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Sinn Féin seek new alliance of the Irish left

Tom Griffin
23 February 2009

Tom Griffin (Dublin, OK): Gerry Adams called for a new alignment in Irish politics at the weekend, in a move which underlined how the impact of the credit crisis is changing the political landscape in the Republic.

Speaking at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis (party conference), Adams urged left parties to unite, and end the dominance of Ireland's two major centre-right parties.

In my view the Labour Party has a duty not to prop up either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Instead Labour should explore with us and others the potential for co-operation in the future.

I invite all these potential allies to come together to forge a stronger, more united progressive and democratic movement for our country - one that aims to meet the needs of all citizens.

That call represents a major shift since the 2007 election, when many observers saw a coalition with Fianna Fáil as the ultimate aim of Sinn Féin's own strategy. The party's poor performance at the polls put paid to that notion, and the credit crisis looks to have undermined it further. Adams' speech came on the same day that 120,000 people took to the streets of Dublin to protest against Government austerity measures.

The new position is also a tacit recognition that it is Labour, not Sinn Féin, which has so far been the main beneficiary of Fianna Fáil's unpopularity. The talk of a duty not to prop up Fianna Fáil will sound disingenous to many in the Labour Party, but for Sinn Féin it is a logical response to the emerging political situation, which will be popular with the party's own grassroots.

Party members who were never happy with the notion of entering Government with Fianna Fáil have been emboldened by the credit crisis. The new mood has been powerfully articulated in a book by Sinn Féin activist Eoin Ó Broin, launched last week.

In Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism, Ó Broin suggests that the party's stance on coalition contributed to its failure in 2007. 

Faced with a choice between Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, the electorate chose the devil they knew, despite widespread reservations.

However, the dramatic deterioration of the economy since that election has created a new space in southern Irish society.It is now possible to advance and secure support for for a radical critique of the Celtic Tiger, not on the basis of mitigating its inequalities with better management, but by seeking to replace it with a new model of economic development that would seek to address its structural inequalities, vulnerabilities and unsustainable consequences.

There was some evidence of that debate on the floor of the conference, with one delegate suggesting that Sinn Féin's support for last autumn's banking bailout in the Republic represented a failure to challenge the neo-liberal consensus.

Other signs suggested that the internal argument is being resolved in favour of the left. Adams lambasted critics who had dubbed the party 'economic illiterates' in 2007, because of policies of nationalisation and higher taxation which are now increasingly mainstream.

The party has begun to address other criticisms, that it is too northern-focused, and that its economic policies lack substance. The young high-profile Dublin MEP Mary Lou McDonald has been installed as vice-president, and the party has developed an effective line on the unrealised scope for a fairer distribution of the burden of spending cuts.

These moves may yet pay dividends, but the immediate outlook looks challenging. Constituency changes could cost McDonald her seat in the European Parliament. The party also faces the prospect of fighting another referendum campaign against the Lisbon Treaty, at a time when the Irish people will be much more reluctant to antagonise Brussels than they were last June.

One point of significance for British observers was Adams' announcement that Sinn Féin will hold a conference in Britain next year. This is interesting in part because the overall tone of the Ard Fheis was strikingly similar to the last month's Progressive London conference. Both events revealed a left conscious of the collapse of neo-liberalism, looking to build cross-party alliances, but not yet confident that it has done the intellectual spadework to confront the challenges and opportunities presented by the crisis.

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