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11 May 2006 Edition

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Debating Coalition

Opinion: Coalition is a matter of tactical and strategic consideration

Sinn Féin's EOIN O BROIN responds to an article in last week's An Phoblacht by Colm Breathnach of the Campaign for an Independent Left (CIL).

Depending on who you talk to, the Campaign for an Independent Left (CIL) appears to have several tendencies. There are those who want to open a space for genuine dialogue between political parties on the left in order to facilitate greater cooperation. There are those who want to develop a broad based independent left wing political party, the aim of which would be to give some political coherence to those groups and individuals who currently don't have a party political home, and want to achieve a greater impact within the current political process in the 26 Counties. And there are those who want to build a revolutionary political party of the working class, the aim of which is to smash capitalism.

Colm Breathnach, of the Independent Socialist Network, writing in last week's An Phoblacht clearly represents this third tendency in what is the organisationally small but ideologically broad CIL.

Colm's article is valuable and Sinn Fein activists should read it and engage with its arguments. Indeed the CIL debate is also an important one, and compliments the recent initiatives of Mick O'Reilly of the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union and the current debate in the pages of Left Republican Review. In that spirit let me respond to some of the arguments he makes in his article.

Sinn Féin shares CIL's desire for public ownership and democratic control of the economy, universal health care and education as a right, equal rights for all and opposition to imperialism.

Sinn Féin is also acutely aware of the fact that Irish history is filled with progressive, left republican parties entering coalitions in Leinster House and suffering politically and electorally as a consequence. The lessons of Clan na Poblachta, the Workers Party/Democratic Left and the Labour Party weigh heavily in our deliberations on this subject.

However the issue of gains and losses for working people in such coalitions is more complex than Colm suggests. Most of the political and economic advances which have been made across Europe during the course of the 20th century have been the result of gras roots mobilisations in conjunction with influence within political institutions, including coalitions. The full extension of the franchise, the protection of workers and citizens rights and the building of the welfare state are just three examples of this political reality.

Colm is right when he says that that change does not come about by 'electing a certain number of TDs' however he is wrong in dismissing the positive role that radical TDs can play in advancing specific political or economic goals, at specific times and in specific circumstances.

Moreover, if the Irish radical left, north or south, were only to contemplate entering government in the context of an overall majority, we would not only be waiting a very long time, but would be abandoning the institutions of both states to the political right, with all of the implications that such an approach implies.

In my view therefore, Colm is wrong to take what he calls a 'principled' approach to coalitions. They are always a matter of tactical and strategic consideration.

Clearly Sinn Fein wants to be in a left republican coalition. My own preference is for a coalition including Sinn Fein, Labour and the Greens. However such a coalition is not at present politically or electorally possible. Mick O'Reilly's proposition, to start building popular political support for such an alliance is, in my view, the most credible way forward. The idea being to create the social and political space, across Ireland, for a new progressive consensus to emerge, supporting those objectives which Sinn Fein, the CIL and the Irish left more generally share.

This could take a decade or more, but is an objective which is both plausible and realistic. Such a coalition would be, without doubt, reformist in outcome if not in intention, but would nonetheless meaningfully advance the intertwined issues of social and economic justice, democratisation, national reconciliation and independence.

Meanwhile, those of us who have different ideological and strategic approaches to change would be free to argue and campaign independently, in order to continue popularising our own specific political and economic projects.

To do otherwise would be to relegate ourselves permanently to the margins of Irish political life.

Colm is also wrong to dismiss the potential role that could be played by the Labour and Green parties in building a real left alternative. While clearly both groups are willing to enter coalition with Fine Gael if the numbers add up, there are nontheless radical activists and leadership figures in both camps who, if a credible alternative were available, would be empowered to move their own parties back to the left where they naturally belong.

However it appears that some in the CIL would prefer to split Labour than see such a shift, the only consequence of which would be to further fragment the forces of the Irish left. Such a dogmatic approach to radical coalition building has served the left badly in every country in the world and has no constructive role to play in 21st century Ireland.

Finally Colm is mistaken in his belief that Sinn Fein's leadership is more interested in coalition with Fianna Fail that the party's grassroots. This is not the case. There is a lively debate within the party at all levels and a range of opinions exist. I have participated in this debate at all levels and nowhere have I heard anyone argue for entering a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael led coalition. For Colm to argue otherwise is simply inaccurate.

Having read Colm's article I was left wondering if his objective is really to participate in building a broad coalition of progressive forces in Ireland, or whether his real aim is to build a revolutionary party which narrowly conforms to his own Marxist view of the world. Both are legitimate demands in and of themselves, but only one has any meaningful role to play in transforming Irish society. If CIL develops into the former then it can and will play a positive role in strengthing the forces of the Irish left. If it develops into the latter is will take its place alongside the myriad other parties of the micro left- without influence, impact or consequence.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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