Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill: one wants to be prime minister of Ireland, the other is already first minister in Northern Ireland alongside far-right Democratic Unionist Party deputy

Strengthen those red lines

Left groups are arguing about the class nature of a possible Sinn Féin-led government. Even about joining as coalition partners and getting the perks and privileges of junior ministers. Anne McShane calls for unity around tried and tested principles, not diplomatic fudges

Leo Varadkar was replaced as Taoiseach soon after he returned from the traditional St Patrick’s Day trip to America. Not that Simon Harris should be expected to make any difference, certainly not when it comes to Ireland raising its diplomatic voice against the US, which is arming Israel to the teeth, in what is a genocidal war in Gaza.

This very much goes against the grain of public opinion. In Ireland - as elsewhere, including, of course, Britain - many thousands march every week demanding that the government condemn the US for arming and backing the murderous Israeli state. Polls show 71% believing that Palestinians live under an apartheid system, and 79% say Israel is guilty of genocide.

Varadkar refused to boycott the White House St Patrick’s Day shindig, promising instead to make a difference by raising the “concerns of the Irish people on the shocking crisis in Gaza”. And it is true that in his fawning speech to the assembled throng he did plead for a ceasefire. He also called for Israel to desist from entering Rafah. In other words he tamely echoed current US policy statements, which create a little bit of distance that might allow Biden to escape charges that he is complicit in genocide. What he did not do, what he could not do was to call upon Biden to stop arming Israel. As he admitted in a later press briefing, the president had made it crystal-clear to him that there would be no halt to the export of weapons.

Indeed coinciding with his Washington visit, the US announced its latest batch of arms deliveries: more than 1,800 MK84 2,000lb bombs and 500 MK82 500lb bombs, as well as 25 F35A stealth jets. The 2,000lb bombs, are, of course, bunker busters which have caused mass casualties in Gaza.

Varadkar chastised those like former Irish president, now professional peace monger, Mary Robinson, who had insisted he make a demand for an arms halt. Apparently, she needs “to spend a bit more time reading foreign policy”. Yet it was Varadkar himself who claimed that the Irish government could have an impact in US policy. But St Patrick’s Day is an opportunity for Biden to parade his Irish heritage and keep Irish Americans on side for the forthcoming presidential run off with Donald Trump. The notion that Biden really gives a damn about the views of Ireland’s Taoiseach shows an elementary failure to grasp basic global geopolitical realities.

Back home, the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil government was badly damaged by the decisive defeat of its two-part referendum on the family and the place of women within the constitution, cynically held on March 8. The first part of the proposal was to widen the definition of ‘family’ to relationships outside marriage. In my view this lost mainly because of the unpopularity of the linked second proposal, which was to remove the woman as the mainstay within the home, while continuing to place all responsibility for care on the family as a whole. The entire family would give “to society a support without which a common good cannot be achieved” and which the state would “strive” to support.

So ‘modernisation’ of the constitution would bring no benefits - only additional burdens. Carers’ organisations and campaigners for disabled rights protested at this indignity and stated they would call for a ‘no’ vote to the second part of the referendum. Indeed the Socialist Party in Ireland changed its position to a ‘yes, no’ vote after an initial ‘yes, yes’. Not so People Before Profit (PBP), which continued to support the proposals in their entirety despite dismissing the second part as a sop.

Left coalition

Even without the recent difficulties, the governing parties have been steadily slipping down the polls since the last election in 2020. Then FG won 20.9% of the vote, FF 22.2%. Sinn Féin won 24.5%, making it the largest party. But the two establishment parties refused to go into coalition with it.

PBP, which received 2.6% in coalition with Solidarity (Socialist Party in Ireland), proposed talks on a left government, and urged left-of-centre parties to get involved. Richard Boyd Barrett, its leading TD, berated the Labour Party for its reluctance to take up the challenge, stating that “to me it is a bit bizarre that, for the first time, there is actually a possibility of the leftwing government that people who would describe themselves as left have taken themselves off the pitch”. He insisted that “Sinn Féin and ourselves are serious about this. We also want to open up discussions with others on the left.”1

A statement on the PBP website on April 9 2020, confirmed that

Deputy Boyd Barrett urged all parties and independents of the left to renew their efforts to achieve a left government in Ireland and avoid repeating mistakes of the past by propping up an FG/FF government.2

Unsurprisingly, Boyd Barrett and the PBP failed in their attempts to put together a ‘left government’, and FF and FG went into coalition with the Green Party in June 2020.

I have written on a number of occasions about what a disaster a coalition led by SF would be for the Irish left. A SF-led government would be a bourgeois government. The Labour Party has participated in a whole series of governing coalitions and has proved itself to be a fierce enemy of our class. Urging such a party into a SF-led government as a junior partner is pure, unadulterated ministerialism. But only by adding such components does a SF-led government add up.

