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3 December 1998 Edition

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Demise of DL opens new door to Sinn Féin

By Micheál MacDonncha

     
The chameleon leadership under De Rossa has now run out of colours and is taking refuge in the faint pink of the Labour Party.
Decisions taken last week by the Executives of both the Labour Party and Democratic Left make the `merger' of the two parties a foregone conclusion. Conferences of the two parties to approve the project, while they may see some emotional debate, will rubber stamp the decision without too much trouble for the leaderships.

Of course `merger' is a euphemism. What we are witnessing is not the marraige of DL and Labour but the death of DL - it's a funeral not a wedding. DL's four TDs Prionsias De Rossa, Liz McManus, Pat Rabbite and Eamon Gilmore are being grafted onto the leadership of the Labour Party. What remains of their party outside Leinster House will disappear into the Labour ranks and they will hardly be noticed since there are so few of them.

The `merger' is being hyped for all its worth as the creation of a new force on the Left with the aim of achieving a Left-led government - that is a Coalition with a Labour Party majority. This line is being carried uncritically in the media just as the reality of the situation - the death of DL - is glossed over.

The truth is that Democratic Left never really got going as a political party. While it had talented parliamentary leaders it lacked two other two essential ingredients for a party - a clear identity in the public mind and an organisation on the ground. Successive opinion polls showed that DL simply did not register with the public. They repeatedly polled below the Workers Party from which they split in 1992, showing confusion between the two parties. This was despite the high media profile of the four DL TDs.

Led by De Rossa the Workers Party in 1989 had won seven Dáil seats and De Rossa was elected an MEP for Dublin. But internal contradictions and external pressures built up to the 1992 split. Those pressures went much further back to the origins of this strangest of Irish political formations.

Given the numerous changes in name and politics over the years it is difficult to trace them other than by tracing the personalities - centrally De Rossa himself. In his famous libel action against the Sunday Independent De Rossa told of his early political life beginnning with his activity as a member of Fianna Éireann, the republican scouting organisation. He was interned in the Curragh during the IRA's 1956-62 Border Campaign. He told the High Court that he did not know whether those interned with him were in the IRA.

He was for a number of years after his release the chairperson of Dublin Sinn Féin and a member of the party's Ard Chomhairle. When both the IRA and Sinn Féin split in 1969 and 1970 De Rossa took a leading part on the side of the `Officials'. The `Provisionals' were the other half of the split. The latter group came into being essentially because of widespread dissent with the political line developed by the republican leadership in the late 1960s. This took the emphasis off the national question and oversaw the run-down of the IRA as a military organisation. Republicans were thus totally unprepared for the crisis which erupted in the Six Counties in 1969. The `Provisional' IRA came into being and sprang to the defence of nationalist districts in the Six Counties under attack from the RUC and loyalist mobs.

The `Officials' or Stickies - from their use of gum-backed Easter lilies - developed as a 26-County movement with little support in the North. Throughout the 1970s their position on partition and British imperialism strayed ever further from their republican origins. Eventually they developed a two-nations attitude - opposing any advance against British imperialism and bitterly criticising nationalists of all shades, principally, of course, their former republican comrades. In parallel was their espousal of Stalinism. They sought close links with the Soviet Union and the other soviet states, mainly , it seems, as a source of funds. They were aided but the main effect of their link was to promote their anti-republican line on the international stage.

In 1977 they changed their name to Sinn Féin the Workers Party and their first successes in Leinster House elections came in 1981 and 1982.

During the 1980s the climate of censorship and anti-nationalist revisionism intensified. The Stickies had key members in the trade unions and RTE and these were to the fore in attempting to isolate not only Sinn Féin but all expressions of nationalism and of the reality of life for nationalists in the Six Counties. Chief among the RTE Stickies was Eoghan Harris, a zealous supporter of the Section 31 broadcasting ban. He urged the weeding out of RTE personnel who did not fit his agenda. Harris had an extreme case of the chameleon syndrome. After falling out with De Rossa he ended up working for Fine Gael and the Mary Robinson campaign, among other political excursions.

The 1989 high water mark for the Workers Party proved to be a prelude to another split. The collapse of the Soviet Union, tensions with militarist fund-raising elements of the party, policy somersaults on the EU and other issues, the growing ambition of the TDs, all contributed to the split which came in 1992. Six TDs led by De Rossa left the Workers Party. Only Dublin West TD Tomás MacGiolla remained and he lost his seat in the November 1992 election. DL returned with four TDs, losing out while Labour surged to their best electoral performance. Two years later the Fianna Fáil/Labour government collapsed and DL got into government with Fine Gael and Labour.

When he founded DL De Rossa left most of the WP organisation behind him. Even in his own heartland of Finglas he could not carry them with him. At this time the peace process was in its infancy and De Rossa was one of the most vocal critics of the Hume/Adams initiative. When he reached government the peace process was well underway and he had to curb his tongue in public but the political friendship between himself and John Bruton proved to be a negative axis during the Rainbow Coalition. Their unionism was mutually reinforced.

Disagreement over participation in Coalition and on policy changes such as weakening their defence of Irish neutrality contributed to the shrinkage of DL, such as it was. Above all the ambitions of the ``four TDs without a party'' determined their future direction. They saw the writing on the wall and have taken the only course open to them. Without a party their careers are going nowhere; not alone were future coalition Ministerial mercs in jeopardy but their Dáil seats as well.

The chameleon leadership under De Rossa has now run out of colours and is taking refuge in the faint pink of the Labour Party.

The co-option of the DLTDs into the Labour leadership will not be totally trouble-free, however. De Rossa will not contest his Dublin North West Dáil seat, leaving a free run for Labour TD Roisín Shortall. But De Rossa is to be imposed as one of two Labour candidates for Dublin in next year's Euro elections. This has infuriated sitting Labour MEP Bernie Malone who expected to be the sole Labour runner and experienced a similar unwelcome parachutist - Orla Guerin - in the 1994 election. Dick Spring's imposition of Guerin backfired when Malone benefitted from public sympathy and won the seat.

Labour leader Ruairi Quinn is known to be enraged already at the media coverage of Malone and it promises to be an intriguing battle.

Undoubtedly the demise of DL is one of the most welcome developments in Irish politics in recent years. Their anti-republican venom proved to be a liability; their numerous changes of colour made them unrecognisable to the public; their antipathy to rural Ireland confined them to Dublin; and in Dublin their vocal criticism of Labour in coalition - the platform which had brought them success - became irrelevant when they themselves entered the Rainbow Coalition.

This is all good news for Sinn Féin, especially in Dublin. There is now growing space for a party to the left of Labour with a strong republican position and with a network of activists on the ground throughout the capital and throughout the 26 Counties. Sinn Féin is that party.
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