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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

Sinn Fein’s “Disconnect” Problem

Pass Law South Africa

My grandfather Tommy Larkin (trócaire Dé ar a anam) always told me to remember one central thing about what happened to Irish people who became trapped within the six partitioned counties of Ireland in 1921/1922. What happened was the Special Powers Act. Tommy then pointed out that leaders of the racist one party state in South Africa simply shrugged their shoulders and smiled whenever their regime was criticised by English politicians - we would, they said, replace our whole Apartheid structure for just one clause of your Northern Ireland Special Powers Act.

Special Powers - A Protestant law for a Protestant people

There is not space here to analyse this straightforwardly fascist (i.e. supremacist and oligarchical) piece of legislation aimed solely at the Irish Catholic and nationalist population, but here are its main regulations when it was first introduced in 1922:

“Anyone who broke these regulations could be sentenced to up to a year in prison with hard labour, and in the case of some crimes, whipping. A special summary jurisdiction (court with no jury) was enabled to hear cases involving such crimes. The Schedule to the Act specified actions which the government could take in order to preserve peace, although the body of the Act enabled the government to take any steps at all which it thought necessary. Actions specified in the Schedule included the closing of licensed premises; the banning in any area of meetings and parades in public places; the closing of roads; the taking of any land or property; and the destruction of any building. The Schedule also forbade the spreading by word of mouth or text any 'reports or... statements intended or likely to cause disaffection to subjects of His Majesty'. The Home Affairs Minister was also permitted to forbid the holding of inquests, if he felt this was required to preserve order and peace.”
(Quote from Wikipedia article)

In recent times Sinn Féin has called on Irish people to be more understanding with regard to the Protestant tradition in our country and I would support that call. History has fashioned a situation where a minority of people in Ireland regard themselves as British and these people are part of the Irish fabric. But what must not be allowed to happen is the whitewashing of the aggressive Anglicisation of our country and the demonization of people both at home and in the diaspora who have opposed (and still oppose) that process. And when some of those pro British elements (inspired by the Special Powers Act that underpinned their former one party state) seek to aggressively assert their Britishness in areas where they are not wanted, the reality of that aggression cannot be denied.

One of the "loyal" brethren gets ready to join an Orange Order parade

I find the whole discussion around Orange Order marches to be bizarre and dishonest (indeed cowardly) on the part of journalists. Allegedly liberal commentators like to pose the rights of an openly supremacist Orange Order against those of the "targeted" people who object to the organisation's coat trailing in their streets. Those same journalists also know that loyalists have a tradition of attacking and murdering Catholics and nationalists as we endure what the BBC used to call “the carnival atmosphere of the 12th of July”. There is no Quid Pro Quo and no “on the one hand but then on the other”. This incident, for example, from yesterday’s loyalist parade in Belfast is all too typical – where Orangemen call a halt from, or divert, their parade so as to play sectarian songs outside a Catholic church. Welcome to the culture festival:

The racist bigots in this “flute band” (including their very young children) marched in a circle for some twenty minutes outside a Catholic church as the police looked on. Sinn Féin has asked us to understand Unionists, but what is there to understand about this? The message is clear enough.

We are now in the bizarre situation where the leader of the biggest loyalist paramilitary group, Jackie McDonald of the UDA, has accurately described the 12th of July celebrations as the nightmare that it is and has left “balanced” journalists and “understanding” Sinn Féin leaders floundering in his overly candid wake. It is, and I quote, – “the worst day of the year”. See:

What journalists should be doing is asking why this sectarian and supremacist organisation is being allowed to even consider marching through Irish/Catholic areas unless it is willing, at the very least, to negotiate with local residents. To recognise, in other words, that they exist, and have inalienable rights.

I would argue that it is in this dramatic political and sectarian bear pit that Sinn Fein's very identity as a left republican party is being tested. At this historical moment it is wobbling and we may well see its collapse into just another vaguely social democratic parliamentary party if it does not guard its Northern back door. Of course Sinn Féin has to play a judicious game because of the De Hondt system of government in the North that sees them governing alongside unionists – most of them Orangemen. And Sinn Fein’s strategy is clear – to stabilise the North’s institutions at almost any price and then to use big electoral gains in the South to build the momentum for an all Ireland political framework. Its mistake, however, is to stop engaging with the people beyond its immediate support base. To forget that Sinn Féin in its essence is a concept and not a political party.


But don’t just take my word for it. This is what Sinn Féin's own chief guru of the left, Eoin Ó Broin, tells us in his broadly excellent book Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism.

