Extreme opposition, not partners

Treacherous calls for a Sinn Féin-led ‘left government’ should be ditched once and for all, urges Anne McShane

In July I wrote a short piece on Richard Boyd Barrett’s presentation to Marxism 2022 in London.1 I said that he advocated a popular frontist strategy for his People Before Profit when he called for a ‘left government’ headed by Sinn Féin. I criticised him for selling out elementary class principles in the hope of gaining ministerial office.

Some PBP members told me that I had misrepresented Boyd Barrett. Others from the Rise tendency claimed that I had been too harsh and that the question of a left government was not settled. PBP had a reasonably good internal democratic life and Boyd Barrett’s Socialist Worker Network did not dominate, they assured. Still others - ex-SWN members - told me that the idea of a coalition government with Sinn Féin was intolerable to them as socialists and they would welcome my participation in the internal debate.

So I applied to join, paid my membership fee and was a member of PBP for five whole days. Kieran Allen, chief SWN ideologue, gave a presentation at an online members meeting, where I spoke and introduced myself. Shortly afterwards I received a terse email from him and Eddie Conlon, stating that I had never been a member of PBP and my politics were incompatible with the organisation. I did, of course, appeal, but received no reply.

Before writing this article, I watched the Marxism 2022 meeting on YouTube. It gave me an opportunity to review what I had written - and, with the exception of an inconsequential mistake, it was absolutely correct.2 I reported him making the claim that “there are more Trotskyists in the Dáil now than Fianna Fáil TDs”. In fact, in the loud applause that followed, I did not hear him say that this concerned Dublin. There are seven FF TDs in Dublin and four PBP TDs. Add in Joan Collins, who used to be a member of the Socialist Party in Ireland, and perhaps this or that TD who still sees themselves as a Trotskyist. But it really does not matter.

My point was that Boyd Barrett sought to exaggerate and big‑up PBP’s influence, claiming, for example, it was they - “the revolutionary socialists” - who had built and won the campaign against water charges and abortion rights. Nonsense, of course, but Boyd Barrett was determined to convince his audience that in government PBP will pull Sinn Féin to the left through applying irresistible pressure. This despite admitting that today it is “not all that leftwing”.

Anyway, for the Boyd Barretts of this world, a step in the direction of a Sinn Féin-led ‘left government’ has been the formation of the Cost of Living Coalition, with 50 supporting organisations, including PBP, the Socialist Party and, of course Sinn Féin. The campaign held a number of public meetings and demonstrations around the country in the lead-up to the September 27 budget, with a national demonstration in Dublin that attracted approximately 15,000 people. Sinn Féin members were out in force with their own contingent, placards and banners.

But, following the ‘giveaway’ FF, Fine Gael, Green budget, Sinn Féin informed COLC that it was pulling back from any further national demonstrations, and instead would be shifting focus to Raise the Roof - a campaign against homelessness in which it is dominant. One of its Cork councillors, Mick Nugent, explained that Sinn Féin needed to decide where its resources would be most usefully directed. Supposedly, the cost of living had become less of an issue following the budget: energy credits and one-off welfare payments were announced.

Sinn Féin is clearly being led by opinion polls. The Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks poll reported that “there is again a growing feeling that housing (55%), up three points, should be the government’s number one priority”.3 And “For the first time in this series of polls, it has emerged that more than half (51%) of those who do not own their own home support Sinn Féin.” A finding which “starkly illustrates what is now a great divide among the public in relation to property and home ownership and largely helps to explain the surge in support for Sinn Féin.”

Therefore the decision to run down the COLC is about Sinn Féin’s electoral calculations. It opportunistically presents itself as a friend of those in struggle, but in fact is more concerned with garnering voting fodder.

Some in COLC believe Sinn Féin redirected its efforts because of the strength of the left. A delusion. In reality the left is extremely weak organisationally, but above all politically. COLC is a bureaucratic, top-down organisation and Sinn Féin threatened to walk if the call for nationalisation of utilities was introduced into the campaign’s slogans. It does not want to scare FF, FG, Green, Labour and other potential partners in what will surely be a Sinn Féin-led rightwing coalition government after the next general election (if the polls are not wrong).


