Chasing after cabinet seats

Sinn Féin looks set to become the biggest party after the next general election. Anne McShane lambasts its PBP would-be coalition partner

People Before Profit’s recently published pamphlet, The case for a left government: getting rid of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, produces a sense of sad familiarity.1 Once again the left is sacrificing basic principles on the altar of crass opportunism.

The central task of the pamphlet is to present the case for PBP committing itself “in advance of an election to vote for [Sinn Féin leader] Mary Lou McDonald as taoiseach if she is willing to lead a government that does not include Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael”. Such a government would apparently “represent a strategic advance for leftwing politics, because it would both increase the confidence of workers and also put Sinn Féin to the test in the eyes of their supporters.”

SF does seem on course to become the biggest party after the next election, due to be held before February 2025. While the popularity of both main establishment parties, FG and FF, has tumbled, SF has maintained its polling lead, with a recent survey putting it at 37% (with FG on just 15% and FF on 21%). So, SF has a level of support roughly equal to that of the two traditionally dominant mainstream parties combined. Translated into seats, it would mean SF doubling its TDs - from 36 to over 70. This would still be a minority in the 178-member Dáil (legislation is being introduced this summer to increase the number of seats by 18).

So governmental partners have to be sought if SF is to form any kind of a stable government … hence PBP’s pitch for inclusion. It is in fact its second bid to join a putative coalition - TD, member of the Socialist Worker Network and PBP leader, Richard Boyd Barrett, writing to McDonald in the aftermath of the 2020 election requesting inclusion in coalition talks was a controversial first. His move was apparently made without consultation with the PBP membership and provoked a heated debate; there were those, naturally, who accused him of selling out. When I criticised Boyd Barrett at the SWP’s Marxism 2022 in London, it provoked fury from PBP loyalists.2 The SWP is, of course, the mothership of the International Socialist Tendency which still counts the Irish SWN as an affiliate. Anyway, I was told in no uncertain terms that I was wrong and that PBP’s tactical approach to SF was by no means settled. Well, it certainly is now.

What is far less obvious is whether PBP has any real prospect of entering government.The pamphlet admits that SF would prefer a coalition with either of the main parties. It remains to be seen if either FF or FG will countenance unity with a party that emerged out of the Provisional republican movement, led the armed struggle against the British occupation of Northern Ireland and continues to be portrayed as a danger to the establishment.

But there are tentative moves to accept SF as a coalition partner, particularly within FF. Its former leader, Bertie Ahern - recently readmitted after being forced to resign in 2012 because of multiple findings of corruption - reassures that there is now nothing to fear from SF: “If anyone tries to do anything mad, they won’t survive too long. The revolutionaries of today are usually the conservatives of tomorrow.”3 He added: “I’ve watched people come into the Dáil over the years. They come in with all this ideology stuff. As soon as they’ve taken the facts of life, they become normal people …”

In other words, SF are no longer any kind of threat and there is no earthly reason not to let them into the lucrative ‘family’ of mainstream parties. As if to prove it, SF’s vice president and leader in Northern Ireland has just announced that she will be attending the coronation of Charles III and Camilla on May 6.

Resisting pressure

The PBP pamphlet deals with various arguments against entering a SF-led government, including being forced to act in the interests of capitalism. The authors agree that “economic blackmail also starts to ‘house-train’ any leftist into the rules of the capitalist game”. The question is how to resist. It considers that Syriza went wrong in 2015 when it collapsed before the ECB-IMF-World Bank troika. Instead of standing by its own programme and remaining accountable to its voter base, it agreed to impose austerity in return for a bailout. Spain is also touched upon: Podemos “joined the equivalent of the Labour Party in coalition and has few gains to show for it”.

The key to not repeating those abject failures is “looking beyond government institutions to mobilise the potential power of working people”.4 It means recognising that the “formation of a leftwing government does not resolve fundamental issues - it only heightens conflict.” In recognition of this, PBP must not simply rely on itself, but has to “put its energy into the mobilisation of people power. In fact that should be its main purpose in occupying government office.”

As well as government legislation for a €15-an-hour minimum wage, the improvement of labour laws, climate action, and a crackdown on the power of banks, people’s assemblies also need to be formed. These would be “a form of participative democracy that invites communities and workplace representatives to come together and deliberate on measures needed to bring about more social equality”. They might be called into being by left parties to implement government legislation, or “could emerge spontaneously from below in answer to social crisis”. Thus the mobilisation of “people power” would create radical forms of democracy, in which the Dáil would be answerable to the assemblies, it seems, because “real people power in Ireland can inspire many across the world to tackle the mysterious power of capital”.

This is an entirely fanciful scheme dreamt up to promote illusions in a ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ - only without the socialism. There is no way even a PBP-led left government could create a successful post-capitalist society. The Irish economy is almost entirely reliant on international investment, particularly US corporations. These bodies would pack up and leave if their low tax operations were interfered with in any way. UK and EU governments would intervene politically, economically and, if necessary, militarily. Never mind the US, which would certainly “push back” hard - especially if the ‘Oirish’ Joe Biden wins a second term in 2024.

