“A brave and hugely challenging and demanding book…”

We have review of Eoin Ó Broin’s Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism, London: Pluto Press, 2009 from Douglas Hamilton a former policy advisor in Sinn Fein, who broadly welcomes the commitment it singles from the party towards a more conversational politics, inside the party at least…By Douglas Hamilton

This is a hugely important book, not just for Sinn Féin, but also for what the author calls the left republican project more generally in Ireland (those parties and movements in Ireland that have, to differing degrees, mixed nationalism and socialism). As someone who worked for Sinn Féin as a policy advisor for a number of years in the 1990s, I know only too well how difficult it is to raise constructive comment, never mind criticism of the party, in an open way.

That Eoin Ó Broin, as a long-time activist, and at times councillor and full-time official of the party, has done this is of particular significance. Sinn Féin has long suffered from a lack of open and critical internal debate, its members preferring to accept the tablets of stone handed down from the leadership. In the past this was arguably necessary given the nature and context of the struggle that Sinn Féin was pursuing.

However, in the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement and the more stable and less conflictive situation that has ensued, especially in the north of Ireland, this is no longer acceptable.

As an activist within Sinn Féin, Eoin Ó Broin has always offered a refreshingly constructive, novel, intelligent and highly enthusiastic approach to left republican politics both in Ireland and abroad.

It’s therefore no surprise to find him articulating his ideas so openly and so well. This book is the first of its kind to engage in a supportive but critical way with the past, present and future of left republicanism and Sinn Féin in particular. Moreover, this engagement is presented in a scholarly (almost in the highly structured framework of a PhD thesis) but highly readable manner.

The author presents a range of deeply searching questions about the left republican project in the past, present and future. In particular:

– what does such a politics represent;
– why has it not become hegemonic;
– what are its current strengths and weaknesses;
– how is it situated internationally;
– what issues has it ignored or misunderstood;
– importantly, what mistakes has it made;
– what does it have to say about actual policies – social, economic, cultural, institutional, international, etc.;
– how are policy and strategy formulated and developed;
– how have strategy and policies changed;
– how have ideology, policies, form and practice interacted; and
– what have been the outcomes and impacts, especially when measured against stated objectives.

In other words, a full and comprehensive evaluation of left republicanism is presented – where it’s been, where it is now and where it might be going – seriously deep, difficult and uncomfortable questions with far from easy answers.

A useful historical context is used, looking critically and in detail at the four key ideological stages through which left republicanism has travelled from:

– James Connolly and the formation of the Irish Socialist Republican Party (ISRP) in 1896 (the earlier origins of left republicanism such as the United Irishmen, Young Ireland and the Fenians are also usefully discussed);
– the reorganisation of Sinn Féin from the 1950s onwards, characterised by social conservatism and a narrow political nationalism;
– the period in the 1960s when Sinn Féin was modernised and it re-engaged with more radical Marxist-oriented politics; and finally
– the period since the formation in 1970 of Provisional Sinn Féin, in particular the period from the early 1980s to the present when Gerry Adams became president of the party, a period which saw the party try and combine the traditional republican goals of reunification with a redefinition of the party’s socialism.

The author reappraises in a critical way much of the academic (both pro-nationalist and revisionist) and other literature that has tried to explain and understand what is referred to as left republican interventions. These include a detailed discussion of James Connolly, the Republican Congress, Clann na Poblachta, Official Sinn Féin, the Workers’ Party and Democratic Left. In each case an evaluation is presented looking at how these left republican interventions worked out according to the questions posed above:

– the different contexts within which left republican politics developed;
– the changing nature of ideology and policy;
– the form of organisation and strategy followed, including the use of armed struggle, electoral politics and civil action, and the problems arising from their interaction;
– the issues excluded or misunderstood, in particular class, nation, unionism and gender; and most importantly
– why all the interventions have failed to become hegemonic.

This a completely novel approach in Irish political study and the author throws up some fascinating analysis and conclusions.

In a major chapter the author takes the reader through the period which has witnessed the most success in terms of left republican politics, namely the history of Sinn Féin since 1970. This discussion examines the civil rights movement, the hunger strikes, the shift to electoralism, the peace process, the aftermath of the Belfast Agreement, the IRA’s decision to cease military operations, and the deep impact of Gerry Adams and other leaders on all aspects of Sinn Féin activity over the past 30-40 years. This section again examines critically and in detail what took place during this historic period, using the analytical framework referred to above. Some difficult and uncomfortable answers are offered, with the author avoiding easy platitudes and rhetoric.

In the final chapter, the author correctly argues that left republicanism has experienced an ongoing and as yet unfinished attempt to reconcile the competing ideological, organisational, and strategic requirements of nationalism and socialism. From Connolly to Adams this relationship has been problematic and frequently a source of tension.

Revisionists have always argued that the history of left republicanism has been one of failure in terms of achieving its aims of a united Ireland and the development of a truly socialist society.

The cause of this failure they have argued is the consequence of an ideological incompatibility between nationalism and socialism. Not surprisingly, the author disagrees, arguing correctly in my opinion that ideological articulations are never fixed or closed, but subject to the forces of history and the influences of human agency, which are always open to revision.
As the author states, however, this doesn’t mean that the revisionist critique should be completely dismissed, as it typically has been to date by left republicans, but that it should be accepted that it poses important questions and reveals uncomfortable truths which demand a response. This critique, the author argues, should be used as a starting point in trying to find out why left republican history has been marked by failure.

