Growing Pains


“Cool judgement says the far Right is not on the march across Europe. Extreme Right parties do not exist, in for example Ireland and Iceland and are irrelevant in Greece and Spain” so Cas Mudde a lecturer at Edinburgh University informed and reassured Guardian readers a few days after both Belgium and Norway lent an ear to the siren call of the Right. Whatever the significance of the absence of the far Right in Iceland their absence in Ireland is easily cleared up. To begin with, very public attempts circa 1997 to set up just such a party were crushed by a combination of Anti-Fascist Action in Ireland, and physical backing from elements within Sinn Fein (SF).

Second, the political vacuum in all other countries not mentioned in Mr Mudde’s analysis, is being filled in Ireland by SF itself. In doing so, SF are breaking the mould. As important therefore as that reality is a study of how they are doing it.

Prior to the Hunger strikes in 1981 the Republican Movement had no electoral profile anywhere in the country. This was corrected in a strategy assessment shortly afterwards. In 1983 Alex Maskey won their first council seat in West Belfast. For the next decade the electoral concentration was conducted exclusively within a Six Counties context. Unsurprisingly, British occupation, the border, and the war dominated what was a revolutionary nationalist programme and agenda.

Despite understandable set-backs Republicans, to the chagrin of both the SDLP and Unionism, gradually began to make their political presence felt at a community level. This growing electoral appeal and ambition was significantly boosted by the implementation of their peace strategy which resulted in the IRA cease-fire in 1994.

From then on while SF have continued to make ground on the SDLP in the north, the real arena of struggle is opening up in the south. As the only all-Ireland party, the marketing advantage this allows SF in contesting elections on any part of the island is immeasurable. A fact acknowledged by pundits in the 26 counties whose predictions have given the more established parties kittens since SF took over 60 local and district seats in elections in 1998. More recently an opinion poll rating gave Gerry Adams a 67% approval rating. In the furore, what has practically gone unnoticed is that SF is changing. This is reflected in the increasing emphasis on the social over the national, and as a consequence on the composition of the membership. The fact is, SF is in transition even as it advances. That it is able to do this, is in part a subliminal recognition by much of its potential support that the war for national liberation and the struggle for sovereignty is as good as won. Thus in adapting to the new reality (it itself created) SF is gradually shedding a revolutionary nationalist skin, in favour of a radical working class socialist one. This has not been without some shedding of membership as well.

The recent rounds of selection conventions around the country have shown the continuing process of development within SF and the movement generally. In rapidly developing areas of growth for SF both on the A list, ie. very winnable seats at the next election and their B list, of possibilities to become very winnable in five years time, there have been bitter battles. Basically new people and new thinking is pushing SF forward in the 26 counties. Those we have met who are doing the pushing, are clear on SF’s socialism and on the need for the party to have deep roots sunk through community activism. Wherever SF had a toehold in a community 2 years ago. they now have a large base.Two or three people struggling for years, now have 30 plus people organised in 3 or 4 cumman (branches). How?

One, through the collapse of the working class and youth vote for all the other parties and two, due to their own determination to do serious consultant work in communities. Councillors will be secured in very large numbers in the next couple of years, something that is largely overlooked when people are focussing on growth at a TD and parliamentary level only. At the same time in many areas the movement has continued to be dominated by veterans of the ‘Border campaign’, many of whom have remained oblivious to all political developments in the last 20 years, and who now that public representatives are being secured, see themselves as much more suitable. and moreover, see the newer elements as wholly unsuitable.

Many of these individuals have started to resurface, joining the newly formed cumann, where many in the past have been the lone SF voice in the area. Sometimes, even as elected councillors they find a newly invigorated SF cumann hard to deal with. In a recent dispute in Wexford where a young local councillor was selected, another councillor and 15 to 20 ‘old guard’ walked out of the convention. These individuals are generally speaking representative of a layer who should have left in 1986 (in the split led by Ruari O Bradaigh) had there been anyone locally to take them. They are oblivious to SF’s social programme, and overly concerned with how people stand to attention for the national anthem, how the flag is presented at meetings and so on!

These tensions have been mirrored across a number of the key seats, and coming on the back of defections to the 32 County Sovereignty grouping (and mirroring the same backward thinking) the outcome of such disputes are extremely significant. As things stand they show a movement in a state of flux, a movement with enormous potential but not yet having completed the process of transition. Despite this, SF have the potential not only to be a beacon of hope in Ireland, but as importantly a beacon of hope in Europe.          

J. McNamara

Reproduced from RA vol 4, Issue 9, November/December '00