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Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin pronounced 'Shin-Feyn' (in the Irish language "ourselves" or "we ourselves"; not as sometimes incorrectly translated, "ourselves alone" or "we alone") is the name applied to a series of political movements since 1905 in Ireland, each of which regarded itself as a continuation of the original party established in 1905. Modern day Sinn Féin is the only political party to have seats in the parliaments of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. As a leading representative of the Republican wing of Irish nationalism, Sinn Féin advocates a United Ireland and avowedly leftist values.

Sinn Féin is widely regarded as the political wing of the IRA and is the largest nationalist political party in Northern Ireland, having displaced the previously dominant nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in recent elections. It currently has 4 Northern Ireland MPs in the House of Commons (out of 18 Northern MPs) and 24 MLAs (out of a Northern Ireland Assembly membership of 108, making it the joint second largest, behind the Democratic Unionist Party with 33 seats and alongside the Ulster Unionist Party who also have 24). It is a much smaller political force in the Republic of Ireland, where it currently just has 5 TDs (out of 166) in Dáil Éireann and no members of the Republic's Seanad Éireann (senate). Sinn Féin has a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) from both sides of the Irish border; 1 MEP out of 3 in Northern Ireland, and 1 out of 13 in the Republic. Its MEPs sit as part of the left wing European United Left - Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament. When its voters on both sides of the border are counted, Sinn Féin is the third-largest party on the whole island (although the only time all of Ireland votes at the same time is during elections to the European Parliament). However, it retains strong links with the IRA. It's now widely accepted that both organizations share the same leadership. While Sinn Féin has traditionally been the only party to run on both sides of the border, Fianna Fáil, Ireland's largest party, has recently set up a cumann (branch) in Derry, and begun recruiting at Queen's University Belfast.

It had two ministers in the now suspended Executive Committee (cabinet) of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has never sat in cabinet in the Republic. In 2005 other Republic of Ireland parties indicated that they would not serve in government with Sinn Féin until its relationship with the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army was terminated.




Historians dispute whether there is in fact a single Sinn Féin, some seeing a collection of parties descended from each other as its various leaderships in the 1920s, 1930s, 1960s, 1980s and 1990s split, with other moving to form rival parties, most with new names, some keeping the words Sinn Féin in their title. The Sinn Féin of Arthur Griffith certainly has very little in common with the party currently in existence. Griffith had sought to re-establish the dual monarchy, which he contended was still legally in existence. This had been set up under the Constitution of 1782. After Cumann na nGaedheal and Fianna Fáil were founded, in 1923 and 1926, only a tiny rump of the Anglo-Irish War party remained, and this featured very rarely in politics, contesting only a few elections. They appeared in various forms, often radically socialist and militant. It was not until the late 1960s that these groups came together, and their differences ultimately led them to break apart.

Early days

, Founder and first leader (–)
Arthur Griffith, Founder and first leader (190517)

Sinn Féin crystallised around the political campaign of Arthur Griffith and William Rooney at the beginning of the 20th century. For many years Sinn Féin was a loose federation of political groups whose only real connection was the newspapers edited by Griffith which inspired them. Most historians opt for November 28, 1905 as a founding date because it was on this date that Griffith first presented his 'Sinn Féin Policy'. In his writings, Griffith declared that the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland was illegal and that, consequently, the Anglo-Irish dual monarchy which existed under Grattan's Parliament and the so-called Constitution of 1782 was still in effect.

Though Sinn Féin had a high name recognition factor among voters it attracted minimal support. By 1915 it was, in the words of one of Griffith's colleagues, "on the rocks", so insolvent financially that it could not pay the rent on its party headquarters in Harcourt Street in Dublin. It was rescued by the mistaken belief among the British administration running Ireland from Dublin Castle that it had been behind the 1916 Rising, an unsuccessful attempt to establish an Irish Republic.

Griffith's movement in its first decade tapped into a growing self awareness of an Irish identity and which was reflected in other movements, from the Gaelic Athletic Association in sports to the Gaelic League (Conradh na nGaeilge) in the Irish language and in the appearance in the arts of the Abbey Theatre.

