Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald (Image: AP/Niall Carson)

Go the Shinners!

At a time of fresh demoralisation and disarray for the left — to replace the last bout of demoralisation and disarray — there is a bit of good news with the victory in the Irish election of (*checks notes*) the former political wing of an urban guerilla/terrorist group.

Yes, in the Republic of Ireland election, Sinn Féin (“We Ourselves”) edged ahead of major parties Fianna Fáil (“right-wing pricks” — actually “Soldiers of Destiny”) and Fine Gael (“right wing pricks” — actually “Tribe of The Irish”) in the overall vote, with 24.5% to their rivals’ 22% and 20%.

The Shinners had been on track to do well over the last weeks, but no one thought they would come out on top. Least of all the Shinners, who fielded only 42 candidates in the 39, multi-member (three to five each) constituencies, and have thus ended up with 37 seats to Fianna Fáil’s 38. 

That’s pretty extraordinary really. You’d think a party whose military wing spent 30 years setting timed bombs would know how to count.

That creates a primo constitutional fandango. Sinn Féin has the legitimacy of plurality, but Fianna Fáil the numbers — both narrowly. Who gets first go at forming government? 

Sinn Féin may not want it anyway. The vote-split makes building an 80+ seat coalition a nightmare. Of the minor parties, the Greens have 11 seats, Labour six, breakaway Social Democrats five, the Marxist Solidarity-People Before Profit five, and there will be at least 19 independents.

Even a five-party left coalition led by Sinn Féin with all the minors falls at least 10 seats short. The independents are a wild and whacky bunch, right across the spectrum. 

Sinn Féin’s leadership would want to be in the strongest possible coalition, which would be a hook up with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael-Greens, with either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil forming the opposition.

In the transactional politics of Ireland, that’s possible. Fáil and Gael have been the only two parties to lead government for nearly a century. People say they’re both centre-right, but there’s differences: Fianna Fáil is socially conservative and corporatist, stitching up deals with different social groups.

Fine Gael is a modernising party: social market/left neoliberal, socially progressive, as exemplified by their gay, Indian-descended, technocratic leader Leo Varadkar. (It’s not so different from our Coalition v Labor set up, actually).

Politically, Fine Gael is a better fit with Sinn Féin, which is probably why it has refused to entertain the possibility of such a coalition (“Sorry, no, its heritage of violence, dirty hands, etc. Couldn’t possibly consider… at least till next Tuesday”).

Fianna Fáil is more amenable, and could hook up a loose coalition on the basis of shared nationalist sentiment etc, but that would dismay many of Sinn Féin’s new, young supporters who were attracted to the party’s left campaign on housing, social services, wage exploitation and so on.

That is a dilemma for Sinn Féin, since its purpose is a reunification of Ireland (as a socialist republic).

This version of the party emerged from the Provisional IRA in 1970 (provisional because it replaced the official IRA, whose Marxist leadership had refused to undertake armed defence of besieged Catholic neighbourhoods in Belfast and Derry).

Influenced by Vietnam, Che and Marighella, the Provos thought a quick, brutal two- or three-year armed struggle would get the Brits out, with Sinn Féin used as a legal front for pressers, etc.

By the late 1970s, Gerry Adams and other members of the Prov… uh, of Sinn Féin, had decided on a dual political/military strategy and, by the ’90s, on politics alone.

The project was to turn Sinn Féin into a “social-nationalist” party, becoming full representatives of the poor and workers on both sides of the border, rise to political dominance in Stormont and the Dáil, and thus make a dual reunification vote reappear as a necessary consequence of their electoral success.

And by god, with a bit of help from Brexit (and a lot of reading Gramsci in prison in the ’70s), they’ve bloody gone and got there.

With Sinn Féin having replaced the non-abstentionist Social Democratic and Labour Party as the Catholic party in Stormont, and now that it’s the plurality choice in the Dáil, refusal of a both-sides-of-border reunification vote now becomes, what — a piece of active imperialist resistance to democracy, residual colonialism, British bastardry exposed?

But, on the flip side, for a new generation in a globalised era it also becomes, simply, obvious and efficient. Suddenly it becomes: of course there shouldn’t be a border cutting through an island because of a series of forgotten British military imperatives.

Brexit would be enough to have Sinn Féin’s cultural Catholic leadership believing in actual God. For now, for the first time, there will be a chunk of the UK Conservative and Unionist party in favour of losing Northern Ireland, for the simple reason that reunification removes most of the problems between the EU and the UK over customs deals and border security.

With one stroke, the UK is Great Britain again, and can control trade and entry through its ports. As an added bonus, it will fuck up the DUP, and how they must be longing to do that!

One doubts that Boris’ Svengali Dominic Cummins is a staunch unionist, and his policy director is Munira Mirza, an ex-Revolutionary Communist Party (i.e. Spiked) member, a group so committed to the republican struggle that they backed the IRA’s mainland bombing campaign in the 1980s.

The IRA actually mortar-bombed Number 10 in the 1990s. It’s a funny old world, to be sure. 

Still, it won’t be an easy road to reunification, and the prospects of Sinn Féin being ambushed are high (the ironies just keep on coming). Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael really want reunification; they, especially Fianna Fáil, have run the republic as a crony fiefdom for decades.

They could try and combine in a grand coalition, but they would fall short of a majority; Sinn Féin and four minors would combine for a new election, and that would be the end of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, one would reckon.

They know that the Shinner surge occurred at the collapse of the old political settlement. To a degree, Sinn Féin are the fortunate beneficiaries of that collapse. But in the old Boston Irish saying, they were willing to be lucky, and prepared for the moment when it came.

And crucial to their victory was an underlying nationalism, which was, at the same time, progressive in form, thus removing the contradictions between the two positions.

It’s another message to the left: success will be found in an understanding of the deep need for community that a progressive nationalism can provide. A genuine, concrete one, not a pissy “progressive patriotism”, empty progressivism by other means, hack ex-student pollies taking the pledge like a bunch of toggled-up flabby scout leaders.

Not easy, but a lot easier than throwing off the Brits and starting the unravelling of the British empire in 1916.

And so, for all the troubles ahead, and the darker Troubles behind, I say go the Shinners!

Forming some sort of government now becomes imperative. Clock’s ticking. 

Peter Fray

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