No sellout on self-determination

Left criticism of Sinn Féin is too one-sided, contends Sean MacGabhain

The discussion carried in the Weekly Worker on Sinn Féin and the Irish peace process is reminiscent of those that have been going on in the British left since the 1970s. The nature of self-determination and its implication for Ireland have featured as part of the discussion. Liam O Ruairc and Philip Ferguson have also commented on what they see as the rightward drift of Sinn Féin. As the discussion in Britain is driven by action in Ireland, I would like to take up some of their observations and include some thoughts on self-determination. Liam O Ruairc has not demonstrated that Sinn Féin accepts a unionist veto on Irish unity - a denial of the Irish right to self-determination. The quotations he cites are clear about the exercise of self-determination being a matter of agreement by the Irish people themselves, without the exercise of British sovereignty. That does not admit of a right of Britain to rule Ireland and it does not concede that the Good Friday agreement or the separate referenda which endorsed it were an exercise of self-determination. What it does admit is the reality that unionists in the north of Ireland constitute a defined minority (leaving aside the question as to whether they are a 'national' minority) and that an autonomous state in Ireland requires agreement as to the form and shape of political structures. These will take into account the continued existence of a considerable body of people who may claim a collective 'British' identity, even in the absence of British sovereignty. Despite the absence of logic in this claim (even the name of the state, 'the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland', denies the 'Britishness' of NI), a demand to recognise its existence should be respected. The British state agrees that the Irish people as a whole (which includes the population of the Six Counties) have a right of self-determination and concede a right of one part of the UK, the Six Counties of Northern Ireland, to secede - but only on the basis that Northern Ireland forms part of a united Ireland. The Six Counties itself does not have a right of self-determination - quite properly so. Britain conceded these formulas in order to provide a framework for the 1994 IRA ceasefire. The Irish government conceded that the exercise of the right of self-determination in Ireland could only be triggered by agreement of a majority in the Six Counties to leave the UK - a clear contradiction in terms, since it concedes the right of a foreign power to exercise sovereignty in Ireland. The Dublin government attempted to claim that the separate Good Friday referenda were an exercise in self-determination - another exercise in sophistry. The above may seem unnecessarily formulaic. However, it can form the basis of an analysis of what has transpired since the IRA cessation of 1994. Unionism in the north of Ireland has been given a veto by the British state over a change in the status of Northern Ireland, for as long as it remains a majority. But unionism does not have a right to rule as a majority, because that rule is institutionally sectarian. That reality, and a bevy of equality and other legislation, is a gain of the nationalist uprising since 1968, one that is unlikely to be reversed without mass revolt. It is a denial of unionism's right to rule according to the norms of bourgeois democracy. This can be defended given the record of the Six Counties state and the fact that it was set up as a purely sectarian bulwark that became a byword for discrimination. It was also set up to divide republican forces and to thwart the exercise of independence and democracy in Ireland. Breaking sectarian rule is inherently destabilising of the Six Counties state. The fanaticising of sections of the unionist population, including large sections of the working class, is dependent on the ability to impose sectarian rule. The imposition of governmental structures that include republicans undermines unionist hegemony and, together with the use of cross-border structures, can cause a break-up in the unionist all-class alliance and its monolithic political structures. That is why former Unionist Party leader James Molyneux correctly saw the agreement as a bigger threat to the union than the IRA campaign, and why he has effectively switched to support for Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party. However, the British government conceded on the form of power-sharing in the north, but not its substance. Unionism, in the form of David Trimble's Unionist Party, was given an offer it could not refuse, and was effectively forced to sign the Good Friday agreement. But unionism has been free to frustrate the agreement ever since, by refusing to become part of the governmental structures. The two governments have acquiesced in this for their own reasons. Britain, despite appearances to the contrary, maintains a capacity and a willingness to pursue imperialist interests in Ireland by keeping it divided. The southern government is determined to maintain the stability of the Republic of Ireland 26-county state at all costs - again despite appearances to the contrary. They require stability in the Six Counties, which entails reluctance to confront the sectarian refusal of unionism to share power with republicans (in fact with the majority of nationalists). Dublin does not relish a break-up of the Six Counties state as a result of the operation of the Good Friday agreement. Hence the ideological onslaught on republicanism over the past period, that has included the main political parties and the media, and that plays down the establishment of a unionist realignment based on the ability to successfully say 'no' to reform. The clear way out of the impasse is pursuit of the logic of the end of majority rule by extending power-sharing to all local government structures initially and a threat to legislate for all-Ireland economic integration if unionist refusal continues. That has not happened. Instead Sinn Féin has faced an onslaught reminiscent of the worst days of bourgeois propaganda during the period of armed struggle. Everything has been done to shift the public gaze away from the successful reassertion of sectarian policy and its toleration and encouragement by the two governments. If Sinn Féin was playing the role of integration into the