frontline 16.

The Crisis of Irish Republicanism

Colm Breathnach is a member of the Irish Socialist Network, a Marxist and participatory socialist organisation based in Dublin and Belfast. He is also an activist in the Dublin City Anti-Bin Tax Campaign. In this article he looks at the crisis facing the Republican movement in Ireland following the murder of Robert McCartney and the Northern Bank robbery and looks at the changing nature of Irish Republicanism.


The recent brutal murder by IRA members of Robert McCartney, a father of two young children from the staunchly nationalist Short Strand area of Belfast, sent shock waves through that small Catholic working class enclave, a community which had experienced years of loyalist paramilitary attacks and state terror. Apparently he had inadvertently fallen foul of a leading IRA man during a bar-room fight and was later beaten and stabbed to death by a gang of IRA members. What happened afterwards was almost as horrific: the republicans returned to the bar, forensically cleaned it, removed the CCTV evidence and warned potential witnesses not to talk to the police. Although this was not a sanctioned IRA operation, it revealed a dark underside of paramilitary bullying, personal fiefdoms and silencing of opponents by intimidation in the republican movement. Some of those who had been seen by many nationalists as protectors from an oppressive state were now cast as oppressors. A campaign for justice by the victim’s family and an outraged reaction amongst working class nationalists soon piled pressure on the republican leadership from below. The efforts of Sinn Fein leaders to staunch the flow of criticism by suspending those who are suspected of involvement in the murder and urging them to admit their involvement, has muted the damage to the party but the whole incident has highlighted the contradictions of paramilitarism for a party that prides itself on being in touch with and representative of the Catholic working class.

This incident could not have happened at a worse time as the party was already facing a constant barrage of criticism from the political establishment, following what was widely regarded as an IRA robbery of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast in December 2004. This robbery and the subsequent uncovering of a huge IRA money laundering operation, has given conservative parties an opportunity to push republicans further and further onto the path of political respectability. Southern politicians and media pundits, who in the past treated Sinn Fein with kid gloves, are now attacking with vigour because they believe that the party is irreversibly tied down in the peace process. Everybody knows that the political costs for Sinn Fein of a return to war by the IRA would be enormous. A campaign of violence would be disastrous for their middle-term project of serving in coalition governments north and south. Effectively, peace has been secured, regardless of the absence of a final political settlement, so Sinn Fein can no longer warn against hitting them while holding the peace baby.

But other factors are at play here: much, though not all, of what the politicians and media highlight for their own cynical use is true: the Provisional IRA is heavily involved in criminal activity apparently as a way to finance Sinn Fein and anyone attending a Sinn Fein march or commemoration in the North will be left in no doubt that these are two wings of the same movement, though this is not the same as claiming that most party members are also in the military wing. It is probable that nowadays, given the influx of new recruits and the changes in party strategy, that the vast bulk of Sinn Fein members are not members of the IRA. On the other hand the recent conviction of a leading Dublin Sinn Fein activist of IRA membership has served as a reminder that dual membership is a reality that has not gone away.

The origins of the dual nature of the republican movement lies its birth. Sinn Fein emerged from a split in the republican movement in 1969. Then known as Provisional Sinn Fein/Provisional IRA to distinguish it from the Marxist orientated Official Sinn Fein/Official IRA (later the reformist Workers Party), it was characterised by a strange mixture of old-fashioned nationalism that linked them to anti-communist Irish Americans and elements of the right wing Fianna Fail party, conservative Catholicism and the desire of young working class Catholics to defend their communities from the incursions of the loyalist paramilitaries and British state forces. The history of the Provisional Republican movement of has been well documented elsewhere, suffice to say that since the mid-1980’s under the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, it has moved steadily in the direction of becoming a mainstream political party, while maintaining elements of the elitism that characterises a politico-military movement and until the ceasefires of the 1990s engaging in military activity that included both attacks on British forces and appalling (and often sectarian) atrocities against civilians such as the Enniskillen bombing. This is a contradictory process, initially seen as a move to the left but increasingly regarded as a drift to the centre. Whatever it’s outcome, the contradiction of becoming a mainstream political party while maintaining a military wing has become an increasingly difficult tight-rope walk for republican leaders.

