Opinion polls show growing support for Sinn Féin, particularly among workers and young people. The political establishment are frightened and many are asking: what would a Sinn Féin led government look like? Kieran Allen gives his assessment.
The question is hardly asked in the North. Sinn Féin is viewed as a nationalist party that promotes the interests of one community. It does not claim to speak for the broader working class. Nor does it advance an economic agenda that is very different to its partners in government.
In the South, however, this is a real question. Recent opinion polls show a growing level of support for Sinn Féin, particularly among workers and youth. The political establishment are getting frightened and many are asking: what would a Sinn Féin led government look like?
So just how left wing are they?
Traditionally, left parties have called for a redistribution of wealth. The mechanisms included nationalising parts of the economy or imposing taxes on big business to fund a transfer to public services.
During the 2019 British election, Corbyn proposed to take the Royal Mail, rail operating companies, energy supply networks, water and sewerage companies into public ownership. This only appeared radical when set against the background of the previous Blairite Labour Party.
Calls for nationalisation was once the standard fare of both social democratic and revolutionary socialist parties. The social democrats did not want the overthrow of capitalism but they still thought nationalisation was a necessary measure to gain some control over the economy.
Sinn Féin, however, have no sympathy with calls for nationalisation.
This emerged very clear when Irish political parties were asked by Journal.ie to respond to a referendum in Berlin. Citizen had voted by a 56% majority to force major private landlords to hand over their properties to public authorities. In other words to nationalise vulture funds.
Eoin Ó Broin responded that the solution to Ireland’s housing crisis “isn’t necessarily expropriation” of large, corporate landlords. Instead, he wanted to close a number of tax loopholes. This position aligned with others who define themselves as centre left. Thus, the Labour Party spokesperson ruled out expropriation, claiming that “Ireland operated a different system” while, the Social Democrats evaded the issue by making no comment.
Only Richard Boyd Barrett of People Before Profit put across a radical left position, stating that:
“We would be very much in favour of taking the residential property portfolios of the REITs, cuckoo funds and other big corporate landlords into public ownership so that we could control rents and offer affordable rents.”
In brief, nationalisation is not a core element of Sinn Féin’s wider agenda. Their focus is instead on tax policies.
But a detailed look at their policies shows a surprising moderation as a recent headline in the Irish Independent indicates: ‘Pearse Doherty Interview: Big Business and investors know Sinn Féin won’t go after them’. Many activists are understandably sceptical of how the Irish Independent lambasts Sinn Féin but this headline was accurate.
Sinn Féin’s 2020 manifesto actually committed ‘to retaining the 12.5% corporation tax that has been key to attracting many multi-nationals in Ireland’. However, after the most recent OECD move, the party followed the political establishment in agreeing to raise this to 15%.
The key issue, however, is not headline rate on corporations but rather the myriad of tax loopholes that surround it. And it is precisely here that the moderation of Sinn Féin is most evident.
In their alternative budget for 2022, Sinn Féin main proposal for a tax on profits is to implement a key recommendation of the Expert Review of Corporations which was led by the right-wing economist, Seamus Coffey. The proposal aimed at ‘smoothing out’ the amount of tax multinationals pay over time by bringing forward when they would pay it, raising, it was claimed, 750 million euros.
As Pearse Doherty pointed out in answer to Varadkar:
‘He didn’t know that this was a proposal that doesn’t increase tax rate… it just brings the tax rate forward. Over a longer horizon, the same amount of tax would be paid by the company and the same amount of revenue over a longer period would be brought in by the state’.
Sinn Féin certainly proposes a range of tax measures on wealth – such as higher income taxes for those who earn too much or the scraping of odious tax reliefs that benefit foreign executives as individuals. But they refuse to move against multinationals and big Irish corporations. The only substantial measure they propose on corporation tax is removing the tax reliefs for the banks.
There are two reasons for this approach.
Tax Haven Ireland
One is that the party is afraid to tackle the sacred cow of Southern capitalism – namely that multinationals have a divine right to pay less tax on their profits than that the average worker pays on his or her wages.
The other reason is that the party is setting itself up to run the Irish tax haven. Ireland’s niche within the global system is to allow major corporations to dodge taxes. Sinn Féin does not propose to change that.
But this is problematic at a number of levels.
As long as the structure of tax haven capitalism remains in place, there are only limited changes that can be made to improve the abysmal public services in the South. Put simply, if you don’t challenge the tax haven, the possibilities for cutting class sizes or reducing hospital waiting lists are very limited.
And if Sinn Féin shows a distinct moderate face before they enter government, you know they will buckle under pressure when the wealthy really turn the screws.
But Sinn Féin cave to the establishment on more than just economics.
Special Criminal Court
Despite a policy of opposition to the Special Criminal Court, in recent years they have abstained in the Dáil on this issue. The Special Criminal Court denies the right to a fair trial with a jury – it is a simple left-wing stance that it should be abolished.
Instead, a motion passed at their latest Ard-Fheis has dropped their opposition to non-jury trials. They have come under pressure from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and are attempting to portray themselves as a respectable party, a party of government.
This will do little to win ‘middle-ground voters’ but will give the Southern establishment even more confidence that they can push Sinn Féin around.
And on the question of reproductive rights, pro-choice activists called on the party to use the recent Ard-Fheis to improve its position. These demands grew after recent abstentions by Sinn Féin MLAs on a DUP bill which could see abortion access dangerously restricted.
Sinn Féin ignored this call, and their abortion policy remains widely out of step with the basic demands coming from the pro-choice movement, the left, and even organisations like Amnesty International.
So just how left is Sinn Féin?
In tone and rhetoric, they sound like workers’ representatives. But read the small print and you realise, this is a centre-left party hoping to enter government with other centre-lefts in Labour and the Social Democrats.
Which is why Ireland needs a genuine radical left party like People Before Profit.