The Irish Election: Sinn Fein Resurgence

What about Ireland?

Sinn Féin, recycled from being the political wing of one of the physical-force Irish republican groups into a left-wing reformist party, did surprisingly well in the elections in Ireland last month. They got the most first-preference votes (24.5 percent) and ended up with 37 of the 160 seats in the Dáil. The result was in effect a tie between them and each of the two other rather absurdly named traditional Irish political parties, Fine Gael (‘Tribe of the Gaels’), the party of the outgoing Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, and Fianna Fáil (‘Soldiers of Destiny’), founded by Republican hard-liner De Valera, which got 35 and 37 seats respectively.

When the original Sinn Féin was founded in 1905 it was an Irish nationalist party (‘We Ourselves’) catering for small-scale Irish capitalists eager to break away from the rest of the UK so as to be able to erect tariffs to protect them from the competition of bigger British capitalists. Its first leader, Arthur Griffith, proclaimed that, if an Irish capitalist firm was being undercut by an English competitor, ‘it is the first duty of the Irish nation to accord protection to that Irish manufacturer’ and that ‘under the Sinn Féin policy… no possibility would be left… for a syndicate of unscrupulous English capitalists to crush out the home manufacturer and the home trader’ (Arthur Griffith, The Sinn Féin Policy, 1907).

This was the policy that the De Valera Fianna Fáil government that came to power in 1932 began to implement, involving a tariff war between Britain and Ireland.

Now it’s a different story. In a 2019 policy document, Ownership Matters, Sinn Féin states that it wants ‘an economy that works for workers’ (mind you, don’t they all, given that workers make up the vast majority of electors?). After citing figures for wealth inequality and poverty in Ireland, SF went on:

Sinn Féin believes that this wealth inequality is a result of our economy being detrimentally ‘short-termist’ in its outlook – with private firms, through financial intermediaries, weighing near-term profit outcomes too heavily at the expense of longer-term sustainability. This has become the hegemonic strategy for private enterprise. The reality is that ownership shapes purpose. If we allow our economy to be owned and controlled by a small group of elites whose objective is that of profit, then that will be the purpose of our economy. If, however, we agree as a society that our preference is to establish an economy based upon productivity, sustainability and equality then ownership of our economy must be equitably spread across society’ (

Then came the punch line: ‘This new economy can be achieved through alternative models of business ownership. Sinn Féin believes that the Worker Co-operative Model offers an exciting and innovative alternative.’ Not to be achieved in one go, but, in the words of a slogan the document coins, ‘Own the Change: Building Economic Democracy One Worker Co-op at a Time’.

Those who voted SF are unlikely to have voted for this, but merely so that something should be done about growing inequality and poverty. However, it does illustrate the illusions of SF’s policy makers. They criticise traditional private enterprises for concentrating on short-term profits, but if worker co-ops are to compete against them with any chance of surviving they, too, would have to pursue the same economic objective of profit. They would have to make profits as they would be operating within the context of a capitalist economy, which is based on competitive profit-seeking.

The capitalist economy

The capitalist economy – which SF would leave unchanged while launching ‘one worker co-op at a time’ – is based on separate enterprises competing to meet paying demand in their sphere of activity. The weapon used in this struggle is to produce more cheaply than your rivals but, to do this, you must re-invest the major part of the profits you make in machinery and other ways that reduce the cost per unit produced. The first enterprise to adopt some cheaper production method reaps extra profits, but this encourages, in fact obliges those that can, to follow suit and the price of the product falls, with the innovator’s profits falling back to normal. If an enterprise were to distribute all the profits it made to its owners for them to spend on their consumption, then its cost of production would not fall and its products would become uncompetitive; eventually it would go under and its owners would lose their money. Very few private enterprises are that short-termist.

The point is that the same pressure to give priority to profit-making and re-investing most of it applies whatever the legal form and internal structure of the enterprise. A worker co-op would have to operate on the same basis. Internally it might be more democratic and less hierarchical but the decisions that have to be taken, whoever takes them, will have to be the same. And of course a worker co-op can also go under, with the workers losing not only their jobs but their savings too. Some succeed but those that do end up behaving like any other business enterprise, even employing non-members as wage-workers.

In any event, given the nature of Irish politics, SF will never govern on its own but only as part of a coalition. Its openly pro-capitalist partners may well indulge it by allowing it to fund setting up a worker co-op or two but that will be as far as it goes. And if the experience of those set up by Tony Benn in Britain when he was minister of industry in the 1970s is anything to go by, their chances of succeeding wouldn’t be that high; all those he patronised eventually folded.

Up the Border?

Sinn Féin still stands for a 32-county Irish Republic – as did, at one time, the more fiercely named Fianna Fáil party – but this has come into prominence, not as a result of SF’s election successes north and south of the Border but as a fall-out from Brexit. Which is rather ironic in itself since Sinn Féin, as an isolationist nationalist party, opposed Ireland joining the EU and urged a No vote in all the referendums to amend and extend the EU’s powers.

People in Northern Ireland voted 56 to 44 percent in favour of Remaining in the EU and the EU insisted – and Boris Johnson acquiesced – that the political border on the island should not become an economic border again. It never was until De Valera and Fianna Fáil came to power in the ‘Free State’ as it then was and pursued a policy of independent capitalist development before they eventually gave up and signed the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965. In 1973 Ireland and Britain joined the European Economic Community (as the EU was then called and still essentially is) together.

So, the north and south of Ireland will continue to have frictionless trade. As with the EU itself, there are those who think that a single market will be a prelude to a single political entity, especially as in the case of Ireland the Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum on uniting with the Republic to be held if it is judged that a majority might favour this. But this does not necessarily follow, as the co-existence in Ireland for years of the political border with the economic unity of the single market and customs union showed. Even if a majority were to favour political unity, holding a referendum would risk igniting ‘the Border’ as a burning – and completely irrelevant and dangerously divisive — issue again, with a significant minority likely to be fiercely opposed to it, even to the extent of taking up arms. It would be better from all points of view to let sleeping dogs lie.

But even if it did happen without re-igniting political violence, it wouldn’t make much difference to the life of ordinary people. Capitalism would remain, and they would remain excluded from ownership and control of the means of life and so obliged to work for a wage or salary for those who own and control them. The pillar boxes in the North might be painted green – or maybe the settlement would allow them to remain red – but that would be all.