to give a lead to the working class, uniting around civil rights and a struggle for jobs and housing for all and opposition to the right wing nationalist and unionist parties. This opened the way for other forces to fill the vacuum.

For the more militaristic ‘Provisional IRA’, Sinn Féin’s main role in the 1970s, “was to produce propaganda, provide support and cover for the IRA, and raise money to support the families of IRA prisoners.” In those days, “the prevailing belief within the movement, from the rank-and-file right up to the Army Council of the IRA, was that if you were even considering politics, you’re going soft on the war. And the war is the only show in town.” 

As state repression increased, including the notorious Bloody Sunday killings in Derry in January 1972, a torrent of young people from Catholic working-class backgrounds joined the Provisional IRA. The Provos carried out a campaign of bombing and shootings in an effort to bring down the Northern Ireland Unionist statelet and to force British troops out. The CWI warned at the time that these methods would drive more Protestant workers into the arms of loyalist and Unionist reactionaries and provide the state a pretext for more draconian state rule. 

In 1974, Sinn Féin was legalised, which Moore believes had “a significant effect in normalising politics for the republican movement”. The party retained its policy of abstention but electoral politics began to have a pull. Bobby Sands was to lead the prisoners in the H Blocks prison during the 1981 hunger strikes of republican prisoners, who demanded political status. Sands was put forward as the anti-H Block candidate in Fermanagh and South Tyrone constituency following the death of the sitting nationalist MP Frank Maguire.  Many Catholics who opposed or were uneasy with armed struggle “were struck not only by the sacrifices of the hunger strikers but by the coldness of Thatcher under government”. The by-election was held on 9 April and Bobby Sands received 30,493 votes to 29,046 votes for the Ulster Unionist party. One IRA man at the time described the election of Sands “worth 20 bombs in England”. Jim Gibney, a veteran Republican, said that Sands’ election result began to change the world for some of his comrades: “The idea that there might be something beyond the gun was something that many put the movement had not considered”.  

More prisoners on hunger strike were put forward for election. Two of the nine – Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew – were elected to Dail Eireann (the Republic’s parliament). At the next Sinn Féin Ard Fheis (conference) a leading Sinn Féin figure, Danny Morrison, exclaimed: “Does anyone here really believe we can win the war through the ballot box but will anyone here object to the ballot paper, in this hand, and the armalite, in this hand, we take power in Ireland’. 

Electoral rise

By 1985, Sinn Féin had fought elections in local government, regional assembly, Westminster, and European levels. They claimed to represent around a third of Northern nationalists although in the south they struggled to get over 2% of the vote, where to many people they were a “single issue party”. Hoping to make electoral success a reality in the south, Sinn Féin dropped its policy, in 1986, of refusing to recognise institutions of the Republic. This brought tensions over which should predominate – the ‘armed struggle’ or electoral politics – to a head in the provosional republican movement and a special convention was held on 15 October 1986. Moore claims that Gerry Adams had created almost 200 Sinn Féin branches to carry a vote his way. Around 30 older Republicans walked out to create what would become the ‘Real IRA’, Moore writes, though the ‘dissident’ republicans claimed wider support. 

Still, IRA military ‘successes’ remained a liability for Sinn Féin’s electoral appeal. As war weariness set in among the general population in the North and a deep desire for peace – and neither the IRA or British state could defeat the other – a long, torturous ‘peace process’ unfolded in the 1990s. Moore deals with some of the most contentious issues, like the IRA’s decommissioning of arms that caused widespread dissension in the IRA. 

The 1997 Good Friday agreement was ratified in a referendum by large majorities in the north and south of Ireland on 22 May 1998. However, as the CWI pointed out, the institutions created were based on the power-sharing of sectarian-based parties. In the context of the profit system of poverty, exploitation, and want, this meant continuing division of the working class, until a mass socialist alternative is developed. 

In the elections held just over a month later after the referendum for the Assembly, Sinn Féin received 17% of the first preference votes, which gave them eighteen out of the hundred and eight seats. “Some within Sinn Féin viewed the assembly as a stopgap, a temporary step on a rapid path towards Irish unity. Others, with a more realistic understanding of political reality in Northern Ireland, made it clear they were there for the long haul. The leadership, as usual, strove to keep both tendencies on board, and urged MLAs and staff never to lose focus on the end goal of united Ireland, no matter how far off it might be.” 

On the issue of the wages received by Sinn Féin’s MLAs and staffers, Moore says, “the party’s unwritten policy was that the elected representatives should be living on the average industrial wage and contributing the rest of the salary to the party and constituency services.” With some disquiet among Sinn Féin’s MLAs about the policy and how it was operated by the leadership, the wages policy was eventually dropped by Sinn Féin. It was perhaps also a signaling to the establishment that it was not going to be a party that could seriously contest their interests. 