The Easter Rising

Sinn Féin was wrongly blamed by the British for the Easter Rising, with which it had no association, apart from a desire of separation stronger than Home Rule — the leaders of the Rising were certainly looking for more than Dual Monarchy. Any group that disagreed with mainstream constitutional politics was branded 'Sinn Féin' by British commentators. The term 'Sinn Féin Rebellion' was also used by the Irish media, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and even by a few of those involved in the Rising.

Surviving leaders of the Rising under Éamon de Valera took over the party. De Valera replaced Griffith as president. It nearly split between its monarchist and republican wings at its 1917 Árd Fheis (conference) until, in a compromise motion, it proposed the establishment of an independent republic, after which the people could decide whether they wanted a monarchy or republic, subject to the condition that if they chose a monarchy, no member of the British Royal Family could serve as monarch.

Sinn Féin was boosted by the anger over the execution of Rising leaders, even though before the executions, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Irish Independent newspaper (the biggest selling daily newspaper in Ireland then and now) and many local authorities actually called for the mass execution of Rising leaders. Yet even that public sympathy did not give Sinn Féin decisive electoral advantage, It fought a tough battle with the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond, later John Dillon, with each side winning by-elections. It was only after the Conscription Crisis, when Britain threatened to impose conscription to boost its war effort that support decisively swung behind Sinn Féin.

The 1918 General Election

Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland's 106 seats in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament at the general election in December 1918 and many of the seats it won were uncontested.There were three reasons for this. Firstly, despite being the largest party in Ireland for forty years, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had not fought a general election since 1910. In many parts of Ireland its organisation had decayed and was no longer capable of mounting an electoral challenge. Other seats were uncontested because of mass support, with other parties deciding that there was no point in challenging Sinn Féin given it was certain to win. Contemporary documents also suggest a degree of intimidation of opponents. (Piaras Beaslaí recorded one example in a by-election in Longford in 1917 where a Sinn Féin activist put a gun against the head of a Returning Officer and forced him to announce the election of the Sinn Féin candidate even though the IPP candidate had more votes. Potential candidates who were thought of as serious challengers to Sinn Féin candidates were warned against seeking election in some Ulster constituencies and in Munster.) Because so many of the seats were uncontested under sometimes dubious circumstances, it has been difficult to determine what the actual support for the party was in the country. Various accounts range from 45%-48% to 80%. The author of the site on elections in the North estimates a figure of 53%[1]. Another estimate would suggest Sinn Féin had the support of approximately 65% of the electorate (unionists accounting for approximately 20-25% and other nationalists for the remainder).

On 21 January 1919 Sinn Féin MPs assembled in Dublin's Mansion House and proclaimed themselves the parliament of Ireland, Dáil Éireann. They elected an Áireacht (ministry) headed by a Príomh Áire (prime minister). Though the state was declared to be a republic, no provision was made for a head of state. This was rectified in August 1921 when the Príomh Áire (also known as President of Dáil Éireann was upgraded to President of the Republic, a full head of state.

Sinn Féin subsequently underwent successive splits (1922, 1926, 1970 and 1986), from which emerged a range of parties, Cumann na nGaedhael, now known as Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Official Sinn Féin, later Sinn Féin The Workers Party, later The Workers Party and then Democratic Left, which finally joined the Irish Labour party after serving in government with them, and Republican Sinn Féin.

The Split over The Treaty

, Second leader of Sinn Féin (–)
Éamon de Valera, Second leader of Sinn Féin (191726)

Following the conclusion (December 1921) of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations between representatives of the British Government and de Valera's republican government and the narrow approval of the Treaty by Dáil Éireann, a state called the Irish Free State was established. Northern Ireland (a six county region set up under the British Government of Ireland Act 1920) opted out, as the Treaty allowed. A short but bitter Irish Civil War (June 1922 – April 1923) erupted between the supporters of the Treaty and its opponents. De Valera resigned as President of the Republic and sided with the anti-treatyites. The victorious pro-treaty "Free Staters", who amounted to a majority of Sinn Féin TDs and a majority of the electorate, set up the Irish Free State. Many of those pro-treaty Sinn Féin TDs formed their own party, Cumann na nGaedhael, merging with the Centre Party and the Blueshirts in 1933 to form Fine Gael.

