Phil on Ireland (part two)
donaloc at peterquinn.com
Fri Nov 22 08:01:04 MST 2002
You corrected something you felt was wrong in a recent post - however, I
seem to have missed the original. It seemed like something I would like to
respond to as well??
Anyway, you have made much of SF's alleged undemocratic tendencies. I'm not
about to discuss this in detail here but agree with some of the criticisms.
I work very closely with some of those people you refer to without their
names - in fact, I was chatting to one yesterday and mentioned your name to
First of all, SF is a big mixed bag. Mostly socialists but some
petit-bourgeois nationalists. No big problem though. It is democratic but
disciplined at the same time - all posts are elected. Party policy is
decided by members and everyone has to obey that - whatever their position.
Next month, the party will have a discussion on PPP and it will be open and
democratic. Like nothing you probably would see anywhere else in Europe. The
month after, a conference will be held on the EU and our policy in regard to
This is why I am so opposed to those orienting outside the mainstream. They
don't really have an alternative yet won't fight for what they believe in
within structures - where it is possible. The mechanisms are there. I always
find it quitely amusing that some people may consider the possibility of
working within British Labour but wouldn't consider working within Sinn
Like any organisation, SF has problems, but the party is basically
democratic. There are always things people want to change, but overall SF is
becoming much better. Don't forget, the structures and formalisms when you
were a member were more appropriate to a military situation in which
decisions often have to be implemented on a top-down basis. Now, Republican
strategy is almost entirely based on 'building political strength' and that
means bringing people into our ambit, discussions, lowering decision-making,
networking with parties like the Greens and the left of Partitionist Labour.
The RM is also a lot bigger than it was then.
Phil: One of the main reasons I left Sinn Fein and gave up on it was that a
point was reached where I realised it didn't really matter what anyone
in the movement thought because, behind the veneer of democracy - and in
many ways SF was quite democratic, and more so than most Trot groups -
the key decisions were made by a tiny number of people. As one comrade
said at the time, the people who made all the really important decisions
all lived within a stone's throw of each other in a wee part of Belfast.
of curse this was something of an exaggeration: one or two of them
lived near each other in Derry and another lived in a caravan in
Monaghan. But you know what I mean.
The RM is not just a party. It is a movement dealing with serious and
powerful enemies. Just look at how the Chinese or the Russians dealt with
internal democracy at times of conflict. Centralisation is a military
feature. Most activist-Republicans I know are focussed on the need to
democratise and reach out to the grassroots.
The problem is that you don't agree with the RM's strategy, yet can offer
little alternatives. Phil, with the greatest respect, you must see that
Republicans are serious about getting what they want. What is needed is a
strategy which builds strength and weakens that of the political opponents
Connolly was a great man for facts and figures - he parallels Lenin in that
regard and in his hatred of social-imperialism. The other thing about
Connolly was that he was a marxist and was a great polemicist. I think that
the quality of Connolly's analysis is the reason why Irish Republicans are
such a radical bunch - of whatever tendency - and why there's so many
republicans here on this list and elsewhere.
But Connolly was a man who would see when something was working and overall
this strategy is undoubtedly working. It requires patience, lots of hard
work and focus. There are many things we could be doing better, but there is
no doubt but that Ireland is advancing towards overall traditional
Republican goals. Strength is being built and that's the core determinant of
success in regard to anything. The thing to do is to focus on those areas
where we need to redouble our efforts and to pull everyone (irrespective of
their complaints) into the process. If there is a clique running things -
and I don't agree that there is one dominant group or thought - then what
activists need to do is empower ourselves and get stuck in providing a focus
of leadership to those dissenting.
That's the nature of struggle. An activist doesn't always get her/his way
but then they have to pick themselves back up and fight on. The problem you
appear to have is that just because the movement decided something which you
disagreed with, you moved on. That's your choice but there's no doubt that
there's only one movement capable of achieving our goals here.
It is one of the penalties of being in a non-'zinovievist' party that it
doesn't always have an 'orthodox' position on everything. But from what I
hear, this is something other groups might have been well-advised to follow.
There are many decisions made at Ard Fheiseanna that key leadership people
totally dislike - that's just the nature of the movement though.
In reality, the leadership cannot guarantee that any particular resolution,
however insignificant, will be passed. Last Ard Fheis, a motion for quotas
for females in the party structures was voted down despite the party
hierarchy getting the issue discussed in every comhairle ceantair. An Ard
Comhairle motion on cumainn members paying a £5 membership fee was lost.
