Sinn Féin and the politics of left republicanism

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Irish Republican Brotherhood / Fenians, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Reviews, Volume 17

1Sinn Féin and the politics of left republicanism
Eoin Ó Broin
(Pluto Press, €67.50 hb, €25 pb)
ISBN 9780745324630, 978745324623Close observers of the politics of Irish historiography will have suspected that there was something odd about this book when it was reviewed prominently in the Irish Times, and commended by its resident revisionist, despite being written by a ‘republican socialist’ and Sinn Féin activist of thirteen years’ standing. The explanation is that the author accepts much of the revisionist critique of republicanism. That in itself is intriguing; and scholarly, self-critical and honest books from political activists are rare.
Ó Broin takes a familiar historical approach, and examines the topic in four chapters. Three cover the United Irishmen to the Fenians, James Connolly, and the post-1916 years. A lengthy fourth chapter is specifically on Sinn Féin, from 1905 to the present. At the outset, Ó Broin makes a useful distinction between socialist republicanism and the broader concept of left republicanism, defined as all forms of radicalism espoused by republicans since the 1790s. On the one hand he argues rightly—to use his own didactic style—that republicans have usually been open to enlightened, international and radical ideas, and that progressives do themselves no favours in dismissing that reality. On the other, he claims that republican radicalism has tended to be conjunctural and tactical, embraced opportunistically to win support for nationalist aims. Contemporary Sinn Féin leftism, according to Ó Broin, takes its cue from Liam Mellows’s ‘Notes from Mountjoy’, which proposed that the Republic adopt a socialist programme to rally popular backing and snatch victory from defeat in the Civil War. This kind of contingent radicalism, he believes, has led to inconsistency and confusion. The conclusion is written frankly as a ‘history lesson’ for Sinn Féin. The party should ditch its tactical radicalism for socialism.
Indeed. Wolfe Tone telegrammed through history the essence of left republicanism in his famous remark about ‘the men of no property’. What he was saying was that the United Irishmen would appeal first to the propertied classes. If that failed, they would turn to the men of no property. And so it has been from Tone to the Young Irelanders, the Fenians, the IRA from the Civil War to the Republican Congress, and the Provisionals. Moving left is the fall-back position.
Whatever about the validity of Ó Broin’s ultimate prescription, he reaches it through some doubtful history. The concessions to the revisionists are not surprising, given his complete reliance on secondary sources and dependence on revisionists for his two central chapters on the golden age of red republicanism, from Connolly to the Spanish Civil War. The revisionist view is that socialist republicanism began with Connolly, and was then promoted by the IRA left. In reality, it was made by Jim Larkin and driven by Labour up to 1922, and by the Communist International to 1936. Republicans simply responded. Mellows’s ‘Notes from Mountjoy’, for example, was inspired (conspired?) by the Comintern. Similarly, the revisionist line that socialist republicanism failed because of its inherent contradictions is not sustained by the evidence. Connolly failed because he was a poor agitator. Larkin converted Labour to republicanism because he was a brilliant agitator. Socialist republicanism ran into the sands because Tom Johnson got the Labour Party to abandon it in 1922, and the Catholic Church made Communism taboo after 1930. Theoretical inconsistencies had nothing to do with it.
Ó Broin comes into his own in his account of more recent decades, and provides a critique that manages to be objective, judicious and engaged. Writing as an insider, his perspective is especially interesting, and the main disappointment here is that the treatment is too external and too summary, and not as revealing as one would have hoped. There are also a few elisions. More might have been said on life in Sinn Féin. How did party members cope with being a propaganda and welfare auxiliary to the IRA, the impact of IRA actions, the differences between northerners and southerners and ex-prisoners and ‘draft dodgers’, and the transition to a peace strategy? Curiously, there is little on the American involvement in Northern Ireland in the 1990s, and how it turned the peace process into a peace process, rather than, as republicans had expected, a process for constitutional change.
On balance, the book will be accessible to those with a general knowledge of Irish history, and ought to be read by all who are interested in the left, where it’s come from and where it should be going, but . . . poor Connolly. The chapter on Connolly is dense, grounded on revisionist caricatures and rather pointless.
Ó Broin concludes with ‘eight theses on the future of Sinn Féin’, which would transform it from a party ‘attempting to mobilise two coalitions north and south to build reunification from above, at the expense of any meaningful social or economic change’, into a party striving for ‘an independent, democratic, socialist Ireland’ (p. 311). Now, where have we heard that before? No wonder the revisionists have welcomed it. HI

Emmet O’Connor lectures in history at the University of Ulster, Magee College.

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