The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent


Before he was removed by Bush, I heard Zinni called a traitor in a staff meeting. They were very anti-anybody who might provide information that affected their paradigm. They were the spin enforcers - U.S. Air Force, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Kwiatkowski

Anthony McIntyre • 21 March 2004

Since I interviewed Martin Cunningham a number of weeks ago, Sinn Fein have been fighting a rearguard action on a range of fronts. Fionnuala O’Connor observed that it ‘sounded riled.’ But true to form, the party denies that it is under any pressure. Most commentators, however, regard this as the obligatory lie which over time has become so established a ritual, that people would suspect the leadership had been on a trip to Lourdes, if it were to suddenly speak truthfully. Nor can much in the way of morale inducing protein be extracted from the flabby succour offered by the party faithful, its dutiful hacks and their Pravda-type organs. The feedback they provide from internal groupthink is merely an echo of what the leadership thought to begin with. Besides, internal attitudes and discourses at grassroots level scarcely count within Provisional nationalism. Little of what is said or thought there, outside the cabal of leaders, will have the remotest impact on strategy. The hardening in language from Washington, London and Dublin, not to mention swathes of political pundits, indicates that Provisional activists on the ground will be the voices least listened to when the leadership has to make hard and fast decisions. Ignoring the voices of those at grassroots level is what leadership-led means.

Over the years procedure sometimes more than policy proved a greater irritant to those at odds with the leadership; strategic management rather than strategic direction. And nowhere does this appear to be truer than in the case of Martin Cunningham. His opposition to the party hierarchy, while certainly not void of ideological substance, is replete with accusations of organisational mismanagement. Curious to find out if his experience mirrored my own I probed him on the main difference between the Sinn Fein he joined and the party of today?

Dictatorship, just dictatorship. Total control. Total censorship. Loss of contact with the party roots. The leadership is inebriated with its own success. In its bid to top the poll and overcome the SDLP it has in fact become the SDLP. When I read Eamonn McCann recently saying Sinn Fein was now a unionist party I felt that had I read this a year ago it would have seemed like blasphemy. But now it is true. Anybody who disagrees with the party is sent on their way – quite a few republicans have gone and what have they been replaced with? It is not a democratic party.

I put it to him that some observers would see his stance as a failure to adapt to modernisation. Sinn Fein inhabit a new political environment; neither personnel nor skills suited to the party a number of years ago transfer easily to service the needs of the party today. Like other parties, had the leadership not to make a difficult choice between holding onto its older members or scouting for new activists that would better allow it to respond to the imperatives of an intensely competitive political field? Bobby Charlton was a gifted goal scorer in his day, but where would Manchester United be in today’s world if he were still their centre forward? And what after all is the problem with prioritising women candidates – why should Catriona Ruane not be given preference over others if she is capable and up to the job?

He responded to this without the slightest guff. What struck me most was that for a Sinn Fein public figure he, quite unlike his leaders, answered directly and did not go off on some ridiculous tangent. He immediately rejected my suggestion that new blood was causing bad blood:

The Comhairle Ceanntair in South Down was actually a dictatorship run by a particular family. The leadership seemed happy to let it get on with whatever it was doing because it didn’t pose any problems to it. Aiden Carlin, who was one of our younger members, was at one point physically manhandled by the most prominent member of this family and pinned up against the wall and told that he must show respect. After their influence was curbed and I was selected, the party took off in a serious way. Our overall health had never been better. We were actually discussing politics instead of nonsense. There was a change in internal party culture. Now the youngest person through the door had his or her ideas listened to with the same respect as those who felt they should have a privileged position because of seniority gained through longest serving membership.

He stressed that there was no opposition to new members which could have annoyed the leadership. It was happy enough to hold onto an old guard in South Down. ‘Since I opposed that element there has been a complete turnaround in attitude towards me. I am public enemy number one in the constituency.’

Having dealt with the question of new members, he went on to rebut any implication that he was an obstacle to female candidates coming through, and pointed to his willingness to set aside his own plans and pound the streets to get Bairbre de Brun elected. The thrust of his contention was simply that while the leadership can demand that local constituencies avoid an all-male ticket, the choice of who the female candidate should be was a democratic matter for the constituency to decide. Representatives are not representative if they are appointed rather than elected.

I pressed him to put more meat on the skeletal sketch of dictatorship he had presented.

Well, the county was split and divided and I now live in the occupied part – the bit taken in under the wing of South Armagh. It now runs the party from Drogheda in Louth right down to Portaferry. It is run like a dictatorship. An unelected committee imposes its will on the constituency. We are told who will be councillors. Local constituencies are not allowed to choose their own councillors. I almost feel a fear amongst the councillors to express an opinion.

Such comments bring to mind criticism directed against recent elections in Iran: ‘these are not elections, they are appointments.’

I suggested that South Armagh was clearly doing this in the interests of the Adams leadership. He responded by saying that at one point he felt that South Armagh was doing this to push Adams aside and build up its own power base.

But was this not all part of the overall game plan? Ultimately, Adams had taken a horse from South Armagh and gave it a saddle in return, and now the area was trying to make the best of the con job he had inflicted on them. For an area that had waged war so brilliantly and professionally, it must be hard to concede that for their efforts the leadership only won them what John Hume had – and he never had to lie all night in a wet field on the end of a mine.

