From top: Mary Lou McDonald; Dr Rory Hearne
Tomorrow you continue the journey of history-making.
The decisions you, and your party, make in the coming months and years will determine if your Presidency of Sinn Fêin marks an important step towards an Ireland of social justice and an end to this failed Republic of corruption, inequality and continual crises – or if it marks a continuation of the status quo and another step on the road towards Sinn Féin becoming part of the Irish establishment.
I am writing this to you in an air of hope.
Myself and yourself have been part of many of the same campaigns over the last two decades – from protests in the 2000s against the Dublin Incinerator, for a Europe of social rights at the EU summit in Dublin in 2004, Shell to Sea, marches against the visit of war mongerer George Bush, and the campaign to Save St Luke’s Hospital in Rathgar.
To the 2010s when we marched against austerity, cuts to community and youth services, of course the historic water charges movement, and more recent housing crisis protests.
These were, and remain, movements of ordinary citizens – concerned with the state of their communities, their country and even the planet. Some ‘won’, some ‘lost’ – but I know that you are proud of your involvement in these, as I am.
I know you understand that these are the seeds of change – the grassroots so-called ordinary citizens in society. Many of your supporters were part of them and they were (and are) inspired by your involvement and championing of these issues. That is where your heart is.
But to the thorny difficult issues that I don’t think should be ignored on this historic day for you. Most importantly, the question of government and, coalition government specifically.
Before the last election you and your party signed up to, and advocated, the Right2Change policy principles that include the right to water, decent work, housing, health, debt justice, education, democratic reform, equality, a sustainable environment and national resources, that would form the basis for ‘a progressive Irish government.’
Your position at that point was to only go into government as a majority party. Your position has changed and you are now open to go in as a minority party. There are clearly different views within your party about whether to go into coalition or not with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.
But on the eve of this historic day for you, I would like to make the case to you that supporting a Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil lead government would be a major mistake, not just for Sinn Féin as a party, but also for the wider movement working towards progressive substantive change on this Island.
Of course you will ask, well what is the alternative to a coalition government with either FF or FG? Gerry Adams has asked where and who is the left alternative that could go with Sinn Féin?
Firstly, there are others, although currently small in number, like the Social Democrats, and independents. But we are in a period of political earthquakes and instability. New political forces can emerge quickly. Ireland is not immune from international political trends.
After the next election the broad left is likely to increase its numbers, not to be in a position to form a government, but parties like the Social Democrats and Sinn Féin will increase their seat representation. That means a larger opposition after the next election. A larger grouping to put forward alternative policies. That is, if you or the Soc Dems do not go into government.
There is little point Sinn Féin going into government as a minority party because that means – quite obviously – you have not received a public mandate for your policies. There is no point in the progressive Left being in government if it does not have popular support for its policies.
Otherwise they will just be continuously opposed by the media, the establishment, IBEC etc and undermined without the broad public backing necessary to respond to such attacks. All of us on the progressive broad ‘centre’ and ‘genuine’ Left have a job to do before we should countenance entering government.
And that is to convince a majority of the Irish people that our policies are the best ones that can guarantee them improved living standards and a decent quality of life – from affordable housing, to access to quality healthcare, secure and well-paid jobs, women’s rights, community services, well-funded infrastructure for a sustainable steady economy, reforming the EU etc.
Importantly also the social forces that can do play a big role in society – the social movements, the civil society NGOs, the trade unions, the community groups – they need to be supported to enable that process of citizen education and mobilisation for alternative policies.
The lessons of the Labour party, the Greens and every small left party that has entered coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil should surely warn you away from such a coalition move. What real fundamental change did any of those parties achieve? Very little I would argue.
They would have been better to stay in opposition, build that popular support for their policies, become the main opposition and then, when they have the public majority support, enter government and deliver real change.
And so I would argue you should take the path Labour have never been brave enough or willing to take – stay in opposition.
Being in opposition is not an irrelevant political place to be. Your decision after the 2016 election not to go into government resulted in the current historic situation whereby Fianna Fáil are supporting a minority Fine Gael government.
This has meant the government is weak and open to legislation being proposed from the opposition, the citizen’s assembly, and even civil society. It has made the Oireachtas committees, and therefore our democracy, stronger. Imagine what you could do as the main opposition party?
But importantly, to go back to those grassroots campaigns I started with. They, and the communities they come from, many of the most deprived in this country, but also many middle class people, and increasingly the younger precarious and excluded generations –many of them are your supporters. What do they want you, and Sinn Fein, to do?
Their response to Labour in the last election shows what they do not want you to do. They want real genuine change.
They want politicians and political parties like Sinn Féin to stand up for them, for the excluded, for the voiceless, and not to prop up another conservative government and implement policies you previously opposed. Citizen trust in politics is at a low ebb. We have a fragile democracy.
Will your decisions result in further disenchantment and disillusionment or in an empowered and hopeful citizenry? Where will these people go if they no longer feel represented by a Sinn Fein that ends up defending the establishment?
Will your name sit along-side those like Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin, Alan Kelly, Pat Rabbitte and others who promised in 2011 to stand up for working people but after the election ended up hammering those they were supposed to represent?
Pat Rabittee’s words should haunt you – you will rememberwhat he said when challenged on reneging on pre-election promises – that they were just pre-election promises after all – made to be broken.
Or will you, Mary Lou McDonald, President of Sinn Féin, stand for something fundamentally different? Will you be the first female Taoiseach of a first broad progressive centre Left government in Ireland? Will you transform and grow your party and the wider Left and progressive civil society to become a real new politics in Ireland?
This is a time of possibilities. It is possible.
Are we at the dawn of a new Republic of Equality for all, or are we at the point of witnessing it being confined to the history book recordings of the 1916 Proclamation? You have a central role in determining the answer to this question – in determining this country’s path and its future.
You can shine the light on injustice –wherever it hides and crouches, carry the torch of hope, shake this tired corrupt establishment, and chart a road toward a real Republic of Equality, social justice and democracy. Dear Mary Lou, congratulations and good luck, but just please, don’t become them.
Dr Rory Hearne is a policy analyst, academic, social justice campaigner. He writes here in a personal capacity. Follow Rory on Twitter: @roryhearne
Top pic: Rollingnews