bourgeois order in Ireland, this would not be happening. Again, it may be asked, what is the relevance of this description of political events to the contributions of Ferguson and O Ruairc? It is because they start their analysis with their disappointment with Sinn Féin and seek to blame Sinn Féin for the political impasse in Ireland. It is a mirror image of the rightwing critique, though from a leftwing and republican angle. The sentiments are genuine, but they are one-sided. Sinn Féin has almost complete political hegemony over the nationalist working class, despite continuing and strenuous efforts by imperialism and its allies. Leftwing detractors make the mistake of focusing on Sinn Féin rather than on imperialism. In fact some 'republican' commentators have entered into a de facto alliance with the pro-imperialist media in order to try to undermine the ideological dominance of Sinn Féin. I do not include either O Ruairc or Ferguson in that. However, they provide no independent political trajectory that can both defend the rights of Sinn Féin against imperialist onslaught and propose initiatives that move beyond the current impasse. Many on the left are minor but 'critical' cheerleaders of the right when it comes to criticism of Sinn Féin - I include the Irish Socialist Workers Party in this. But they are not the only ones. Many left republicans seem destined to a life of commentary or sectarian political harangue, which seems to doom them to political insignificance, interspersed with momentary promotion by media outlets (in need of an extra dimension to a staple diet of anti-Sinn Féin propaganda). Again, I exclude O Ruairc and Ferguson from this observation. Ferguson recognises some objective factors affecting Sinn Féin's political evolution, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union both materially and ideologically. That event had a pretty big worldwide impact. What he fails to integrate is a balance sheet that might see that his leftwing trajectory for Sinn Féin was formulaic. He is in danger of reducing the causes of his political disappointment to the machinations of Machiavellian forces. Defeat in politics depends not only on the strengths of the victor, but also the weaknesses of the loser, and objective circumstances. A capacity to always see the glass as half empty is also a perennial problem on the left. The opportunities for political intervention in Ireland are open on a number of fronts, as long as militants stop seeing Sinn Féin as the enemy. Political opponents they may be, but not an organisation on the wrong side of the divide. Leftwing republicans should actively and enthusiastically call for a vote for Sinn Féin, where they feel unable to mount a credible challenge of their own. A critique of Sinn Féin would have more chance of success if it was based on an understanding of the role played by the organisation in pushing the struggle forward. Sinn Féin will stop being able to do that if it is successfully marginalised and isolated. Is that what the leftwing critics want or are they so drawn by the trajectory of revolutionary despair that they are effectively politically paralysed? There appears to be an atmosphere of anticipated Schadenfreude if Sinn Féin is defeated by the combined onslaught of Dublin and London. Is there a pipe dream that they can step into the vacuum? However, if Sinn Féin can be influenced by the considerable apparatus of imperialism to accept reform, then why not also by a popular mobilisation from the base to stand firm? Because there is no effective counterweight within the nationalist community. The problem is that 'left' republicans appear to be affected by a collective fit of pique that results in hectoring observations about tactical 'stupidity' from political actors so isolated by their abstention from politics that criticism is dispensed in the form of middle class disdain. Instead, tactical alliances should be made with Sinn Féin in opposition to the attacks on nationalist rights. The first should be in opposition to the refusal to operate the governmental arrangements under the Good Friday agreement. It should include an ideological onslaught on unionism and imperialism in every sector of society that seeks to draw out anti-sectarian elements from within the protestant population and to expose the sectarian nature of unionist politics. The attacks on Sinn Féin's and the nationalist population's democratic mandate in the form of financial penalties or a refusal to start up the governmental structures should be denounced as attacks on basic democratic rights. The basis for making leftwing republicanism a poll of attraction is by starting with a defence of democratic rights. After all, that is the basis of the national question - an assertion of the democratic right of the Irish people as a whole to unity and independence. Making leftwing politics relevant means demonstrating that working class action is the best defence of the rights of the oppressed - in this case the rights of the Irish people to self-determination. The pipe dream of resuming 'armed struggle' in the current context is, I am assuming, excluded. An understanding that the 26-county state represents a partial victory as well as partial defeat of the attempt to free Ireland is, to some extent, also assumed. The achievements of part of the Irish people, albeit within the confines of bourgeois democracy and through a rejection of ideological control by Roman catholic social teaching, represents a proof of the correctness of the demand for separation from Britain. In other words, it is not necessary to go back to the drawing board and reinvent the socialist or anti-imperialist wheel in Ireland. Such an approach as I have sketchily outlined has the capacity to build political experience and to develop a broader anti-imperialist constituency in Ireland. It would also help to bring politics back to the grassroots. To embark on this path, the first thing that has to be recognised is that the politics of the Good Friday agreement can stabilise partition only if the agreement itself is neutered. The agreement is a gain for the anti-imperialist struggle. Political action can sustain it and can help expose contradictions inherent in British rule in the Six Counties. Political action is what is missing. Criticism can only go so far. In the end it becomes addictive and corrosive, when not combined with the test of political action