Having temporarily suspended armed action in the Free State, the movement split again with the departure (March 1926) of its leader Eamon de Valera, after having lost a motion to abandon abstention if the Oath to the King were abolished. He subsequently founded the Fianna Fáil with fellow advocates of participation in constitutional politics, and entered the Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann) the following year, forming a government in 1932.

From "Official Sinn Féin" to Democratic Left

After a number of unsuccessful attempts at armed insurrection, including a naïve link-up to procure weapons in the 1940s between some IRA members and the Nazis, the party in the 1960s moved to the left, adopting a more Stalinist analysis. In 1970, a further split occurred when republicans concerned with the perceived incompetence of the leadership split from the increasingly Stalinist IRA and Sinn Féin to form the Provisional IRA and its political wing Provisional Sinn Féin. The remainder of the party became known as Official Sinn Féin, and evolved into a political party which became a radical left force in the Republic of Ireland in the 1980s.

In 1977 Official Sinn Féin renamed itself Sinn Féin the Workers Party, under which title it won its first seats in Dáil Éireann in 1981 and 1982. In 1982 it ditched the 'Sinn Féin' tag, calling itself The Workers Party. A further split in 1992 saw the Workers Party leader and all but one of its TDs defect and set up a new party, Democratic Left. Democratic Left served in government with Fine Gael and Labour (199497) before merging with the Labour in 1999. The Labour Party leader and deputy leader elected in 2002 are both former members of the Democratic Left. Meanwhile the remainder of the Workers Party lost its only Dáil seat in the 1992 general election and from then on its only public representatives were on the municipal councils of Dublin and the south-eastern town of Waterford.

"Provisional Sinn Féin"

, Leader of Sinn Féin (–)
Gerry Adams, Leader of Sinn Féin (1983present)

With the Officials' repudiation of cross-community violence in 1972, and its move from republicanism to marxism, Provisional Sinn Féin became the political voice of the minority of northern nationalists who saw IRA violence as the means of forcing an end to British rule and institutionalised discrimination against nationalists which, , in the words of Ulster Unionist leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble, had created "a cold house for Catholics". However it never succeeded in attracting the majority of Catholic support while the IRA continued its campaign of violence. Most Catholics voted for the Social Democratic and Labour Party under Gerry Fitt and later John Hume. A small minority voted for the Alliance Party. Small numbers of Catholics also voted for the leading unionist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the shortlived Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein only achieved the support of the majority of the nationalist community in 2004, eight years after the Belfast Agreement.

Nationalist alienation in the aftermath of the deaths of ten Republican hunger-strikers in Long Kesh prison in 1981 gave Sinn Féin a springboard into electoral politics in the north. An internal power stuggle between a southern leadership of Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and a northern leadership under Gerry Adams, saw Ó Brádaigh and his associates leave to establish Republican Sinn Féin, which they claimed was the 'true' Sinn Féin. The split was over the decision of a majority of Sinn Féin members to abandon abstentionism (i.e., the refusal to accept the legitimacy of, and to participate in, the parliament of the Republic of Ireland). While the policy of abstentionism towards the Westminster British Parliament was continued, it was dropped in relation to Dáil Éireann. Under the presidency (from November 1983) of Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin leaders sought to explore wider political engagement, following what was called the Armalite and the ballot box strategy of political agitation and the use or threat of violence. That decision, augmented by the involvement of SDLP leader John Hume in the Hume–Adams dialogue, and the decision of successive Irish Taoisigh (prime ministers), Charles Haughey, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern to initiate and maintain contact with the Sinn Fein leadership, helped produce the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s.

The Peace Process

The move was also hastened by a series of disastrous IRA attacks, including the killing of people attending a Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen. Multi-Party negotiations began in 1994, without Sinn Féin. The IRA declared a ceasefire in the autumn of 1994. The Conservative government had asked that the IRA decommission all of their weapons before Sinn Féin be admitted to the talks, but the Labour government of Tony Blair let them in on the basis of the ceasefire. The IRA returned to bombing for a few months after Sinn Fein were again excluded.

