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14 June 2007 Edition

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OPINION : Decision to drop economic policies during election, foolish

It didn’t have to be this way


Five years ago, in the aftermath of the 2002 General Election, I pointed out in this paper that we had contested that election with a manifesto that made little or no economic sense. Our spending commitments vastly outweighed our revenue generating proposals and the reality was that while our manifesto was a radical document in itself, the numbers did not add up and it was not a credible proposal for government.
Five years on, and we find ourselves in the same position.
The difference is that in this election, the party had five years of experience in Leinster House with a full complement of policy workers and a number of people with the skills and experience to draft a coherent, costed, set of socialist economic positions that were based within the existing economic context. We simply decided not to contest the election on them.
Sinn Féin proposed the most sweeping, wide-ranging and exhaustive spending commitments of any political party on this island. Our spending plans for health and housing in particular dwarfed the other parties. Our proposals to take back under democratic control Aer Lingus, and possibly Eircom, would have cost the guts of several billion euros. We proposed substantial increases in social welfare payments in an effort to achieve the very real objective of eliminating poverty in Ireland.
There is nothing wrong with these proposals. They are radical ideas that would make a real and substantial difference in the lives of every person on this island. But they cost money.
Sinn Féin’s position during the election was that we could pay for the all of our extra spending out of the existing tax take. The foolishness of this position can be seen in the announcement last week from the Department of Finance that for the first time in four years the tax take is falling below expectations.
The housing market, a vital part of an economy, overly dependent on the construction industry, is in decline with AIB now predicting a 2% fall in house prices this year. Inflation is consistently running at over 5% and there is increasing pressure from public sector workers like the nurses for greater pay increases to meet the rising cost of living.
None of this is a revelation. A downturn in economic growth in the 26 Counties has been on the cards for 18 months and more. Many of the economic proposals of our political opponents were described by commentators as being unduly optimistic in suggesting growth rates of over 4% per annum, a fraction of what would be needed to meet our proposals.
It didn’t have to be this way. Sinn Féin’s position prior to the election was straight-forward. We argued that the only way to increase spending to the levels we were proposing, was to increase taxes on certain wealthy sections of Irish society while maintaining, and even reducing, the tax burden on ordinary workers. We could not increase spending, we argued, without finding the money to pay for it.

We laid out these proposals in a number of pre-budget submissions, most recently in December 2006, and in policy documents on enterprise and on housing. These proposals were outlined, analysed and discussed in An Phoblacht, as well as at party policy conferences. They were further discussed and subsequently endorsed by the membership at the Ard Fheis.
To summarily announce, as senior party figures did, that those policies no longer exist without identifying alternate sources of funding or consulting with the party’s members is both irresponsible and overrides the party’s decision making structures. Any notion that we would benefit electorally from this strategy should now be dismissed for the nonsense that it always was.
This left us with the situation where Sinn Féin candidates and activists found themselves dealing on the doorsteps with the repercussions of sudden, unexpected policy changes announced in the media. Party representatives on the media found themselves defending economic positions that made little or no sense and in many cases, that they did not believe themselves.
Rather than presenting a coherent economic analysis to challenge the right-wing consensus on economics, placing Sinn Féin as a genuine alternative to disenchanted voters, we chose not to present any serious analysis at all, exposing the party’s positions on a range of subjects to increasing ridicule from the media and our political opponents as the campaign wore on.
Mícheál MacDonncha argued two weeks ago that the party was right not to rule out going into coalition with Fianna Fáil ahead of the election. While not as convinced of that as he is, I certainly believe he is right when he suggests we took this strategy too far.
There is a difference between not ruling another party out as a possible coalition partner, and the position that Sinn Féin adopted during the election campaign of an almost embarrassing eagerness to get into government regardless of cost. As Fianna Fáil’s Minister Dermot Ahern not altogether inaccurately observed during the campaign, the best way to know in advance which Sinn Féin policy would be dropped next was for Fianna Fáil to rule out coalition with us on those grounds.
Why would voters critical of Fianna Fáil vote for a party that was demonstrating every day that it was doing all it could to make itself attractive to that party? Why would people voting for change give a preference to a party repeatedly underlining its desire to help maintain the status quo by putting Fianna Fáil back in government? Why would they vote for a party that was willing to drop longstanding economic policies in its eagerness to be considered acceptable?
We failed to weather the storm, because we failed to give people a reason to vote for us. We sought to seize our own piece of ground in the ideological wasteland that is the over-crowded centre in Irish politics. We appeared incoherent and opportunistic in shedding policies at what, in the beginning of the campaign, felt like a daily basis.
That the result was not worse for us, that we increased votes in numerous constituencies, is down solely to the efforts of our candidates, activists and supporters on the ground who performed magnificently.
Our opponents in the media have been eager to cast this electoral setback as a disaster of unprecedented scale, an end once and for all of the threat posed by Sinn Féin to the established political and economic interests dominant in Ireland.
As boxes opened across the country that Friday last month, more than one republican reflected that it was 15 years to the day since unionist paramilitaries, acting in collusion with British intelligence, murdered Sinn Féin councillor Eddie Fullerton.
That same year, Gerry Adams lost Sinn Féin’s single Westminster seat in a General Election and we were still five years from our first TD in this phase of the struggle.
We have had bad days before. We have had much worse days. We will have them again.
On each occasion, our opponents confidently predicted our demise and argued that we could not survive, that the threat posed by Sinn Féin had evaporated. And on each occasion, our members, supporters, activists and elected representatives proved them wrong.
If we learn the lessons of the 2007 General Election, we will do so again. We will confound our critics, re-organise our party and return again to the task set for us many generations ago, the establishment of an independent, democratic, socialist republic in Ireland.

• Justin Moran is a member of Sinn Féin in Dublin's South West Inner City and is a former Chairperson of Dublin Sinn Féin

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