Posts Tagged ‘Sinn Féin’

Merrion Square West, behind the Dáil, was filled with people. The closer you got to the stage, the thicker the bodies were pressed. To get around the corner to the other side of the square meant squeezing through a very slow human traffic jam. After trying, mainly to get a look at what kind of crowd was on Merrion Square South, I changed lanes and turned back. In front of me was a sea of people and a rich array of flags and placards.

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A guy later described to me how he stood in front of the stage and rang his friend, who was down near Trinity. Neither one, from where they stood, could see any end of the crowds. Many people stuck down on Nassau Street couldn’t even get to Merrion Square.

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The Guards and the media said that there were 30,000 people out on December 10th. We need to bury that myth quickly and securely. To be sure, 30,000 is a huge number of protestors. The student protest in 2010 was 30-40,000, and the one in 2011 was 20,000. Both were gigantic, awe-inspiring turnouts.

But there is absolutely no way that December 10th saw any fewer than 50,000, and to hear that there were 100,000 out would not surprise me at all. In other words December 10th was at the same point on the Richter Scale of protest as the historic October 11th and November 1st days that shook the government into making big concessions, cutting the water tax and delaying the bills.

The size of the demo is an extremely important question. The government’s U-turn was supposed to have satisfied everyone and ended the upheaval. December 10th proves that that has not happened. People realise that if we start paying, then the bills will sooner or later be hiked up and privatisation will be only a matter of time.

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So what were the Guards and the media at, saying there were only 30,000 there? It’s obvious: trying to spread the impression that the government’s u-turn has worked and that the protest movement has been whittled down. “The middle ground lost interest after our colossal u-turn,” as one Labour member put it.

Another coping mechanism for the establishment is to claim that the crowd on December 10th, big and all as it was, doesn’t really “count” because apparently it was mostly composed of Sinn Féin supporters and socialists. “There is a lot of Sinn Féin and hard left branding,” one Fine Gael member pretended to observe.

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I say pretended because I saw the demo with my own eyes and I know that’s nonsense. The “______ Says No” contingents were more numerous than Sinn Féin, the Socialist Party or People Before Profit. Most placards were home-made and improvised with clever (or weird) individual messages. The photos I took completely bear this out. But the Irish Times tells us that “[The] View from the stage was dominated by SF flags, socialist groups and unions.” Unless there was a huge concentration of such flags just in front of the stage, this is fiction.

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In any case, what are they saying? That Sinn Féin and the left can summon tens of thousands onto the streets at will whenever they want to have a “counterfeit” protest? Were these tens of thousands of people present at the last demonstrations (which the journalist Fiach Kelly has forgotten the dates of) or were those demonstrations composed only of “real”, “ordinary”, “reasonable” people? Surely if SF, the Socialist Party and PBP can now count their active members and close supporters in the tens of thousands, then that deserves to be a headline all on its own?

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This “supporters” myth, the legend of the counterfeit protest, is beneath contempt in terms of self-delusion. Maybe Fiach Kelly wants to believe it himself or maybe he spent more time behind Garda lines with coalition hacks than he did looking at the protest he was supposed to be reporting on.

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It was an awesome turnout, the mood was brilliant and the people marching were not all Shinners and lefties who sprang out of the ground. But the mood on the ground was not really matched from the stage.

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Place yourself in the scene. We all gather at 1pm, all fired up and anxious to hear some politics; at the highest pitch of enthusiasm Brendan Ogle, who is MCing, tells us a band is going to play. The band is OK, but we’re not here for a concert. And you can see people start to move in the first twenty seconds after the first note is played. In the crowd of tens of thousands, hundreds are moving away from the stage. Lines of people are trickling away. And you think: why the hell did they put on a band? Why do they always do this?

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A bit of music and poetry and spoken-word art can be good on a protest. But there was far too much of it, and sometimes it didn’t even seem to be political. Every time the music or the poetry started up, lines of people trickling back down to Nassau Street would appear amid the crowd. People went down to O’Connell Bridge to block traffic or to Kildare Street to have an aul push-and-shove with the cops.

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Speakers had come all the way from Detroit and from Greece to speak. By the time they got up there, 4 or 5pm, only 30% of the crowd was left, at the very most. This was still a sizeable crowd, but it was a sad remnant of the surging throng that had been there earlier. What a sickening waste. Next time, Right2Water need to front-load the politics and keep the poetry and songs for later on, or maybe for a short interlude in the middle of the speeches.

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The second point of criticism: when are Right2Water, Brendan Ogle and People Before Profit going to cop on and start talking about non-payment? Is the alliance with Sinn Féin more important than the key tactic that can bring down the water charges? Non-payment should be front-and-centre. We need to maximise the numbers who don’t pay. That is the key struggle right now.

English: Signs in Main Street, Strabane, Count...

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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.