There are a lot of irksome and difficult people in our organisation -
imposing rule from above on matters of policy or even party organisation
just doesn't happen. I've never been to a meeting where there wasn't some
form of major disagreement - even on small issues like advertisements in
At the same time, people are very likely to vote along with people they
respect. In Cuba, if Fidel Castro says something - people will think long
and hard before voting against him - I'm sure. That's going to be the case
Phil > At the same time they were replaced by people who had nothing like
track record of struggle. Indeed, as one experienced comrade, with a
background in the armed struggle, said to me, they were being replaced
by "little middle class students who know how to use photocopiers".
All of Ireland is in a process of transition - particularly so the
Republican movement. There are many who find the transition difficult to get
used to. There are also many who cannot begin to accept victory. In a
society like ours, many people define themselves through militarism - isn't
that what the Cubans call 'machismo'? It's natural enough, but that has to
change. Right now, someone coming in with no experience of the past but with
a determination to build political strength in their area is more valuable
than someone who has spent the last thirty years fighting and figures that
'the war is over'. As for middle-class members - well, there's not too many
as most middle-class parents get very perturbed about children being
involved in something like SF.
I have read repeatedly the allegations that SF implemented neo-liberalism
while in the Northern Institutions. As might be expected given the bias of
the writers, that isn't exactly true. For a start, on the basis of the 1998
Assembly elections, SF only got 17 MLAs - that entitled us to only two
Ministers (Health and Education). As for 'implementing neoliberal
economics' - we didn't have much of an input over economic policy - that was
largely controlled by the UUP and SDLP. Furthermore, SF's limited political
strength was further limited by the nature of the institutions themselves,
which had very little authority anyway (the Brits control the subvention,
there's no link between taxation and spending, etc).
In education, Martin Maguinness got rid of the despised 11+ and established
a system of comprehensive education (indeed, now we hear
unionists/middle-class complaints that while Labour is dismantling the
comprehensive system in England and Wales, in the six-Counties their
'stand-in' Ministers are establishing this system). That was quite an
achievement (particularly in the circumstances where the middle-class
organised themselves well - it was set out to consultation and few
working-class people responded. Again a lesson to those with ears. He also
managed to level the playing field for Irish-medium education and supported
that of integrated education.
Bairbre de Bruin had a tougher time of it. We heard many complaints of
massive queues for beds under her time as Minister mostly inherited and
caused by funding shortfalls (yet these miraculously cleared immediately
following suspension according to the media who have went silent on this
now). Yet, Bairbre instituted a review which saved a hospital in the
southwest (the plans pre-devolution were for only for one hospital west of
the bann - in Derry).
In the first months of devolution, SF Ministers signed a number of contracts
for PFI developments. Since that time, very little in the way of PFI was
signed off by any Minister in the North. The party was undoubtedly slow on
the issue. Only now is it finalising our policy.
However, two factors have to come in when assessing this final policy - (a)
the relative weakness of SF politically within the weak Institutions (b) the
need to deliver tangibly. New hospitals, cancer clinics or schools, within
Brit-controlled budgets, no borrowing facility and no local taxation means
PFI. Otherwise, how do you finance these improvements?
PFI means that the facilities revert to public ownership after the period of
repayment so its something less than privatisation. Of course, SF opposes
PFI and would like to see Public Funding of Public Services, but in those
circumstances what else was there to do?
The only alternative was to take up opposition within the Assembly. Such a
position would be an admission that Republicans didn't agree to the terms of
the GFA. It would also have led to the SDLP maintaining its position at the
centre of Nationalism and would have limited our ability to implement
The problem lies in the limited nature of concessions made by the new Labour
government under the GFA - however, this is a process. The GFA is the basis
for further discussions - it is the floor in the transition process. If SF
come out of the (possible) 6 County May elections as the biggest party or
the second biggest then the terms of the new institutions will be much more
to the liking of Republicans
As for the pan-Nationalist alliance, I think that period is now over. The
SDLP caved in on policing, on-the-runs and a range of other issues. Fianna
Fail felt very vulnerable at the last election and I think that they are
going to be much more independent of SF from now on. (FF have actually
established cumainn in the North).
No doubt SF would like to get the alliance up again but in reality it's much
more focussed on getting an alliance of the left going in the South - e.g.
Labour, Greens and Independents. The other area it needs to focus on is
networking with community sector reps and NGOs.
This strategy would appear to be the only one available. It's not that
dissimilar to the one which you seem to approve of. It involves Republicans
extending the struggle to every possible site, building a consensus towards
unity and social and economic equality. There are no guarantees and the
process is under serious pressure just now, but IMO Republicans are better
placed to advance to our ultimate objectives than at any time since 1922.
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