We all know that a party called Sinn Féin was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith and the party made much of its centenary last year. So it's one of the oldest parties in the state. I'm not going to get stuck into the issue of continuity and change in the evolution of the nationalist movements that have used the name over the course of a century but I'm prompted to explore a few issues relating to a recent paper, mentioned on Slugger O'Toole among others, that tests the proposition that Sinn Féin can be classified as a party of the radical right.
The paper, by Eoin O'Malley of the School of Law and Government at DCU, was mentioned in the Irish Independent and its report emphasised the finding that Sinn Féin voters were allegedly more biased against gays and immigrants than other voters - a significant disparity with the party's clear left wing social agenda. O'Malley is quoted as saying "the more likely you are to vote for Sinn Fein, the more intolerant you are". Much of the paper is based on the author's own analysis of exit poll data from recent elections and some unsurprising tentative conclusions can be drawn about the social profile of the Sinn Féin vote, namely that the part's voters are more likely ot be male, young, poor and poorly educated.
The rest of the paper discusses aspects of radical right parties and O'Malley concludes that if Sinn Féin could be placed in comparative context it would be nearer to the Populist Anti-Statist category employed by Herbert Kitschelt in his book The Radical Right in Western Europe - the others being Fascists, Welfare Chauvinists and Right Authoritarians. O'Malley does his best to associate Sinn Féin with all the unpleasant aspects of nationalism - sectarian violence, bigotry, intolerance and militarism. In the end O'Malley can only suggest certain similarities between Sinn Féin and the radical right and, despite his best efforts and obvious hostility to Sinn Séin, he is forced to conclude that the party is "too explicitly and self-avowedly in favour of immigrants' rights" to be called radical right. He concedes that nationalism in Ireland cannot easily sit with anti-immigrant bigotry and it is therefore less likely that a xenophobic party could prosper in Ireland.
Interestingly, O'Malley's colleague at DCU, Dr John Doyle, published a paper earlier this year which also attempts to place Sinn Féin in comparative politics context. Doyle, much more sympathetic to the party, explicitly rejects the notion that Sinn Féin is "an ethnic-nationalist party in the model of the European right". There are other nationalist type parties existing in Europe; "state nationalist" parties like the British Conservatives, with an increasing element of their programmes devoted to immigration issues and anti-European rhetoric. There are also the examples of the Scottish National Party and the moderate Catalan and Basque Nationalists. Sinn Féin cannot really be compared with the latter because they take a much more positive view of European integration.
Doyle concedes that the one area where the party's policies are clearly in a state of flux is in relation to the European Union:
On issues of social protection and regulation Sinn Féin is clearly closer to Berlin (or indeed Paris) than Boston. In a neo-liberal era the EU has the scale to avoid being dragged in a rush to the bottom, even if the current Lisbon agenda has elements of that economic model in its strategic vision. Sinn Féin is unclear however as to whether it would welcome a more consciously social democratic EU even if such were possible, or whether it would see such a move as a violation of national sovereignty (even if in reality small states have never been able to exercise such sovereignty in a global economy).
There is a useful treatment of Sinn Féin's attitude to Europe in an article recently published article available here. Sinn Féin has sought to link the party's political outlook to the global anti-capitalist movement and this and its commitment to the rhetoric of equality is what sympathetic commentators like Doyle would take to be the essence of its republican political standpoint. Such a definition of republicanism would not go uncontested. Declan Kiberd recently wondered why economic development lagged so far behind during most of the twentieth century "when ever since 1789, the republican idea had been linked to meritocracy and entrepreneurship".
For Doyle, Sinn Féin is unquestionably on the political left as it "is consciously seeking to place its nationalism in the context of the anti-globalisation movement, bringing together its previous anti-colonial rhetoric with the concerns of the modern global solidarity movement, such as fair trade and development, anti-racism and the environment". He rejects the suggestion that signing up to the peace process has de-emphasised its committment to Irish unity. The committment to equality in all aspects of its social and ecomomic policies is further adduced as evidence of the party's left-wing stance. Finally, its high levels of party activism by members and supporters is also seen as evidence that the party is not cleaving towards the center ground as a result of its recent electoral success.
For all its faults the one useful thing the O'Malley paper brings out is the growing uncertainty of the meaning of the locational signifiers 'left' and 'right'. He concludes that "the radical right is not consistently right-wing". What he is getting at is that there are elements in the manifestos of radical right parties that have been historically associated with the left such as the trenchant defence of the welfare state. This can be seen in new political formations that have come on the scene in many European countries since the early 1990s.
Can we say that Sinn Féin is such a new political formation? I would argue that it is insofar as that it is only since the onset of the peace process that the party is a significant electoral force in the Republic. Prior to that it was largely unelectable. Doyle makes the following point about the party's recent successes in the South:
The development of the peace process and its relative success is not seen by the party as an irrelevancy in Dublin’s working class communities but a positive addition to Sinn Féin’s community activism and social radicalism. The peace process gives the party a ‘can-do’ image at a time when the ability of politics to deliver is questioned by many.
The repeal of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act , which banned Sinn Féin from the airways, was also significant in moving the party from the fringes to the mainstream. This probably would not have happened without the momentum of the peace process.
I believe that there are useful comparisons to be made between Sinn Féin and the rise of the radical right - not in order to somehow link Sinn Féin with radical right policies or ideology but to examine the conditions that have brought electorally successful new political formations to prominence over the last fifteen years or so. Most of these new political formations have been of the populist anti-establishment right (see here for a useful compendium of articles). But a key point to note is that the factors that explain the rise of the radical right can function to benefit other parties across the political spectrum and I believe Sinn Féin is a case in point.
In Pippa Norris's book Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market much is made of how the institutional context governing the nomination, campaigning and electoral process is critical to the electoral fortunes of minor parties (see her conclusion here). In every political system or electoral market there are structurally given opportunities and constraints that will determine how successful new political formations will be or in the case of Sinn Féin in the Republic, whether minor parties that have been around a long time can make a critical breakthrough. In Ireland the crucial elements in the success of Sinn Féin have been the relatively low electoral thresholds of the PR-STV system and the increasingly widespread voter voter volatility and partisan dealignment. Other important factors have been the ability of the party to mobilise a cadre of dedicated local activists and the healthy state of the party's finances that allow the party to run advice centres in local communities - again reinforcing the "can-do" image.
What will happen when Sinn Féin enters elected office? How will the party reconcile its anti-establishment message with its role in government? Again, comparison with other parties in Europe would be instructive in terms of how party leaderships overcome the constraints of office to stay on message while, at the same time, having significant input into the policy agenda and broadening the party's ideological appeal. Even John Doyle admits that Sinn Féin will face significant tests in government when it comes to clarifying certain policy stances that are a bit woolly at the moment.