It is disturbing that Boyd Barrett - on behalf of the PBP - has shown such eagerness to become a government minister (what portfolio does he crave? Employment? Environment? Enterprise?). I have been told by PBP comrades that my claims are unfair, and that Boyd Barrett was probably only opening talks and not giving commitments. But, unless he was being misquoted by PBP itself, it is undeniable that he wanted his party to enter a coalition government with SF. Of course, it is true PBP wanted commitments, but it was also prepared to make compromises. And the key compromise was actually the willingness to enter a bourgeois government!

The year after the election, the group, Rise, led by Paul Murphy TD, formally joined PBP. Rise had emerged from a three-way split in the Irish section of the Committee for a Workers’ International in 2019 which also produced the current Socialist Party in Ireland, with its TD, Mick Barry. The entry of Rise into PBP has had a welcome effect in producing some open debate in Rise’s journal Rupture. Rise describes itself as Marxist, with a commitment to breaking the left from both reformism and sectarianism, and an emphasis on debate and democracy.

PBP itself has no journal, although there apparently has been some internal discussion around launching one. The Socialist Workers Network - PBP’s majority faction led jointly by Kieran Allen and Boyd Barrett - has an online website, Rebel News, which describes itself as the voice of “a revolutionary socialist organisation and component part of the 32-county socialist party, People before Profit”. It also has an occasional theoretical journal, Irish Marxist Review. You would be pushed to find any discussion in the SWN press, but Rupture at least provides a partial understanding of the internal differences.

SP and Rise

An interesting debate has happened between the Socialist Party in Ireland and Rise since 2022. Socialist Alternative, the theoretical journal of the SPI, published an article by Kevin McLoughlin on the attitude socialists should have to a “so-called left government” with Sinn Féin. To begin with, he argued that there was no guarantee of such a coalition:

even if Sinn Féin is the clear winner of the next election, it remains entirely possible, and perhaps most likely, that it would form a government with one or other of the traditional rightwing establishment parties - most likely Fianna Fáil.3

He went on to say that SF

has a very developed political position and worked-out strategic approach, which is rooted in two main beliefs. One is their desire for power, and their notion that they can achieve improvements based on their ability to run the Irish capitalist economy and state better than Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. The other is their conviction that a united Ireland would somehow magically transform the prospects of Irish capitalism and peoples’ living standards.

McLoughlin refers to the historical debates in the Socialist (Second) International and argues:

The basic approach of socialists to capitalist governments has been clearly established ever since the debates in the Socialist International at the turn of the 20th century, when the revolutionaries, including James Connolly, opposed Alexandre Millerand joining the French cabinet. Essentially, socialists should not support, join or sow illusions in capitalist governments: instead they should focus on building up the power of the working class movement and the socialist alternative.

He goes on to argue that PBP has a contradictory position; it recognises that an SF government would be a capitalist government, yet it continues to include it as the key component of its perspectives. McLoughlin asserts:

Socialists should not in effect talk up Sinn Féin. When those on the left describe Sinn Féin as being on the left or characterise a government Sinn Féin may lead as a ‘left government’, that serves to endorse Sinn Féin to working class people.

Unlike me, McLoughlin does not believe that PBP really intends to join an SF-led government. Instead he offers excuses:

Perhaps it is calculating that after an election it can enthusiastically engage in negotiations, safe in the knowledge that, by bringing out some demands that will not be met, it can justifiably withdraw from the process at some point without any damage.

But we both agree that PBP will come under enormous pressure to follow through on their pledge, even if they do not achieve their demands.


The second piece from Socialist Alternative is a review by Eddie McCabe of the PBP pamphlet, The case for a left government - getting rid of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which I have also reviewed.4 McCabe argues that the analysis it sets out “is not fully coherent, in large measure because of its contradictory, but on the whole mistaken, view of what Sinn Féin is and where it’s heading.” While PBP recognises how much to the right SF has shifted,

… it just seems unwilling to accept the full import of what this means for the prospect of a genuinely left government. And this refusal is a by-product of PBP’s more fundamental illusion that Sinn Féin is more radical than it really is, which is linked to its mistaken belief that nationalism is more progressive than it really is.

He continues:

Not only has Sinn Féin given no indication that it favours such a radical programme: it has explicitly and repeatedly explained that it is opposed to anything resembling such a radical programme. Yet PBP continues to speak of and argue for a left government led by Sinn Féin as if this wasn’t the case.

He refers to the commitment given in the pamphlet - which echoes the one given in 2020 - that

In the event of TDs being elected, we shall enter discussions with Sinn Féin to form a left government without the two rightwing parties. We know that many of their own base support this and Sinn Féin should come under pressure to keep their word.5

McCabe concludes that what is needed is:

a skilful engagement with those workers and young people looking towards Sinn Féin, with a view to shifting them further left, beyond Sinn Féin. [This] can be carried out effectively without the elaborate, ultimately misleading and counterproductive, tactical ploys PBP seems wedded to.