Perhaps what we are really seeing here is the final ‘cleansing’ of the republican movement before it is fully acceptable to the major southern parties as a partner in government. A recent statement by the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern of Fianna Fail, that he could envisage Sinn Fein participation in government indicates that the unthinkable (for conservative Irish politicians) has become increasingly plausible. This is certainly not the thinking of the junior government partner, the Thatcherite Progressive Democrats. Their ‘rottweiler’, Minister for Justice Michael Mac Dowell, has made a sport of harrying Sinn Fein’s members of parliament, constantly accusing them of links to criminality or more recently of being ‘more Mugabe than Mandela’. Unlike Fianna Fail and the Labour Party, the Progressive Democrats with their solidly middle class support base, are not in direct competition with Sinn Fein for votes and their real target is to win voters away from Fine Gael, a larger right-wing opposition party that is traditionally regarded as the most anti-republican of all.


Space precludes analysis in this article of the key question of the role of British Imperialism in the current situation in Ireland, and other related questions such as the nature of the protestant working class and a strategy for building a socialist republic in Ireland. These are matters of great controversy and debate amongst socialists in Ireland, that cannot be dealt with adequately in a restricted examination of the republican movement. Why does the British state maintain its presence in the north of Ireland, even though it is of no direct economic benefit to its ruling class? How do socialists create a cross-community class based workers movement in a society so deeply divided by sectarianism? How can the working class be won over from the strangle hold of reactionary loyalism and communalist nationalism? It would take a book of many volumes to try to do justice to these topics but one important point needs to be stressed: over the last decade or so Northern Ireland has changed in many respects, so what may have been true in the past is not necessarily valid today. Socialists who fail to take into account recent changes in both base and superstructure of society in Northern Ireland are doomed to repeat obsolete mantras based on outdated analysis.


Marxists are sometimes obsessed with labelling political organisations, leading to gross oversimplifications. Mirror image characterisations of Sinn Fein as either radical revolutionaries by ill-informed socialists abroad or as semi-fascist atavistic nationalists by elements of the Irish left add nothing to our understanding of the republican movement. Instead of attaching simple labels we need to look behind the façade of election propaganda and media spin to dissect the real nature of the movement. What is its ideology, the class composition of its membership and voters, its activities on the ground and within the institutions of capitalist society and its broader relationship to the various classes in that society?

Opinion polls and academic studies show that the vast majority of Sinn Fein voters in the south are working class. This support arises out of clientelist activity by local councillors, community work by party activists and a popular view of Sinn Fein as outsiders, ‘anti-political’ politicians. The failure of the radical left to develop a united alternative has also allowed them to fill that anti-establishment role unchallenged. The composition of the party membership is also primarily working class, though there has been a small influx of young middle class people attracted by the party’s radical rhetoric or, for some, by the prospects of making a career in a rapidly growing political party. In the north, the peace process has led to a widening of support from a strong base in working class areas to gobble up the middle class support of the conservative nationalist SDLP. This is essentially the net effect of the peace dividend. Whatever about its past behaviour, it would be wrong to brand the politics of latter-day Sinn Fein as overtly sectarian, but it is a communalist organisation, in the sense that it claims to, and increasingly does, represent the ‘nationalist community’ as a whole, as opposed to the ‘unionist community’.

The word that best describes the ideology of Sinn Fein’s leadership is ‘pragmatism’. They are adept at making the right noises to suit the audience at hand. To their new (mainly existing and former ‘official’ communist parties) comrades in the European Parliament they use the mellow tones of left reformism. To their financial backers in the world of Irish America the emphasis is on nationalism and Irish unity. To their own rank and file they still speak of the socialist republic but to the public at large the buzz-word is ‘an Ireland of Equals’. The real driving force, the imperative of their politics is twofold: Irish unity and a desire to get into ‘power’. For a party that once regarded participation in elections as an irrelevance and barred its elected representatives from taking their seats in the Irish parliament, Sinn Fein is now firmly embedded in the electoral system. Ironically its growing electoral strength has revealed one of the flaws in the party’s strategy. In rejecting abstentionism it has now become mired in electoralism. Its campaigns on community issues are often simply photo-ops for its public representatives and the whole focus is on these representatives delivering reforms rather than working class people doing so through their own collective actions. This sometimes leads to a restrained input by its activists in broad grassroots campaigns. For example in the Anti-Bin Tax campaign that has convulsed working class areas of Dublin over the last few years, Sinn Fein activists, with a few exceptions, are mostly absent from the day to day organising, only to appear in numbers at demonstrations. This top-down reformism was recently articulated clearly by a member writing in the party’s newspaper ‘An Phoblacht’. She argued strongly that party councillors should not be tied to vote automatically against local authority estimates (annual budgets) that included a Bin Tax, because this was an issue that would be fought and won in parliament not in council chambers or on the streets.


