Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism

Roy Johnston reviews Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism by Eoin Ó Broin, Pluto Press, ISBN 978-0-7453-2462-3, £18.99 pbk

SF and the Politics of Left Republicanism

THE AUTHOR was an Sinn Féin activist in the north, and is now active in Dun Laoire where he is in local government.

He had been publishing a journal in Belfast supportive of left-republican politics; this however closed down just after Lilliput, the publisher of my own book Century of Endeavour, had sent him a review copy, so that he did not get a chance to deal with it, nor it seems to read it, as in his assessment of the 1960s politicisation process initiated by Goulding he manages to avoid referencing it.

He does however mention my name as an ideas source, and credits myself and Anthony Coughlan as sources of support for the process leading to setting up the Civil Rights Movement. Ó Broin distinguishes the 'left' attribute from the 'social' and 'socialist' attributes used by others analysing political republicanism; he includes in it the Fianna Fáil populist leftism of the 1930s, and the empty opportunist leftism of Sean MacBride in the 1940s.

George Gilmore, whom Ó Broin regards as an icon, assessed MacBride as having been a candidate for a Quisling role, had the Germans 'liberated' Ireland in the 1940s. He made this assessment with conviction, in the presence of the present writer, in or about 1966.

Having thus defined the meaning of 'left' somewhat fuzzily, avoiding the key Marxist criterion of the need for democratic control over the capital investment process, he sets himself the task of understanding why 'left-republicanism' failed to lead the broad national movement.

Ó Broin sets Irish republicanism in the European mainstream, distinguishing it from the English 1688 compromise, leaning on Tom Paine's Rights of Man. He thus manages to avoid the opportunity of making the case for the Protestant contribution to republican thinking which 1688 represented: was not William the Dutch 'republican monarch' who presided over the demise of absolute monarchy, vesting power in parliament, thus saving an important aspect of the earlier English republic which had been undermined by Cromwell's quasi-Stalinist role?

He quotes approvingly Marxist authors like T A Jackson, Priscilla Metscher and Eric Hobsbawm. He picks up the feminist angle via Mary Anne McCracken, Bridget Dolan and Mary Shackleton Leadbeater.

He notes the Chartist influence; William Morris gets a mention; the socialist influences however within Ireland tended to be confined to intellectual coteries; the social land policies of Henry George, although supported by Michael Davitt, in Ireland were political suicide due to role of the Land Acts in generating mass mini-landlordism.

He goes on to identify the importance of the Tory social-imperialism that led to the Ulster working-class armed opposition to Home Rule, and he assesses Connolly's unsuccessful attempt to counter it, and the role it had in neutralising the emerging trade union movement in the national political context.

Connolly's link with the Second International, along with Austin Morgan, Ó Broin assesses as having little relevance to Ireland. The republicanism of Leslie, which influenced Connolly, was rooted in Lalor and Davitt, rather than what Ó Broin calls the 'Fenian mainstream' (does the republican mainstream have to be Blanquist? is this at the root of the current republican ideological problem?).

He re-states the classic Connolly-Walker debate, and sees it as unresolved, calling for '...a re-articulation of those elements that form the core of the socialist-republican enterprise.'

In the period 1916-26 he notes the marginalisation of radical voices like Liam Mellows, Peadar O'Donnell and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington; he regards Mellows' socialism as unconvincing, preferring Patterson's assessment to that of Greaves.

In the early Fianna Fáil epoch he correctly identifies the key left-republican voice as being an Phoblacht, with its focus being in the IRA, generating the process that led to the Republican Congress of 1934 via the Saor Eire episode.

The subsequent split and decline of the Republican Congress however deserves deeper analysis than Ó Broin gives it: was the evolution of the IRA in the direction of the disastrous bombing campaign in Britain inevitable? Could the left-republican aspect of the Fianna Fáil process have been strengthened?

Ruan O'Donnell's paper on the role of the Comintern deserves a mention; at this time the Comintern was in a divisive and left-sectarian mode. Much of the fallout from the Republican Congress ended up in relative isolation in Sean Murray's Communist Party.

In the aftermath of the 1950s campaign, he notes the Goulding-led politicisation process, and identifies correctly the influence of the Connolly Association, leading to the support of the Republican Clubs for the NICRA.

His analysis of the Marxist influence however is flawed, in that he seems to have missed totally the role of my own attempt to decouple the process from the residual European Stalinist legacy (as outlined in Century of Endeavour).

If he had picked up on the analysis I have tried to deliver, he should have seen it was aimed exactly at the worthy objective he is currently trying to achieve, in the context of the Gerry Adams Sinn Féin environment: a non-violent left-political broad-based movement. He would also have seen the influence of the Stalin-type process on the post-split 'Officials', initially via Costello and others.

Instead, he tries to idealise the Fenian tradition, and give it a left flavour, claiming, with Austin Morgan, that Connolly was in the end a Fenian. The alternative case I am trying to make is that the Fenian-type conspiracy process naturally evolves into a Stalin-type model, and it is most important to purge it from the left-political system.

He devotes much space however to the analysis of Connolly's thinking, its supporters (Greaves, Mettscher) and revisionist critics (Patterson, Bew). He credits Connolly with proto-feminism. He attributes the failure of Connolly's left-republican project to its being constrained by Second International Marxism.

O Broin challenges left-republicans of today to take the core ideas of Connolly's thinking and re-develop them in today's context, having analysed the failures of prior attempts to do so.

These include, in the present writer's opinion, the Communist Party of Ireland, the Republican Congress, Peadar O'Donnell's rural radicalism, the reincarnation of the CPI as the Irish Workers League in 1948 after the retreat of the earlier CPI into the CPNI in 1941 in the context of the war and Irish neutrality, and then the Goulding republican politicisation attempt in the 1960s.

O Broin writes off the CPI/CPNI/IWL channel, and focuses on the early Fianna Fáil populism, followed by Clann na Poblacht. His treatment of the Goulding attempt, which helped develop the Civil Rights approach to Northern Ireland politics, is somewhat limited. His treatment of the post-split attempts by the 'officials' to keep alive some sort of left-republican political tradition, with the emergence of the Workers Party, the Democratic Left, and eventual absorbtion by Labour leaves many questions unanswered.

Those at whom the book is aimed, primarily the current Sinn Fein political activists, need to be helped to understand that the position they have now, with the Good Friday agreement, is somewhat similar to what was within reach had the O'Neill reforms, which were the response to the 1968 civil rights campaigns, been implemented. The armed response to the August 1969 RUC and B-Specials provocation set the process back for three decades. Were the Provisionals really necessary?

Eoin Ó Broin's book, despite its omissions, is a positive contribution to the development of neo-Marxist analysis of the process of definition of Irish nationality, and of the nature of the socio-economic and cultural processes within it.

We need more such analyses, homing in on the problems of the Protestant working-class, and on the role of the Fenian militarist tradition, hijacked by a religious sectarian culture, in preventing the emergence of an all-Ireland secular democratic social movement among all working people, irrespective of their religion, in their common interest. The scene now includes Polish Catholics, various Muslims and others, and the overall environment is the European Union. Are we not all unionists now?

Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2009-09-08 14:56:15.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2009 Roy Johnston