Taking questions after a recent speech in Brussels, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald did not commit to remaining in the Left group after next European elections, raising the prospect that her party may abandon its old comrades on its path to power.
Which pan-European political group the party sits in is vital because it determines who their friends are. To smooth the path towards Irish unification, Sinn Féin would need as many strong international allies as possible.
The political groups act as power-brokers and pan-continental allegiance networks. Before European Council summits, national leaders gather for a pre-match huddles at separate headquarters with fellow leaders from their political group: Micheál Martin with Emmanuel Macron; and Leo Varadkar, back in her time, with Angela Merkel.
The fact that McDonald was asked whether Sinn Féin would remain in the Left group reflects that a case for leaving has become evident to some observers.
The Left (GUE/NGL to use its old acronym) is the smallest political group, and accordingly has the least clout and speaking time in the European Parliament. It’s not that its members never hold power – Syriza was previously in government in Greece, and Podemos is part of the current Spanish coalition – but it’s notable when it happens.
The clearest alternative for Sinn Féin to join is the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) group, the centre-left home of the continent’s Labour parties and the second-largest political force in Europe after the centre-right European People’s Party, of which Fine Gael is a member.
The S&D has had no Irish MEPs since 2019, as the Irish Labour Party went into decline following its role in implementing austerity during the bust.
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The S&D would be unlikely to refuse a party that, if their advances continue, may be leading a government and could have as many as four MEPs to add to their ranks after European elections next June. Sitting in the centre-left also arguably better fits their record of governance in the North.
That would put Sinn Féin in the same political group as Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, Portuguese prime minister António Costa and prime minister Pedro Sánchez of Spain.
In contrast, their current fellow parties include the Dutch Party for the Animals, the Portuguese Communist Party, and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, alongside Ireland’s three Independent MEPs.
Being in the group that is home to the remnants of Europe’s fragmented communist parties is obviously not an ideal look for attracting the backing of the United States, which would be essential for brokering a smooth transition with Britain if unification is to be a reality.
But for Sinn Féin’s old comrades in the Left, a departure would be a betrayal and a blow.
The group backed Sinn Féin to the hilt during Brexit, essentially adopting its position as its own, to the point of discomfort as the party backed EU negotiator Michel Barnier for his defence of Irish interests. To the French members of the Left, Barnier was a right-wing sworn enemy.
The links are old and personal. When Sinn Féin won its first MEP for the Republic in 2004, it was McDonald herself who took her seat with the group, in her first position of elected office.
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When Bobby Sands died in 1981, the leader of fellow Left group member the French Communist Party, Georges Marchais, led a march of thousands through Paris in protest, carrying a huge portrait of the hunger striker along with Irish flags. The party has not forgotten. It expressed its warm congratulations for the “historic victory” when Sinn Féin emerged as the largest party in Assembly elections last year, releasing a statement that read: “As Bobby Sands said, ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.’”
But it is a waning force. Once elected in great numbers, the number of French Communist Party MEPs dwindled to zero in 2019, and the French contingent in the Left nowadays is made up of new faces from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise.
When posed the question of whether Sinn Féin should remain in the group at her speech to the Institute of International and European Affairs in Brussels, McDonald suggested that she would take a hard-headed pragmatic approach based on the party’s interests.
“The first job for Sinn Féin and for everyone else in the European elections is to get a bigger and stronger mandate . . . after that, we will, as we have always done, assess this situation,” she replied. “For us, it’s a question of positioning ourselves in the best possible way to advance positive politics, progressive politics, and also Irish interests.”