Desire to take power triumphs
Anne McShane describes how Sinn Féin has gone about trying to wreck the Right to Water campaign
The determination of Sinn Féin to divert the current struggle against water charges into a movement to support its own electoral ambitions has resulted in demoralisation, confusion and divisions within the working class. Its influence within the official national campaign, Right to Water (RtW), has profoundly undermined the mass movement that had come together in opposition to the government’s austerity agenda.
RtW was launched in April of last year by the leaderships of the Unite and Mandate trade unions, along with Sinn Féin. A number of left groups and individuals, including the Socialist Workers Party, the Communist Party of Ireland and the Workers Party, also joined. Some local groups were formed, but there was never any national organisation on the ground and certainly no transparency or accountability. Instead RtW mobilised through a series of three national demonstrations, which all the local groups built for. It provided a national focus, but no involvement in terms of decision-making.
However, as 2014 drew to a close, it became clear that there was a sharp disjuncture between the aims of the movement and the leadership. Militant protests against the installation of water meters resulted in arrests, but the RtW leadership refused to come out in support of the protestors. Calls from local groups for the leadership to adopt a non-payment strategy went unheeded. Then on December 31, on the eve of the signing into law of the latest water charge legislation, the RtW leadership announced a retreat from holding demonstrations. There would be a switch instead to campaigning for the election of a party to repeal the legislation. We now needed to elect politicians who “enact laws that are wanted and needed by the people they are elected to represent”.1
The message was clear. RtW would not call for or lead a boycott of the water charge. It was also evident that it wanted no competition for its continued hold over the movement. In a thinly veiled attack on the Socialist Party, which had set up a separate non-payment campaign, it accused the SP of sectarian adherence to a particular tactic (the boycott) - this “narrowness of focus has killed many protests, such as the household charge protests, and created deep distrust of all politicians”.
A further announcement, on January 6, adopted a more cautious approach, while still refusing to call for a boycott (after a rebellion by the SWP and a number of individuals who attend RtW meetings). It was now stated that RtW “does not advocate any specific tactics” and that the “three pillars” of the campaign - political, trade union and community - along with all groups and individuals, could pursue whatever they thought best. The unions could not be expected to call for a boycott, as they “can only advocate non-payment if their members put a motion to their annual or biennial conference and it is passed by a majority of their delegates (shop stewards)”. Also “some political parties, who have their own democratic structures, have not taken positions of advocating non-payment”. The only political party involved in RtW which does not advocate non-payment is, of course, Sinn Féin.
The most recent report from the RtW steering group (January 9) stated that the “consensus from the meeting [on January 8] is that the Right2Water organisers will take a number of weeks to prepare a comprehensive campaign strategy for 2015, including a timetable of events and a sustainable funding model”.2 With the Irish media and government in full swing to push, intimidate and cajole the population into payment, there could not have been a worse time to take a break if you really want to win this battle. And there is no reason why unions could not call special conferences to ballot their members.
Sinn Féin itself had the opportunity to adopt a boycott tactic at its recent conference.
But in reality Gerry Adams and the party leadership would not want a militant non-payment campaign, which might damage their prospects of forming the next government. Adams’ success in making it a respectable mainstream party in the south of Ireland would be undercut if he called for defiance of the law or supported the continuation of a movement that would challenge its claim to be the anti-austerity party. His election as TD for Louth and the trebling of the number of seats won by Sinn Féin in 2011 was on the basis of posing as exactly that. It pledged to “use its enhanced position, which affords it new speaking and debating opportunities, to ensure that the government is held to account and will aim to prevent any attacks by the government on the most vulnerable sectors of our society”.3
Under the all-Ireland leadership of Adams, who resigned his Westminster seat to stand in the Dáil election, the party has propelled itself into a good position to benefit electorally from the numerous mass revolts against the government since 2011. Adams claims that his party represents the interests of the ordinary people - a voice of genuine, plebian republicanism, as opposed to Fianna Fáil, the establishment republican party. With the centenary celebrations due next year, the Sinn Féin leadership wants to be seen as the natural heir to the radical nationalism of the Easter Rising. The 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic committed itself to the creation of a nation based on “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens” and “the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts”. This popular image of a nation of equals is again being urged on the Irish working class by the Sinn Féin propaganda machine in its call for the membership to “help us to finish the revolution for a new republic”.4
Sinn Féin describes itself as an intrinsic part of a European-wide anti-austerity opposition, including Syriza in Greece. MEP Matt McCarthy recently claimed that in “Ireland it is Sinn Féin who is positioned to bring about the new policies and politics that are required. Our vision of unity, equality and fairness is resonating with more and more people every day.”5 Its commitment to “prosperity and fairness” would rescue the Irish people from the ravages of recession and the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. In its 2015 ‘alternative budget’ Sinn Féin states that its mission is “to undo the damage done to the economy and to wider society by bad political choices made by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. The deficit could have been reduced in a fair and sustainable manner.”6 Instead Sinn Féin states that it will assist economic recovery in a more equitable way, through an increase in taxes on higher incomes and capital transactions, a hike in stamp and excise duties, and the introduction of a 48% tax band for incomes over €100,000. Irish capitalism can be made to work for the entire people.
