Getting to grips with Sinn Féin's socialism - 1988


Is Sinn Féin swinging to the left? It is as clear as day that there have been huge changes in the Republican Movement since the 1981 Hunger strike. What do these changes add up to, what sort of party is Sinn Féin today, what are its politics, what is its goal?

With the departure of many of the 'old guard' around Ruairi O'Bradaigh and their regroupment as Republican Sinn Féin, some in Sinn Féin argue there is now nothing to stop a continual shift leftwards. It is true that republicans are a lot more visible in community politics, opposing the cutbacks, fighting the heroin pushers But that hardly adds up to a socialist programme.

The Way Forward?

Gerry Adams is not just the President of Sinn Féin, he is also the main spokesperson for their new radical ideas. Rather than putting words into his mouth we will be content to report what he has said is the way forward. "What is needed in Ireland especially in the 26 counties, is the development of an anti-imperialist movement. . . The programme of such a movement would appeal to all those capable of taking a national stand and would require a multi-sided campaign of national regeneration - an Irish Ireland movement to offset, especially in the 26 counties, the neo-colonial and anti-national mentality that exists there". (Politics of Irish Freedom, p 35.)

So there we have it. He does not call for the sort of anti-imperialist movement that will try to mobilise working class people because it is in their own class interest to uproot both rotten states in Ireland. And it is in our own interest to get rid of partition because it is part and parcel of the system that sets worker against worker while the bosses laugh all the way to the bank.

Mystical Nonsense

Instead we are asked to "regenerate" the nation, to build an "Irish Ireland " movement. Perhaps we fortify ourselves for this task by regular singing of the national anthem, waving the tricolour and listening to Wolfe Tones ballads. At bottom of all this lies the idea that we all have something very important in common, something that can unite all of us regardless of class, and that something is our "Irishness". Yet almost none of the Northern Protestants and increasingly large numbers of people in the 26 counties, are no longer attracted to such vague, mystical, nonsensical notions of nationalism. An over-riding sense of national identity is not much help when trying to stop further job cuts. It is not much consolation when you are failing to make ends meet on social welfare.own selfish ends?) Maybe they could if the South was really totally under the thumb of London. But it is not. The Tories' studied insults on issues like the Birmingham Six and the Stalker report into RUC murders does not change this. The Southern ruling class are junior partners in the western capitalist system. They negotiate their own terms within the EEC, they conduct their own foreign trade and their economy is not directly tied to that of Britain (which is why the current crisis hit us a few years later than Britain). They have no fundamental argument with their fellow bosses across the Irish sea.

Class Struggle

So, not only is it naive to look for an alliance with them but it would give an effective veto to whatever tiny section might be dragged into a temporary coalition with Sinn Féin. If you believe they are necessary then you won't do things that would scare them off. And nothing would scare them more than taking up the class struggle. Any alliance with bosses is one dominated politically by bosses.

In the North such a strategy does nothing to take our class out of the dead end of communal politics. The Sinn Féin statement after the Adams/Hume talks in January described the meeting as "part of a quest for common interests between nationalist parties". To hell with any idea of workers unity and socialism if some sort of pan Catholic unity can be forged with the representatives of disgruntled Catholic professionals and gombeen shopkeepers.

Of course many in Sinn Féin don't see it that way. They want to put the SDLP to the test, to show that they won't live up to their promises. Has that not been dome on many occasions over the years, most notably during the Hunger Strike? And anyway it means having to argue on the SDLP's terms, which are neither working class nor socialist.


Quite amazingly the one million Protestants in the six counties hardly figure in Sinn Féin's policies or literature. There is no attempt to split them away from their loyalist ideas and leaders. In republican eyes there can be no common interest between Catholic and Protestant workers until the border has been got rid of. In their words: "partition makes normal class struggle impossible':

This means they have to downplay the importance of, or completely ignore, events like the 1907 Belfast dock strike which saw tens of thousands of Catholic and Protestant workers fighting together for trade union rights. This strike had such a deep impact on workers of both religions that even the police came out on strike. In 1919 when the mainly Protestant shipbuilding and engineering workers struck for a reduction in hours they elected a strike committee with a Catholic majority. In 1932 the unemployed of the Falls and Shankill fought side by side against the police. In 1984 the health workers strike over wages and cuts involved workers of both religions in a very united struggle. Only two years ago we saw mainly Protestant DHSS staff strike when their Catholic co-workers were subjected to loyalist death threats.

To recognise the importance of these momentous events does not mean that we blind ourselves to the reality of sectarianism. Each time the workers unity was shattered and sometimes followed by Orange pogroms. But it does demonstrate very clearly that there is no "Iron Law" stopping workers' unity on class issues in the here and now.

It is wrong to dismiss Protestant workers as some sort of "labour aristocracy". The facts just don't bear out this idea. They do suffer proportionally less unemployment, they have better access to skilled work. The bosses have always thrown them a few crumbs in order to make them believe that they have more in common with Protestant bosses than with Catholic fellow workers. But the privileges they have are only marginal, Protestant workers are also in badly paid jobs and also end up on the dole. The reality of Orange bigotry is one of 3p looking down on 2p.

Redividing Poverty?

