The Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, in a speech in Mullingar on Sunday gave a somewhat ambiguous reply to SIPTU president, Jack O’Connor’s recent call for a common left-wing political project to present at the next general election. While Adams welcomed O’Connor’s call and agreed with the need for a ‘common anti-austerity platform’, he quickly went on to attack ‘the unrequited support given to the Labour Party by some in the leadership of the trade union movement’. An bhfuil sé ag iarraidh an dá trá a fhreastal?
This carefully choreographed manoeuvring comes as an Irish response to the new possibilities opened by Syriza’s dramatic victory in Greece and its highly visible strategic position-taking on the European stage. What is most striking about this is the sophistication of the position being mapped out and the alliances being created, not least those of Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis at his meeting with financial investors in London. These, of all people, see the sense of the Greek position.
Meanwhile, back in Athens, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was giving more details about the Greek government’s policy plans for the coming months, emphasising the humanitarian actions being taken as well as the rejection of a new bailout and the application for bridging finance. While the focus of media attention is on the possible clash with his eurogroup colleagues, the consolidation of his popular base of support in Greece, including among New Democracy supporters, is another vital part of the overall strategy.
So, what are the lessons for Irish politics and what Adams called the ‘unprecedented opportunity to transform the political landscape on this island, North and South’? The major lesson of the Greek position is the power of the big idea. It is their well developed proposal to deal with debt (as explained very well by Tom Healy of the Nevin Institute in his Monday blog) that is so sensible and that very effectively turns the tables on the exclusive austerity-based approach to the European crisis so far. Allied to this is the credibility of Syriza since they are outsiders to the Greek power elites and so the major changes they seek to implement in the way the Greek state is run hold real promise.
So, if Sinn Féin aspires ‘to lead an anti-austerity government’ after the next election, what is the big idea that they bring to the table that might be a game changer? Can Sinn Féin offer some new ideas that might make a breakthrough to what Adams calls ‘a citizen-centred, rights-based society’? This is where the comparison to Syriza and Podemos that the leaders of these two parties and the European media seem fond of making, breaks down completely. For Sinn Féin’s big idea has nothing to do with social transformation; rather it is a united Ireland. And, faithful to the mainstream tradition of Irish nationalism that has always prioritised issues of constitutional status over issues of socio-economic transformation, the party seems much more obsessed with the constitutional parameters of this project than with any radical well-researched vision for its political economy.
This gets us to the heart of the difference in two ways. The first is that socio-economic transformation requires a positive vision of the state and its potential; the positive language of Syriza about public servants and the role of the state is very telling and serves to highlight the absence of any such vision in the discourse of Sinn Féin and parties to their left. Secondly, this vision of the state is balanced by the fact that Syriza is a party of social mobilisation and of rich internal democracy and debate. By contrast, Sinn Féin is one of the last great parties of democratic centralism in Europe, harking back to the old communist form of party and completely at odds with the emergence of the new left of Syriza and Podemos.
However, the acknowledgement by Gerry Adams of ordinary citizens getting a sense of ‘their own collective power’ through community mobilisations is important and a recognition of a reality that the water charge protests seem to be strengthening. Yet, it does stand in some tension with attempts both by Sinn Féin and the Socialist Party/AAA to be seen to lead this movement.
A somewhat hidden dimension of this mobilisation that deserves much more careful attention is the extent to which local community organising and leadership is being strengthened and politicised. It may have been a poorly chosen issue (playing into the anti-taxation and anti-state instincts so deeply bred by Fianna Fáil hegemony) but if it leads to a mobilised civil society relating to political parties on its terms rather than the terms of the party leadership, then maybe we in Ireland are taking a first decisive step towards transforming our political landscape. But when is a party going to emerge that can credibly embody a big idea of socio-economic transformation?