A delicate balance between maturity and compromise

  • 15 February 2006
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Sinn Féin's hopes to at least double its Dáil representations are a long cry from the mere platform the southern party wing used to be for the IRA campaign in the North. The hunger strikes broke the mould, showing the Provisional leadership that there were political opportunities outside the armed struggle, and slowly the South began to follow the Northern example.

It took longer for Sinn Féin in the South to develop the political approach, until it got five people elected to the current Dáil at the last election in 2002.

In its early phase, Sinn Féin concentrated on a combination of populist activism with generalised revolutionary sloganising. The more mature, highly focussed Sinn Féin of today is miles away from what went before.

In the 1980s, Sinn Féin was particularly involved in the anti-drugs protests on the ground in various communities, especially in Dublin. This was the beginning of Sinn Féin's grassroots activism in working class communities.

Their political ideas adopted a standard left-wing position at that time. Many of these ideas had been the original mainspring behind the Officials before they evolved into the Workers Party. Sinn Féin tightened up a position of opposition to the European Union, a strong line on State-led development of the economy, an increasingly clear championing of liberal issues, such as women's rights and reproductive rights, and social issues, such as housing, community policing and locally-based employment plans.

The key areas in which the party has moved significantly from this early grandstand style of politics has been the economy, economic development in general, taxation and the EU.

It is several years now since the party modified an original out-and-out opposition to the EU, replacing it with one of more critical engagement at the 2001 árd-fheis.

For other parties, such as both Labour and the Workers Party, similar moves were merely the precursor to an enthusiastic surrender to Europeanism. At the time, Sinn Féin party theorist Jim Gibney vehemently rejected any idea that this evolution of policy meant any dilution of the party's commitment to national sovereignty.

How long the party can maintain its principled position, given the increasing pressures on it to accept the European context, is unknown.

Secondly, State-led development of the economy is rarely referred to in the party's economic debates. Rather, the party emphasises the need for State aid to bolster indigenous companies and make sure that we are not solely dependent on foreign investment. This is similar to Enterprise Minister Mícheál Martin's position, though Sinn Féin is still dubious about the levels of profit being taken out of the country by the multinationals.

On taxation, Sinn Féin has been a strong advocate of shifting the burden of taxation away from the general worker and placing it on the rich. But it has found that this has opened up a battery of criticism from other parties eager to distort the party's position and score political capital on the public's perceived opposition to increased taxation, and so it is rowing back from an originally much harder stance.

In recent months, the party has increasingly come out in public to argue that it is not in favour of increasing taxation as a matter of principle. They say that if increased taxation is found to be necessary to fund their spending programmes then they will do this by bringing in new surtaxes on high earners with over €120,000 annually, raising corporation tax and so on.

On the one hand the party recognises that making a fetish of company taxation may sound well as a point of revolutionary rhetoric, but that it may well be more emblematic than of real benefit.

But on the other, it is hard to buy the argument that we can realistically increase and improve public services without extra spending and the extra taxation that would be necessitated.

Clearly, Sinn Féin is afraid of fighting the taxation issue on the basis that it would be accused of being a high tax party. Finding a solution to finance its programmes will be difficult, even if the role of taxation is left out in redistributing wealth from those who have it to those who don't, and from those who have a lot to those who have a little.

The ultraleft charges Sinn Féin with moving to the right. Toiréasa Ní Fhearghusa in her Late Late Show interview pointedly refused to declare herself a "socialist republican".

Gerry Adams has carefully learned the lessons of the parties that went before him, and he is a steady hand in directing the party to injecting a greater maturity to its policies, while not falling foul of the process.

Central therefore to this árd-fheis will be well-researched, down-to-earth polices on transport, housing, childcare and, above all, health.

Health will be the centrepiece of the árd-fheis, with a spirited attack on Mary Harney's privatisation policy, and a defence of the role of smaller locally-based health units. Sinn Féin's argument is that the local should not feed in to the big hospitals, but that the big hospitals should work to assist the locals in effective health care. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has queried why small local hospitals are good when handed over to private enterprise, but bad when developed by the public system.

Their evolution of policy so far continues to emphasise the empowerment of local communities that lies at the roots of Adams' political vision, with a strong emphasis on public services for all, funded out of general taxation.

Perhaps Sinn Féin should acknowledge then that in reality that means higher taxation, and campaign to show how their plans will not affect the majority but will take money off the Tony O'Reillys, Dermot Desmonds, John Magniers and others – many of whom live as tax exiles and pay no tax at all.

And if that's socialist republicanism, then perhaps Toiréasa should be happy to say so.