Should we be sceptical of Sinn Féin as a left-wing party?

Following the Sinn Féin surge in the recent election, many people have been excited about Ireland electing a supposedly left-wing government for the first time. While there are many reasons to be happy about the election results, primarily the splintering of our infamous two-party system, Sinn Féin’s credentials as a left-wing party seem dubious. 

Sinn Féin has always been both left-wing and republican but the emphasis has always been on the republicanism. Indeed, much of Sinn Féin policies, outside of nationalism, tend to be more focussed on what is more advantageous to the party rather than the people. Among others, Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin’s housing spokesperson, has criticised this approach frequently. Power has always been their primary goal. It is only through becoming a mainstream party that they can achieve their central goal of a united Ireland. If compromising on left-wing policies seems like the easiest route to achieving this then they will be more than willing to do so. 

This ambivalence on non-republican issues can be seen on both sides of the border but is clearer in the North because they have actually spent time in government there. One does not have to look too closely at this record in government to become doubtful about their left-wing credentials. Their record in the North is primarily one of carefulness and relative moderation, not too dissimilar to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in the Republic. Recently, they have been unwilling to tackle the tricky issue of welfare reform, deciding to cede control of it to Westminster, thereby giving way to decidedly non-left policies like Universal Credit and Bedroom Tax. Similarly, they have supported measures such as cutting corporation tax in the North to levels similar to those of the Republic.  

The same trend can be seen in the Republic where Sinn Féin have made repeated U-turns on issues like corporation tax. Much of their recent success has come from adopting positions once they were already obviously popular, such as coming out against water charges. These positions were clearly taken because they were deemed to be beneficial to Sinn Féin, rather than being beneficial to the movements supporting these positions. 

There are reasons beyond their history of flip-flopping to be sceptical of Sinn Féin’s left-wing credentials. One, in particular, is the reasonably undemocratic structure of the party. Compared to other left-wing parties in Europe, such as Podemos and Syriza, Sinn Féin is much more top down than bottom up. Eoin Ó Broin has described it as “an organisation which is both highly centralised in its distribution of power and vertical in its structure of command” where “discipline and loyalty are often more highly valued than critical debate and internal democracy”. This means that even if many of its members hold genuinely left-wing positions, their ability to impact actual policy decisions is much more limited than in a more traditional left-wing party. If the Ard-Chomhairle decides that socialism is not a priority, then it simply will not be prioritised. 

However, there are still several reasons to be optimistic. The most obvious one is that even if they are not as left-wing as they claim to be, they are still more left-wing than Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil. Forcing those two parties to merge, either literally or at least in the public imagination, leaves the centre left as the most obvious ground for Sinn Féin to inhabit. 

The second reason is that while their record in Stormont is far from left-wing, it does need several qualifications. The first is that they only have limited authority given the fact that the purse strings remain in Westminster. This means that their ability to enact left-wing policies was constantly constrained by the whims of the UK government who are generally far from being left, even under the most recent Labour governments. Furthermore, they also had to share power with the DUP. This meant compromises were necessary. These compromises often yielded results which many objected to, but which were ultimately unavoidable. A Sinn Féin led government without both of these constraints would be far more likely to enact left-wing policies. 

The third reason is that while most of the time, when they are elected in the North, it is because of their position as the main nationalist party, that was not the case in the most recent general election. The only reasonable explanation for the Sinn Féin surge was that there is a demand for change among the Irish electorate. That change is left-wing change. If Sinn Féin are good at one thing it is following the Zeitgeist and that should immediately lead them to try to enact the left-wing policies voters seem so keen on. 

The final reason is that many of the senior figures in Sinn Féin have impressive credentials as left-wing policy wonks, most notably Eoin Ó Broin who has written a book on housing problems in Ireland. Putting people like Ó Broin into positions of power will undoubtedly lead to more effective policy on housing than any individual from almost any other party. 

While there are reasons to be sceptical of Sinn Féin’s motives as a left-wing party, there is plenty of cause for optimism. They might only be left-wing because it is popular to be left-wing but being able to fix those problems is about as good a pitch as they could possibly make if their goal is long term influence in politics in the Republic.