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17 July 2003 Edition

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Building the left republican alternative

Sinn Féin must play a key role in the emerging global movement for change to secure a global context for our national agenda for change and ensure that national independence does not arrive in a context that reduces it to corporate subservience, argues COUNCILLOR EOIN Ó BROIN

The last four weeks have seen an important exchange in the pages on An Phoblacht. Justin Moran called for a return to class politics; Paul O'Connor explored the possibility of a new political language for the 21st century; Declan Kearney stressed the importance of focusing on our strategic imperatives; and Mitchel McLaughlin reminded us of the legacy of the 1916 Proclamation for radical politics today. These are important contributions in a debate that needs to grow and deepen within the activist circles of Sinn Féin.

We have become accustomed to saying that we are in a time of transition - from conflict to peace, from partition to independence, from the margins to the centre and so on. But there are a series of transitions taking place around us that we seldom discuss enough. As Irish republicanism is developing and becoming stronger, the political and economic map of Ireland, Europe and the world is changing radically. How we understand these changes and respond to them is as important as our own immediate strategic objectives.

The Irish political map

Last year's Leinster House elections demonstrated for all to see that a change was taking place in southern Irish politics. The rise of Sinn Féin, the Greens and progressive independents, along with the stasis of the Labour vote signalled a shift in the willingness of the electorate to support left of centre alternatives to the status quo. While still in its infancy, this shift cannot be underestimated.

Despite the dramatic economic growth experienced across the 26 Counties since the early 1990s, levels of poverty and inequality have reached all-time highs. The politics of greed and corruption are the fare of mainstream politics in a society that forces thousands of children to live below the poverty line. Such contradictions have the potential to create either apathy or anger. If Sinn Féin's growing political strength is to mean anything, it has to be built on generating anger at the status quo, and focusing that anger on a political movement of real change.

However, Sinn Féin alone cannot build a base of support large enough to challenge Fianna Fáil hegemony, even in the medium term. Thus building a real coalition, inside and outside of political institutions, with Labour and the Greens must become a strategic priority. With Labour absorbing dissident social democrats from Fine Gael and the Greens attracting soft middle class radicals, Sinn Féin needs to self-consciously build working class support as part of a broader strategy to build a left/green/republican alliance that can secure an electoral and social majority.

The failures of the Celtic Tiger economy and the mainstream political process means that for the first time since the formation of the southern state, there is a real political space available for such a coalition of forces. Sinn Féin needs to see itself as the engine of this coalition, but without threatening those potential partners. Failing to grasp this reality will prevent us from attaining anything close to real power for several decades.

We also need to deepen our understanding of the interrelationship between the changes taking place across the 26 Counties and the working out of the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the perpetual politics of crisis and rejection by Blair and Trimble et al, substantial change is taking place at the core of the Six-County statelet. Republicans need to remain focused on our objectives in this regard, and begin to actively socialise the value of the all-Ireland, human rights and equality agendas. In the same way as building a left/republican/green coalition in the South, we also need to build the all-Ireland/human rights/equality constituency in the North. This will have the effect of actively undermining partition. We also need to be connecting these two constituencies into a national movement for political, economic, social, cultural and constitutional change. This is way to actively build the transition to reunification.

The global political map

The harsh realities of the Tiger economy are not an Irish phenomenon. They are part of a series of global trends that have been under way since the 1970s. The collapse of social democracy and the rise of neo-liberalism is a truly global phenomenon. The consequences are clear. National governments have less and less political and economic sovernity as transnational corporations, global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, and a small number of overdeveloped capitalist states (US, Britain, etc) dictate both the global and local agenda. The consequences are greater poverty, greater environmental destruction, poorer human rights and less democracy.

In response, people across the globe are beginning to fight back. Trade unions in Colombia against water privatisation; indigenous people in West Papua against Indonesian occupation; South African township residents against electricity privatisation; international trade justice campaigns against Third World debt; US citizens against corporate power; and at home, a broad coalition of forces and groups are fighting against war, neo-liberalism and global capitalism and in favour of peace, democracy, and socio-economic justice.

Irish republicans have been slow to recognise the importance of these movements, domestically and internationally. Our focus on the peace process and building our political strength has left little time for connecting with broader progressive forces. However, we continue in this way at our peril. What use is national independence if all meaningful decisions about Irish economic policy are made in Brussels or Washington? What value is political sovereignty if foreign policy is determined by the EU or NATO?

Sinn Féin can no longer remain ambivalent on these global issues, as they directly affect our ability to achieve our primary political objectives at home, namely independence and democratic socialism. Playing a full part in the emerging Irish Social Forum and its European and global counterparts is now a necessity if Irish independence is to have any meaning in the 21st century.

Political priorities

Republicans are intuitively activist focused. Our politics are developed on the street, in the political institutions and at the heart of the life of our communities. The strength of this approach is that we are firmly rooted in the political reality of the moment. However, it means that we have a suspicion of ideological and strategic debate; seen at best as a secondary task or at worst a distraction from our real work.

While never losing our activist focus, we need to deepen and broaden the strategic and ideological debate within the party - in particular the issues of building real coalitions for change, inside and outside of political institutions and inside and across the two states on our island. We also need to think through how we can become identified as the engine of change across a broad range of constituencies. Our development of the all-Ireland, equality and human rights agendas needs to be strengthened, resourced and mainstreamed into every aspect of every activist's work. In addition, we need to be seen as the party leading the defence of public services, against privatisation, and building real social and economic alternatives. These two sets of tasks must be given equal weight at all moments in the struggle. To prioritise one means weakening our overall ability to deliver on our objectives. This work needs to be local, national, European and global in focus, in real and meaningful ways.

In this way, Sinn Féin will be seen to be actively building an Ireland of Equals, delivering on issues that affect working class communities as well as all others who are marginalised by the status quo, North and South.

By playing a key role in the emerging global movement for change, we will be securing the global context in which our national agenda for change will take place and ensuring that our national independence does not arrive in a context that reduces it to mean corporate subservience.

By fusing our left republican politics with those of other social movements, old and new, we will be able to develop a political language that remains part of the Irish left republican tradition while at the same time remaining open and flexible, to meet the needs to this new century.

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