A key test of any radical organisation is its view of power. A common problem of left reformism in Western Europe has been the mistaken assumption that being in government is the same as being in power, a misunderstanding arising out of a failure to recognise the class nature of power in a capitalist society. Small left reformist parties enter government hoping to win some concessions for workers but almost without exception they lose support and fail to implement anything more than timid reforms. Workers parties that abandon class independence and try to bring about change from above, in partnership with bourgeois formations, invariably end up simply administering capitalism and soon the logic of their tactics dictates a merger into larger social democratic parties. When it comes to the question of the nature of power, Sinn Fein’s leadership, despite their background in armed struggle, are no revolutionaries. Their goal is not the transformation of Irish society from capitalism to socialism but the taming of capitalism by reforms from above. They have made it quite clear that they have no principled objection to entering a coalition government in the Republic of Ireland, a coalition government that would have to include one of the two major right-wing parties given the foreseeable electoral arithmetic. The partnership most often talked about in the media is with the current senior government party, the enthusiastically pro-imperialist and neo-liberal Fianna Fail, one which, astonishingly, Sinn Fein has not ruled out. Nor does it augur well that on a number of local councils, such Kerry and Galway, they have already entered such governing coalitions with right-wing parties. At their recent Annual Conference a decisive speech by the party’s parliamentary leader, Caoimhin O Caolain, persuaded the delegates to vote down fairly cautious motions which would have simply ruled out coalition after the next election or orientated the party towards a more compatible government arrangement. O Caolain argued that they should keep the option of going into government with any of the other parties open, that they should ‘keep them all guessing, stay in the mix’. There is obviously some disquiet in the ranks with this strategy but it has not found coherent voice and the closest to a developed critique from within Sinn Fein has been an argument in favour of a reformist alliance with the Irish Labour Party and the Greens. Few doubt that the day will come when Sinn Fein’s leaders will go back to the party membership and ask them to endorse entry into a government with a party of the right.


On paper many of Sinn Fein’s policies seem quite radical. Opposing privatisation of state companies, improving the welfare system, better provision of childcare etc. hardly constitutes the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ agenda that their Thatcherite opponents allege it to be, but it is certainly to the left of anything the Irish Labour Party has to offer. However, two factors warrant a more caustic view of these policies. First, the Sinn Fein experience in government in the Northern Ireland, when their ministers Martin McGuinness (Education) and Barbara De Brún (Health) implemented PFI and other anti-working class policies, despite the reservations of their rank and file, leaves the distinct impression that power takes precedent over policy when the chips are down. Even when the leadership eventually reacted to the pressure from within their own ranks, it was only to declare that they would be more cautious in implementing PFI’s. A Sinn Fein document on public-private partnerships, confirms the view that there was a degree of cynicism involved in this exercise, with more regard to public perception then to the substance of their Ministers actions: ‘If forced to announce PFI projects, Ministers should make it clear that ‘PFI is only one option and not my preferred option’. MLAs and other public representatives should support them with coordinated statements that are stronger in their opposition to PFI and which emphasise the degree to which the Minister is bound and restricted by the Executive in their choice of funding public projects’.

Another indication of the contradictory direction of Sinn Fein is to be found in the detail of the taxation policy contained in their last Republic of Ireland general election manifesto. While it contains strong demands for a more equitable tax system, the glaring exception is their refusal to call for an immediate increase in the scandalously low corporation tax of 12% in the Republic of Ireland. In fact one interpretation of their manifesto proposal could be that they are calling for the introduction of lower business tax rates in Northern Ireland: ‘Sinn Féin proposes to hold Corporation Taxes at their current rates pending a proposed review. We believe also that there is a pressing need to recognise the all-Ireland dimension in the tax system and propose that the incoming government must have tax harmonisation on the island for business and workers on the top of its tax reform agenda’ (Sinn Fein General Election Manifesto, 2002). This, combined with an emphasis on national as opposed to multinational capital i.e. state support for native businesses etc., adds to the impression that the leadership of Sinn Fein wish to placate the capitalist class, to assure them that having Sinn Fein in government will not necessitate a one way trip to Miami.


Sinn Fein rhetoric, especially that of its youth wing, is stridently anti-capitalist but its practice reveals an enigmatic relationship with capitalist forces. Firstly there is the relationship between the party finances and business. Funding from Irish Americans does not only come in the form of small donations from working class residents of Boston. At a dinner organised by the Ancient Order of Hibernians (once the Catholic equivalent of the Orange Order, now, at least in the US, a sort of rotary club for rich Catholics) in Atlanta, businessmen paid $10,000 to share the top table with Gerry Adams. Sinn Fein has received major donations from Irish American millionaires and most surprisingly a modest donation from the Coca Cola company. This caused some embarrassment in the ranks of the party, especially combined with the fact that one of their few leading trade unionists, the former Trotskyist now bureaucrat Ann Speed, is a leading opponent of the campaign to boycott Coca Cola in Ireland, on the spurious basis that it would lead to the company’s local bottling plant being closed down!

