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Peter Hadden

Why socialists must oppose Sinn Fein

(December 1983)

From Militant Irish Monthly, No. 114, December 1983.
Transcribed and marked up by Ciaran Crossey.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL). (March 2103)

Is Sinn Fein deserting its right-wing roots and moving to the left? The recent Ard Fheis has fuelled speculation that indeed this is the case.

For one thing there have been important changes in the leadership. After fourteen years as President, Rory O’Brady declined to stand again. His Vice-President, David O’ Connell, in senior office in Sinn Fein since 1971, also stood down. Gerry Adams was elected unopposed as President.

Another change was to the objects of the organisation which now stale that Sinn Fein is based on “Irish republican socialist principles in accordance with the Easter Proclamation of 1916 and the democratic programme of the first Dail in 1919” and not on “Christian Principles” as before.

But despite genuine illusions to the contrary held by many Sinn Fein supporters, at bottom very little has changed. It is true that the Ard Fheis brought to the surface serious divisions between the traditionalist old guard and the younger members grouped around Adams and the Northern leadership. 0’Brady and 0’Connell made it clear that their stepping down from the leadership was because their political views had become minority views. The differences between these wings were clearly seen in the debate on whether Sinn Fein should consider dropping its abstentionist policy. A motion from Galway advocated that the issue should not even be discussed, Rory 0’ Brady, speaking in this debate, argued that to discuss entering parliament in Britain or Ireland was “as alien as that the IRA would sit down and discuss surrender of arms.”

The conference defeated this motion and opened the way to future discussion on this question, but only by a narrow margin of 180 votes to 140.


This one issues shows the divisions which Sinn Fein electoral success has already opened up. The debate on abstentionism will further widen these divisions, particularly as the old guard remember that it was precisely on this issue that the organisation split into its Official and Provisional wings in 1969. On this and on other issues, such as the role of the armed struggle, sharp disagreements are now inevitable and splits are possible.

In words the new leadership is more ‘radical’, more ‘socialist’ than the old. In practice the conclusions which flow from the arguments of Adams are the same conclusions which flowed from O’Brady. Socialism can only be brought about in Ireland by the mass action of the working class. Capitalist reunification could never be an attraction to the million Protestants. The road to capitalist unity is really the road away from unity and towards civil war and repartition. Only class unity within the North and between works North and South can lead to socialism and with it the removal of the border. The struggle to achieve these ends is damaged and weakened, not advanced, by the campaigns of individual terror of the INLA and Provisionals.

A simple and sure test of all who claim to be socialists in Ireland is their attitude to working class unity. The only genuine socialist organisations are those which stand unflinchingly for the unity of the working class. Sinn Fein can appeal only to the Catholic community. Their growth further polarises workers rather than unites them. This is an inescapable fact. It is a fact which embraces Rory O’Brady and Gerry Adams alike.

Rory O’Brady, in his fourteen years at the top of Sinn Fein, found nothing disturbing about this sectarian appeal. Adams, to maintain the image of a socialist, has to try to come up with some theoretical justification for the inability of Sinn Fein to do anything but repel the Protestant working class. This is all that distinguishes these two leaders.

In seeking a theoretical justification for the position Sinn Fein finds itself in. Adams has fallen into the same theoretical trap as did the leaders of the Officials in the early 1970s.

The Officials claimed to be socialists but argued that socialism must wait until civil rights and democracy were achieved. This was their version of the Menshevik and Stalinist theory of stages of the revolution.

Adams has a different version of this theory. As he put it at the end of his Presidential address to the Ard Fheis:

“while our struggle has a major social and economic content, the securing of Irish independence is a prerequisite for the advance to a socialist republican society.

“For now the task is to unite around democratic, republican demands.”

Adams, of course, declares himself to be a socialist, but he is content that socialism should wait until there is a united Ireland when it might, but only might, be introduced:

“We as republicans have a decided preference that this society should be a democratic socialist republic, but we accept that, in a post British withdrawal situation, with Irish democracy restored, we will be bound by the democratic wishes of the Irish people.” (Ard Fheis address)


What Adam’s position comes down to is just a revamped radicalised, version of this nationalism of O’Brady and O’Connell. As he himself puts it, “Our long term objective is to become the majority nationalist party, as well as, of course, making considerable inroads in the 26 counties.” (Magill Sept ‘83)

In the same Magill interview he states that working class unity would be “preferable” but then dismisses it because “I don’t think it is possible to win unionist consent to break the British connection.” This is because the supposed “marginal privileges” of the Protestant makes them somehow inherently reactionary! He does not stop to think that it could be the programme of Sinn Fein for a capitalist united Ireland plus their association and support for the Provisionals which repels Protestant workers. But class unity is not something mildly “preferable.” It is a pre-condition to the development of a genuine socialist movement.


The working class are increasingly becoming united in the trade unions and in general struggles against the Tories. Even Sinn Fein has been forced to take note of the big movements of workers, North and South. The Ard Fheis decided to make a turn to work in the trade unions. But the programme advocated for this work could only hinder and damage the unions.

Sinn Fein’s trade union members are advised to raise republican demands in the unions, end the “loyalist veto” of the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU (!) and press the unions to take a “central role in ending partition” by “defending on a socialist basis the interests of working people with a view to establishing socialism in a united Ireland.”

The difference between fighting for a “socialist united Ireland” and for “socialism in a united Ireland” might seem small. It is not. It is the difference between socialism and nationalism, albeit a nationalism which is ornamented with socialist phrases. Sinn Fein’s call is for a capitalist united Ireland and is a nationalist position which could only sow sectarian division within the unions. It is actually to the right of the present position of the trade union leaders.

The way forward in Northern Ireland is through the unity of workers in the unions and through the building of a mass Labour Party based on the unions and fighting for socialist policies. Linking with a similar party in the South this could bring about socialism North and South and in doing so solve the national question.

This would not be merely a national, but would be an inter-national struggle. Socialism and genuine socialist movements in Ireland, unlike Sinn Fein, would link arms with the movement of the working class in Britain in particular, in the common struggle for socialism in Britain and Ireland. Sinn Fein, despite the support of Catholic workers and youth in the North, cannot become a genuine working class party and cannot lead a successful struggle for socialism.

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