Do not expect any radical shift, particularly on foreign policy, under a Sinn Féin-led government, warns Anne McShane
The success of Sinn Féin in the Northern Ireland elections puts it in a very strong position. It is now indisputably the most popular political party on the island of Ireland. SF is surely destined for government in the next election in the republic - due to be held before March 2025. The only unknowns are the size of its vote and the identity of its coalition partners.
I have argued many times that the suggestion that this will be a leftwing government is an utter fallacy. Shamefully the leadership of the main Irish leftwing organisation, People before Profit, is perpetuating this delusion. It declared in its recent pamphlet that “we want to participate in a left government that transforms people’s lives for the better and represents real change from the old Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael status quo”.1 To that end it has reassured SF leader Mary Lou MacDonald that its TDs will vote for her to form a government after the next election, provided she does not go into coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. Some PBP members - in particular those connected with the Rise faction led by Paul Murphy - have alibied their support for government with SF with the claim that this is the ‘united front tactic’ in action. Comrades, if your scheme is successful - and it’s a big if - it will be a popular front in action. You will be participating in a capitalist government and you will have lost your bearings - just like Syriza and all those others who have taken this opportunistic turn.
Meanwhile, SF continues to track to the right in order to win backing from bourgeois forces, nationally and internationally. One of the most recent examples is the shift in its position on neutrality. The Irish state has been officially neutral since the 1930s, meaning that it has not been an official member of any military alliance or engaged directly in war. It is not currently a member of Nato - although it is tied to it through the so-called Partnership for Peace programme. Ireland’s main overseas military engagement from the 1960s has been in UN ‘peace-keeping’ missions. It continues to play this role, while recently also taking on the training of military forces in Afghanistan and Ukraine.
Of course, as this shows, the state has never really been impartial or independent. In World War II - often seen as the highpoint of Irish ‘neutrality’ - taoiseach Éamon de Valera formally refused to take sides between the great powers and would not close the German and Japanese embassies in Dublin. However, in practice he did, of course, take the side of the Allies. Luftwaffe pilots who crashed on Irish soil were arrested and interned, while their counterparts in the RAF and USAF were allowed to go free. De Valera also permitted the use of Irish airspace for US and British war planes and shared military intelligence with them. These practices have continued since, with amenities, intelligence and assistance from a reliable Irish state. There is even a longstanding agreement to allow the British state to intercept ‘alien craft’ in Irish airspace. And, of course, we cannot forget the recent history of active collusion with the British state to criminalise and subjugate the movement for Irish unity in the north.
Numerous instances can be found to show the utter abjectness of the Irish state. The most notorious up to recently was the way that the government allowed Shannon airport to be utilised by the US war machine. In 2003 the Dáil approved the refuelling of war planes on their way to bomb Iraq, along with the transport of supplies and military personnel to Afghanistan and the Middle East. US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2006 showed that Irish government ministers were aware that the US was using Shannon as a stopover for flights involving renditions. In 2009 Amnesty International also reported that the government was permitting Shannon to be used as part of the US rendition circuit. It provided evidence to show it was a staging post for the transfer of detainees to torture sites. The government submitted to pressure to hold an investigation and then effectively dropped it.
Since 2022 the Ukraine war has precipitated a dramatic shift from even the pretence of neutrality. In January last year PBP’s Richard Boyd Barrett demanded of then taoiseach Micheál Martin as to why Nato had not been condemned for its eastward expansionism. Martin responded firmly:
We’re not politically neutral, but we’re militarily neutral. It’s an important distinction. We’re members of the European Union. We work with our European Union colleagues in terms of rules-based multilateral approaches to international disputes.2
Immediately a commitment was given to dispatch non-lethal support to the Ukrainian army. Foreign minister Simon Coveney then announced in October that Ireland would be part of the EU’s military mission to train Ukrainian forces.
Now the government wants to go further. Martin, now in the role of deputy premier and foreign minister, said in April that Ireland is no longer secure and has to increase its military capacity, particularly in relation to possible sabotage of international fibre-optic cables, which run through Irish waters. The Irish Times carried a story on May 14 that Ireland is likely to sign up to a Nato project to monitor and protect undersea cables. On May 17 it was reported that the heads of EU and Nato navies were meeting in Cork to discuss Russia’s presence in European - ie, Irish - waters. Reports of Russian ships off the south-west coast, including naval support vessels and frigates, have been appearing in the press since before 2022. One report states: “Security experts fear that these ships are mapping out undersea communication channels and other critical pieces of maritime infrastructure - such as wind farms - ahead of possible sabotage attacks on Europe.” It appears that the Nato initiative will be called the Critical Undersea Infrastructure Cell, but the monitoring of Russian ships is already well underway.
In many respects none of this is new. Ireland has been part of the EU’s Pesco (Permanent Structured Cooperation) since its establishment in 2017. But rather than cooperation with the EU and Nato happening behind the scenes, as was previously the case, the government is now talking it up. While Leo Varadkar (the present taoiseach) denies that Ireland will become part of a military alliance, he insists that it will support such military groupings: “We’re going to continue to work with Nato partners through the Partnership for Peace. And we’re going to continue to work with the EU on security questions through the Pesco arrangement.” Recent announcements of increases in military spending are clearly aimed at developing Irish capacity to provide logistical support, training and intelligence to the EU and Nato.
Drawn to Nato
The government has also announced that a three-day consultation on security and neutrality is to take place next month. The three forums, to be held in Cork, Dublin and Galway, will have presentations from security, defence and foreign policy experts, academics and, of course, prominent politicians. Members of the public can attend, but not speak (although they are allowed to submit written submissions in advance!). As well as being a method to draw Ireland more openly into Nato, the consultation is to consider removing the ‘Triple Lock’, which prevents Irish troops being dispatched abroad without Dáil approval. The popular commitment of Irish neutrality will be under attack. More than anything else, this is a political battle.
The attitude of SF to support for Nato has also shifted significantly to the right on this issue. In reply to questions from The Irish Times this month, its foreign affairs spokesperson, Matt Carthy, stated:
While we will not withdraw Irish defence forces from pre-committed operations and exercises, we will approach future proposals in the context of the principles underpinned by Irish neutrality and the opportunities that neutrality provides both Ireland and the EU to play a positive and constructive role in building peace and ending conflicts …
Ireland’s future participation in Pesco and Partnership for Peace must also be assessed based on those principles and should never undermine our capacity to continue playing an important role in UN peace-keeping missions.
In a lengthy statement following this, Carthy confirmed that an SF government would not be withdrawing from these bodies, but would be taking an approach which ‘emphasised independence and neutrality’.3 It says it wants a referendum on neutrality to take place, while still abiding by its commitments to Nato and the EU. The status quo would not therefore be threatened by an SF government. An angry PBP issued a statement calling on SF to deny the Times reports - which, of course, it would not and could not.
So there we have it. SF will and does support imperialism and its wars. The US can rely on it to act in the same way as Irish governments have always done. No wonder Biden greeted Mary Lou MacDonald so warmly when he visited Ireland. She and her government will be no threat to its interests. It will, however, most definitely be a threat to the working class.
. ‘Chasing after cabinet seats’ Weekly Worker April 27: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1440/chasing-after-cabinet-seats.↩︎