The Sinn Féin budget proposals are hardly radical. Many of the worst of the recent attacks will not be abolished, including the universal social charge. Also the body set up to administer the charges, Irish Water, seems unlikely to be disbanded. In a recent radio interview Adams said he thought it was too late to transfer the responsibility back to local councils. It was clear that, as far as he is concerned, the charges have now become a fait accompli until such time as his party gets into government. Then and only then will there be any change (or so he says).
Of course, if Sinn Féin does go into government, it will not do so as a junior partner of one of the other main parties. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin are currently locked in battle over which party most deserves the mantle of Easter 1916. Fianna Fáil’s constitution also reflects the Easter proclamation, with a commitment to “guarantee religious and civil liberty, and equal rights, equal treatment and equal opportunities for all the people of Ireland”. It also pledges to “develop the resources and wealth of Ireland to their full potential, while making them subservient to the needs and welfare of all the people of Ireland”.7
All these lofty ideals mean little when it comes to actually running capitalism. Fianna Fáil, in power for 61 out of the last 79 years, has earned a deserved reputation for arrogance and greed. Its former leaders, from arch-conservative Éamon De Valera to Charles Haughey, Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowan, have presided over deeply reactionary and corrupt administrations. There has been little that the Irish governing class has been unwilling to do in pursuit of profit and personal wealth. People know today that Fianna Fáil’s commitment to liberty and equal rights is a complete fallacy. The only ones who have benefited from its successive spells in government have been those looking for opportunities to make a corrupt fortune. The Celtic Tiger, its collapse, the bank bailouts and the austerity programme - all these are the results of a republican party in government.
Equality and fairness were not major factors in De Valera’s mind when he drafted the 1937 constitution, which enshrined the role of the Catholic church and the subservience of Irish women. Neither was it much of an issue for successive Fianna Fáil governments, which campaigned fiercely against any abortion rights for Irish women and which had the constitution amended in 1983 to give the ‘unborn’ equal rights with women. Nor was it much in the minds of Sinn Féin TDs, who recently voted, along with all the maintream parties, against the private members bill introduced by Clare Daly to hold a referendum to abolish the 1983 Fianna Fáil ‘8th amendment’.
Why should Sinn Féin’s brand of new republicanism be any different from what has been before?
Like the north?
Sinn Féin is in government in the north of Ireland. Recently, in talks with the British government, it agreed to sign up to major cuts in state funding for services - 20,000 jobs go in the public sector. It also signed up to changes in social welfare. The party had objected to making the cuts, but nevertheless went ahead and agreed when put under pressure. Sinn Féin objects that it had played a positive role in all this, in that people had been shielded from far worse Tory cuts by its presence in the Stormont administration.
But that is exactly the same plea made by the Labour Party here in the south. It claims that the Fine Gael administration would have been even tougher if it had not been for its presence in cabinet. It assures us that we were lucky things were not worse. The truth, of course, is that capitalism is inherently incapable of providing what the working class needs. The interests of the two main classes are antithetical and no fiery Sinn Féin speeches will change that fact. Irish history has shown that nationalism is a cul de sac. The present-day problems within the anti-water charges movement, caused by the influence of Sinn Féin, are an important lesson.
Instead we need to create our own party. A party of the working class based on Marxism, armed with a programme for what the working class needs to become a ruling class. We need a party that is democratic, open and accountable. We have seen glimpses of how democracy and transparency can work to build trust and leadership among local campaigns. Hopefully we will also experience it in the national boycott campaign, to be launched on January 24 - a campaign which is delegate-based and accountable, with open and free discussion and debate. Those same principles need to be applied, on a higher level, to the formation of a party. The discussion on this question cannot be put off. Whether this struggle is successful or not, there are bigger challenges to face. A single-issue campaign or an electoral bloc based on minimal demands cannot fulfil the urgent need for leadership.
The history of our movement and the demands of the time show that the realisation of a new society can only come about through the self-activity of our class, organised and ready for power.