Spending the day with Gerry Adams

Patrick Belton spends the day with Sinn Fein's president and reflects on the possible deals that wil

In a Dublin where no stretch of horizon lacks a crane, Gerry Adams and I pass the day before elections in working-class Northside neighbourhoods whose inhabitants have not all tasted the Celtic Tiger.

He permits me to accompany him on the hustings and we speak in the sluggish moments; we go to city centre where Sinn Féin’s national chairperson Mary Lou McDonald hopes for a seat in Dublin Central, and later to Finglas, where IRA bombmaker turned councillor Dessie Ellis seeks his in Dublin North-West.

This is Sinn Féin’s moment. In all, the party will add five to seven seats to its current set of five; it is projected to poll 10 per cent in today’s count of votes, against 7 in 2002 and 3 in 1997. With the governing Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition locked in close war with the alternative Fine Gael-Labour-Green alliance and neither tipped to command a majority, Sinn Féin could end in government both north and south. Should the Dáil be hung, Sinn Féin is set to be its kingmaker.

Adams its president is respectful, unhurried, generous with his time, listening carefully to what his interlocutors have to say. He wears a fáinne and a breast cancer ribbon, for his assistant Siobhán O’Hanlon who died last April; under his blazer his shirt is open at the neck, and not tucked in.

Unlike the GPO - the building that was HQ to Pearse and Connolly's republican organisations during the 1916 Easter Rising - today’s Sinn Féin is eager to cover up its bullet holes. But why are so many otherwise sane people, in a peaceful nation enjoying the strongest economic growth of the EU-15, disposed to vote now for a party headed by a former member of the IRA's Army Council and a socialist?

The answer lies partly in cultural dislocations caused by a Celtic Tiger economy (where low taxes fuelled an average annual GDP growth of seven per cent over the last decade), in part concern for how this wealth is being spent and not least the support of those feeling left behind.

With its message of social levelling, Sinn Féin’s gains are strongest amongst members of the working classes unmoved by the Tiger. Other parties are in economic policy understandably prescribing more of the same; SF’s manifesto alone calls for redistribution through higher taxes. Amongst the more wealthy, Republicanism finds an elegiac centre for a society which has spawned the new Irishman—represented by Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary and Paddy Power’s Popebetting, cheeky and likely to have made a bundle in property in the 90’s but not necessarily up on his Yeats or his Irish.

There also is the benefit of SF’s ambiguity, a political Rorschach spot riding what Adams acknowledges is an electoral bubble of favourable publicity following formation of a coalition government in the North with Ian Paisley’s loyalist DUP.

There’s little in their manifesto they’ve not pulled back from when pushed; and to the extent Republicanism stands for nothing (apart from 32 counties), everyone can be a Republican. A touch of inscrutability has its privileges, as a taoiseach’s personal financial foibles and misstewardship of the health service weigh him with negatives on the one hand, and the opposition leader’s repute as a policy lightweight does like work on the other.

With Adams by some polls having the highest favourable ratings of any Irish politician, many voters from across the political continuum flirted with Gerry. One is actress Máire Greaney, who with her Maureen O’Hara looks, auburn hair and fluent Irish, is Hollywood’s fantasy of the West of Ireland. The Galway resident is a lifelong Labour voter but like many, she confides, in this election 'I started to ask myself, am I a Republican?'

Yet 90% of Irish voters are not republicans, not of Gerry Adams’s sort anyway. (The Irish system of PR with multiple member districts and a single transferable vote, which in coalition parleys will magnify their influence, dryly dates to the closing days of British Southern Ireland, and a desire to confine the sway of Sinn Féin of a century ago by nurturing smaller parties.) They have at least two decent reasons not to be. First, how long must Bono sing this song. The Good Friday Accords were signed in 1998; the Colombia Three were arrested in 2001, for offering bomb making and urban warfare expertise to the narcotrafficking FARC in return for €25 million. Each of them had Sinn Féin as well as IRA connections.

Niall Connolly was the Latin American representative for the party and had been arranging Gerry Adam’s visit to Havana; Martin McCauley was an election worker in the Upper Bann constituency in 1998, and James Monaghan was voted to the party’s Ard Chomhairle in 1989. A bit rich, then, the party’s manifesto promises a crackdown on drugs.