Just a year before the assembly elections, Sinn Féin won its first TD (member of the  Irish parliament) in the Republic since 1957, and the first to take a seat in Dail Eireann since 1922 for Sinn Féin. Moore comments that the peace process had persuaded some in the Republic that Sinn Féin were dedicated to peace. In the 2002 general election, the first Sinn Féin TD was joined by several others.  

 The power-sharing assembly has been rocky from the start, reflecting the sectarian support basis of the main parties. It regularly collapsed, formed again and then once again went into abeyance. After a gap of almost five years, and following a pledge by Sinn Féin to support the PSNI – the reformed Royal Ulster Constabulary – the assembly and other devolved institutions were restored in May 2007.  

Welfare cuts test

In office with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Féin faced one of its biggest tests on the issue of cuts to welfare benefits after the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition in Westminster announced in 2012 a plan to introduce the biggest changes to the welfare system in decades . This included a freeze on child benefit, ending child benefit for higher earners, and cuts to housing benefit. The social welfare legislation before the assembly in Northern Ireland included the same austerity measures that had been approved by Westminster. Moore comments that “Sinn Féin’s problem was that it would be jointly responsible for any changes to social welfare provision, with McGuinness serving as Deputy first Minister alongside the DUP’s Peter Robinson as first Minister. The party called itself socialist and on the side of working people was about to oversee a move that could take millions of pounds out of the hands of the people who needed it most.” 

A number of Sinn Féin MLAs and senior staff at Stormont took the view that welfare cuts were unavoidable. According to Moore, however, “from the outset, Adams was clear that Sinn Fein could not be seen supporting any cuts to welfare.”  

After blocking welfare legislation in May 2015 by a Petition of Concern, tabled along with the SDLP and the Green party, Sinn Féin later capitulated and joined the DUP in pushing through a legislative consent motion which allowed Westminster to implement £585 million worth of cuts over four years. “Sinn Féin were hounded north and south for the decision. The Republicans had paired up with the Unionists to hand back control to the British. 

Moore seems to concur with so-called ‘realists’ in Sinn Féin over these cuts. “Total and unrepentant dedication to your principles is rarely manageable in any government, let alone in a power-sharing administration with your polar political opposite,” she opines.

However, there is always the option of attempting to mobilise working class resistance to cuts. Sinn Féin had abandoned the armed struggle but not adopted a mass struggle to oppose the cuts of the Tory government. This would have required a political party with mass support amongst both Catholic and Protestant workers and a fighting socialist programme, neither of which characterised Sinn Féin.  

Sinn Fein’s allowing the cuts to be passed saw support for further party slip by 2.9% in the Stormont election in 2016 and the party lost a seat. However given the lack of a mass socialist alternative, and the perception amongst many Catholic working class people and youth that Sinn Féin was more radical than the largely middle class, nationalist SDLP, “the party did not suffer any long-term damage and within several years would become the most popular party in Northern Ireland”. 

Sinn Féin’s political trajectory and twists and turns are exemplified by its policy on abortion. “While many IRA female prisoners came out of prison more left-wing than they had been going in…because they took education seriously in prison and women studies was on the curriculum, some in the party though remained conservative on abortion”. However, Moore says that the “general view within Sinn Féin was that if they are attempting to build support in Catholic Ireland, a liberal policy on abortion would be counterproductive.” However as the public opinion on abortion changed, South and North, Sinn Féin very belatedly came to the pro-choice side and supported changes to the constitution in a referendum in the Republic.  

During 2016 Brexit referendum in the North, “despite its long history of being critical of the EU, the Sinn Féin Brexit policy that emerged was, apart from a few quirks, broadly in keeping with the consensus in Dublin and Brussels”.

Sinn Féin was rocked during the last couple of decades over several issues and scandals, including how it handled the allegations of Aine Adams, the niece of Gerry Adams, who accused her father, Liam Adams – Gerry’s brother – of sexually abusing her from 1977, when she was just four years old. In December 2009 a TV documentary was aired about the allegations. Moore comments “the allegations against Gerry Adams sent shockwaves through Sinn Féin and the wider Republican community. One former Sinn Féin figure in Stormont told me that the party went into overdrive in order to limit the damage.” Moore claims an attempt was made to remove Gerry Adams as party leader. At a leadership meeting, McGuinness proposed in a roundabout manner that Adams should stand down for the duration of the investigations into Liam Adams. According to Moore “the people who believed Adam should step down had no real plan, and lacked the guts to say so openly. McGuinness didn’t want to be leader. Adams was able to win the day.” 

