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Monday, June 27, 2022

Surviving the split: Sinn Féin’s long road to independence from the IRA | Sinn Féin

Brendan Behan, the Irish playwright, poet and novelist, said the first item on the agenda of any new Irish republican organisation is “the split”. Since its founding in 1905, Sinn Féin has been bedevilled by splits. There have been so many – some lethal – that the organisation has been through at least seven iterations in the last 117 years, some so radical that it is hotly contested whether today’s party has any connection with Sinn Féin 60 years ago, let alone the original Sinn Féin.

Nevertheless, today’s Sinn Féin (SF) successfully claims the mantle of Irish republicanism. It presents itself as the guardian of the mystical phoenix flame of Irish republicanism, like the mythical bird which gains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor.

All the versions of SF have had the same aim, set by Wolfe Tone, the 18th-century founding father of Irish republicanism: “To break the connection with England, the never-failing source of our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country”. Hence the name Sinn Féin – “Ourselves”. Fierce arguments about how to achieve that aim produced all of the splits.

For most of the 20th century, the argument of insurrection and armed struggle won, so SF, the political party, played second fiddle to the movement’s armed wing, the IRA. SF’s subservient position was reinforced by the decision to boycott the Dáil in Dublin and Stormont in Belfast as parliaments the British created in the 1921 Treaty. However, it stood for elections on an abstentionist ticket, and republicanism always had some support.

For example, in the 1955 British general election, SF polled 152,000 votes in Northern Ireland and won two seats. Buoyed by this support, the IRA embarked on an armed campaign in 1956. In the 1959 general election, their vote slumped to 63,000. One conclusion from that might be that northern nationalists like republican politics but not republican violence. Following the failure of the armed campaign and political rejection, republican leaders in the 1960s turned to Marxism and leftwing activism.

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald
Mary Lou McDonald joins Republicans in west Belfast this month. The Sinn Féin president is poised to become the first minister of Northern Ireland. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images

Today’s SF emerged in 1969 after a split from those non-violent Marxist leaders, who had failed to defend Catholic districts in Belfast from murderous incendiary attacks by unionist mobs. For the next decade, SF became little more than a cheerleader and PR unit for the IRA campaign. The turning point came after the 1981 hunger strikes, when the movement entered politics, encouraged by electoral support for hunger striker Bobby Sands.

SF won elections at all levels. Known IRA leaders such as Martin McGuinness became public representatives with substantial mandates. SF president Gerry Adams was elected as an abstentionist MP.

Very quickly, tensions emerged between the political and military wings. SF’s representatives found themselves squirming on TV, having to defend IRA killings. A slow, fraught and at times dangerous tussle for control of the movement began to win primacy for politics. The IRA had to be convinced violence was a tactic, not a principle of republicanism.

In the event, it required political advocates, some with the advantage of dual SF/IRA memberships, manoeuvring until 1997 to assert control over the military wing without splitting the movement. In the end, the inevitable split was a splinter: the Real IRA. At last SF could speak for the movement; it signed up to “exclusively peaceful and democratic means” and endorsed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The task then became to rid SF of the whiff of sulphur and cordite. In the north of Ireland the nationalist electorate was quickly convinced; SF became the largest nationalist party in 2003. The process took until 2020 in the south of Ireland, when SF put in its best performance since 1923. Part of the process, both north and south, meant gradually removing IRA figures from the candidate lists and promoting a new generation of “clean skins”, as they’re called. The Dublin-based president, Mary Lou McDonald, and vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, from the north, exemplify the modern Sinn Féin.

Party policy has also changed. There’s no talk of the “32-county socialist republic”, the oft-repeated goal of the 1970s and 1980s. In both north and south, the party has successfully moved from far left to centre-left to attract maximum support. In both parts of Ireland, SF now tops the polls; in the south it is as much as 10 points ahead of its nearest rival, and in the north seven points ahead of the DUP.

The polls indicate O’Neill is poised to become first minister in the assembly election on 5 May, though few think the DUP will agree to fill the role of deputy first minister, despite the roles being legally equal. Likewise, SF is expected to be the largest party in Dublin after the next election in 2025.

There’s no split on the agenda now. Nothing succeeds like success.

Brian Feeney is the author of Sinn Féin, A Hundred Turbulent Years

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