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Peter Hadden

Sinn Fein move to the right

(July 1983)

From Militant Irish Monthly, Issue 113, July/August 1983.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.

The election in Northern Ireland was a clear-cut victory for Toryism, with 15 of the 17 seats going to Unionist candidates. The SDLP, also a Tory party, got one seat while Sinn Fein, on the basis of a sectarian appeal, also got one.

Yet Northern Ireland is one area where the voice of socialism should have been loudly heard; it is the most poverty-stricken region represented at Westminster, suffering severely from four years of Thatcherism. There are twice as many people out of work as are employed in manufacturing industry.

Northern Ireland did not return seventeen socialists because, before and during the campaign, the official labour movement did not provide an alternative. For the first time in a Westminster election since its formation in 1924, the old Northern Ireland Labour Party did not even fight. Only in East Belfast was there a genuine Labour alternative – put up by the Labour and Trade Union Group. So, despite the anti-Thatcher, anti-Tory and also anti-sectarian mood of the working class the poll became a sectarian head count.

In the Catholic areas the election was a contest between Sinn Fein and the SDLP, which is now seen as a pro-establishment, middle-class party with little appeal to the working class and youth. Against it, Sinn Fein appeared as anti-establishment, anti-Thatcher, and anti-repression. On this basis; and above all because of the absence of any class alternative, it was partially able to tap the anti-Tory mood of workers and youth.

Rural areas

Sinn Fein also won support in rural areas previously supporting traditional right-wing Nationalist candidates. The blatantly sectarian Irish Independence Party has disappeared and its vote has crumbled into Sinn Fein.

As Tory Secretary of State, Jim Prior, commented after the Assembly election, Sinn Fein’s vote “was mainly a way in which people in Catholic areas could lift two fingers to the British government.”

However, this success was uneven. Almost 55,000, well over half, of the Sinn Fein vote came in a three of the 14 constituencies in which they stood, two in rural areas. In other majority Catholic areas of Derry, Armagh and South Down they finished a poor second to the SDLP in terms of the Catholic vote.

But no matter what the success in this or future elections, Sinn Fein represents a dead end for the workers and youth, appealing solely and deliberately to the Catholic community. In Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Owen Carron’s slogan was, “Save this nationalist seat”, appealing for Catholic votes as the nationalist candidate most likely to win. Overall, Sinn Fein campaigned, not as a socialist party, but as “the voice of principled leadership”.

They even presented class issues in a divisive, sectarian manner. Gerry Adams main election leaflet, under a heading, “The effects of British and Loyalist rule”, spoke of unemployment, housing and education but referred only to “Nationalist unemployment”, and “housing in the nationalist areas”. On education all it had to say was: “There is no provision for nationalist aspirations or culture (Gaelic games, language, history, dancing, music) but rather the imposition of British cultural and political values upon Irish children.”

All this in a constituency which, includes the slums of huge Protestant areas like the Shankill Road now with its own dole office, and which faces the closure of state schools due to Tory cuts!

Sinn Fein propaganda is now more distinctly nationalistic and sectarian than it was even at the Assembly elections. Within the Catholic community Sinn Fein and the SDLP seem embarked on a race to “out nationalist” each other. Those workers who voted and campaigned for Sinn Fein hoping to deal a blow at British Tory rule and to develop a movement for socialism will eventually be disappointed.

Even their votes bear this out. They got 100,000 votes but only one seat. Even if they win the majority of Catholic votes (not an immediate prospect), they can only hope to win one or two other seats. A strategy based on sectarian head counting means at least 11 of 17 Northern Ireland seats will remain in safe Tory Unionist hands. Sectarianism means permanent Tory rule.

The real majority in Northern Ireland is the working class. There can never be a successful struggle for socialis unless based on united movement of Catholic and Protestant workers. Outside of the fight for socialism in Ireland and Britain the problems of the border, repression and British rule can never be resolved.

In Protestant areas the real reasons for the vote are not clearly seen or it is interpreted as a vote for the IRA, providing political ammunition for the Paisleys and Powells. Although the vote was mainly an angry response to Tory rule, the Provisional IRA, will see it as vindicating their campaign.

Before the election their newspaper, Republican News (l2.5.83) said, “But one thing is clear. At the end of the day Britain will only listen to the pressure of armed force.” And again, “and that is why it is republican dogma that the armed struggle will continue and must continue until the guerrilla war achieves its end.”

This message was presented not only in newspaper articles but in the louder language of a stepped up bombing campaign during the election and since. This campaign can never succeed. No capitalist state can be overcome by these methods. In fact, such military activity can only bring further repression and misery on the heads of the Catholic community and further divide the working class.

As the dead-end methods of the Provisionals and the sectarian policies of Sinn Fein become clear, the present divisions and contradictions within this movement will become sharper. Already there are differences within the Provisional movement on the question of the turn to electoral politics, between North and South, urban and rural support, on the question of abstentionism and on other issues. Success has acted like a bandage in hiding these divisions, but this cannot last forever. Sinn Fein’s success should neither be overstated nor taken lightly by those struggling to create a genuine non-sectarian political movement. These votes plus the election result overall, must be used to remind trade union leaders of their responsibility to provide the working class with an alternative.

If a class movement can be developed all the contradictions and short-comings of Sinn Fein can be exposed. But if union leaders persist in refusing to build a socialist voice for their movement – in the form of a Labour Party, or if they are not forced to do so by the union rank and file, sectarianism will continue. A mighty class opposition to Toryism must be built in Northern Ireland over the next years.

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