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The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat.
- Lily Tomlin



By The Left ... Right March


Anthony McIntyre


What will Sinn Fein and its five TDs in the new Dail bring? Part of the election hype was that the party would request the new government to take seriously the question of Irish unity and introduce a green paper on how this is to be achieved in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. As if a paper because it is green will have any bearing on future unity; as if there is anything in the GFA that was not in Sunningdale which sets the context for a united Ireland; as if any Dublin government's interest in the North has ever extended beyond pacifying it as a means to halting the spread of our virus of instability into the South. Because the British and unionists ultimately defeated republicanism on the core philosophical question of consent, the incoming Dublin government is irrelevant in terms of what it may do to bring about unity. People who support the union in the North, while they remain a majority, alone have a veto over that. In a sense the green paper idea is a mere stratagem - a deceptive nod in the direction of those who still think the current Sinn Fein strategy is meant to hasten a united Ireland beyond the pace that the British set in response to the unionists so many decades ago. A green paper provides the smokescreen behind which the 'grey business' will take place. It is politics played on the field of our day with its own parameters limiting what is possible. And what does that entail?

While much too early to definitively identify long-term trends, what this election has shown is the possible emergence of a structural trend in Southern voting patterns which the other parties cannot write off as a flash event sans any significance beyond the present. Anyone watching RTE coverage from the count centres would have picked up on what Senan Molony of the Irish Independent noticed: 'Sinn Fein received more first-time-voter support than all of the rest of the main parties put together'. A redoubtable achievement. Theoretically, if everything else were to remain equal, (which in the practical world it doesn't) and that trend alone were to continue down the decades then as Shane Coleman predicted in the Sunday Tribune: 'it is only a matter of time.' No one expected Fine Gael to lose 20 seats. If Fianna Fail were to lose twenty over the course of the next two elections who would be the beneficiaries?

Some commentators such as Ronan Fanning and Vincent Browne tend not to read it as such opting instead for - as the Labour Party would see it - the apocalyptic vision of Sinn Fein eating up the left wing vote and coming to dominate the Left. Mick O'Reilly in a sense anticipated this and in a bid to preserve what is worthwhile in the Labour Party has called on it to move leftward and embrace Sinn Fein and others. All of this is predicated on a belief that Sinn Fein is in essence a party of the left. But how true is this?

Sinn Fein is a leadership driven body with those at the top displaying contempt for internal democracy. The grassroots are briefed after the event rather than consulted prior to it, while censorship is prevalent. And any who feel inclined to ignore party strictures may well receive a visit from what Ferghal Keane terms the leadership's 'anti-democratic, ultra nationalist militia'. Despite the general body of the party having yet to decide whether to emulate its participation in a centre-right coalition in the North by leaping into one in the South, the party president has been spelling out the terms on which the party would enter such an ensemble. There has been nothing internally akin to Hilary Wainwright's 'unsilenceable political force, a persistent day-to-day focal point in public debate,' just a body of activists who see their role as getting votes for whatever policy the leadership decides upon. Anyone familiar with republicanism will recall the legions of grassroots activists who swore they would prevent the leadership calling ceasefires, going into Stormont, signing up for Sunningdale mark 2, decommissioning, accepting the veto. Not over their dead bodies, they assured all and sundry. They are all still alive and well while the leadership is kicking ... sand in their faces, having circumvented the lot of them by first lying to them before somersaulting and then ignoring them in the process of preparing to do it all over again.

So in trying to understand a leadership driven party that is so easily led it is more important to ask not if the party is left but is the leadership? The course travelled by the present republican leadership has left enough footprints to indicate what shoes they were wearing. And clearly most of the distance covered has been made on one foot - the right. UTV has argued that 'Sinn Fein has become a political shark - constantly moving forward, biting everything in its sights and eventually swallowing it whole.' What it does not enlighten us on is just how much Sinn Fein has been transformed by what it has swallowed - a case of 'we are what we eat'. How many left wing parties has the American Government supported? Years ago anybody receiving the endorsement of that particular body politic was termed 'contra'. Are we supposed to believe that Sinn Fein have traversed a revolutionary left wing path which has bewitched and converted all those previously described by the party as 'counter-revolutionaries' - the London, Dublin and Washington Governments, the SDLP, Fine Gael and Irish Labour, the British Tories and the UUP? Has that lot come over to the side of revolution? Or is it just more credible to believe that perhaps Sinn Fein have went over to the side of the counter revolutionary establishment?

Despite the presence of a rabid right wing element in the 'militia' side of the house who have on occasion paradoxically endorsed events like the Tiananmen Square massacre (on the basis of 'how dare any grassroots speak out against its leadership') there seems to be few Sinn Fein leaders who embrace right wing ideology for its own sake. Rather, there is a tendency to free-float in an 'ideological vacuum' where the compass needle always points towards the vote. Although personal megalomania grips only one or two leaders, it is the attainment of institutional political and social power that is the primary determinant shaping the general leadership objective, populism the method of achieving it. If the vote moves to the right the leadership will follow in order to fish for it. Likewise if it moves to the left. But it is clear that Sinn Fein sees little prospects for the vote to move left. And what votes are there are insufficient for the party to be tempted to contemplate corralling itself on that bottom shelf terminally occupied by the Irish Left. Already the Irish Voice - usually a good indicator of what the party president thinks and wants the Americans to know first - has been dismissing the election manifesto as 'a stale recitation of soak the rich programs so beloved by left wing parties in the 1960s and 1970s.' And for good measure, Dawn Doyle, one of Sinn Fein's senior publicity people, has sought to reassure capitalist Ireland that 'If we are going to build the party, it means doing it at all levels in the community. It means convincing business that we have solid business policies, that we are not anti-business'.

It always starts out the same way. The Sinn Fein leadership make a move, provide some short term rationale for it and disguise the long term objective: 'only borrowing the seat' was the excuse provided when first contesting Fermanagh/South Tyrone; 'only tongue in cheek' when the councillors queued up to sign the rejection of violence pledge; 'only forcing the British onto the back foot' as the party procrastinated, seeking clarification of the Downing Street Declaration before pretending to reject it. And the chances of it being any different as the leadership proclaims it is only filling the left wing vacuum are slim. Sinn Fein is a party of votes rather than ideas. The republican ideas that fuelled Sinn Féin's support for war have been abandoned. Likewise, left ideas will be forsaken as soon as there are more votes to be gained elsewhere. For now people should be grateful that few votes are to be found in playing the racist card dressed up as nationalism, particularly since Aengus O Snodaigh pulled three times as many transfers from those in the right wing camp of Aine Ni Chonaill, who are unremittingly hostile to immigration, than the three Fianna Fail candidates combined. A downturn in the economy, a convenient scapegoat in the form of immigrant communities and a harking back to that totalitarian Sinn Fein election cry of 1984 - 'One Ireland, one people - the only alternative', would constitute quite a combustible mix. And for a leadership steeped in realpolitik and not anchored in any ideological centre of gravity, conjoined to a body of activists who refuse to act as a brake on leadership swerves and lurches no matter how reactionary, the electoral world could yet prove a most rewarding oyster.



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