Credit: Gript

Ideology is no stumbling block for SF’s ambitions

On paper, Sinn Fein is a left-wing political party which aspires to lead the first openly left-wing Government in the history of the Republic of Ireland. That is not a controversial statement. It would be agreed by Sinn Fein themselves, as well as many Sinn Fein voters. The party is not only left wing, the way, say, the Labour Party is left wing. It goes much harder to the left than that.

As Ben wrote yesterday, it has no difficulty lauding some of the most repressive, undemocratic left-wing regimes in the world. The Cuban dictatorship, The Venezuelan dictatorship, and so on. For decades, it has aligned itself openly with murderous groups around the world: terrorist organisations like ETA in Spain, and Palestinian militants. When it comes to appealing to the left of the left, the party’s radical credentials are impeccable.

But times are changing, and Sinn Fein is smart enough to realise that most of the voters it needs to form a Government are not hard line left wingers. And so, this weekend’s Ard Fheis was very interesting, because it revealed a Sinn Fein whose pitch to the voters of Ireland Is more than capable of encompassing messages more traditionally the preserve of the populist right than the hard left.

To be sure, there was a lot of traditional “lefty” stuff: Lamenting tax breaks for millionaires while the children of the nation go hungry; putting workers rights at the heart of the governing agenda, nodding, very briefly, to progressive iconography like abortion and gay marriage, and much of the stuff that’s mandatory at any Sinn Fein Ard Fheis: Messages of solidarity to the Palestinians and the Cubans, and pledges to end partition. None of that will have been new to anybody listening. If you are any kind of informed voter at all, you know that that stuff is Shinner bread and butter.

The interesting thing came when Mary Lou turned to Climate Change:

The government increase in Carbon tax will push bills up further, push more families into poverty.

It won’t change behaviour or reduce emissions.

It will make life harder.

The government should scrap these Carbon Tax hikes.

She then elaborated on this point in an interview with RTE:

Ms McDonald also said there is no sense taking out the “big stick to Irish farmers” if the State is going to subsequently sign on for the Mercosur trade deal with South American countries which will “flood the market with Brazilian beef”.

She also said the State cannot “penalise ordinary households with hikes in carbon taxes” on the one hand while also “rolling out the red carpet for data centres that guzzle energy and are afforded significant tax write offs.”

The fact is this: On carbon tax and Climate Change, Sinn Fein sounds more like Donald Trump than it does any political party or movement of the left, anywhere in the world. They are miles to the political right of even Boris Johnson, a Conservative Prime Minister.

In many ways, it might be noted that Sinn Fein are as popular as they are because they are very good at reflecting the values and priorities of a big chunk of Irish voters. They are for the things you like – health and housing – and against the things you do not like – high taxes (at least on “people like you”), expensive climate policies, the British, and tax breaks (at least for “people not like you”).

For all that their policies are simple and clear, however, not one of them could really be said to be fleshed out or coherent. Their signature issues are health and housing. On health, the plan appears to be to spend a lot of money to create what might be called an Irish NHS. Spending more money on health and making things free is popular – but there does not seem to be a coherent strategy to end waiting lists. To do that, you would need to increase the supply and availability of the things people are waiting for: That means more (highly paid, of course) consultants, GPs, and so on, and probably more hospitals. The problem is that there are a limited number of consultants, a limited number of hospital beds, and rooms into which to put those beds. More money does not always solve a supply crisis – often it just drives cost inflation. That is a problem that no Government has yet solved, and there is nothing in the Sinn Fein plan that would obviously solve it either.

On housing, the policy is equally vague: In her speech, Mary Lou simply stated that the party would “build public and affordable housing on a massive scale” and provide full redress to the MICA families. Again, it’s the kind of thing voters love to hear, but much more easily said than done, especially since Sinn Fein would have to persuade its own councillors to stop objecting as often as they do to proposals to build housing across the country.

The problem with all of that is that once in Government, these things will start to conflict with each other. How, for example, do you “build new housing on a massive scale” while also rebuilding thousands of houses in Donegal, with their full MICA redress plan? This is not to suggest that either policy is a bad idea. It is just that doing both might prove a problem: If you are rebuilding thousands of houses in Donegal, you might find it hard to find builders to build new houses on a massive scale elsewhere in the country. Ireland only has so many qualified construction workers. That is not a problem any amount of money can solve overnight.

Similarly, on the climate, the truth is that you cannot be committed to meeting Ireland’s emission targets and also opposed to the carbon tax and cutting the national herd. The Green Policy is unpopular and (in my view) wrong, but it is at least coherent. Sinn Fein is for the objective, but against the fastest way to achieve the objective. Opposing the carbon tax and climate policies is perfectly legitimate. Doing so while pretending you will slash emissions is just… not very honest.

In this way, the party persistently winks at both sides of every issue. If you look and listen to their programme, as laid out, once you get past the traditional Sinn Fein rhetoric, there is very little resembling a coherent left wing plan to govern the country. In almost every area of public policy, Sinn Fein has adopted the easy, popular, position: They are for the things you like, and against the things you do not like. It is not, in any way, ideological.

None of this is new. It has been the successful approach of every major opposition party in our history. But it is also why so many Irish Governments end up in a mess. They keep making promises that they cannot possibly keep.

Sinn Fein is no different in opposition. The evidence of this weekend is that it will be no different in Government, either.

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