Sinn Fein, Irish Trade Unionism and Socialism in the 21st Century – By Jim McVeigh

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It may come as a surprise to some on the left but there are many Socialists within Sinn Fein and at every level of Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein is not the party of 1916 or 1969. Most Republicans I know are progressive liberal Republicans or Socialists. Sinn Fein’s current strategy and its policy program is not a Socialist program but it is radical and progressive and with some encouragement, it could act as a bridge to such a place.

It’s time for trade unionists, left Republicans and Socialists to seriously consider what Irish Socialism in the 21st Century might look like, what practical economic policies will act as a bridge to that future and what coordinated action could deliver.

It seems to me that there have been two damaging tendencies within what I will call the broad democratic movement within Ireland, in which I include the broad labour movement and the broad Republican movement.

All too often some of those on the left rely upon empty slogans and text book theories that are out dated or a million miles from the real lives of the working class. There has also been this damaging tendency towards elitism and political sectarianism. Everyone else is wrong and the tiny minority of ideologically pure are right.

Equally dangerous has been the historic tendency of many Republicans to neglect how we build a more egalitarian economy and society. We must heed more closely the words of Connolly, Markievicz and Mellows. Labour cannot and must not wait.

Both forces have, at least since Connolly’s time, failed to make common cause and to recognize that one without the other will fail to fully achieve their respective objectives. On the eve of his execution in 1922, Liam Mellows urged Republicans to forge a strategic alliance with Labour and to pursue a Socialist program. Tragically the militarists and conservatives in the leadership of the anti-Treaty IRA ignored his appeal and an opportunity to create a Socialist Republic was lost for many generations.

Similarly many on the Left chose to ignore the disastrous impact of partition upon the economy and the working class, north and south. Ignoring partition and the ‘carnival of reaction’ that it created has become an ideological virtue for some.

There cannot be Socialism without independence and economic sovereignty, or at least the maximum economic sovereignty that nation states enjoy in this global age. That was true in James Connolly’s time and it is true today.

Only a broad democratic and radical movement that unites the national and Labour movements in a coalition can hope to deliver fundamental change.

In the North of course, we are neither independent or sovereign. There we lack the political and fiscal powers to address many of these issues. An end to British control from London is a prerequisite for any move towards a Socialist society.

Sinn Fein are right to continue to push for the further devolution of power from London, particularly fiscal powers, devolution max as it has been referred to in Scotland. But we must set out to the general public there how we are different and how we would implement very different policies if we were given the opportunity to do so by the electorate. We must elaborate a distinct vision of this new Ireland.

We should put a Socialist/Labour  program before the electorate, particularly before working class Unionists and Nationalists who aspire to a more egalitarian society. In the context of Brexit there is an opportunity to begin a discussion with liberal and progressive Unionists and Loyalists about a very different Ireland. And there are probably more Unionists who fit into that category than we might think.

Sinn Fein is the only significant party that can lead a progressive coalition to power in Ireland, lead not dominate. Other parties and organizations have a crucial role to play in that coalition. All too often in the 26 Cos, this debate is reduced to a debate about with whom and with which party we would or might enter coalition. What matters more than with ‘whom’ is, upon what basis, and with what program? Can our participation in a coalition advance the cause of Irish Unity and deliver the maximum social and economic justice? I believe in certain circumstances it could.

If for example, Sinn Fein, the Labour Party and other parties of the left were to explore a common agreement post the next election in the 26 Cos, we could enter coalition talks as the senior partner in a potential government – the first left led government in the history of the state!

Even if Sinn Fein were a junior partner in that coalition, what will really matter will be the extent to which we can negotiate a programme for government that will significantly advance the cause of Irish Unity and deliver significant change on the key issues that face Irish society in the 26 Cos, homelessness, precarious work and low pay, gender pay inequality, the crisis in health care, rural and regional neglect, etc.

In the North Sinn Fein have consistently punched above their political weight and there is no reason to believe that the same could not be the case in Coalition in the 26 Cos.

I would appeal to socialists and trade unionists to work with Sinn Fein to further develop their policies and strategies. If that is not possible, if your loyalties lie elsewhere, with Labour, PBP, etc, then help us shape a political programme around which we can cooperate around.

As Sinn Fein continues to grow as a political force and we face the prospect of exercising real political power, we must begin to formulate  economic strategies that will challenge the traditional power of the privileged classes.

While parliamentary power is a prerequisite, parliamentary power without a mass movement, without industrial muscle will be limited in its capacity to bring about fundamental change. This has been true in every revolutionary situation across the world, from Russia to Cuba, from Vietnam to Venezuela. In South Africa, the defeat of Apartheid would have been impossible without the trade unions and COSATU the trade union umbrella organization. Ireland in that respect at least is no different.

Sinn Fein have developed an impressive portfolio of radical policies in the 26 Cos, though more consideration needs to be given to truly transformational policies, such as the re-nationalization of key industries, the establishment of worker cooperatives, and worker participation in the management of the economy and economic planning.

