‘We Need to Talk About Sinn Féin…’ is the title of the first chapter, taken from the 2011 Tilda Swinton film about what is for some an equally troubling subject. By the end of the book, while we have indeed heard a lot of talk about Sinn Féin, it is questionable as to whether we know a good deal more about it.
Deaglán de Bréadún excels at a surface look at his subject, its history, its progression to politics and how it is perceived by both its members and opponents. But the essence of Sinn Féin remains elusive, which is perhaps how the party prefers it, considering its record of playing its cards close to its chest, even with its own.
Take, for instance, the experiences of Brian Leeson, a former long-term member and a witness to much of the dissembling ‘Ourselves Alone’ deemed necessary in order to guide its followers along the nascent Peace Process. The favourite expression for everything the party needed to do but which the republican faithful might find distasteful was that it was merely ‘for the optics.’
Whether it was an IRA ceasefire or weapons decommissioning, it was just a ploy – or so the true believers were assured – to lull the media and the rest of the outside world into complacency. It took a while for Leeson to realise it was the other way around and that the ‘optics’ had been intended for the likes of him all along.
While De Bréadún interviews a number of people throughout his book, one of the most revealing is with Killian Forde. A one-time rising star in Sinn Féin who topped his local poll for a seat on Dublin City Council in 2004, Forde is able to provide a man-in-the-trenches view of a political party on the move and in a hurry.
Key to the hard work and commitment he and his fellow party workers were prepared to put in was the ‘Bobby Sands Factor’, the example set by the deceased hunger striker to give all for the cause. And so they did. Hard work, obedience and clean living (no drugs, for one) were expected and received; according to Forde, he could ring ten people on a Tuesday night and expect them to distribute 10,000 leaflets the next day. Hostile media coverage only strengthened their resolve, helping to create an ‘us against the world’ mentality and the sort of dedication that any organisation would envy.
The other interviews tend to be on the disappointing side, despite – or perhaps because of – their being with high-profile individuals, both within Sinn Féin and outside it. The former ones of most importance are with Martin McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald, representing the past and the future respectively, but neither says anything particularly intimate that is not already well known (McGuinness’ surprisingly warm friendship with Ian Paisley, for example, has been covered in other works, not that the pair of them were exactly coy about it). Perhaps both are simply too canny to give much away.
A notable thing about McDonald’s journey to being Sinn Féin Deputy Leader is the time and effort that was spent in securing for her a Dáil seat, even to the detriment of the party. McDonald was chosen to contest Dublin Central in the 2007 general elections over a candidate with stronger local support who had only narrowly failed the last time. She lost but the party bigwigs must have seen great things in store for her and gave her a second run at the same seat in the subsequent 2011 election. This time, she won and was chosen a year later as ‘Opposition Politician of the Year’ on the Vincent Browne show.
Other interviewees provide as much food-for-thought about Irish politics in general (at least in the South, the primary focus) as on Sinn Féin in particular. Paul Murphy of the Socialist Party argues that Sinn Féin’s professed radicalism on social issues is no more than skin-deep; indeed, Murphy was able to win against a Sinn Féin candidate for the Dublin South-West seat in 2014 by outflanking him on the Left and opposing the controversial possibility of water charges much sooner than Sinn Féin.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Michael McDowell, former head of the Progressive Democrats, believes that Sinn Féin’s populist politics will ultimately make little headway in what is fundamentally a bourgeois country. The only way then to break through into office is to oblige and become bourgeois.
So…Sinn Féin: too Left-wing or not enough?
A constant question throughout the book is the likelihood of Sinn Féin entering a coalition government in the South, an option that seems to hold little appeal for the party – its 2015 ardfheis saw the passing of Motion 52, barring the party from entering a government led by either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. That this effectively renders Sinn Féin ineligible for power as only those two have the numbers to plausibly form any sort of government seemed to have escaped the attention of the most of the attendees.
At the same time, the motion encouraged Sinn Féin to “form broad alliances with like-minded parties and independents…to maximise the potential for an anti-austerity government in the 26 Counties.” Again, the difficulties of such a plan – partnering with those parties and politicians also chasing the anti-austerity vote – were not addressed by those present.
Oh, well, maybe it all makes more sense once you’ve drunk the Kool-Aid.
De Bréadún makes allowances for readers not completely familiar with the Irish scene, given how he takes the time to translate terms particular to Ireland such as ‘cumann’ (party branch), ‘ardfheis’ (national conference) and even ‘craic’ (fun). Somewhat oddly, the gadfly relationship Eoin Ó Broin TD has with his party leadership is compared to that “Tony Benn had with the British Labour Party,” something that would only resonate with UK readers of a certain generation.
De Bréadún ends his book by telling us: “Whether we like it or not,” Sinn Féin is here is stay, being part of mainstream politics in the South as well as in office in the North. This reviewer has his doubts, at least where the South is concerned. Small parties there tend to have a natural life cycle: the initial burst of enthusiasm when first formed to fill a niche in the market, the maturing process as it finds its feet and establishes itself, and the eventual decline, the reasons for which vary from infighting and splits (The Workers’ Party), finding itself responsible for an unpopular coalition (the Greens 2007-2011, Labour 2011-2016) or the devastation of a particularly crushing election result (the Progressive Democrats 2007).
The question is whether Sinn Féin can avoid these usual pitfalls. It has staved off infighting to an impressive degree, in no small part due to the undisputed and long-term leadership of Gerry Adams. Whether that will continue when he finally steps aside, however, is a matter to be seen; it is doubtful that the membership will defer to a relatively young leader like McDonald, for all her past successes, to the same extent.
The finicky reluctance towards coalition should shield it from the aforementioned plight of Labour and the Greens but then, what is the point of a party afraid of the chance to do what it says it wants to do? At least Sinn Féin is holding its own with the public, with whom it enjoys a consistent level of support in the polls on a regular basis despite the occasional dip whenever another Troubles-related story is dug up, so to speak.
The book could have benefitted from some analysis as to why people vote for Sinn Féin in the first place. Are they attracted to the radical policies? The whiff of sulphur? Dissatisfaction with the tried-and-tested mainstream alternatives? The attraction of something new? If this is the party for the future as Sinn Féin sees itself, then what is its appeal?
Perhaps De Bréadún is too true to his impartiality as a journalist (an award-winning one, at that) to risk a guess as to what is behind the shiny leaflets and ready soundbites of his subject, what is true and what are ‘for the optics’. The result is a book that is intelligent and well-researched but slightly disappointing.
Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press