And whatever allowances can be made for such technology in the confused environment of communal reprisal in the North in 1975-76 and 1987-95, there can be no excuse made for their export outside Northern Ireland, to drug lords in Colombia. This is the lesser reason. More importantly, they’ve not taken the socialism out of (their) Irish politics. The history of nationalism combined with socialism is not a uniformly happy one. Their manifesto likes high corporate and individual taxes, the opposite of the growth recipe Fianna Fáil have been pursuing for the last decade. This is the strongest reason not to put an IRA gun to the Celtic Tiger's head.

I ask Adams whether he is concerned the party’s call for more spending on social services would kill the tiger. He counters that no one with whom he’d spoken on the hustings had shared that concern, that they instead were pressed down on every day by overly dear housing and inadequately managed hospitals if they fell ill.

He also points to the €5.6 billion budget surplus, evidence taxes needn’t be raised and an inculpation against the government for not spending it on the poor. Yet Stormont, financially dependent upon Westminster’s largesse, is meagre as a training pitch for financial prudence. And the solution of the manifesto, repeated over and over, is greater levies against the public purse. (A reading from the book of republican economics manifestoes includes a ‘Combating Low Pay’ portion on page 40 that opens with ‘immediately increase the minimum wage ... and abolish age and experience differentials.’ ‘Raising Household Incomes’, on page 44, counsels the state to ‘double the living alone allowance’ and ‘increase the Family Income Supplement by €68 per week and make it an automatic payment. Ensure all those eligible take it up...’ It continues for 74 pages.)

I ask what Republicanism means today, and whether 32 counties takes precedence over the economics. Adams refuses to subordinate one to the other, and says its presence at local council and national levels means Sinn Féin can move simultaneously towards Irish unity and a more equal, just society. When I note his calls to move water and health to an all-Ireland basis and ask him whether his tests whether to move a service to 32 would include that it could be furnished more cheaply at all-Ireland level, he ducks slightly and remarks the business community has come to view Ireland in island-wide terms, and it facilitates investment accordingly to harmonise jurisdictions, laws and regulations.

I ask him his criteria for joining Fianna Fáil’s coalition, or offering it support from outside in the Dáil as a minority government, if their current junior partner PDs face their expected political annihilation. He says Sinn Féin will not be easily lured, and there would need to be agreed joint steps both towards United Ireland and expanded social protection; he lingers over housing.

Two observations going forward. One is coalition arithmetic. If the Dáil is hung, protracted negotiations lasting in the weeks could precede forming a government; Ahern faces hard sums. Though he and opposition leader Enda Kenny of Fine Gael have both forsworn Sinn Féin as a coalition partner, in political circles the vow is roundly considered false.

Ahern has already cracked a window by stating he couldn’t stop SF deputies from voting to prop up the government if they so chose, though of course there could be no quid pro quo. With its smaller vote harvest, Sinn Féin would require fewer portfolios if insde than would Labour. Yet there are alternatives for Ahern if the costs charged to the Tiger’s economic policies prove too high.

The Greens may be in play. Labour’s Pat Rabbitte has slammed the door to cooperation with Ahern, but his party includes many veterans from the last Labour-FF government, and clientelist rural Irish politics being what it is, Labour’s rural TDs have as close ties to Fianna Fáil as to the international labour movement.

There have been suggestions Ahern would even ponder allowing an FF-Labour government to be led by someone other than himself, in which case De Valera would remain Ireland’s unique threepeating taoiseach a bit longer. How much sway would Sinn Féin exert as a junior partner? If the influence of the PDs is instructive, the junior party’s influence will focus around one issue.

The PDs selected the finance portfolio when they first did business with Bertie; given the party’s free-market line, the presence of a substantial PD closet within Fianna Fáil and the PD’s own origins as an FF breakaway party, focusing their energies on the economy let them boast a success they did not enjoy subsequently, when seeking to widen their appeal they moved into justice and health, a fatal tactical mistake.

Patrick Belton is a London-based journalist, completing a doctorate at Oxford

Patrick Belton is a London-based journalist, and is currently completing a doctorate at Oxford.
André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition