- Interview by
- Bhaskar Sunkara
The left-republican tradition has deep roots in Ireland, encompassing within it struggles against imperialism and those for democracy and social justice.
Its intellectual forefathers were the United Irishmen who, inspired by the French Revolution, led a 1798 uprising. They understood that the elite layers of Irish society, whose interests aligned with those of the British, would not be friends of the republican movement. Wolfe Tone, one of the United Irishmen’s founding members, said that “If the men of property will not help us they must fall; we will free ourselves by the aid of that large and respectable class of the community — the men of no property.”
The next upsurge in left republicanism occurred with the Fenians, who in 1858 organized the Irish Republican Brotherhood and advocated a militant route to independence. Their exiled leader James Stephens was a member of Karl Marx’s First International and proclaimed that “The only countries I recognize over the earth are Toil and Privilege; the one of these I shall struggle for, the other against, with all the faculties of my being.”
The rise of Marxism changed left-wing politics, grounding it in a more materialist analysis. In Ireland this was embodied by James Connolly, whose theoretical work remains the standard-bearer of progressive thought on the island.
But left republicanism refers to a much broader milieu than Connolly’s revolutionary socialism, exemplified by the work of Liam Mellows and others. Mellows, a commander in Connacht during the 1916 Easter Rising and Irish Republican Army director of supplies during the 1919–1921 War of Independence, became a key figure during the civil war that followed as a progressive opponent of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which established the Irish Free State in the South while maintaining Northern Ireland as a British statelet.
Mellows was primarily a republican but had a deep affinity to popular causes and, seeing that the “stake in the country people,” much like Wolfe Tone’s men of property, were supporting the Treaty, he encouraged his comrades to adopt the program of the Communist Party and fight for a “people’s republic.” Unfortunately Mellows, like Connolly, was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Jail before he could bring this vision to fruition. In his case, the killing was ordered by the pro-Treaty Free State army.
But left republicanism cropped up throughout the twentieth century in various guises, from the Republican Congress to the 1940s political party Clann na Poblachta and, in the 1960s, informing the split in Sinn Féin that produced the Workers’ Party.
Today one of its most prominent exponents is leading Sinn Féin intellectual Eoin Ó Broin, who was elected as Dublin Mid-West’s member of parliament in February’s general election. Soon after, he spoke to Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara about the history of the Left in Ireland, the recent rise of Sinn Féin, and the prospects for left-republican politics in the twenty-first century.
In the United States our question has always been, “Why is there no labor party here?” In Ireland the question seems to be, “Why is the Labour Party so unrepresentative of the interests of Irish workers?”
Historically the key issue is that the working class was divided between a number of political positions. In the North it was divided between unionists and nationalists, in the South it was divided between left republicans and more traditional social democrats and radical socialists.
Those divisions have remained pretty much until the modern day. The Irish Labour Party in the south of Ireland, which is nominally social democratic but really since the seventies and eighties has been much more liberal democratic, has hovered around 10 to 15 percent of the vote.
Then we’ve had a variety of left-republican political parties — the most recent manifestations of that combine a political platform of democratic socialism with challenging partition and calling for national democracy on the island. We’ve also, especially recently, had smaller revolutionary socialist parties and other groups.
Sinn Féin has emerged in the south of Ireland as the largest political party on the left of the spectrum, to the left of social democracy. A significant portion of the Labour Party’s working-class vote has transferred to Sinn Féin over the last five or six years. It is also important to note that historically Fianna Fáil — which is a center-right party but with a populist appeal, not unlike, for example, Mexico’s National Action Party or Pasok in Greece — always had a strong working-class voter base and a relationship with organized labor.
Again, in the last decade Sinn Fein has been successful in drawing a lot of working-class support away from Fianna Fáil and to our political project. The really interesting thing about the latest election is not that Sinn Féin did well, but that the combined electoral support for the center-right parties — our two principal center-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael — is at its lowest point ever. Traditionally those parties would have polled, combined, somewhere in the region of 70 to 80 percent; this time they failed to make 50 percent. That is a cause for optimism.
How has the relationship between radical republicanism and the Left developed? Have tensions arisen between visions of class and nation in those debates?
The posing of class against nation in these debates usually comes from people arguing outside of the perspective of nations struggling against histories of imperialism and colonialism, trying to assert their self-determination. For those of us within the tradition of national liberation movements, there is less of a contradiction.
The left-republican tradition has been a strong organizational and ideological tradition throughout the course of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Sinn Féin is part of that tradition. This can be seen from our party’s constitution, to the campaigning activity on the ground, to the work that we do in political institutions where we have strength, whether it be the Northern Assembly or municipal councils. We put the politics of equality,redistribution of wealth, investment in universal public services and high-quality, secure, well-paid jobs at the heart of everything we do.
Sinn Féin is a party that wants to see a national and participatory democracy on the island of Ireland, for all people who were born here and have come to live here. We articulate a credible, radical program but talk in the language of everyday life and speak to the hopes and the aspirations of millions of people, where they are and where their families and communities are. But we also put forward progressive politics in international contexts. We don’t see a contradiction between the issues of class and nation.