The Phoenix - a satirical magazine - published an interesting profile of PBP TD Paul Murphy on October 6. Murphy was first elected as a Socialist Party candidate in 2014 in a Dublin South West by-election, beating the Sinn Féin candidate in a campaign focused on resistance to water charges. He has held the seat in subsequent elections. But in 2020 his first preferences dropped from 13.4% to 6.6%, while Sinn Féin’s Sean Crowe went from 10.4% to 29.7%. It was transfers from Crowe that kept him in.

As I have previously reported, the phenomenal swing to Sinn Féin took the party itself by surprise. It only stood 42 candidates in the 39 multi-party constituencies (each having between three and five TDs) and won 37 seats. Fine Gael stood 82 candidates and won 35 seats, while Fianna Fáil stood 84 candidates and won 38 seats. The Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks poll on October 2 has Sinn Féin maintaining a strong lead, with 37% support, 16 points ahead of Fine Gael and 20 ahead of Fianna Fáil. This was just days after the government’s €11 billion ‘giveaway’ budget, which aimed to win back the electorate with various concessions, including energy credits towards mounting bills.

Sinn Féin now plans to stand an additional 25-30 candidates, with two where it had previously only stood one. With its popularity continuing to rise, it is likely that very many of these additional candidates will be elected. It is this that The Phoenix predicts puts three out of the four PBP TDs at serious risk of losing their seats. In other words, Sinn Féin’s popularity could easily drown the left.

One myth that needs to be debunked is the notion of Sinn Féin seeking a left government. In 2020, in the midst of talks to form a coalition government, Boyd Barrett wrote an open letter to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, in which he said this:

I am writing to suggest that Sinn Féin, Solidarity-People Before Profit, Left Independents, the Social Democrats and others who see themselves on the left in Irish politics, should renew our previously commenced efforts to develop an alternative programme for real change and press forward a campaign for a left government.4

The offer was not taken up for obvious reasons. The mathematics simply did not work. If Sinn Féin wanted to be a minority partner it would have to be with Fianna Fáil, not with the ‘odds and sods’.

Even in 2020, before its unexpected electoral success, Sinn Féin pledged to retain corporation tax at 12.5% in order not to scare away transnationals. In 2022, as the prospect of government nears, its connections to business have grown warmer and deepened. Sinn Féin is talked about in business circles as a possible welcome alternative government to the Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael/Green coalition. Mary-Lou and her colleagues have gone to great lengths to reassure capital that Sinn Féin presents no threat. Its proposals on housing are very modest - a commitment to build “12,000 real social homes”, while there are close to 200,000 in private rental properties paying extortionate rents and at constant risk of eviction.

Sinn Féin finance spokesperson, Pearse Doherty, held talks with Apple, Google and other tech firms in August and issued a statement, which said: “In our engagement with employers, we have stated our commitment to a high-wage economy and sustainable tax base” - which included “implementing the OECD international tax agreement and maintaining the current 12.5% rate, and protecting Ireland’s competitiveness by tackling long-run failures in housing and childcare”.5

Comrades in PBP who do not want to foster illusions must rebel. Ditch the call for a Sinn Féin-led ‘left government’. Instead we must constitute ourselves as the party of extreme opposition to bourgeois governments - no matter what their colour, rainbow combinations or pretences.

  1. ‘Cliffism to ministerialism’ Weekly Worker July 7: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1402/cliffism-to-ministerialism.↩︎

  2. See: youtu.be/T3vifMzzlRo.↩︎

  3. www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/sunday-independent-poll-sinn-fein-reaps-the-benefit-of-widening-divide-in-irish-society-on-home-ownership-42032949.html.↩︎

  4. www.pbp.ie/open-letter-to-sinn-fein.↩︎

  5. www.irishexaminer.com/news/politics/arid-40935920.html.↩︎