Members of Sinn Fein will argue that taking donations from capitalists does not have any implications for the party’s policies but more worrying is the role of certain capitalists within the party. Dessie Mackin, the party’s finance director and member of the party’s Ard Comhairle (national council) has extensive business interests of his own, including properties in Ireland and Portugal, an amusement arcade and before their collapse, security and cleaning companies. It has also emerged during the investigation of money laundering by the IRA, that Phil Flynn, former leading trade unionist and close adviser to the right-wing Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, has maintained contacts with and actively supports Sinn Fein. Flynn was a high ranking member of the party in the 1980s but left to pursue his career as a top trade union bureaucrat and later as a business man. He played a crucial role in steering Irish trade unions to the right, being an ardent advocate of ‘social partnership’ which locks the unions into a corporatist deal with big business and the state. Although the media and establishment parties main concern was this upright citizen’s link to Sinn Fein, the question being asked by socialists is why was Sinn Fein consorting with such a pillar of the establishment whose positions included chairman of the Bank of Scotland (Ireland)! Not exactly a good advertisement for ‘an Ireland of Equals’.


In April 2004, Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, was asked to address the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, a sign of the growing respectability of the party before the recent assault by the establishment. His comments at that meeting were revealing. In his prepared speech he repeated the party’s commitment to a fairer taxation system and more equitable society but in his responses to questions afterwards he displayed the remarkable ability of Sinn Fein of sending opposing signals to different constituencies. He stressed the party’s record of doing the opposite to what they believed in principle, once in power. When asked about public-private partnerships, he said: “Well, we are against them. Having said that, Martin McGuinness, as education minister, faced with the reality that he would either have no schools or an involvement in a qualified way with private finance, went for it. So I suppose you could argue that that is the emergence of pragmatic politics.”

In a similar vein, he reassured the collected bourgeois of Dublin that the same pragmatism could be expected of them in local councils. Stressing that party councillors had voted for Bin Charges in Sligo and Monaghan he said: ‘Our position is against it. But in terms of the actual practicalities of working out these matters, as part of local government, the party made compromises on it’. Even on the firmer ground of taxation he still delivered enough ambiguity to keep the gathering happy: ‘I am reluctant to say that we would do A or we would do B. We are not in principle against tax increases, but we have no plans to introduce them. We just think that there should be a far, far better way of doing business.’ The overall message was clear: we might not be exactly to your taste but we can be trusted to carry on business as usual, we are now tame enough to be allowed a seat at the governing table.


The most important task facing radical socialists in Ireland is building a new party of the working class. Sinn Fein is relevant to that task in two very different ways: on the one hand that organisation is a major blockage in the way of the development of such a new party because of its strength in working class communities and the perception, keenly cultivated at that local level, that it is a party of protest not of compromise. Secondly, there is no doubt that the rank and file of the party contains many genuine working class activists and radical youth who will increasingly face a dilemma as loyalty to a party moving to the right or worse implementing anti-working class policies in government forces them to choose between party and class. This is where revolutionary socialists have a positive role to play that goes beyond sycophantic praise hoping to curry favour or arrogant dismissal of republicans as ‘bourgeois nationalists’. Without being diverted from the enormous task of building a new workers party, we can work in an open way with grassroots republicans, engaging in dialogue but at the same time exposing the contradictions of their leadership’s trajectory. This should not be seen as an opportunity for poaching members by the recruitment-obsessed far left. The hope is a far more ambitious one: that a significant section of Sinn Fein members will eventually break with that rightward trend and play a positive role in the development of a new broad party of the left. Despite the unease with the shift towards respectability evident amongst sections of the grassroots, this is certainly not on the agenda at the moment but all indications are that the objective conditions for such a split may mature in coming years and that socialists should be prepared for such a development.

This will only be possible if a viable socialist alliance based on mutual respect and open participatory structures is already in place. A number of left groups and individuals, including the Irish Socialist Network, inspired by the example of the SSP and other similar formations, have recently taken the first tentative steps in that direction. The success or otherwise of these steps will decide whether there will be a real alternative in place when those who support Sinn Fein are faced with the reality that the armalites of yesterday have been replaced by the ministerial Mercedes of today.