Sinn Féin’s wealth sets it apart from other political parties North and South

The party gets a significant electoral lift from campaign cash from the state, public representatives’ salaries, its wide support base and friends in US

 

Elections these days are about money. Soaring ad budgets, media campaigns, the increasing emphasis on promoting national leaders and messages, and, for some, paid canvassing replacing old boots on the ground, all advantage parties with larger war chests. The ideal of an electoral level playing field – and what lawyers, perhaps unfortunately in this context, would call “an equality of arms” – in which each vote is equal and each voter has an equal influence is a dream of the past. Money buys influence and ultimately votes.

Crucially, there is no correlation between a party’s vote and ability to raise funds. Traditionally, for example, small parties with a broadly pro-business outlook could count on business donations to help tilt the playing field their way. Strict limits on individual and corporate donations, state funding for parties, and a ban on foreign donations have been used to redress the balance to make elections a better reflection of popular opinion.

To be fair to Sinn Féin, it has the boots on the ground and the most extensive grassroots political organisation of any of the parties in the island. But there can be no doubt that it also gets a significant electoral lift from the injection of phenomenal quantities of campaign cash from the state, public representatives’ salaries, its wide support base and friends in the US. In the latter case, $12 million in 20 years as reported by Pamela Duncan and Simon Carswell in this paper.

And although those donations must be funnelled through the North because of the South’s electoral laws, the clearly astute managers of this all-Ireland party’s finances are certainly well able to redirect other freed-up resources southwards.

The professionalism of Sinn Féin’s US operation is impressive; a testimony to the effectiveness of the party’s wholehearted commitment to democratic politics, at least that’s what its supporters will insist. The claim, however, by its treasurer Jonathan O’Brien that the party had always called for the highest levels of transparency in party funding can be taken with a substantial pinch of salt – this is a party/movement that has, commendably, undergone a transition from illegality, but though there is no evidence that “special activities” still play a part in its funding, it would not be altogether surprising if old operations are not still generating some well-laundered dividends.

Sinn Féin’s wealth is now, undoubtedly, overwhelmingly legally sourced. But it sets the party so far apart from all other parties North and South that questions will inevitably be raised about how our democracy can cope, how representative elections will continue to be in which some are playing with loaded dice.

The party is also, however, clearly facing considerable challenges in reconciling its anti-capitalist rhetoric at home with keeping its business friends in the US happy. Some circles just don’t square.