A grand alliance of the left would shake up politics - and it might not be too far away
Published 29/01/2016 | 02:30
Never mind the mini-drama of who might dance with Michael Lowry in a future coalition. The real drama building up this week is the prospect of grand alliance of the left and who will dance with Sinn Féin. This is not so much because of its former paramilitary association - which is usually the objection of the bigger, more 'bourgeois' parties.
No, in this case, it is reservations by doctrinaire socialists about just how authentically left wing Sinn Féin actually is. And whether, as a nationalist party, it is in fact an impediment to the 'greater socialist project' which rejects flags and tribal borders in its broader proletarian struggle.
It all came out this week at a joint press conference held by the two left groupings - People Before Profit and the Socialist Party (or the Anti-Austerity Alliance).
The meeting revealed common ground but also some key differences.
Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit said he was not averse to aligning with Sinn Féin, or giving it transfers, but Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party (SP) said that she was reluctant because Sinn Féin is a "sectarian party" (ouch!) which appeals in Northern Ireland to "only one part of the community", whereas the SP wants to appeal to "the broader working-class community".
This is apparently a long-time source of difference between these two parties of the left. In an interview for Deaglán de Bréadún's recent book, 'Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin', TD Paul Murphy explained why the Socialist Party has never agreed with the 'Brits Out' line. Protestant fears of a United Ireland were not irrational, said Murphy, and he cited the example of Sri Lanka, where the minority Tamils had apparently oppressed the Sinhalese under British rule but, when the British left, the majority Sinhalese in turn oppressed the Tamils. Avoiding this is true protective socialism, Murphy would say.
Of course, Coppinger and Murphy are right about Sinn Féin's essentially tribal politics, but many who would support such an alliance would consider that to be a rather rarefied reservation, given that what is on offer is the serious prospect of a grand left alignment, and one that would be much more radical than anything a shrunken Labour Party could provide. And it could really shake up the establishment.
As it is, almost all of the left already participate in the Right2Change campaign and Sinn Féin would say that the reluctance of Murphy and Coppinger to fully come on board has as much to do with their electoral rivalry with Sinn Féin in Dublin.
Remember, Murphy pipped Sinn Féin for a Dublin South West seat after it looked like Sinn Féin was wobbling on water charges.
In fairness, there was always going to be differences between all these left-wing elements, given their different historical origins, but if Sinn Féin could put something big together, it'd be hard to see Coppinger and others resisting. After all, they have almost exactly the same policies - for the moment.
And this is possibly the real crux. The harder left see Sinn Féin as a potential sell-out and an eventual bourgeois party, many of whose members would actually share power with Fianna Fáil.
Again, it was Coppinger and Paul Murphy who have described Sinn Féin as not a socialist party at all but a populist nationalist one, which in the North has in the past implemented austerity measures. Also, some of the hard left's policies announced this week, such as raising Ireland's much cherished low corporate tax to 15pc, might be a step too far for Sinn Féin.
The blunt reality is that the prospect of being in power on both sides of the border for the centenary of 1916 would be too exciting a prospect for more mainstream Republicans to resist sharing power with, say, Fianna Fáil.
After all, they are already sharing power with the DUP in the North, and can thus get their hands on the levers at Stormont. And surely if you can coalesce with Paisley's Unionists, you can coalesce with anyone. There is also the frank reality that Sinn Féin wants to be a mainstream political party, appealing eventually to the middle classes and building a truly national movement that is fresh and non-corrupt and re-ignites the values of the 1916 revolution. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
But the left will be thinking of something quite different and would be closer to the ideals of the 1913 Dublin Lockout.
And they are prepared to forgo the broader political participation or imagery of power, for specific, strategic results.
So it's a fascinating dance. Throw in the attention-seeking Brendan Ogle and you've got a further recipe for unpredictability.
However, if such an alliance did happen, it could create a whole new power bloc, which would be a real magnet for protest politics, the hard left and radical nationalists.
It could also draw in left-wing independents such as Tommy Broughan or even John Halligan and Finian McGrath, who are surely out of sorts in the Shane Ross group of Independents.
But as it is, an alliance starring Mary Lou McDonald, Richard Boyd Barrett, Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy could be real box-office stuff, and would for the first time create a proper left-right divide in Irish politics.