Sinn Féin (in the Irish language "ourselves" or "we ourselves"; not as sometimes incorrectly translated, "ourselves alone") is an Irish political party.
Originally founded by Arthur Griffith as an Irish separatist monarchist party, in 1917 it moved to campaign for an Irish republic, and it is now known as an Irish Republican political party. It is committed to the re-unification of Ireland, replacing the two partitioned areas created in 1920, Northern Ireland and what is now called the Republic of Ireland. Unlike other Irish nationalist parties it has until the 1990s campaigned using what was called the Armalite and the ballot box strategy of political agitation and the use or threat of violence, a term first used to describe Sinn Féin's strategy by Danny Morrison, one of the party's leading activists in the 1980s. It has strong links with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and is sometimes referred to as its political wing.
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 military. It was not until the late 1960's that these groups came together, and their differences ultimately led them to break apart.
The modern Sinn Féin is now the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, where it polls approximately one quarter of the vote. Its main rival is the largely Catholic, mildly nationalist party, the constitutional Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), which won more seats in the 1998 Northern Ireland Assembly election but was eclipsed by Sinn Féin in the 2003 election.
Sinn Féin currently has five TDs in Dáil Éireann in the Republic, as well as four MPs in the British House of Commons, though the latter do not take their seats because of their objection to swearing an oath of allegiance to the British Monarch.
In the Northern Ireland Assembly, Sinn Féin have 24 MLAs, up from 18 prior to the 2003 election. When the executive functioned during the 1998-2003 assembly tenure, the party had two Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive. Since the emergence of the Democratic Unionist Party as the largest Unionist party, it is unclear exactly what the future of the assembly and executive will be since the DUP refuses to share power with Sinn Féin while it believes Sinn Féin shows signs of links to an IRA that has not completed the process of decommissioning of its arms and is still engaged in criminality.
In European Parliament elections held on June 10-11, 2004, Sinn Féin candidates Mary Lou McDonald and Bairbre de Brún were elected as MEP's for Dublin and Northern Ireland, respectively; they are in the grouping European United Left - Nordic Green Left in the European Parliament.
- Arthur Griffith (1905-17)
- Éamon de Valera (1917-26) later Leader of Fianna Fáil 1926-59
- J. J. O’Kelly (1926-31)
- Brian O’Higgins (1931-33)
- Fr Michael O’Flanagan (1933-35)
- Cathal ó Marchadha (1935-37)
- Margaret Buckley (1937-50)
- Pádraig mac Lógáin (1950-62)
- Tomás mac Giolla (1962-70) later leader of the Workers' Party 1970-88
- Ruairí ó Brádaigh (1970-83) later leader of Republican Sinn Féin (1983- )
- Gerry Adams (1983-)
Arthur Griffith Founder and first leader (1905-1917)
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 in was on this date that Griffith first presented his 'Sinn Féin Policy'. In his writings, Griffth 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. Therefore, all that was needed to achieve an independent Ireland was to believe that this was the case. Everything else would fall into place.
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 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 70% of Ireland's seats (73 in total) in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament at the general election in December 1918 and most of the seats it won were uncontested. Many were uncontested because of mass support. It has been suggested that others went uncontested because rival candidates felt intimitated. Because so many of the seats were uncontested under sometimes dubious circumstances, it has been difficult to determine what the actual suppoart 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 conservative figure of 53% (http://www.ark.ac.uk/elections/h1918.htm). Another estimate would suggest Sinn Féin havd the support of approximately 65% of the electorate (unionists accounting for approximately 20-25% and other nationalists for the remainder).
Sinn Féin subsequently underwent successive splits (1922, 1926 and 1970), 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.
The Split over The Treaty
Eamon de Valera Second leader of Sinn Féin (1917-1926).
Following the conclusion (December 1921) of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations between representatives of the British Government and de Valera's republican government chosen by Dáil Éireann, the assembly set up by Sinn Fein MPs (or TDs as they were called) 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 was 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 naive 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 incompetency 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 Stalinist political party which became the main 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 (1994-97) 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'
Gerry Adams Leader of Sinn Féin (1983-present)
With the Officials' repudiation of cross-community violence in 1972, 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, domination by the mainly Protestant Ulster Unionist Party (institutionally linked with the Orange Order) and pervasive institutional discrimination against the northern nationalist (in effect Catholic) community, which had made Northern Ireland, in the words of Ulster Unionist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate David Trimble, a "cold house for Catholics". However it never succeeded in attracting the majority of nationalist support while the IRA continued its campaign of voilence. Most Catholics voted for the Social Democratic and Labour Party under Gerry Fitt and later John Hume. A small minority vote 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 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. Ostensibly 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 parliaments of the United Kingdom and 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. 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 they decommission all of their weapons before being admitted to the talks, but the Labour government of Tony Blair let them in on the basis of the ceasefire. They were briefly suspended after breaking their ceasefire in protest at the exclusion of Sinn Fein.
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 failure of the IRA to 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 politics. The discovery of a spy ring 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.
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 of the seven nationalist seats. 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.
When Sinn Féin and the DUP became the largest parties of the two communities, it was clear 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, with the Police Constable and the Garda Commissioner jointly scheduled to brief 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.
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". 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 in Northern Ireland, and which he blamed directly on the IRA. He accused Sinn Fein of stopping the IRA from carrying out punishment beatings (in which a civilian 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 Fein 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 Fein are also senior members of the Provisional IRA and would have had knowledge of and given approval to the carrying out of the robbery. The political consequences of this are likely to involve further cuts in the salaries and expenses of Sinn Fein members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and exclusion from ministerial office should the Assembly be restored in the near future.
Gerry Adams responded to the report by challenging the Irish Government to have him arrested for conspiracy.
- 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
Parties with Origins in 1916-21 Sinn Féin
- Sinn Féin (http://www.sinnfein.ie/)
- Fine Gael (http://www.finegael.ie/)
- Fianna Fáil (http://www.fiannafail.ie/)
- Workers' Party (http://www.workers-party.org/)
Other Northern Ireland Parties
- SDLP website (http://www.sdlp.ie/)
- Ulster Unionist Party website (http://www.uup.org/)
- Democratic Unionist Party website (http://www.dup.org.uk/)
Other Irish Websites to View
- Irish State Online (http://www.gov.ie/)
- Dáil Éireann Online (http://www.gov.ie/oireachtas/)
- BBC history website biography of Arthur Griffith (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/war/easterrising/profiles/po07.shtml)
- RTÉ Ireland's Millennia biography of Arthur Griffith (http://www.rte.ie/culture/millennia/people/griffitharthur.html)