Belfast Agreement

The talks led to the Belfast Agreement of April 10 1998 (also known as the Good Friday Agreement), which set up an inclusive devolved government, and altered the claim to the whole island in Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland. The party has been nominally committed to constitutional politics since then, though the demand that the IRA decommission all of its arms has led to repeated suspensions of the peace process. The IRA started decommissioning arms after a deal was agreed restoring the suspended NI Assembly. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 in America, and Sinn Féin's criticisms of US foreign policy have led to a decrease in much of its support among Americans previously enjoyed in the US, though this has had no detectable effect on Sinn Féin's policies. The discovery of an alleged spy ring, supposedly linked to the IRA, operating within the Northern Ireland civil service and including Sinn Fein's head of administration at the Assembly, led to the suspension of the Executive and the reinstatement of direct rule in Northern Ireland, a suspension already on the brink of being triggered amid threats of resignation from First Minister David Trimble over the apparently slow pace of IRA decomissioning. As yet no-one has been charged in relation to this.

Increase in support

The party overtook its nationalist rival, the Social Democratic and Labour Party as the largest nationalist party in the 2001 Westminster General Election and Local Election, winning four seats to the SDLP's three. The party however continues to subscribe to an abstentionist policy towards seats in the Westminster British parliament, as taking the seats they won would require them to swear allegiance to the British monarchy and effectively renouncing their republicanism. The party has 5 TDs in the Irish general election, 2002, an increase of four.

It went on to increase its domination of the nationalist vote in the 2003 Northern Assembly elections, with Martin McGuinness, judged widely to have been a successful Minister for Education in line to take the post of Deputy First Minister in the Northern Ireland Power-Sharing Executive Committee, should the executive be reformed. However the electoral success of the hardline anti-Agreement Democratic Unionist Party, which replaced the Ulster Unionist Party as the leading unionist party, is thought to make the prospect of setting up a new executive less likely. Some critics of Sinn Féin allege that the DUP's electoral success, and its resulting threat to the Agreement, was contributed to by the failure of the IRA to decommission its weapons, a decision that seriously undermined the ability of the pro-Agreement David Trimble to win majority unionist community support. Sinn Féin does not accept that allegation and sees little difference between the two unionist parties.

Latest developments

When Sinn Féin and the DUP became the largest parties of the two communities, it was clear (because of the dual majority required by the Good Friday Agreement)that no deal could be made without the support of both parties. They nearly reached a deal in November 2004, but the DUP's insistence on photographic evidence of the decommissing, as had been demanded by Rev Dr Ian Paisley, meant the failure of the arrangement. The robbery of £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in Belfast in December 2004, in which two staff members were forced to participate under threat that their families would be killed if they refused, further scuppered chances of a deal, as PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde blamed the IRA. This assessment was echoed by the Garda Siochana Commissioner, Noel Conroy . The two governments, and all political parties bar Sinn Féin itself have publicly accepted this assessment. The Police Constable and the Garda Commissioner jointly briefed the British Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, at a meeting in Downing Street in early February 2005.

In late January 2005 Gerry Adams met separately with prime ministers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. Both men reportedly forcefully told the Sinn Fein leader of their conviction that the IRA were involved and warned that the IRA's alleged actions could scupper hopes of a re-establishment of the power-sharing government.

In the aftermath of the row over the robbery, a further controversy erupted when, on RTE's Questions and Answers programme, the chairman of Sinn Fein, Mitchel McLoughlin , insisted that the IRA's controversial killing of a mother of ten young children, Jean McConville, in the early 1970s though "wrong", was not a "crime". Irish Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell pointed out to the audience and viewers that under Sinn Féin or IRA reasoning, nothing they do is a crime in their eyes (as according to their view, they are acting as the legitimate government of all Ireland - see Irish Republic). He refused to comment on whether he considered the violence of the "Old IRA", in killing spies and British agents during the Anglo-Irish War, similarly criminal. Politicians from the Republic, along with the Irish media strongly attacked McLoughlin's comments.

In the Dail on 26 January 2005, when challenged by Sinn Fein TDs over his insistence that the robbery was the work of the IRA, Bertie Ahern listed off punishment beatings that had been carried out recently in Belfast, and which he blamed directly on the IRA. He accused Sinn Fein of stopping the IRA from carrying out punishment beatings (in which a criminal was beaten with a bat and had their legs broken, or was shot in the knees or sometimes in the hands) at sensitive times in negotiations in Northern Ireland, with the beatings beginning again once the negotiations had been completed. Sinn Féin TDs denied the allegation and called the claims "outrageous".