In the North there has been a distinct lack of radicalism and imagination when it comes to economic policy and much more can and should be done. Not all of this can be blamed on the need to reach necessary compromises with the DUP.

Sinn Fein in the North has in my view concentrated far too much upon the National Question and related issues, at the expense of the social question. We need to be much bolder and clearer about how we intend to change society in the North now, not just in a United Ireland.

Sinn Fein willingness to agree a cut in corporation tax at a direct cost to the block grant and at a time of austerity, is disappointing for many of us on the left in Sinn Fein, but we are a Democratic Party and those of us who are opposed will continue to argue for a change in that position openly and democratically.

We need policies that are radical but practical, we need policies that also move us towards a Socialist society, a society that puts workers, and working families at the heart of all its decisions.

Our society is fundamentally unequal, too much power and wealth is concentrated in too few hands. Connollys class analysis still holds true but in modern industrialized societies, the middle class has grown and now occupies a space of which we must take account. While we must formulate policies that redistribute wealth, we have to take account of middle income earners, this relatively new but significant strata of the working class, even though they may not see themselves as such.

We must also implement more far reaching changes that shift the balance of economic power away from the elites at the very top. There is inevitably a tension between these objectives and striking a balance will always be difficult. Those on the left who advocate an all or nothing approach to these matters, would consign us all to the permanent margins of political life.

We need to develop a more equitable and fairer tax system, we need to build more social homes and eradicate the scourge of homelessness, we need to strengthen workers Rights, women’s rights and we need to do these things now. However these in and of themselves do not constitute a real shift in the balance of economic power.

It is the private ownership and control of the means of production, i.e.our infrastructure, our transport system, our banking system, our natural resources, etc, that we must begin to change. Our objective must be to shift our economy towards democratic ownership and control.

In the North the reality is that the historic task of making peace with our Unionist neighbors, will require us to share power with the DUP, a Tory party. This has and will continue to require Republicans to reach very significant compromises on social and economic matters. That requirement and the lack of economic sovereignty means that our ability to introduce radical economic policies will be constrained but National reconciliation demands that we make these difficult compromises. We cannot choose our partners in peace and government and if peace is to endure we must find a way to work together.

Respect and a mutual willingness to reach reasonable compromises must be the basis of such a partnership. We cannot and should not accept that any section of Northern society should be relegated to second class citizenship, gay or straight, black or white, Orange or Green. So far the DUP have shown little or no respect for their partners in government and the community we represent.

In my opinion far too many citizens in the North simply see Sinn Fein as a Nationalist party. We need to reshape that image both in substance and perception, making it clear that we are an Irish Socialist/Labour Party that also aspires to Irish Unity.

This means developing some crucial policies and building blocks, for example the re-nationalisation of key industries and assets, such as water, transport and the postal services, a new progressive taxation system including a wealth tax, an all Ireland NHS, etc. We cannot do this overnight or in one fell swoop but we must plan in a determined way to bring these areas of our economy under democratic control once again.

No Republican government could deliver real economic change without establishing a state investment bank or banks on either side of the border, which would lend to Irish entrepreneurs, workers, farming families, worker Co-ops, SMEs, on a reasonable basis or that would intervene in the market to restrain the activities of aggressive finance capitalism, including the harmful activities of privately owned banks, such as exorbitantly high interest rates, home evictions and mortgage foreclosures, and without capping executive bonuses etc.

For far too long our governments, both in Dublin and London, have failed to regulate our financial sector, a sector that has already almost destroyed the country once before. We need a government and a state bank that has the courage to put manners on this sector.

Of course one of the most important building blocks of a new Socialist society is already in place in one part of the island, the NHS in the North. We must make the establishment of a truly Irish National Health Service, with health care free when required from the cradle to the grave, a priority across the whole of the Island.  We should also strive to push private health care, profiteering, out of our health service.

While bringing key industries back under democratic control, we have to grow other sectors of the economy. These include significantly growing our worker co operative sector. Ireland lags far behind Britain and many of our European partners in the size of our worker cooperative sector.  We should establish a worker cooperative support unit/agency and properly fund it.

Similarly we need to grow the social economy sector and seriously support our indigenous businesses, our SMEs.

Trade unions and trade union activists have a critical role to play in leveraging the type of change advocated here. They also have a critical role to play in developing an exemplary model of Workers Rights across the island of Ireland. There are good and bad employment laws and practices in both jurisdictions, how do we take the best of both and create an exemplary model of workers rights across the whole island of Ireland? Why hasn’t the Labour movement studied and compared both jurisdictions, including best practice abroad, and produced an all Ireland template, a model of Workers Rights to work towards?

For some trade unionists, workers rights or thoughts of Socialism stop at the border. The prospect of Irish Unity gives Socialists and Trade Unionists an opportunity to reimagine a new more egalitarian Ireland.

In addition trade unions have a role to play in advocating worker participation models in management and economic planning. What might these new models look like? We need to consider together what these might look like now.