Drawing on the writings of a less well-known 20th century left republican, George Gilmore, the author then goes on to argue that the politics of contemporary Sinn Féin are in large part based on a return to the writings of Liam Mellows and Peadar O’Donnell, the idea that the national should be prioritised over the social.

The ideological formulations of Mellows and O’Donnell, he argues, coincided with the political needs of the post-1970 conflict in the north of Ireland and offered a more accessible point of entry into the world of social and economic radicalism than did Connolly and Marx. With the onset of the peace process Sinn Féin had little time, space or inclination to engage in the broader global debate on the failures and futures of the left.

This meant that Sinn Féin’s socialism during the 1980s was rhetorical and declaratory rather than based on a serious critique of capitalism, whether in Ireland, Europe or more globally. Economic alternatives were therefore poorly understood and only loosely connected to actual lived experiences.

Perhaps ironically, as the party experienced a period of unprecedented political and electoral growth from the mid-1990s, there was little reason to question the ideological or strategic base of its project. However, with political stability now more embedded in the north and economic crisis deepening in the south, such an approach is clearly insufficient, as was highlighted by the party’s relatively poor performance in the 2007 southern general election.

The author argues that Sinn Féin, for the first time in its highly varied history, must depart from its ideological and strategic roots and articulate a left republicanism that integrates as equals both nationalism and socialism.

In conclusion, the author usefully presents what he calls eight theses on the future of Sinn Féin, those key issues which he believes the party needs to pursue:

1. The development of a deeper and more critical understanding of current and future contexts.
2. The ideological articulation of a left republicanism that fully integrates national and socio-economic aspects.
3. The introduction of a more decentralised and horizontal party structure.
4. A change from the strategic logic of reform pursued during the peace process to a new approach based on confrontation, revolution and transformation.
5. The acquisition of state power, not through a centre-right coalition, but by developing alliances with Labour, the Greens and other radical parts of civil society.
6. The development of a strategy upon which activists can build reunification from the ground up.
7. The full insertion of Sinn Féin into the global debate about what it means to be socialist in the 20th century.
8. The need for the party to take a much broader and more intense role in international affairs, learning from and contributing to positive developments elsewhere.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it as at this point that much of the real debate will begin, especially for those actively involved in left republicanism, and those who are active in or give electoral support to Sinn Féin. I see two interrelated problems in what he proposes.

First, because of the historical context Sinn Féin and other left republican interventions have necessarily had to operate within a partitioned Ireland. This has clearly created serious strategic problems for a party that has the reunification of the country as its principal aim.

At a practical level Sinn Féin as the only all-Ireland party has had to organise, function and develop in two quite different states. States that have separate (though clearly related) histories and quite distinct political, economic, social, institutional and cultural contexts and problems.

This has meant that Sinn Féin has had to operate effectively as two, if not three, parties at the same time – at the level of the north, the south and the island as a whole. This has created huge tensions in terms of policy implementation and development and organisational effectiveness.

In my time as a Sinn Féin policy advisor I frequently found it difficult to respond effectively when you were having to deal with two very specific political contexts north and south, and one more general ideological context at the all-Ireland level. On occasion the author refers to this problem at least indirectly, but I felt he could have been more explicit.

Moreover, as a policy advisor it was never clear to me how the actual path to reunification was to be realised. Few party documents have spelt this out convincingly and effectively. For me it often felt like I was working in a strategic vacuum, not knowing how my advice, whether in the party as a whole or in the northern Assembly, was contributing to the ultimate aim of reunification.

The continuing actuality of partition as a key problem in a broad strategic, policy and organisational sense, therefore, seems to be understated in the book.

Second, the author argues that Sinn Féin has to shift to a more confrontational, transformational and even revolutionary approach. I could not agree more, but just how likely or even possible is this?

Again from my personal experience working inside Sinn Féin I came across many activists, the author himself being perhaps the best example, who had clear political leanings towards this more radical socialist stance. However, I rarely found a positive reception to such ideas at a higher level within the leadership, apart from in a very general and rather superficial sense. Indeed, on occasion I encountered barely concealed hostility.

As the author argues, this can be explained, if not justified, by the specific political context of the 1980s and 1990s when political stability was the principal objective rather than radical economic and social transformation.

However, unfortunately I still hold serious reservations that such a fundamental strategic and political shift is in fact possible however desirable. The author’s ideological explanation of the socio-economic conservatism of Sinn Féin in the last two decades (an emphasis on Mellows and O’Donnell rather than Connolly and Marx, as referred to above) may be true, but I can’t help think it reads more like an overly academic, ex-post explanation than a true reflection of what actually happened.

In other words, while I share the author’s desire to create a more radicalised socialist oriented party, at the risk of being overly negative I have far more difficulty seeing its realisation through Sinn Féin. I hope I’m wrong in this regard.

Whatever my reservations, Eoin Ó Broin has produced a brave and hugely challenging and demanding book, one which deserves a wide readership and serious debate both inside and outside Sinn Féin. For those of us who share the author’s ideals and hopes, we can only thank him for his stimulating and truly worthwhile book.

4 March 2009

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