Whatever the reason I am deeply concerned that people from outside the constituency have take it upon themselves to partition the county and impose their will upon the local party structures.
There is an elitist attitude that I didn’t see before within the leadership. I used to think that McGuinness and Adams didn’t know what was going on behind them. I though it may have been the result of people in middle leadership pushing it in their own interests and trying to take control of the party while the leadership was too busy negotiating with Tony Blair. Maybe it was naiveté on my part. I now hear other people saying that the leadership is in total control of the party and that middle leadership only carry out what the leadership tells them to do. The leadership seem to want to put people in who are not capable of any thought. In one case in Drogheda they replaced one good republican councillor with somebody else who didn’t know the difference between the cenotaph and the republican plot.

I asked him if in his view there were fascistic tendencies, not fascism in its pure sense but fascistic strains?

There is definitely an element of that. I have asked myself if it is run more along Baath party lines than republican lines. They seem to have got worse this year and more so since they have become the largest nationalist party. They seem to think that the party can get anybody elected upon a Sinn Fein ticket. But this is the rock that the SDLP perished on. They put up candidates who didn’t do any work. The people that they are putting in are turning Sinn Fein into a Muppet party. Somebody said to me once ‘what is the difference between a Sinn Fein member and a shopping trolley?’ When I gave up they told me a shopping trolley has a mind of its own.

Overall, he seemed philosophical about the type of criticism that would come his way from those deeply unhappy that he had spoken out. ‘I saw it happen to John Kelly and the spin put on it that he is miffed because he wasn’t selected.’ I observed that they do this to everybody that falls foul of them. Their first instinct is not to engage with the argument but to dig around for something nasty to say about their critics. It is a time honoured smear tactic within republicanism. At the formation of the Provisionals the Sticks threw wild allegations about, and when the IRSP formed Goulding’s men managed to surpass their own rapid anti-Provisional invective, launching into venomous diatribes. It is just in the nature. None more vindictive than those who turn - they perpetually feel the need to douse with vitriol anything that reminds them of what they used to be themselves.

Does he take hope from what John Kelly has to say – does it show that people are no longer prepared to bow down and be bullied by an increasingly Stalinistic leadership?

Well, John Kelly has given hope. I am certainly prepared to speak out against it. I am finished with the party. Maybe this will be a wake up call for the party. It is difficult for me. I had that much respect for McGuinness and Adams. It is like a Jekyll and Hyde. It is as if they have taken some funny pills and have changed overnight. Maybe they were always just like this.

Is there any means by which those who stay in the party can merely democratise it without even going as far a to radicalise it - a democratised republicanism would be immeasurably better than what exists now?

It would but it is not going to happen. I tried to. We stood firm in our cummann, refused to bow down; they tried to impose their dictatorship through divide and conquer. They have learned well from the Brits – they have divided the county up.

I put it to him that Sinn Fein councillor Eoin O Broin, arguably the most astute and radical politician in North Belfast, maybe the only one, claimed that the party was in fact very democratic and allowed a lot of debate. On occasion O’Broin had gone to print to make this very point, and he seems to have no difficulty in debating the issues with the party’s republican critics. It is hoped by many that O Broin and those of like mind will be able to democratise the party in the face of stringent opposition from the old guard. Cunningham’s response was simple – ‘if democracy exists, I have never seen it.’

Sinn Fein instinctively decided to initiate disciplinary charges against Martin Cunningham. He resigned rather than go through the charade of feeding the self-importance of those who would ‘try’ him. He dismissed the charges, one of which refers to unauthorised contact with the media, as a set-up. ‘There were more charges brought against me than Saddam Hussein. Apparently I'm not supposed to get an article in the paper about potholes.’ He was further accused with threatening public resignation from the party during November’s Assembly election campaign ‘in an effort to blackmail or coerce Sinn Fein.’ He thought ‘this was a bit rich coming from them.’

In many ways the experience of Martin Cunningham typifies the nature of Sinn Fein. Few expect the party to become radical. But even for it to become social democratic it would need to dispense with its dictatorial military leaders. So imbued with the habits of managing a military machine it was inconceivable to them that a political party should be run any differently. They appear instinctively incapable of relinquishing the power and dominance such control gives them. Sinn Fein has a role to play in Ireland North and South. Its martial politicians should clear off and let the party get on with it.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

28 March 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


Trials Under the Shadow of Irish Emergency Laws
Marianne Quoirin


Sinn Fein A Dictatorship: Martin Cunningham Interviewed
Anthony McIntyre


How to Get to 2016
Brian Mór


Desert Pong

Eamonn McCann


Reading the Future from the Past
Mick Hall


Bush in Haiti: Operation Enduring Misery
Brian Kelly


No Promise, No Hope?
Danielle Ni Dhighe


25 March 2004


Deporting the Burly Bartender: Seán Ó Cealleagh
Seaghán Ó Murchú


For Being Irish in the Wrong Place and at the Wrong Time
Breandán Morley


Lords' Ruling Timed to Stymie Collusion Inquiries

Eamonn McCann


Cannabis Ard Fheis Blow
Mick Hall


Why Growth and Power in Both Parts of A Divided Country Will Do Sinn Fein Just Fine
Anthony McIntyre


In Defence of the Crown
Eamon Sweeney


Game Playing by "Free Trade" Rules
Toni Solo


Social Inequality, Grinding Poverty, State Negligence
Cédric Gouverneur




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