One problem with the republicans' stages theory is that it cannot appeal to the Protestant working class. It the next step is a fight for a united capitalist Ireland there can be no concerted challenge to the existing economic set-up in the 26 counties. Instead it is to be extended to all 32 counties. So all that would be on offer is a fairer distribution of unemployment and low paid jobs. Hardly the sort of thing that will appeal to them, no matter how many times the memory of Wolfe Tone is invoked!

There is an alternative. An appeal to Protestant workers on the basis of their class interests, a fight for more of the good things of life instead of one to redivide the few crumbs thrown from the bosses' table. It is not easy and it would be extremely irresponsible to pretend it won't be a hard uphill struggle. But there is no good reason why it can't be done. The starting point is where workers can be united in action around "bread and butter" issues. This means paying great attention to the struggles of rank and file trade unionists. We don't have to sacrifice our anti imperialism but we do have to reject "Irish Ireland nationalism". Our anti imperialism has to be rooted in the class struggle, we are against partition because it divides workers and helps to sustain the rule of the bosses.

Sin Féin don't even consider such a possibility. In Gerry Adams book he gives a mere 14 lines to an analysis of the unions. The republicans' alternative is a combination of armed struggle, community campaigns and getting their politicians into the parliamentary and council chambers.

South of the Border

The Provos have no strategy for breaking the Protestant working class away from loyalty to Orange and British bosses. And, it we are hones about it, this has proved to be the major obstacle in the way of uniting the country. The consequences of forcing them into a green nationalist Ireland are a far higher price then we are prepared to pay.

The biggest incentive for Protestant workers' attitudes to change would be an active

socialist movement in the South. A movement that is against the border because we want to replace both states with a workers republic, a movement taking on loyalist bigotry and taking on the power of the Catholic church. A movement that shows by its actions that it is committed to a better life for all working class people. This cannot be built within the confines of nationalism, the struggle for workers' liberty and socialism cannot be put on the long finger.

The Meaning of Socialism

So is the task to try to convince republicans to adopt new and better tactics ? That would not be facing up to a greater and more vital question. That question is "what sort of Ireland do we want?" Most, if not all members of Sinn Féin regard themselves as socialists. They make no bones about it. The problem is that their vision of "socialism" is based on the Cuban/Russian model, which has shown itself time after time to be just as repressive as Western style capitalism. They draw inspiration from third world "National Liberation Movements", which once they have won power have shown no mercy in oppressing their own workers.

Gerry Adams, in his book, describes his concept of socialism as "a definite form of society in which the main means of production, distribution and exchange are socially owned and controlled and in which production is based on human need rather than private profit" He does not say who will "socially own and control' whether it will be the state with new rulers in charge or whether it will be workers' councils.

We do get some indication of his thinking when he explains how it will happen. "You must have your own national government with the power to institute the political and economic changes which constitute socialism" So he is talking about us being governed, though with the governing party having the best motives. He is not talking about the working class taking control of its own destiny, of workers councils, of grassroots democracy, of the greatest possible amount of personal freedom. Instead the Sinn Féin popular government will have the final say about what we can have and how society will be organised, and they will grant the reforms and make the rules from above. The reforms granted would probably add up to little more than nationalisation plus some progressive social legislation.

Sinn Féin Policy

Last year's Ard Fheis was described as "a milestone in the development of Sinn Féin as a progressive revolutionary party" A resolution form the Letterkenny Cumann called for a rank and file movement of trade unionists and unemployed people "committed to united action and co-ordination of all forms of resistance to the plight faced by workers at the present time" It was decisively rejected. Rank and Filism is independent of the union full-time officials, it is about control of struggles by the union members involved in them. Most in Sinn Féin, while being opposed to many individual union bureaucrats, want to uphold the authority of the position. Some day they hope their party will hold of these positions and use them to "lead the workers". The concept of workers' self-activity does not sit well with their view of "socialism".

Much more revealing in terms of what they think socialism is about was the debate on Polish Solidarnosc. The party leadership backed the move to throw out their previous support for the free trade union. The motion was carried by a massive majority and it was very open about changing their position from supporting Solidarnosc to supporting "the struggle of the Polish people to defend national independence and socialism against the attacks of internal anti-socialist and external counter-revolutionary elements" Anarchists have many criticisms of Solidarnosc's ideas and views but we know what side we are on in any fight between ten million trade unionists and a boss class. Sinn Féin now regard the rulers of the Russian client state as "socialist" and the working class as "anti-socialist". If state capitalism, and that is the true nature of the system in Poland, can be thought of as socialism it says a lot about the limited vision of the republicans.

Back to Basics

It is correct to see Sinn Féin as part of the "left" in so far as we are describing the broad movement of genuine anti-capitalists. It is quite wrong to think that differences within the left are only about tactics. Before we even talk about tactics we should first make sure that we are fighting for the same thing. The word "socialism" is not enough, we have to say what it means. We have to clarify what we are talking about; who will run society, how will it be run, how important is the freedom of the individual, how do we see those countries that claim to be socialist?

Even with the best will in the world, Sinn Féin's politics will lead them down the road to authoritarian state capitalism. We will continue to do what we can in defence of republicans against the State, We will continue to work alongside them on particular issues where we are in broad agreement. But we also want to re-open a debate that has been ignored for far too long, the debate about the meaning of socialism.


Published in Workers Solidarity no. 28, Summer 1988