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No room for complacency over Sinn Féin in government

There has been little or no consideration of how the party is controlled and by whom

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and former leader of the party Gerry Adams at Leinster House. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

There is a reassuring belief among many who are queasy about Sinn Féin in government that its rough edges will be removed by the realities of power, that it will go the way of the once radical Fianna Fáil of the 1930s and quickly become another political party as we understand them.

It’s a comforting delusion for a variety of reasons.

For starters, Fianna Fáil now is not the same party that took power in 1932 amid some fears of its dictatorial intentions. It launched a disastrous economic war, oversaw decades of economic decline and mass emigration to the point that by the late 1950s some of its own members were having heretical thoughts about independence. It also abrogated the Anglo-Irish Treaty and rewrote the Constitution within a decade so that it would no longer be, in the words of Seán Lemass, “a slightly constitutional party”. And it played an enormous role in setting the pattern of Irish politics for good (consolidating parliamentary democracy) and ill (cronyism in its many guises).

Sinn Féin has no intention of compressing Fianna Fáil’s development over a near-century into one post-election victory. Its aim, as it declared in its last election manifesto, is not to be part of the system but to change it. Its first three objectives, as spelled out in its own constitution, are to end British rule in Ireland, achieve unification and establish a democratic socialist republic.


Partition has created different political cultures between the North and South, differences which have accelerated over the last few decades

Its nationalism is clear-cut and support for it has been boosted by the decade of commemorations and the emergence of English nationalism in the form of Brexit. Its socialism is fuzzier and has been played down in favour of populism as the prospect of power becomes tantalisingly close.

Democratic socialism has several definitions: Sinn Féin’s intention to “establish” it implies that it is something other than the parliamentary democracy to which we are accustomed. Its current mantra of looking after “workers and families” has a faint echo of the old Marxist revolutionary appeal to “workers and peasants” albeit the “peasants” to whom it is appealing are the middle-class millennials of today.

Different political cultures

Sinn Féin in government is likely to have every bit as dramatic an effect on politics as Fianna Fáil’s arrival in government. Notwithstanding their support for unity, Fianna Fáil and almost all other southern parties are de facto partitionist with no presence in, or first-hand experience of, the North. Sinn Féin has both the presence and experience, a fact that will have significant effects on southern politics if and when it has all the levers of a sovereign government at its disposal. Partition has created different political cultures between the North and South, differences which have accelerated over the last few decades as the Republic moved away from traditional stances.

Control of the republican movement shifted from the South to the North during the first decade of the Troubles. It was hardly surprising, given that the fighting was being done primarily by Northern IRA volunteers. And control of Sinn Féin continues to be dominated by Northerners.

Its eight-member Coiste Seasta, or standing committee which exerts day-to-day control, has a five-to-three majority from Belfast. None of them, as listed in 2020, has any public profile or is known to voters in the Republic. Furthermore, one of them, director of finance Des Mackin, has pointed out that Sinn Féin is not a “normal” political party but an activist group which does not want its elected representatives to control it.

At the same time, its 48-member Ard Comhairle, which meets every six weeks or so, had 11 MLAs and two MPs as against six TDs. These figures have probably changed since the 2020 general election in the Republic but Sinn Féin (like other parties) has not yet updated its annual reports for 2020 and 2021 to the Standards in Public Office Commission. Even an equal balance, however, is weighted in favour of Northerners, given the population of the Republic is more than double that of the North.

There has been little or no consideration of how these facts will influence it in government in the Republic. The depth of feeling among Northern nationalists towards what they frequently refer to derisively as the Free State – which grates on Southern ears as much as British references to Éire – was evident in the recent Virgin Media interview with the always forthright Joe Brolly. He declared that an orthodoxy had developed in the South that Northern Catholics were really to blame for the Troubles: if they had behaved themselves and not worried about civil rights and not taken to the gun everything would have been fine. It was an attitude, he added, that completely ignored “the reality of soldiers coming in, machine-gunning people to death and then just walking away”.

Many Southerners on social media were shocked by his assertion but their denials of any such orthodoxy set off a tide of support for Brolly from Northerners blaming the Free State for abandoning them. It is impossible to imagine that a party controlled from Belfast and steeped in the 30-year armed struggle would not be influenced by such deeply-felt beliefs and the gaps in political attitudes that have opened up between Northern and Southern nationalists.

Sinn Féin can square the circle of its different policies on opposite sides of the Border at the moment by citing the differences between the Stormont multi-party administration – ultimately subject to the UK government – and a sovereign administration in Dublin. Refusals to support abortion and a ban on blood sports in the North – policies it holds in the Republic – can be skated around by the age-old political device of declaring the proposals to be flawed and the timing not right. How the Northern influence would work out on a Southern administration is impossible to predict but the convenience of being able to appeal to different constituencies – from traditional rural Catholics in the North to young urban liberals in the Republic – cannot continue indefinitely.

But it will never apologise for the armed struggle: to do so would undermine its core beliefs and even call into question its very reason for existing

Obviously, IRA volunteers did not kill and die in the long war in order to solve the Republic’s problems with housing and health. Neither did Danny Morrison have such issues in mind when he asked his famous question at a 1980s Sinn Féin ardfheis debating the end of its policy of parliamentary abstentionism – “Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?” A few traditionalists did, but the change went through. And it has worked out spectacularly well.

Populist wave

Sinn Féin is riding a populist wave to take it to power on a platform of “change” without specifying how it proposes to change the system and implement its own constitution. In government it will undoubtedly try to resolve the issues that help to put it there, not least to secure its position in power in order to achieve its nationalist and socialist objectives. But its true heart is evident from the exuberant “up the Ra” shouts and the private “we broke the Free State” claims that followed its successes in the last election. Contrary to the official party position, few in the movement think that the IRA campaign is now solely a matter of history.

Sinn Féin has effectively turned the old von Clausewitz dictum that war is a continuation of politics on its head. It’s no less true that politics is a continuation of war; the long war of the Troubles continues using a new tactic. Its opponents and critics will continue to demand that it say sorry for the 30 years of violence. It is a handy stick with which to beat the party, especially over the IRA’s own war crimes against civilians.

But it will never apologise for the armed struggle: to do so would undermine its core beliefs and even call into question its very reason for existing. Political success in this new phase of the long struggle brings with it its own justification of the means it used to arrive where it is today. Its electoral successes can be read as post-facto justification of the shooting war in a not dissimilar way to the War of Independence being justified by the original Sinn Féin’s breakthrough in the 1918 election.

Every election and referendum redraws the political landscape, often in minor ways, occasionally in major ways which set countries on new and different paths. Witness Donald Trump’s election and the Brexit vote in our closest political cultures in 2016. There were many, politicians and commentators, who believed that Trump would be tamed by the checks and balances of the US system and that Brexit would be more symbolic than real.

They were wrong. Trump ended his four-year term trying to foment a coup and talk of a civil war in the US has gone from the fevered brains of dystopian Hollywood scriptwriters to mainstream discussion. A minority of hard Brexiteers seized control of the British government and forced through the greatest possible break with its former partners with occasionally bellicose attitudes.

The consequences of such seismic shifts in politics are never apparent at the counting of ballots but only emerge during the years of often confusing debate that follow until they are eventually shaped into a clear narrative by historians. The next election has all the makings of one of those seismic shifts and setting politics here on an uncharted course.

Joe Joyce is a former reporter with The Irish Times and a former Dublin correspondent of the Guardian