Ireland Tug of war for mantle of respectable republicanism

The south of Ireland is experiencing a renaissance in constitutional nationalism, says Anne Mc Shane

Following in the well-trodden footsteps of the heroes of the civil war, of those who fought in the 1916 Easter Rising, Gerry Adams and the Sinn Féin leadership are rapidly transforming themselves into a successful mainstream bourgeois party. Irish historical experience has illustrated plainly how, in the absence of an independent working class alternative, the revolutionary struggle for national self-determination will inevitably reach an impasse. Now, as in the 1920s and 30s, it has resulted in the creation of yet another generation of bourgeois politicians. And although Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are convinced that they are a new and radical phenomenon, in reality history is repeating itself. Looking back at previous government leaders provides an interesting insight into how once revolutionary republicans made the transition and became often deeply reactionary bourgeois politicians. Eamon de Valera is a good case in point. He began his political life as a progressive. A member of the Irish Volunteers, he played a leading role in the 1916 rising and narrowly escaped death by a British firing squad. He was a Sinn Féin candidate in the 1918 all-Ireland elections. He then went on to oppose the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty which divided Ireland, and fought in the civil war. With the division of Ireland, however, de Valera founded Fianna Fáil and was to spend 27 years in government either as taoiseach (prime minister) or president. He became the antithesis of all that he had stood for as a volunteer. The 1916 Proclamation of Ireland declared for a republic that would guarantee "religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens". In power de Valera personified and built one of the most backward-looking and repressive states in Europe at the time - a priest-ridden society. As Connolly had predicted, a carnival of reaction was created north and south. Another comrade in arms, Sean Lemas, also fought on the barricades in 1916. He too went on to fight in the 1921 civil war against the imperialist division of Ireland. Following the success of the British-backed pro-partition forces, he joined de Valera in founding Fianna Fáil and worked alongside him in solidifying the governing party and the free state itself. He succeeded de Valera as taoiseach in 1959 when the latter went on to become president. Both men represented a kind of republican dynasty. A governing elite. Theirs was a protectionist, catholic Ireland, where the working class was forced to put up or leave - as they did in their droves. Today Fianna Fáil is still the main party of government, and a deeply unpopular one. The Celtic tiger has not produced wealth and well-being for all its citizens. The already puny health service has been run down and the majority of working class people are finding the soaring cost of living impossible to cope with. 'Rip-off Ireland' is a major problem even for the middle classes, who initially benefited from the boom in the Irish economy. Meanwhile the government awards itself huge salaries - the most recent hike in July bringing taoiseach Bertie Ahern's take-home pay to €253,000, with the rest of his ministers not far behind. On top of that there are the ever-recurring corruption scandals involving Fianna Fáil ministers and their friends. Inquiry after inquiry is ordered into large amounts of money changing hands in extremely dubious circumstances. And Fianna Fáil is no stranger to sleaze. Former leaders Charles Haughey and Albert Reynolds were notorious for their grubby wheeling and dealing. Despite this, the lack of any effective opposition has assured it almost permanent governance in recent years. But, unable to win an absolute majority, it has had to rely on coalitions with smaller parties. Previously, this had not caused the leadership any real problems. But now, with Sinn Féin on the rise, there is disquiet in the ranks. SF now has five TDs (MPs) and almost 140 councillors in the south. It is predicted that the number of TDs will rise to at least 15 following the next general election, expected in 2007. Gerry Adams has made it clear that his ambition is to see his party in power in the north and south. He berates Fianna Fáil for selling out on its previous commitment to a united Ireland and claims that the Sinn Féin of today is the only genuine successor to that originally formed in 1895. In his speech to the SF ard fheis (conference) earlier this year, he argued that the "freedom won by those who gave their lives in 1916 and in other periods has been squandered by those who attained political power on their backs" (www.sinnfein.ie). Sinn Féin claims that it stands for an "Ireland of equals" and attacks the government from the left on social questions. Unlike Fianna Fáil it claims to be continuing its struggle against British imperialism. And it remains, unlike Fianna Fáil, an all-Ireland party. All of this has been too much for Ahern. In his speech last week to his own party's ard fheis he pledged to re-introduce a military parade to mark Easter 1916. He declared that the "Irish people need to reclaim the spirit of 1916, which is not the property of those who have abused and debased the title of republicanism" (Irish Times October 22). He is determined that the annual commemoration should no longer be "hijacked by the IRA and Sinn Féin" (ibid). An annual military demonstration was held until 1970, when the Irish government ditched it, as 'the troubles' erupted in the north. Obviously they wanted no connection with the actual living armed struggle for self-determination. Now with the 'arms taken out of Irish politics' and the shadow of Sinn Féin looming, donning the mantle of republicanism is considered not only safe, but highly desirable. In the intervening period, the Easter 1916 commemoration took on a new, far more militant meaning - a symbol of solidarity with the struggle in the north. Ceremonies in the south were led by the armed, outlawed republican movement. Men and women marched in balaclavas and dark glasses. Republicans saw it as an important date to restate their commitment to the armed struggle. The resistance of Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers and the bravery of the working class republican movement in the north was venerated. Now, with the decommissioning of IRA weapons, things seem very different. With Sinn Féin painting itself as the only party from the republican tradition that still fights for a united Ireland, the tug of war over respectable republicanism is set to take shape over the next years. SF has a distinct advantage over the government despite the Ulster Bank theft scandal and the killing of Robert McCartney. Compared to the present incumbents, Adams and McGuinness seem like honest and trustworthy politicians. They are a clean pair of hands. But what has all of this to do with the working class? Sinn Féin is clearly not a working class party, although it has support in many working class areas in the south. And, of course, it supports the existing institutions of the state. It wants more equality and fairness, but so apparently does Bertie Ahern. Once in a position of real power SF is bound to behave just like those it now opposes - that is the logic of capitalism. The only really radical thing about Sinn Féin is its history - it once stood for the armed struggle against British imperialism. It is all very well to criticise the Sinn Féin leadership for selling out. But at the end of the day we cannot expect anything more of nationalists, no matter how democratic their demands. However, we are not nationalists - our struggle is for the unity of the working class, not the unity of a nation. Yet unity around trade union questions - as proposed by most of the economistic left - can only be fleeting and illusory. It is only on the basis of resolving the national question that genuine working class unity can be achieved. That is why we must strive to bring together republican and unionist workers around a democratic, working class programme that aims to reassure both catholic-Irish and British-Irish that neither will suffer oppression based on nationality in a future Ireland. That means a united, federal Ireland, in which the British-Irish minority has the right to self-determination in a one-county, four-half-county province.