Opinion: are Sinn Féin really agents of change?

Sinn Féin are the first serious challenger of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s two-party hegemony in Ireland’s 100-year history as a state. There’s a sense, then, that we have experienced radical change.

Sinn Fein received the majority of the popular vote and have a mandate for change, as the phrase goes. They face a great challenge, with crises in the housing and health sectors reaching exceptional levels. If change is to come, it will have to be far-reaching.

But for all the talk of change afoot, there’s barely a breeze, let alone a gale.

Regardless of what Sinn Fein do, we will still live in a broadly liberal state, whether liberal conservative or liberal liberal – right or left liberal. What do I mean by this? It seems confusing, given that the media typically delineates the battle lines along binary left-right grounds.

What I mean is that the foundation of our political system – the nation state – is the inheritance liberal individualism’s precursor: The Protestant Reformation. This enshrined the principle of non-conformist individualism, stressing the individual’s agency to interrogate received traditions for him or herself.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. Photo: Amazon

In his insightful new book, Dominion, Tom Holland argues that the modern secular state originates in Christianity. The efforts of Pope Gregory VII resulted in the first systemic split between Church and State, the sacred and secular. However, the balance of power rested with the Pope.

Martin Luther feared this power and demanded that princes be given the ultimate right to govern. And so, due to the Reformation, the power shifted hands from the Pope to the princes. As democracies were formed, it passed from princes to, ostensibly, the people.

Of course, the issue with this narrative is that the people do not have “the power”.

This is a very rough sketch, but you get the idea. Of course, the issue with this narrative is that the people do not have “the power”. Or rather, they consider their political engagement, whether that means voting, protesting, lobbying, or striking, to be the guarantee that their voice is heard – to be the guarantee of their “power”.

What this has effectively created, however, is an “elite” whose job it is to engage with political questions, to come up with solutions, and to convey these solutions to the public. But for this relationship to be maintained, the modern electorate must have only a simplified and impoverished account of the issues at hand.

I don’t know how many of you read every party’s political manifesto. I have no background in political science, but I attempted it. The promises made were about vast sums of money and huge infrastructure, the kinds of promises the average citizen is unable to evaluate but which sound attractive. 

What this highlighted to me is that the art of modern politics is to conceal more than you reveal – to imply more than is true. This is reinforced by the existence of spin gurus, that professionalised form of lying.

What the narrative I outlined fails to convey, therefore, is that we, the West, have come to accept the nation-state as the best system for organising our society, and with it, the second pole, that of the market.

Effectively, the state is no more than a “giant utility company”

This narrative also fails to convey that the modern nation is broadly utilitarian in its functioning. Effectively, the state is no more than a “giant utility company” according to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre.

It is organised to provide services to individuals, not to pursue the common good. It guarantees the maximum amount of happiness to the maximum number of people. The role of the modern state, therefore, is to negotiate between the competing interests of individuals and the interest groups they form. The fundamental unit is, whether left or right, the individual citizen, and his or her happiness is paramount.

What the left, in terms of Marxism and other forms of communitarianism, seeks to create is a community-oriented society. It seeks the good of the people, not the individual. It is also striking that it is the “good”, rather than the happiness, of people which is its ultimate aim. 

Modern forms of democratic socialism, the type Sinn Fein purveys, similarly purports to work for the good of the people. It promotes a very active state and the sponsorship of public goods such as healthcare and education.

Photo: Pexels

This is not to say that the right does not seek the good of the people. But contemporary conservatism is effectively neoliberal, that is it supports an exceptionally strong market with limited intervention by the government. 

What both of these ideologies accept is the idea that the state is the fulcrum around which their ideas pivot. And with the state, they accept the aims of their policies to be the maximising of happiness for the maximum number of citizens.

To think therefore that Sinn Féin will produce any change in this regard, the most fundamental, would be wrongheaded. What Sinn Féin will do, by themselves or as part of a left-wing coalition, is repeat the mistake of left-wing governments in attempting to apply communitarian values to the nation state.

Communitarian values emphasise the common good of communities over individuals. It supports the individual’s active participation in and identification with the community. By this means, the individual develops his or her practical reason and comes to understand how best to act.

It is like making a deep commitment to your local supermarket, not realising that it is part of a multinational chain.

But to attempt such an identification with or participation in the modern state is to misunderstand its function and its nature. It is like making a deep commitment to your local supermarket, not realising that it is part of a multinational chain. The loyalty is misplaced.

So, whatever the government, whatever the policies they may promise, we are still stuck with a state no more our own than the stores we shop in. Our lives are still determined by an elite, whether left or right.

Perhaps that’s why we don’t bat an eye at Saoirse McHugh’s idea of a devolved state. Is there a sense that the nation-state model isn’t working? It does seem to be the case, as dissatisfaction with democracy rises.

So, while the political machinations continue and a government is formed, while historians and economists fill columns and airtime, and while the links between Sinn Fein and the IRA are investigated, you and I might sit here and wonder where all this “change” will take us?

Hardly very far, it seems.

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