On 10 February 2005, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported that it firmly supported the PSNI and Garda assessments that the Provisional IRA was responsible for the Northern Bank robbery and that certain senior members of Sinn Féin are also senior members of the Provisional IRA and would have had knowledge of and given approval to the carrying out of the robbery. It recommended further financial sanctions against Sinn Fein Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The British Government responded by saying it would ask members of the British Parliament to vote to withdraw the parliamentary allowances of the four Sinn Fein MPs elected in 2001.

Gerry Adams responded to the IMC report by challenging the Irish Government to have him arrested for IRA membership, a crime in both jurisdictions, and conspiracy. [2]

On 20 February 2005, Irish Minister for Justice Michael McDowell publicly accused three of the Sinn Féin leadership, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris (TD for Kerry North) of being on the seven-man IRA Army Council. Gerry Adams denied this at an address in Strabane, on the occasion of a ceremony commemorating three unarmed IRA men killed by the SAS 20 years ago. Martin McGuinness denied the allegations in a TV interview on RTÉ.

On 27 February 2005, a demonstration against the IRA's murder of Robert McCartney on 30 January 2005 was held in East Belfast. Alex Maskey , a former Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast , was told by relatives to "stop making stupid comments" to the press following Gerry MacKay's demand that Mr Maskey "hand over the 12" IRA members involved. The McCartney family want all witnesses to the murder to make statements to the PSNI. People have been reluctant to do so for two reasons; the traditional mistrust of the Police in Northern Ireland by nationalists and fear of reprisal from the IRA members involved. Three IRA men have since been expelled from the organisation but no-one has been charged with the murder. The family of the dead men, though formerly Sinn Féin voters themselves, urged witnesses to the crime to contact the PSNI.

Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern called Sinn Féin and the PIRA "both sides of the same coin". The ostracisation of Sinn Féin was shown in February 2005 when Dáil Éireann passed a motion condemning the party's alleged involvement in illegal activity. US President George W. Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy refused to meet Gerry Adams while meeting the family of Robert McCartney. Senators Kennedy and Hillary Clinton introduced a motion into the US Senate calling on Sinn Féin to break off links with the IRA.

On 10 March 2005, the House of Commons in London passed without significant opposition a motion placed by the British Government to withdraw the allowances of the four Sinn Fein MPs for one year in response to the Northern Bank Robbery. The effect of this measure is to cost the party approximately GBP 400,000 over the coming year. However, the debate prior to the vote mainly surrounded the more recent events connected with the murder of Robert McCartney. Unionists put down amendments to have the Sinn Fein MPs evicted from their offices at the House of Commons but they were heavily defeated by 358-170 and 357-171 votes respectively.

See also: Northern Bank robbery

Further reading

  • Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles (Arrow, 1995, 1996) ISBN 009946571X
  • Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins (Hutchinson, 1990) ISBN 0091741068
  • Brian Feeney, Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years (2003) HB: ISBN 0299186709 PB ISBN 0299186741
  • Roy Foster, Ireland 1660-1972
  • Geraldine Kennedy (ed.) Nealon's Guide to the 29th Dáil and Seanad (Gill and Macmillan, 2002) ISBN 0717132889
  • F.S.L. Lyons, Ireland Since the Famine
  • Brian Maye, Arthur Griffith (Griffith College Publications)
  • Dorothy McCardle, The Irish Republic (Corgi edition, 1968) ISBN 55207862X
  • Patrick Sarsfield, S. O'Hegarty & Tom Garvin, The Victory of Sinn Féin: How It Won It & how It Used It (1999) ISBN 1900621177
  • Peter Taylor, Behind the Mask: The IRA & Sinn Féin ISBN 1575000776
  • Robert Kee, The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism (Penguin, 1972–2000), ISBN 0140291652

External links

Parties with Origins in 1916-21 Sinn Féin

Other Northern Ireland Parties

Other Irish Websites to View

Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04