The British left has much to learn from the success of Sinn Fein


“Michelle O’Neill is now our First Minister Designate in a state which was designed to never have a Michelle O’Neill in any position of power”

Emma Sheerin MLA

By Sam Browse, Arise Festival

On Wednesday, hundreds tuned in for the online meeting ‘Real Change in Ireland – Lessons for the Left’, featuring contributions from John McDonnell MP, Geoff Bell (Labour for a United Ireland, and author of The Twilight of Unionism), and Emma Sheerin, Sinn Fein MLA for Mid Ulster.

You can read the report-back or watch it in full below:

WATCH: Real Change in Ireland – Lessons for the Left

Rachel Garnham, the  Chair of the meeting, began by reminding the audience of the recent unprecedented results in May’s Six Counties elections in which Sinn Fein won a majority. Setting the agenda for the meeting, she asked what can the British left learn from the success of Sinn Fein, not only in the North but across the Island of Ireland?

Emma Sheerin, Sinn Féin Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly member for Mid Ulster, began by highlighting the historical resonances of the 5th May elections, which took place on the anniversary of Bobby Sand’s death. However, not only were the elections symbolically significant, they also represented an unprecedented victory for Sinn Finn, who are now the largest party in the Six Counties. As Sheerin said, “the ground has changed irrevocably” – especially when viewed in the context of Sinn Fein’s continuing ascendancy in the twenty-six counties as well.

In a poignant reminder of how far the situation has evolved, she said “Michelle O’Neill is now our First Minister Designate in a state which was designed to never have a Michelle O’Neill in any position of power.”

In contrast to the misogynistic and hateful sectarianism from some elements of unionism in the last few weeks, she said “it’s for us as socialists to present a more positive way forward and allow people to choose that when the opportunity arises.”

Geoff Bell, Labour for Irish Unity and Author of the upcoming book ‘The Twilight of Unionism,’ opened his contribution by paying tribute to Sinn Fein and emphasised the central theme of learning from their successes.

“The British left in the past have had a record of trying to tell Irish people and republicanism how to behave and what to do and how to have success, and I think the tables have turned in the last couple of years. I think we should listen to [Irish people]!”

Bell pointed to unionism’s historic role in Irish politics as being “the party of privilege… and the divide and rule of the ruling class” and explained the racist character of the recent unionist bonfires – which feature calls to “kill all taigs” (a sectarian slur used to describe Catholics).

He emphasised that not only had the republican vote increased, but in the north of Ireland the unionist share of the vote is on a long term downward trend, having received 55-75% before the troubles, to now taking only a combined 40%. He pointed to the absurdity of the Labour leader, Keir Starmer’s, support for unionism given this historic decline.

The final speaker, John McDonnell, began by saying he had never been so optimistic. The advance of Sinn Fein presented “a huge opportunity for a new type of politics and a new political dispensation” and he said that a border poll seemed inevitable.

He argued that the heart of the public discussion on creating a new Ireland will be the economic debate and what economic prospects can be offered to people in the North, alongside the future of public services. He continued:  “the electoral victories for Sinn Fein have opened up opportunities… there’s a debate about long term planning now – economic, social and cultural – in a way that we haven’t had before.”

Contrasting the openness of Sinn Fein to new ideas, he argued that “the only intransigence there’s been has largely been a UK government that has failed to listen and that has encouraged the worst elements of unionism to go back into their shells.”

Despite this, McDonnell said, “I’m really optimistic… Most importantly for the Labour left over here is to learn some lessons about how you promote policy, how you bring people together, and how you communicate.”

Mary Lou McDonald (Left) and Michelle O’Neill (right) at Ard Fheis (2018). Photo credit: Sinn Fein/Wikicommons

Leave a Reply