Mary Lou McDonald’s rise

These scandals and the problems of the historical baggage of the IRA were factors in Adams considering who his successor as president of Sinn Féin would be. Moore says senior members of Sinn Féin confirmed to her that both Adams and McGuinness spoke of Mary Lou McDonald taking over the party as far back as 2012. MacDonald was born in 1969 and raised in a leafy, middle class Dublin suburb. She attended a private Catholic girls junior and secondary school. It appears that she joined Fianna Fail in the early 2000’s (McDonald has later claimed that she joined Sinn Féin in 1999). By 2001 she had joined a Sinn Féin leadership body and ran for the party in the 2002 general election for Dublin West. According to a Sinn Féin source, “it was obvious that this was Adam’s plan from way, way, way back, to have Mary Lou take over and appeal to the middle classes…Adams realised what’s the furthest you can get from an aggressive Belfast man with the war record? A South Dublin middle-class, privately educated woman. That was it.” In 2004, McDonald became Sinn Féin’s first Member of the European Parliament in the Republic and was later elected as a TD. 

Mary Lou McDonald’s ascension in the party was symbolic of Sinn Féin evolving from radical republicanism to a more constitutional, ‘middle ground’ position. While Sinn Féin still appealed to sections of workers and young people, as well as parts of the middle class, on the basis of its radical image and relatively mild social democratic policies of economic and social reforms, particularly on housing, the party had long ditched any pretence at revolutionary socialism. As the CWI said about Sinn Féin during its rise in the 1980s, the party was pushed to the left because of the class radicalisation amongst the Catholic working class in the North. However for Sinn Féin’s leadership, ‘socialism’ was often a veneer or at best a secondary consideration, and the nationalist goal of a united Ireland was the key, long-term aim. 

In 2017, Michelle O’Neill took over from a seriously ill Guinness as the party’s leading figure in the North. O’Neill had close family and other relations who were in the IRA, with one killed and others injured while on ‘active service’. Moore points out that “even as Sinn Féin modernised and a new generation of non-combatants came to power in the party, a natural connection to the IRA, like O’Neill’s, continued to be valued [in the north].” 

In her first year, O’Neill oversaw Sinn Féin’s two best election performances in Northern Ireland, to that point.  Moore comments: “Sinn Féin’s victory in local elections in the North in May 2023 confirmed its position as the largest party in the North. In the south, it is universally expected to top the polls comfortably at the next general election. The party is preparing for a government on both sides of the border.” Moore speculates that “Sinn Féin’s mixture of nationalism and left-ish economic policy is perfectly suited to the political dynamics of the moment, north and south.” However she warns, “even if and when Michelle O’Neill takes office, Sinn Féin will have to share power with Unionists. Equally, while Brexit sparked a surge of interest in the possibility of Irish unity, opinion polling suggests that the people of Northern Ireland are nowhere near ready to vote for it. Sinn Féin, understanding this, will continue to act as though unity is a pressing necessity, while knowing that a unity campaign is, at best, a medium term priority”

Regarding the South, Moore cautions that while the party’s path to real power is “clearer than in the North…here, too, uncertainties and complications abound.… A left coalition, on the current numbers, looks unlikely – and an alliance with Fina Gael is all but unthinkable. That leaves Fianna Fail. The current leader, Micheal Martin, ruled out going into government with Sinn Féin in 2020… It remains to be seen if the party’s stance on Sinn Féin will change”.

Moore concludes that “there is reason to doubt that, if and when the people of Ireland eventually vote for unity, they will have been led to that position by Sinn Féin. In any event, long before unity becomes a life political question, Sinn Féin, a party with its roots in militant republicanism in Northern Ireland, will need to face the challenge of housing the people of the 26 county Republic”.

The reality is that Sinn Féin will attempt to govern in the context of the profit driven capitalist system. In the North, this means the continuation of low wages, poverty and sectarian politics and division. In the south, high living and housing costs and precarious jobs are making life intolerable for many working class people. The recent riots in Dublin, fanned by the anti-immigrant far right, are a warning to working class about how the populist right can make gains as capitalism fails working people. These poisonous, reactionary forces can make further headway, including electorally, particularly in the scenario of a government involving Sinn Féin failing to deliver the hopes of working people. 

Only a socialist programme that unites the working class, North and South, in a struggle against the bosses and their political parties can pave a way forward. And such a party must present a vision of a socialist future on the island, with full rights for all minorities, as part of a socialist federation of these islands and Europe. In this way, centuries of sectarian division can begin to be overcome and a lasting, peaceful solution found to the national question. Sinn Féin do not offer such a perspective.

The Long Game – Inside Sinn Féin by Aoife Moore (Sandycove/Penguin) £17.99 PB




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December 2023