In many postcolonial contexts, particularly in the Global South, left-wing parties see a need to support the domestic capitalist class because of the legacy of underdevelopment. Does Sinn Féin share this analysis?
The Southern Irish economy, particularly since the 1960s, has been increasingly liberalized. Government economic strategy has been focused primarily, sometimes exclusively, on attracting foreign direct investment at whatever costs, social and economic, to try to drive job growth.
While foreign direct investment is a big part of economic output, it is a relatively low part of the labor market in real terms. The vast majority of working people are employed in micro businesses. Sinn Féin are not against foreign direct investment, but what we want to see is a greater development of the indigenous capacity of the Irish economy. We want to see greater investment and an improvement in the quality of jobs. This would mean the benefits of Ireland’s economic recovery, which we are starting to see, would accrue to more than small, wealthy sectors of society.
At the same time, we’re also a party that firmly believes in the universal provision of public services, and therefore we would like to see a larger public sector. Obviously that means greater investment and more employment, whether it is in health, education, housing, childcare, or local government.
Ireland is unusual — on the one hand it is in the Global North, but on the other it is a peripheral state. Not just recently, in the European Union, but due to our imperial history we’ve been a periphery of Great Britain for a long time. So we share some of the characteristics of less-developed countries. Sinn Féin reflects this — the intellectual and political traditions that we draw on are from both of these contexts.
Is there much talk of exit from the eurozone on the Irish left?
For a peripheral economy like Ireland joining the eurozone was a terrible idea. But once you’re in it, the costs associated with leaving are enormous. So while Sinn Féin has no illusions about the structural deficiencies of the currency and the way it drove boom-and-bust, particularly in the peripheral eurozone member states, we don’t favor leaving.
When you have such a high level of private, public, and corporate debt, exiting the single currency would create a severe shock. I side with folks who didn’t like the euro to begin with but don’t advocate leaving. I have yet to hear a coherent argument for exiting the eurozone at this moment.
In its absence we are left with a strategy of mitigating the worst of the common currency from within its institutional and financial framework. What you can achieve in government is in part determined by where you’re situated in the global economy and the allies and strength of the forces you have on your side.
There are some people who say that the eurozone is simply not reformable; neoliberalism is embedded in its DNA. But a lot of what happens within it is determined by the balance of political forces in the European council and commission, which are decided by elections. If we can get more left-of-center governments elected across Europe that will actually reject neoliberalism, as opposed to the many who haven’t, we can start to fix that balance.
I’m not naïve, I don’t think you can do that overnight, and I don’t think you can do it without enormous resistance — from the center-right but also from big business and the financial interests — which have driven much of the design and function of the eurozone.
What could Sinn Féin do if they won power, given the lessons of the Syriza experience?
Events in Greece are a timely reminder of the challenges we face. This was the first radical left-wing government to take power in a European member state since the Second World War. Any previous reforming left-wing governments that have won, whether it was the Labour Party in Britain in the 1970s, François Mitterrand in the 1980s, or Massimo D’Alema in Italy in the 1990s, were led by the center-left or the liberal left. Syriza was the first radical left party to lead one.
It showed us that, from a tactical and strategic point of view, we have to think carefully not only about how to acquire state power but what do we do with it once we have it. Because the imperative for capital and for the governments across Europe was to crush them.
Go back to the three previous examples I mentioned — Britain, France, and Italy. Once elected they were severely limited in their ability to implement their program. In fact, very few left-wing parties achieve much. The experience of the Left in Scandinavia is stronger. Not withstanding the recent shifts to the right, governments in Norway and Sweden did manage to make progress and we should learn from that.
To make it work in the European Union you have to build alliances with other like-minded parties, and hope they get into government across the EU. The biggest problem for Syriza is that they won too early. They were on the fringe and had no friends in the European Council. This is what ultimately led to them being crushed.
They are still there, hanging on by their fingernails and doing a lot of things that even people like me, who are supportive of them, find difficult and uncomfortable. But the landscape is shifting. There is a left-of-center government in Portugal, there could be a left-of-center government in Spain. In time we might be able to form a left-of-center government in Ireland. That way you can start to build a new position within the European Union, a line of division between pro- and anti-austerity governments. I think that would create a bit more room for maneuver.
But we have to be realistic. Ireland is a small, peripheral, and politically and economically weak part of that overall configuration. How much you could achieve would depend on this broader context, and any attempt to advance the interests of workers would take a tremendous amount of social power and a mobilized base.
Those Right2Water mobilizations got international attention. Is the power of the recent anti-austerity movements overstated? How have they translated to more durable working-class organization at the community level?
In the first few years after the crash the Left found it difficult to organize a resistance to austerity. Ireland’s economy took a substantial hit, which impacted wages and employment, then government cuts created an even harsher environment.
When this government brought forward its proposals to introduce a charge on domestic water many of us didn’t have huge expectations. We were happily surprised at the scale of the mobilizations. I think there are a few key reasons for this.