In my view it is time for the trade union movement to develop and implement a more aggressive industrial strategy. We should set our ambitions on pay much higher than they are at present.

We should continue to build fighting unions and take that fight to the boardrooms of businesses and the cabinets of our Tory governments, both Irish and British.

Low paid and precarious jobs are now one of the main challenges facing the working class. A new generation of young workers face an uncertain future of working poverty and unsecured jobs.

Given the opportunity to do so, Sinn Fein will ban zero hours contracts and make sure that part time workers have the same rights as full time workers. Sinn Fein has already tried to strengthen Workers Rights in the 26 Cos by bringing forward draft legislation. We intend to bring similar legislation forward in the 6 Cos whenever the Assembly is restored.

It is crucial that Sinn Fein and the trade union movement agree a number of common social policy objectives and coordinate where possible parliamentary and industrial activity. This includes coordinating parliamentary activity, bringing forward legislation and introducing new radical social policies, on low pay, precarious work, housing, childcare, equal pay, workers rights, etc.

It means organizing mass mobilizations, just as was done during the Right to Water campaign and more recently the Right to Housing campaign but this time organizing large scale coordinated industrial action. The time is now right to consider bold action with very clear and achievable objectives in mind. Much more work needs to be done to prepare the ground for bolder political and industrial action. By working together and raising our ambitions we can deliver fairness at work and social justice in society.

Unlike in the past or in other revolutionary situations, this cannot be done quickly, easily or over night. It will require long term planning and long term thinking. Ireland in the 21st Century cannot leap forward to the future, this is not 1916, 1917, 1959 or 1969. Though revolutionary opportunities sometimes come when we least expect them.

Of course while we must grow this democratic sector, we also have to continue to find innovative ways of attracting FDI, of exploiting the tax revenue potential of this sector.

Those on the left who simply ignore economic realities or dismiss the importance of FDI in assisting the growth of a new Democratic sector are living in a utopian cloud cuckoo land.

We could and should learn a great deal from China and India in particular. Moving towards a more democratic economy, does not mean neglecting our indigenous entrepreneurs. On the contrary we must harness and encourage indigenous businesses, particularly in the agri food sector, cyber security, the digital technologies sector and our tourism sector.

Ironically we must find innovative ways of exploiting the dynamic nature of capitalism and using the tax revenue to invest in our people, in growing and sustaining our democratic sector. Capitalism is not going to disappear over night, we must encourage responsible capitalism and constrain its worst tendencies in the meantime.

As a political party, Sinn Fein are possibly approaching a point of great opportunity an opportunity not just to unite our country but to begin to transform our society.

We need progressive Republicans to begin to think seriously about what Socialism in the 21st Century might look like.

Let’s not simply hoist the green flag over Stormont but set about making this new Republic a beacon light to the marginalized, the neglected and the oppressed.


Jim mc Veigh is a Sinn Fein member and trade union official.

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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Good to see a sé barr of arts opening up around these let issues. Two books worth reading in the context of 21st century economic and social imperatives are Nigel Gibson’s Fanonian Practices in Post Apartheid South Africa and Yanis Varoufakis’ Global Minotaur.
    Maith thú Flash get the discussion moving and engage with social movements of all hues.

  2. This was the agenda and policy of the then Sinn Fein, as it transformed itself to the workers party. Embarking on a journey moving the republican movement away from blind nationalism into radical revolutionary socialism. Building a class consciousness party. A vanguard party of the working class for the working class. As much as I know and believe that Jim and few others, are committed to change and embrace socialism. The provisionals are still, fundamentally a catholic nationalist party. And lambasted republicans for their revolutionary politics. In the vision of Tone and Connolly. There steadfastness to the United Irishmen. For the unity of Protestant catholic and dissenter.


    • “The provisionals are still, fundamentally a catholic nationalist party,” argues Jim Quinn.
      Really ? The party that has been to the forefront for gay marriage rights and access to safe abortion does not strike me as being particularly Catholic. Perhaps he is mistaking Sinn Féin for the SDLP who are rather more…er…traditional on these issues.

  3. Typical nonsense from SF, O Broin was at this a few year ago as well. They keep forgetting the big ELEPHANT in the room. The EU. It controls and has had a detrimental effect on working peoples wages, living conditions and privatisation of everything except fresh air. Cop on and stop this social democratic horse shite

    • Gerry Mccormack on

      Social Democrat horses shit? The article is well written and thought out. Are you one of these far right wing anti EU types or one of the far left anti EU types? They are the same thing. A social democratic 32 county Republic is far more achievable and 100 times better than the current conservative right wing governments in the north and south. As for the privatisation argument in the south most utilities etc are still in public ownership thanks to strong Unions. Airports, public transport, water, forests , Ports, energy infrastructure, health services , social services and lots more including some Banks! The far left at best has a following of 2% and will never be much more but criticise everything that is progressive. Anyway the article is a vision to move republicans and progressive left thinkers to forge a new left path that will deliver for working people and their families.

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