“... the party has never seen itself as a party in a classical sense, but rather as part of a movement, not only including the IRA, but also communities and other social forces such as trade unions, campaign groups, and NGOs. ... Contemporary Sinn Féin views politics as a popular process of engagement, empowerment and participation, of which the formal party structure is only a part.”
PP 286/287

Sinn Fein observers, on the outside, have never understood the above crucial point. That Irish people are part of the Sinn Féin concept without necessarily wanting to be a formal part of it in terms of membership, agreeing with all its actions, and so on. Or to put it another way, we all have a claim on Sinn Féin in a way that we do not on other Irish political forces. Now it seems that the Sinn Féin leadership is forgetting this core truth in its rush to embrace legitimacy.

Unlike the early days of the peace process where people like Derry Sinn Féin’s Mitchel McLaughlin toured the country explaining the new strategy there has been no broad engagement with “communities and other social forces” with regard to, say, Martin McGuinness’s meeting with the Queen of England (for the record I think that this formal acceptance of the legitimacy of the IRA’s campaign on the part of the British was astonishing, it is the lack of dialogue I am raising here); or, say, failing to tell us why MI5 is still allowed to operate here; or, say, describing Derry as a "UK city of culture"; or even the broader question of how Sinn Féin now sees the Unionist veto and the still unresolved constitutional question. We deserve answers on these issues.

I was in Derry recently speaking to various people about the present situation and more than one person (a very experienced former member of the IRA amongst them) used the word “disconnect” to describe the relationship between Sinn Féin and part of its constituency. The word cronyism even reared its head. To paraphrase what they said, and in the context of Eoin Ó Broin’s words above, – the old days of a natural engagement have disappeared and if you have a problem it’s “speak to your MLA” or “go to the PSNI”. This is the direct opposite of what is happening in the South of the country where, from my own personal experience with Mary Lou McDonald’s local organisation, there is a “dluthcheangal”, a firm bond, between local people and the party, regardless of whether you are a member or not. And it is this last point that is crucial. It is as if in the recent wholesale move of the party structure to Dáil Éireann (the Irish parliament in the South), Sinn Féin just wants a quiet life in the North and regards the Troubles as little more than an annoying backdrop.

Even my own experience as a journalist bears this out. I am clearly regarded as a Troubles journalist and Sinn Féin’s officers will barely listen to me on any “war” related issue. For two years now I have been trying to get the party’s press officers to help me with certain aspects of my research into strategies used by British Military Intelligence. Where these officers have not simply ignored my approaches and emails outright, they have told me they would get back to me and never have. It is a non issue as far as they are concerned.

In contrast to this, former IRA members who are not now active in any political organisation, have gone out of their way to help me, taken calls from me in supermarkets, in the middle of meetings and whilst busy dealing with family matters. They are the ones who are still engaged in the wider sense. Why? Because they are well aware that the North will always be the cockpit of politics and change in Ireland.

If the above is true, we all have a problem because if we want to see a national resurgence (including the diaspora) in the Irish language and a fundamental change in Irish political structures, this cannot be done without Sinn Féin.

In a way Eoin Ó Broin’s books highlights the fundamental problems facing Sinn Féin in what he does not say - or wish to mention? The sectarian and right wing convictions of the Protestant working class in the North is ignored. And whilst, Eoin quite rightly stresses social commitment over issues of nationality, in equally ignoring the importance of An Ghaeilge (the Irish language) and our cultural institutions such as the GAA, he misses the key tool for the socio-cultural revolution that is required if we wish to reverse the deeply ingrained Anglicisation that has been successfully foisted onto the country. From what other place could this hatred of the Irish language emerge within our own people?

In other words, we have to move away from an English style parliament and give power back to people at local level if we are to see a radical transformation of society – tá seo fíor ach go hairithe sa Ghaeltacht – this is particularly true in the Irish speaking areas of Ireland where the rights of native speakers have been trampled on for almost two centuries. Does anyone accept for a moment, that a Dublin centric and pro British parliament will vote itself out of business by giving real power to the regions and to Irish language speakers? Yet, An Ghaeilge and thinking outside the parliamentary box does not seem to be a major part of Sinn Féin's agenda. There will, however, be no real (peaceful) Irish revolution unless the Irish language is centre stage. - Sí an Ghaeilge Athghabháil na hÉireann agus is í Athghabháil na hÉireann slánú na Gaeilge. The Irish language is the key to Ireland’s rebirth and the rebirth of Ireland is the key to the rebirth of the Irish language.

Not for the first time, An Sionnach Fionn (The White Fox) has written a very good blog about this very issue here:

When we accept that our minds have been colonised, we can begin to heal ourselves and begin building for the future. Sinn Féin needs to engage once again with the broad mass of the people, North and South, East and West, not least because, in the short term, a rainbow coalition is the only chance of forming an anti capitalist front that might actually be able to function by cooperating closely with similar groups in Europe.

@Paul Larkin
Carraic, Gaoth Dobhair
Mí Iúil 2012
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Title: Sinn Fein’s “Disconnect” Problem
Date posted: 13 Jul '12 - 17:53
Filed under: General
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