Thursday 17 January 2019

If Sinn Fein won't bite the bullet how can it embrace democracy?

As Gerry Adams reigns on and on and bully boys dominate, the party seems unable to shake off its past

Complaint: Cllr Lisa Marie Sheehy, who has made allegations against Sinn Fein members
Complaint: Cllr Lisa Marie Sheehy, who has made allegations against Sinn Fein members
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The most important question for Irish democracy is the democratisation of Sinn Fein. Where that party is on the path from the position it was in two decades ago, when it was a profoundly undemocratic party in multiple respects, is becoming an ever more important question.

That is because it has shifted its position on entering government in Dublin. Whereas until recently it would consider forming a coalition only if it was the senior partner, it has become less unbending on that issue. That clearly increases the chances of the party having direct influence over the sovereign government of this Republic in the near term.

That raises issues that every citizen and voter should be aware of and consider carefully because developments in recent weeks underscore how far Sinn Fein is from being a fully democratic party. These developments include: yet more allegations of bullying and intimidation in its lower ranks, to add to many others; the absence of normal political ambitions playing out in its upper ranks, as Gerry Adams effectively declared himself president for a 34th year last week; and the party's role in the perpetuation of political crisis in Northern Ireland.

Early last week a young Sinn Fein councillor, Lisa Marie Sheehy, resigned from the party. She claimed she had been bullied and that her complaint had not been taken seriously. She described the party's internal culture as "hostile and toxic".

Later in the week another Sinn Fein councillor, Seamus Morris, claimed that he had been subject to an extended and intense "hate campaign" by colleagues after he had had a disagreement with some of them. He was reported to have said that the party wanted only "disciples" and not "free-speaking" members.

The charges made by the two echo many others across the movement in recent times. The fact that the combined membership of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour is much larger than Sinn Fein's yet there has not been a single case of such intimidation is but one manifestation of how different Sinn Fein is from other, fully democratic parties. Attempts by senior figures in the party to dismiss the intimidation culture as part of the normal cut and thrust of politics are a nonsense. If that was the case there would be plenty of similar allegations emerging from other parties. There are not.

Another aspect of these cases that marks Sinn Fein out is the way the party investigates itself, which is more in keeping with the kind of kangaroo courts the movement has relied on over many decades than with transparent and fair procedures based on human resources best practice. On most occasions when the party has looked into multiple complaints of bullying by its members it has found there to be no issue. The party is never to blame. The clique that runs the party is never to blame. There is never any issue of substance.

If what happens to the lower ranks of the movement raises concerns about the degree to which Sinn Fein has absorbed the values and habits of democracy, what happens, and doesn't happen, in its upper ranks does so too.

The death of Martin McGuiness opened a vacancy in one of the party's most senior positions. In normal political parties, which by their nature attract ambitious people, a senior vacancy would lead to jockeying for position.

In most parties when a leadership position opens up more than one person throws their hat in the ring. Open debates are had, of the kind that happened between Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney during their party's leadership contest. Less open activity often involves candidates giving stories to journalists that show their rivals in a bad light in the hope of furthering their own ambitions.

The emergence of Michelle O'Neill as Sinn Fein leader in the North saw none of those things. There was no contest for the position and the appointment appears to have been made by a small group, of which Gerry Adams is a central figure.

That clique controls things just as tightly south of the Border. In a normal political party, figures such as Mary Lou McDonald, Pearse Doherty and Eoin O Broin would be positioning to succeed Mr Adams. If Sinn Fein was a normal and fully democratic party, those figures would be canvassing the support of their parliamentary party members and others who have a vote in leadership contests. They would be attempting to advance their cause in the media, both mainstream and social.

But Sinn Fein has no such process. Last week's announcement by Mr Adams that he would seek re-election as president of the party for yet another year speaks volumes.

There is no democratic party anywhere in the world in which the leader has been in place for a third of century. There are very few which would not have factions moving against a leader who is an electoral liability, as Mr Adams very clearly is, at least south of the Border.

To see how different Sinn Fein is from normal democratic parties, try imagining Mr O Broin announcing he would challenge Mr Adams for the top job. Then try to imagine the two of them having a public debate, as happened during the Fine Gael contest over the summer, in which the candidates emphasised their differences and traded jibes. It is very hard to imagine these things happening in Sinn Fein because they are all but unthinkable. Military discipline and a culture of top-down diktats is still far too deeply engrained to allow the sort of openness and contestation that happens in democratic parties.

The backdrop to Sinn Fein's democratisation, such as it is, is changing and raises further concerns. While the party last week pulled back from its extreme hard-line stance on going back into government with the DUP in the North, it is as culpable for the impasse as Arlene Foster and her party. But given that the DUP now holds sway over the London government, one could rationally calculate that a return to direct rule would be a nightmare scenario for Sinn Fein and one to be avoided at all costs.

But those who seek the sort of revolutionary change that the provisional movement was so wedded to for so long tend to see opportunity in escalating crisis. And Sinn Fein, obsessed as it is with reunification, is always watchful for any opportunity to further that objective.

Relations between Dublin and London are at their lowest ebb in well over two decades, the result of Brexit and how to deal with the collapse of Northern Ireland's political institutions (and those two issues are now feeding off each other). Driving a wedge between Dublin and London creates opportunities for Sinn Fein. If Sinn Fein was in government in Dublin the scope to escalate disputes with the British government would increase. The destabilising implications, particularly in the context of Brexit, should be abundantly clear.

Sinn Fein's democratisation process is rarely discussed in the media or by political scientists. That may be because there is an assumption that once it signed up to the Good Friday Agreement's democratic compromise, it became fully democratic. Such an assumption is naive.

For decades the provisional movement was primarily a military organisation. The values and personal characteristics prized by armies, of all kinds, include unquestioning obedience, secrecy, aggression and severe punishment for transgression. The democratic virtues in most cases are exactly the opposite to martial ones.

The provisional movement did not wake up one Friday morning in 1998 having overnight changed its culture. Over two decades, it has changed far less than many anticipated. That should worry all democrats.

There are abundant examples internationally of non-democratic parties and movements that have used the democratic process as a means of gaining power only to go on to undermine the integrity of those very institutions. There is, at the very least, a risk of that happening if Sinn Fein is given a role in this Republic's governance.

Those who cherish the State's democratic institutions should not be blind to that risk.

Sunday Independent

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