Aprille Scully and Diarmuid Flood responded to McCabe’s criticisms in an article in Rupture last month.6 They admit that SF has become increasingly rightwing: “They have dropped many of their more leftwing positions - no longer opposing juryless courts, Nato or the neoliberal framework of the EU, and courting everyone from IBEC [For Irish Business] to the British royal family.” I would add to that list its swing to the right on migration, with Mary-Lou McDonald promising to make deportations “more efficient”.

But - and this is key to Flood’s and Scully’s argument - “while this is clear to those of us on the socialist left, we need to recognise that it is not yet clear to the vast majority of workers and young people who are hopeful that change is coming.”

The two go on to discuss how the left should respond to the challenge of such illusions, rejecting the “sectarian” and the “opportunist” attitude. Instead we should adopt “an approach of harnessing creative illusions”:

… instead of these twin dangers, we argue the socialist left has a complicated task of trying to harness these illusions. To mobilise this hope into a movement, while also intervening with positive proposals and demands which highlight the growing gap between the aims of SF voters and the actual plans of the SF leadership.

Their campaign is “for a ‘left government’ committed to breaking with capitalism and supported by a mass movement for socialist change”. This would mean a programme that included “a fundamental restructuring of the housing system to end the rule of landlords and developers, complete separation of church and state, nationalisation of the banking and energy sector, and consistent anti-imperialism.” They warn that “any government implementing such a programme would face opposition and sabotage from big business and the capitalist state, and would need ‘people’s assemblies’ in workplaces and communities to organise resistance to this”. The “committees could become the basis for “a radical new form of democracy” with “a different constitution designed to advance the interest of working people”:

If elected, an SF government will be perceived as the ‘left alternative’ to FF and FG. We want to intervene as much as possible to demonstrate what a left government would look like and make it clear that SF walked away from this.

A recent poll has SF down to 27.2% but still out in front of the big governing parties, with FF on 18.1% and FG on 20.2% (PBP/Solidarity has also dropped - to 1.7%). SF has responded to the drop in the polls by moving still further to the right on immigration. It fears losing votes among working class people who resent economic migrants and asylum seekers who compete for jobs, housing, education, health and other scarce resources. The government is setting the agenda on this, though, with plans to pass legislation to ensure Ireland is no longer a ‘soft target’. So it is not just the far right that has stirred up xenophobia, but the main parties, including SF.

What we need

It is hard to credit the idea that there exists widespread expectations that SF is busily readying itself to form a ‘left government’ - for example, like Leo Varadkar, SF president, Mary Lou McDonald, also refused to boycott the White House. It is inconceivable that a party which desperately wants to get into government, will snub the US, with its 970 transnational companies operating here, employing 378,000 workers directly and indirectly. It is far more likely that SF will bend to the US agenda, not the other way around.

I agree with McLoughlin and McCabe that PBP is actually creating illusions in SF, rather than dispelling them. There most certainly are profound differences within PBP. One wing under Richard Boyd Barrett hopes, prays for, government posts under a SF Taoiseach. The other hopes, prays, that such a thing will never happen, SF will never accept PBP’s ‘red lines’.

But I do not agree with McCabe that you need to have a “careful approach” to SF. This is what the Iskra editorial board, criticising Karl Kautsky’s diplomacy in the Second International over Millerand joining a capitalist government, called a “rubber” formulation.7 It is designed to blur, soften, bend ‘red lines’.

Instead we should be hardening those ‘red lines’. We should be openly warning about the class nature of a putative SF-led government. We should also be stating openly, frankly, that even entertaining the idea of supporting such a government, let alone joining such a government, is a betrayal of elementary socialist and working class principles.

  1. www.rte.ie/news/politics/2020/0228/1118198-boyd-barrett-labour.↩︎

  2. www.pbp.ie/left-government-needed-not-a-return-of-fg-ff.↩︎

  3. www.socialistparty.ie/2022/12/socialists-a-sinn-fein-government.↩︎

  4. McCabe’s review can be found at www.socialistparty.ie/2023/08/sinn-fein-pbp-and-the-question-of-a-left-government-in-ireland. See also my article, ‘Chasing after cabinet seats’ Weekly Worker April 24 2023: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1440/chasing-after-cabinet-seats.↩︎

  5. 5www.pbp.ie/product/the-case-for-a-left-government-getting-rid-of-fianna-fail-and-fine-gael.↩︎

  6. rupture.ie/articles/debating-left-government.↩︎

  7. B Lewis ‘A forgotten strategist’ Weekly Worker June 8 2017: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1158/a-forgotten-strategist.↩︎