The first was the role of the trade unions that I’ve just outlined. They represented a lot of lower-paid workers. But they also created a nonparty political space to mobilize people, not just in opposition to this charge, but in opposition to this charge as the latest in a long line of very harsh austerity measures.
The second reason was that the water charge was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. It wasn’t that this charge was more egregious than the property tax, or cuts to social welfare payments, or cuts to disability payments, or reductions in public sector numbers. It was just the point when people said we can’t take anymore.
In the first big demonstration in eighteen months there were over a hundred thousand people demonstrating. That is huge in a small country. When people were being interviewed by the state broadcaster and asked why they were there, they were saying that this was just the final straw, they simply couldn’t take anymore, they had to make a stand. It was an anti-austerity movement, a movement against the economic consensus that has driven policy in Ireland and across the eurozone. In many ways it was also a movement against what we all suspected the end result of these charges would be — privatization.
Has it translated then into an increase in organizational and political capacity in working-class communities? This has been mixed. There have been some really vibrant community groups. They’re a little bit separate to us in the political parties often but many are supportive of them and engage with them. They have their own autonomy, which is a good thing. But in many other areas the movement probably hasn’t created a sustained organizational presence.
The hope is that those involved in the campaign can harness the disparate voices and forces that are there to say that collectively we have quite a lot of power. After the election that’s a momentum which many of us are hoping will continue.
Can you give a sense of the relative strength of Sinn Féin in terms of membership in both the North and South of the island? What is its relationship to the trade unions, particularly the rank-and-file?
Technically speaking Sinn Féin is the largest party on the island of Ireland. We receive the most votes. This is, in large part, because none of the other parties organize on both sides of the border. In a country of about six million people,we have a little over half a million voters North and South. Around 25 percent of the electorate in the North and 15 percent in the South vote for us at the moment.
We’re also an activist party. We see elections in a broader context of grassroots activism and movements. We probably have between four and five thousand activist members at the moment. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have large memberships in card-carrying terms, but the people who join our party are activists in their communities as well as other arenas.
As far as the relationship with the unions, the situation is different north and south. In the South, many of the shop stewards in the trade unions would have been members of the Labour Party until recently, but the members in the trade unions voted for Fianna Fáil. In the nineties the trade union movement was an active participant in social-partnership dialogue with the then Fianna Fáil–led government. Much as in Argentina or Mexico or Greece, the center-right populist party brought the trade union movement into a clientelist state regime.
The 2008 economic collapse changed that. Fianna Fáil declined and still hasn’t recovered. The more traditional trade unions were somewhat discredited and a number of traditionally smaller unions have become much more vocal and radical. Unite, a general purpose union; Mandate, for bar and retail workers; the Communications Workers Union; and some others were a key part of the Right2Water movement. For the most recent election they were the basis of the Right2Change coalition, which brought Sinn Féin into an electoral arrangement with People Before Profit and some left-wing independents.
This was an important initiative to say, “This is not about supporting a particular political party, it is about articulating a broader agenda for social economic transformation.” It also helped to bind some parts of the Left together.
We have a strong working relationship with SIPTU (Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union), the largest trade union, although their national executive supports the Labour Party and did in its latest period in government.
Would Sinn Féin join a coalition government as a junior partner, under certain circumstances?
It’s important to say, first of all, that almost all governments in this part of the world are coalition governments today. There is no prospect in the short- or medium-term future of majority party rule.
That means that anybody who wants to be in government, anybody who believes that the responsibility of the Left is to lead government, has to grapple with this issue of coalition. The Sinn Féin position from our last congress is that we will not enter a coalition as a junior partner with either of the center-right parties.
We want to lead a government. This is part of the reason Right2Change was important — because while Sinn Féin stood fifty candidates in the parliament elections in the South, to have a government you need to have seventy-nine members of parliament. There were over one hundred Right2Change candidates standing in this election. Then there were other left-leaning groups and independents outside this, such as the Social Democrats, largely disaffected members of the Labour Party who produced an impressive election manifesto.
Would it be possible to conceive of a coalition like this leading a government in the future? Yes, it would. Would it be exclusively left of center? Not at the moment because the numbers just aren’t there. The question then arises, if you have a majority left bloc with Sinn Féin and others, do you then go to non-left parties, stake out a program for government that you want to implement and invite them to participate? If they’re willing to sign up to very significant social and economic change, would you then consider bringing them into your coalition? Sinn Féin would explore that, and depending on the outcome, decide at a party congress. The key issue for me is what is in the policy platform. What is the social, economic, and political reform agenda.
But if this doesn’t work out, as it hasn’t in this election, then we will continue to lead the Left from the opposition benches, but with the explicit objective of being in government at a future point. Some parties on the Left set the bar far too high, in my opinion, ruling out any possibility of being in government. If you do that, you concede government to the Right.
We want to lead a progressive, left-of-center government. We have red lines in terms of tax, health, education, housing, childcare, job creation that would be the minimum acceptable standards for anybody else to join that government.