The PBP authors maintain that people’s assemblies could ensure the mobilisation of the popular will behind a SF-led ‘left’ government, and inspire forces abroad to act similarly. There is no mention of the assemblies taking on the police and army, or defending the SF-led ‘left’ government from international intervention. As much as PBP proclaim the need to fight the crisis engendered by the coming to power of a supposed anti-capitalist SF-led government, they really have not thought it through. It is a recipe for disaster.

Or at least it would be, if it was serious. But it clearly is not. Firstly, there is no prospect of a left government. SF is not a leftwing force - at best it can be described as a post-revolutionary form of Irish republicanism, which is attractive to many because it presents an alternative to the arrogance and corruption of the other post-revolutionary forms of Irish republicanism, ie, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. SF has certainly made clear that it will be a dependable partner in a pro-capitalist government. Its love-in with US imperialism was personified recently in Mary-Lou MacDonald’s tweet of a photograph of her embracing Joe Biden under a caption ‘Welcome home, Mr President’. In other tweets she waxed lyrical about the “special relationship” between Ireland and the US, which is apparently “strong and enduring”, because of “ties of history, family, friendship”. For her, as with FF and FG, the US is Ireland’s greatest ally. Biden’s promise of greater investment is music to her ears.

As the pamphlet admits, SF wants to keep corporation tax low, intends to introduce very minor income tax increases for high earners and backs Nato’s war in Ukraine. It “does not commit to substantial cuts in carbon emissions or reductions in the national cattle herd”. It stands for very restricted abortion rights - “only in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormality”. On housing - currently in a state of unprecedented crisis - SF promises 20,000 new homes, when, as one homeless charity reports, there are as many as 290,000 people suffering from “hidden homelessness”, sleeping on couches or in extremely overcrowded conditions.5


The pamphlet argues that SF “sometimes tacks left”, playing an active role in the Cost of Living Coalition (COLC) and helping to mobilise protests and marches. But, as I have reported previously, SF cynically uses such campaigns to mobilise its vote, all the while preventing them from becoming too militant. During the mass protests against water charges in 2015, SF refused to call for non-payment or to support those arrested for preventing water meter installation. Its speakers stood on platforms at every march and claimed credit for the movement, while actually undermining it. More recently, SF threatened to walk away from COLC if it included the demand for the nationalisation of the electricity and gas companies in its platform. PBP backed down and SF stayed. SF is able to play the populist card, because it has never been in government in the republic, and because many on the left, in particular PBP, continue to give it left credentials.

We are warned that, “if Sinn Féin is adopting a moderate left strategy now, the chances are that it will succumb to capitalist pressure when in government”. Yet on the penultimate page we are informed that not only will PBP vote for SF to form a government, if it is not with FF and FG, but it will be an enthusiastic part of it - “we want to participate in a left government that transforms people’s lives for the better and represents real change from the old Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael status quo”. And, while in coalition, its ministers will demand that this “government must be willing to challenge the rules of capitalism and challenge the obstruction of the rich” and those who oppose “the struggles of workers against the for-profit system”.

The other smaller parties which would possibly support a SF minority government are Labour, the Greens and the Social Democrats. All are openly pro-capitalist. Labour has proved this in successive FF administrations during the years of the ‘Celtic Tiger’. The Greens are currently in government, happily administering capitalism. Presumably the PBP’s dream coalition would include some or all of these.

PBP itself has four TDs now, with Mick Barry of the Socialist Party working with them in a single bloc. Up to now these comrades have used the Dáil as a platform to raise demands on behalf of the working class. They demonstrated outside the Dáil during Joe Biden’s speech. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and tánaiste Micheál Martin are forced to listen and respond to their criticisms, which are then reported and discussed in the media. Together they have made an impact which far exceeds their size.

But in government all this would be lost. Instead of opposing a capitalist government, they will be part of it, and subsumed into its wheeling and dealing. That is the way things always happen, going all the way back to Alexandre Millerand - a member of the French Section of the Socialist International - and his entry into the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet of “republican defence” in June 1899. Richard Boyd Barrett is just the latest in a long line of would‑be Millerandists.

Instead of taking cabinet seats and ministerial cars, the left should put forward an independent working class programme that sets its aim as the overthrow of the Irish state, as part of a wider European revolution. In the meantime there is the battle for democracy: eg, replacing the standing Irish army and the Garda with a popular militia, abolishing the Seanad Éireann upper house and repealing the constitution’s fifth amendment, which gives a special position to the Catholic church. There can be no question of taking part in a government unless there is the realistic possibility of carrying out our full immediate programme, which means working class state power.

  1. . Published by People Before Profit: www.pbp.ie/product/the-case-for-a-left-government-getting-rid-of-fianna-fail-and-fine-gael. All quotes are from the pamphlet unless otherwise stated.↩︎

  2. . The Socialist Workers Network, the main component of PBP, is, of course, closely linked to the Socialist Workers Party in Britain.↩︎

  3. . www.independent.ie/irish-news/politics/bertie-ahern-says-fianna-fail-can-be-junior-government-partners-with-sinn-fein-after-next-election/42414842.html.↩︎

  4. . Note the use of the term, “working people”. Nowhere in the pamphlet is there any mention of the working class.↩︎

  5. . simoncommunity.org/homelessness/knowledge-hub/hidden-homelessness.↩︎