The 2016 Irish Elections: Sinn Féin v the Empire


Exactly 100 years ago a bunch of no nonsense Irish nationalists took over Dublin’s General Post Office and changed the world. This Friday something similar might happen. On February 26 the Irish vote in a general election and one of the favourites in this race for power is the same bunch of no nonsense nationalists who took over the GPO in 1916: Sinn Féin.

In 1916 the world was the British Empire and the Irish outsiders who took it on inspired the rebellion of colonised people everywhere (for example, in India). Indeed anyone with an Irish passport will acknowledge the goodwill they receive around the world (particularly in the Third World) because of the Irish refusal to submit to Britain in 1916.

In 2016 the world, on this side of the Atlantic, is the European Empire (the EU). And it is obvious that only outsiders will ever take it on. And if half or even a quarter successful they could inspire freedom movements not only in Europe, but everywhere else that feels the jackboot of Europe. This week history is glancing in the direction of Irish nationalism again.

This is not hyperbole but simply how the dice have rolled. Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal have all had their chance to take on the Euro imperialists and each have backed down. Why should Ireland be any different?

Sinn Féin, to begin with, is not a bunch of clowns (Italy’s Five Star Movement); nor is it led by middle class engineers and economists (the Greek Syriza party); neither is it a group of politely indignant professors (Spain’s Podemos party) nor über constitutional leftists (Portugal’s lefty coalition).

Among Europe’s anti-austerity parties Sinn Féin is the odd man out because it is a national liberation movement. It’s a throwback to modern times when national liberation meant something. And so it has more in common with America’s old Black Panther movement than with Podemos or Syriza. And that is exactly Sinn Féin’s strength.

Despite its name – in English it means “ourselves” – Sinn Féin is not a narrow minded nationalist organisation. On the contrary, it’s internationalist credentials are impressive. It fought alongside the ANC when no one else (apart from the Communists) dared to do so. It assisted the FARC when Clinton & co.  were implementing Plan Colombia. It also is a comrade of ETA in Euskadi – the Basque region (Spain). And it has close links to Free Cuba – as it did with Libya when it was Free.

Added to this honourable past and present Sinn Féin of course has fought Britain in a war during the 1970s and 1980s. And in “peace” time it has the audacity to ignore the British made border that divides Ireland in two. It alone among those racing for power this week operates on an All-Ireland basis.

In a word: Sinn Féin has the backbone every other anti-austerity group in Europe lacks. And if it gets into a position of real power it can use it. Berlin has yet to encounter such an anti-imperialist movement. And if Berlin is to break – Sinn Féin might be the one to instigate it.

All of this is conditional however. Does Sinn Féin want to fight Berlin? The signs are not good. Sinn Féin like most anti-austerity parties in Europe remains loyal to the European Union. And in the Irish election the Sinn Féin slogan is “A Fairer Recovery”. This implies a commitment to Ireland’s comprador capitalist structure. It implies a naivety that threatens to mimic all the other political parties (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens) which have betrayed the Irish people.

That said, a fight against Berlin is still a real possibility. If so it doesn’t have to be a suicidal head on confrontation – as 1916 was. In its recent war against Britain, Sinn Féin mastered the art of guerrilla warfare. If it chooses to do so, it can use this deep experience to reinvent the resistance to the European Empire. As an outsider Sinn Féin has thrived at the expense of the Dublin and London establishments. Now it can be the turn of the European Elite to suffer a Sinn Féin “attack”.

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Féin, once famously said that “the IRA haven’t gone away”. If Sinn Féin finds itself in power next week the fighting spirit of the IRA must be quickly found again and used creatively. If it is – Europe’s anti-austerity movement may find the backbone it so badly needs. To have a chance it needs a strong dose of no nonsense anti-imperialism.

Aidan O’Brien lives in Dublin, Ireland.