Plenty of Sinn Féin members are calling for non-payment of the household charge while the leadership discourages it, pretending that a mass boycott is a “personal” matter. Even as they condemn the charge and condemn austerity, they summon up the image of the non-payer being left high and dry by a hapless campaign and an apathetic public. There are two causes for their adoption of this position.
The first is their institutional memory of the Rent and Rates Strike in the 1970s, which was a failure. Alongside this is the memory of the Bin Tax campaign, a more recent and relevant defeat. The Rent and Rates Strike was doomed to failure from the start due to the fact that it was not an economic protest of the working class, but a political strike necessarily based only in the Catholic community. A part of the failure of the Bin Tax campaign, meanwhile, may be left at the feet of Sinn Féin themselves for the similarly double-mouthed stance they adopted at that time. Moreover, the emphasis on blockades as a tactic and the fine economic weather are features of that campaign which will be absent from the struggle in the New Year.
The second reason is far more substantial, and for it the above reason is often deployed as a cover. Sinn Féin as an organisation is hostile to mass participation in politics. Aonghus O’ Snodaigh speaks of the “irresponsibility” of calling for non-payment and talk about people being “left in the lurch, facing fines and imprisonment”. There is a genuine risk of that happening to people. However, if Sinn Féin were to support the campaign- to dedicate and organize their public reps, staff, resources and activists- the chances of any non-payer suffering would wither away to nothing. The Sinn Féiners are the ones leaving people in the lurch.
With something like the Household Charge, as with the Poll Tax and the Water Charges, half-measures are worse than nothing. 10% non-payment just means 10% of the people being victimized. When Sinn Féin hang back and talk about people broken by fines, they make what is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy- in not admitting for a moment that it has every chance of success while “personally” refusing to pay, the aim and the outcome is individual martyrdom, not victory. Martyrdom won’t save anyone a cent, and it won’t defeat austerity.
Any notion that they are being “responsible” by sabotaging this campaign must be dismissed. Sinn Féin’s position is a betrayal. Their support was not expected or hoped for, and nor is it necessary. The campaign still has every chance of success. At this point, before it has even begun, the campaign is miles ahead of where the anti-water charges campaign was at an equivalent stage. We have a huge campaign and have had massive meetings. We have a rake of TDs. We have huge support. This betrayal will have deeper consequences for Sinn Féin than it will for the Household Charge.
There were people left high and dry by badly-organized or defeated campaigns in the past. But if working-class communities standing up and defeating the state machine was an easy and painless process, then it would happen far more often. Sinn Féin, like everyone, know that sticking your head above the parapet invites enemy fire. It’s common sense. But the fallout from a defeat seems to be in the front of their minds, which suggests that they think the campaign will fail.
This is the curious point, because if defeat is inevitable in the communities (which it definitely isn’t!) then it’s hard to see why Sinn Féin are bothering to oppose the charge. Can we imagine for a moment that they think they might defeat it in the Dáil? Perhaps they have a plan to mobilize enormous demonstrations against the charge as an alternative to non-payment. Both of these scenarios are equally ridiculous and without foundation.
The answer to this political riddle must be that Sinn Féin are, in this instance as in others, performing the rituals of resistance, while failing actually to resist. This is the behaviour of a party that has a more realistic perspective than the Labour Party, even if it is equally cynical. If the Labour Party is displaying bovine idiocy, Sinn Féin can be credited with brute cunning. As an organisation, their political manoeuvres signify not the intention of defeating austerity, but the intention of harvesting votes by ineffectually opposing austerity- and only in ways that are “responsible”.
Those who call for non-payment, on the other hand, mostly see TDs only as an auxiliary to politics in the streets and in communities. In Sinn Féin’s implicit position of electoralism, by contrast, it is easy to see a future trajectory: steady growth, junior coalition partner status, utter sellout, then back, not quite to Square One, but to Two or Three, never to advance beyond Five. So Sinn Féin would oppose austerity just so that one day they might impose it- that theirs would be a policy of austerity is certain, considering their role as instruments of the Tories in Northern Ireland. This trajectory, however, would apply to “ordinary” times, assuming a return to prosperity and stability.
That would be a very big assumption. It will be increasingly necessary in coming years for communities to organize against cutbacks. There will be no radical-electoralist constituency for Sinn Féin to appeal to- no body of voters willing to let a TD say to them that civil disobedience is “irresponsible” at a time when it is a dreadful necessity. This shunning of the Household Charge campaign will be their first step on the road to irrelevance. Maybe after a few further steps they will begin to consider sweeping policy changes- for better or for worse- as a way of saving themselves.