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14 August 2008 Edition

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OPINION : A Signpost towards a modern Ireland

As a campaigning party Sinn Féin must lead opposition to cuts in public services

As a campaigning party Sinn Féin must lead opposition to cuts in public services

Varied landscape – single objective  

 

RESPONDING to some of the issues raised by Declan Kearney (‘A signpost towards modern Ireland’, An Phoblacht, 31 July) MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA, in a personal contribution, addresses the way forward in the 26 Counties and nationally.

I TAKE ISSUE with Declan Kearney’s suggestion that the 2007 general election “woke us up to the reality that the popularity of the Peace Process won’t cut it as a catch-call brand for Sinn Féin”. Who was asleep to that reality? In my experience, people in Sinn Féin have been saying for years that the Peace Process alone would never be enough to build our support in the 26 Counties. We acted on that and I know of no election campaign in the 26 Counties where we sought support on the basis of the Peace Process alone.
We did indeed win increased support as a result of the Peace Process, but Fianna Fáil also benefitted. We won support on the basis of our radical and relevant alternative policies but this was limited, especially in a thriving economy where the rising tide seemed to be lifting all boats. We won support on the basis of the hard work of our candidates and activists but this too was limited by the intensely competitive electoral field in which we must contest in the 26 Counties.
For example, many working-class areas in Dublin had been almost completely ignored electorally by the three ‘main’ parties up to the mid-1990s when Sinn Féin started to become effective across the city. We gained in the 1999 local elections and the other parties – but especially Fianna Fáil – began to realise that if they did not get back onto the doorsteps we would make an even greater impact. So they ‘upped their game’.
I believe the reality that needs to be woken up to is that political conditions on either side of the partition boundary are very different.
Sometimes it seems as though our party’s efforts have been directed as if the terrain North and South were the same. It is not. Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties cannot follow the same pattern of growth that we have known in the Six Counties. We can and will grow but the different conditions require different approaches and different expectations.
Implicit in Declan’s analysis seems to be a belief that republicans in the 26 Counties are somehow out of touch with the popular mood. Does this stem from a notion that our slower growth in the 26 Counties is a result of self-imposed isolation? If so, I cannot agree.
We have come a long, long way from the days of abstentionism. Our leaders and activists in the South are hard-headed realists. They are well aware of the dangers both of ultra-leftism that would place us on the margins and catch-all populism that would make us indistinguishable from Fianna Fáil.
Declan is right in identifying a persistent Section 31 mentality in the media. However, there is a danger that we could slip into a mode of thinking that most of our difficulties are caused by lack of media coverage or unfair coverage. Our interface with the media is more complex than a reimposed Section 31. There are major differences in approach between local media, where we have much fairer access and the national media, both broadcast and print, which is far more restrictive. We have to adapt our approach to the media accordingly.
The electorate is far more volatile in the 26 Counties than in the Six and Sinn Féin is proportionally a smaller party. This makes it more difficult to grow our core vote. But we must keep our eyes fixed on that aim. We should never try to follow every fleeting whim of perceived public opinion as portrayed by opinion polls that are designed not to test real opinion or provoke debate but to ‘make’ news and sell advertising. Our approach needs to be based on our republican principles and policies, contact with real people, work in communities and the experience of elected representatives.
The current economic slump, as Declan rightly pointed out, presents new conditions which we must address. Public services are already under attack, as are the wages and conditions of workers. A former leading trade unionist pointed out last weekend that the position of employers’ representatives in the recent collapsed pay talks seemed to be based on a neo-liberal agenda which sees recession as an opportunity to undermine workers’ rights to collective bargaining and union representation.
The Celtic Tiger was characterised by Government refusal to redistribute wealth in terms of both taxing wealth and delivering transformed and equitable public services. The Right is already calling for more of the same. Those who oppose the cuts (such as Sinn Féin) will be challenged to present alternative policies. We need to take up that challenge.
As we know, those worst affected by cuts will be workers on low to middle incomes and those dependent on social welfare. Sinn Féin has a duty to provide leadership to these people and to campaign against the cuts. We are better equipped than any other party to campaign in this way on the ground.
What of the other parties?
As Declan recognised, there is no sign of a slump in support for Fianna Fáil. This is simply because people see no attractive and viable alternative strong enough to form a government. Fine Gael is in ‘rag order’, having fared worst of all the parties out of the Lisbon referendum with huge swathes of its supporters refusing to follow its lead.
Labour misread the public mood completely and is now desperately trying to row back with Eamon Gilmore ruling out a second Lisbon referendum.
Fine Gael also finds itself in the untenable position of calling for fiscal rectitude but politically unable to say where the axe should fall, claiming to oppose cuts but also attacking Government ‘overspending’.
Yet, as we approach the second decade of the 21st century, there is no sign that the total domination of 26-County politics by two centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, is coming to an end. Sinn Féin needs to address the question of how we end that domination. We cannot do it alone.
I believe it can only be done when people see an attractive and viable alternative in prospect. Such an alternative needs to be built and Sinn Féin needs to be central to the building process. It would mean a renewed Left in Irish politics involving not only political parties of the Left but the trade unions and other non-governmental organisations.
The whole would have to be greater than the sum of its parts and its key task would be to motivate and mobilize citizens individually and in communities in a push for real political and economic change. And, of course, central to such change would be Irish unity.
Otherwise we are faced with the indefinite prospect of Fianna Fáil-led governments with various combinations of add-ons from the PDs/Greens/Labour, with Fine Gael, once every decade and a half or so, swapping places with Fianna Fáil.
For the short to medium term, though, Sinn Féin must continue to rebuild our own momentum. I believe the elements are in place to continue that rebuilding. We need to be clear-sighted and cohesive, North and South.
In a previous phase of struggle, republicans on both sides of the border had a common focus in the need constantly to highlight and combat British repression and to organise and support republican resistance. This phase was followed by the Peace Process which also provided a sharp focus as we worked to transform the struggle, make an impact on the negotiations, maximise our political leverage and build our political strength.
Today the politics which make this a common struggle, North and South, seem less immediate. We need extra efforts to ensure that we are all conscious of the political realities on both sides of the border. We need an all-Ireland view while formulating and implementing strategies to deal with the two different political realities. We are marching across a varied landscape but towards the single objective of the Irish Republic.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
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