Eoin Ó Broin’s Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism (Pluto Books) looked like a timely book when it came out a few weeks ago. Events since have only emphasised the relevance of its argument.
The book opens with a trenchant defence of Sinn Féin against allegations that is an authoritarian, quasi-fascist movement. Ó Broin acknowledges that such perceptions are genuinely and widely held, but argues that they are a misunderstanding, attributable in part to the intense ideological conflict around the Troubles and to the fact that until recently Sinn Féin has often been a secondary theme of analysis focused on the IRA. However, he also suggests that republicanism itself has been an under-theorised movement, with its adherents privileging history over ideology and commemoration over critical analysis.
This has left unchallenged interpretations such as that of historian Fearghal McGarry, who sees republicanism as an ‘introspective tradition’ characterised by ‘abstention from participation in electoral politics, refusal to acknowledge the reality of Protestant support for the union and commitment to the use of physical force.’
Ó Broin argues that this conventional interpretation does not reflect the self-understanding of most republicans. “Indeed” he writes, “it would be hard to think of any of the leading republicans, particularly left republicans of the twentieth century, as fitting McGarry’s mould, whether one is talking of James Connolly, Peadar O’Donnell, Seán MacBride, Tomás MacGiolla or Gerry Adams.”
Ó Broin does acknowledge, albeit in a footnote, that ‘some doctrinaire republicans, such as Ruarí Ó Brádaigh’ fit this definition, nevertheless he argues that it does not capture the mainstream of republican thinking.
What is at stake in this debate has been dramatically highlighted in the aftermath of last week’s dissident republican attacks. A number of commentators, applying the conventional interpretation, have been prepared to entertain the idea that it is the dissidents who represent authentic republicanism.
A notable example was Eamonn McCann’s Daily Mail article, which argued that “armed Republicans have always taken their mandate not from the constituency in whose name the struggle has been waged but from history.” Ó Broin’s book certainly lends itself to interpretation as part of the ‘recent energetic revisionism’ which McCann identifies on this point.
McCann’s remark that “only a small minority of Republican supporters over the past 35 years ever swallowed this version of history whole,” could be read as an admission of Ó Broin’s thesis. At the same time, Ó Broin’s acknowledgement that “discipline and loyalty are often more highly valued than critical debate and internal democracy” within Sinn Féin, is arguably in line with McCann’s portrait of the way “Adams and his associates have gradually, surreptitiously, denying at every stage that they were embarked on any such enterprise, sloughed off republicanism.”
Ó Broin’s argument implies that they did not slough off republicanism as such but only one interpretation of it. Ironically, his analysis is arguably more the Marxian of the two. While McCann acknowledges the social forces that have shaped Sinn Féin’s practical politics, he nevertheless prioritises a particular set of formal positions in assessing its significance.
For Ó Broin such readings of republican history are essentialist. He calls for a materialist approach which emphasises changing political and economic contexts as much as continuities. One example is his reading of the early history of Sinn Féin, which argues that it “was never more than a platform for competing political interests.”
This is significant, perhaps, because in seeking precedents for the kind of radical, politically-engaged republicanism he advocates, Ó Broin looks well beyond the institutional history of his own party.
He looks to early republicans, noting that the United Irishmen, Young Ireland and the IRB, all “adopted constitutional and parliamentary tactics at various stages”. He identifies Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party as the source of a distinctive left-republican tradition, of which later manifestations include the Republican Congress, Clann na Poblachta, and Official Sinn Féin.
Ó Broin succeeds in showing that there is a broader republican tradition than the conventional interpretation allows, within which democracy, not continuity, is the key value. However, the left-republican formations present their own problems, which Ó Broin analyses in each case. This includes the treatment of Official Sinn Féin which inspired much of the initial controversy around the book.
The parallel between Sinn Féin’s current trajectory and that of the Officials has often been made. Some of Ó Broin’s key prescriptions, such as the need to focus on theoretical development, to prioritise socialism equally with nationalism, and to engage with unionists, clearly reflect similar strategic imperatives to those which the Officials faced. In that case, the endpoint was the centrist social democracy and crypto-unionism of Democratic Left. Many would argue that contemporary Sinn Féin is involved in a similar process of co-optation.
In Ó Broin’s account however, there is an implicit contrast in the development of the two parties. The Officials are presented as moving through a series of uncritically-adopted external models, from Leninism, to Eurocommunism, to mainstream social democracy. Sinn Féin on the other hand is seen to have emerged as the strongest left-republican formation to date, because of the “ability of the party to adapt to changing circumstances with flexibility and imagination” in the course of the peace process.
That is not to say that Ó Broin is uncritical of the party’s recent history. His concluding chapter on the way forward, with its ‘eight theses on the future of Sinn Féin’ is clearly an extension of his role in the post-mortem on the party’s poor election performance in 2007.
Ó Broin calls for a new assessment of the global context created by the credit crisis, and for an ideology that prioritises social and economic change equally with constitutional and political change. He suggests that an exclusive emphasis on the latter “falsely holds out the hope of the advancement of the national agenda in the short term.” That assessment will raise the spectre of the Workers’ Party in some minds, and could yet be upset by the complex constitutional dynamic now unfolding in the UK.
Nevertheless, such caution is warranted, and as Ó Broin notes, a practical strategy for Irish unity will itself need to address the social and economic benefits more clearly than has hitherto been the case.
Last month’s Sinn Féin Ard Fheis provided signs that the party is evolving in the direction sketched by Ó Broin, most obviously in Gerry Adams’ call for an alliance of the left.
It would be a mistake to dismiss this shift as mere opportunism. Sinn Féin has clearly recognised the definitive nature of the failure of neoliberalism over the past year, in a way which is perhaps evidence of the strategic flexibility claimed for the party. There is every political incentive to build an alternative.
Ó Broin’s suggestion that such an alternative must look beyond “outdated Leninist dogmas or equally outdated Keynesian welfareism” leaves plenty of scope as to its positive shape. This, if anything, points to a broader weakness of the left internationally. There is as yet no left equivalent to the intellectual body of work which enabled the neoliberals to exploit the crisis of social democracy from the 1970s onwards.
If that is to change, it will require a great deal more of the kind of earnest and rigorous engagement on display in this book. It merits serious attention from anyone interested in the future of republicanism, and of the left, in Ireland.