THE 1970S AND 1980S
SINN FÉIN AND THE PEACE PROCESS
The Irish radical nationalist political movement and party, Sinn Féin, was founded around 1905. However, the present Sinn Féin party's claim to be the oldest political party in Ireland disguises profound changes in its ideology, tactics, and personnel over the course of the twentieth century. Translating as "Ourselves" and promoting the principle of Irish self-reliance, the Sinn Féin movement emerged from a number of political groups, including Cumann na nGaedheal (founded 1900) led by Arthur Griffith, the National Council (1903), and the Dungannon Clubs (1905) in Belfast. The Dungannon Clubs and Cumann na nGaedheal merged in April 1907 as the Sinn Féin League, becoming Sinn Féin in 1908. Although Sinn Féin contested many local elections and the 1908 North Leitrim by-election (which proved a crushing defeat), the movement was always more of a pressure group than merely a political party, providing a meeting ground for various disparate nationalists, feminists, pacifists, socialists, and Irish language enthusiasts, brought together by their rejection of Irish devolution (Home Rule) and using the radical nationalist press to convey its message. Griffith was the party's principle ideologue, despite his unwillingness to become involved in formal party politics. Griffith's two major works, The Resurrection of Hungary (1904) and The Sinn Féin Policy (1906), suggested that Ireland, under a system of dual monarchy with the English Crown, should become economically self-reliant and that Irish members of Parliament (MPs) would abstain from Westminster and create an Irish national assembly instead.
Prior to the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, Sinn Féin stood at the margins of Irish politics; in August 1909, the party could boast only 581 members, 211 of whom came from Dublin. But its importance lay in establishing the split between constitutional nationalists and separatists that would change Irish politics in 1917 and 1918. Following the Easter Rising (which was erroneously dubbed the "Sinn Féin Rebellion"), the British government's suppression of the party and its attempts to introduce conscription to Ireland during 1918 gave Sinn Féin a popularity undreamed of before World War I. During 1917 Sinn Féin gained four important by-election victories. A year later, its membership had risen to 112,080 members, and in the December 1918 election Sinn Féin gained 48 percent of the vote and 73 out of 105 parliamentary seats at Westminster, including the first woman to be elected as an MP, Constance Markievicz. Sinn Féin, however, did not take up these seats, instead establishing the first Dáil É ireann (Irish Parliament) that claimed to be the legitimate government of Ireland. Hostilities began shortly afterward between the British forces and the Irish paramilitaries (including the IRA), and as the Anglo-Irish conflict escalated, Sinn Féin became increasingly marginalized, seeing its share of the vote fall to 30 percent in the local elections of 1920. The Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended the war in 1921, despite being negotiated by Griffith and Michael Collins on the Irish side, was deeply contentious to many within the Sinn Féin movement, especially the continued connection between Ireland and Britain embodied in the Oath of Allegiance to the English Crown required of all members of the newly elected Irish assembly. Unable to reach consensus, the separatist republicans of the Sinn Féin movement, led by Eamonn de Valera, opposed the treaty, leading to the outbreak of civil war in Ireland.
Defeated in the Irish civil war, Sinn Féin emerged again in May 1923, recognizing the second Dáil (elected a year earlier) as the legitimate government of Ireland. By 1926, de Valera had become disillusioned with Sinn Féin's failure to acknowledge the political realities of Ireland and moved away from the party to form Fianna Fáil. Only a rump Sinn Féin party remained, and from 1926 onward it did not contest Irish Free State elections and became an increasingly irrelevant republican ghetto. The 1930s were notable only for the election of Margaret Buckley as president of the party in 1936, the first female leader of an Irish party, and Sinn Féin's transferral of the second Dáil's powers as the legitimate government of Ireland to the army council of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1938 on the commencement of its bombing campaign on mainland Britain. The IRA increased its hold over Sinn Féin, infiltrating the party in 1949.
By the end of the 1960s, tensions in the party between socialists wanting electoral participation and militarists grew and resulted in a split in the republican movement at the end of 1969. The Provisional IRA took up the armed struggle against the British armed forces during the 1970s, with Provisional Sinn Féin continuing to be a support group for the IRA, as Gerry Adams, who emerged as the leader of Sinn Féin during the 1980s, later recalled doing little more than selling newspapers and raffle tickets.
With Adams, Martin McGuinness, and others coming to the fore in the party, the 1980s saw the beginnings of a coherent political strategy for Sinn Féin. At the height of the hunger strikes by republican prisoners in 1981, Sinn Féin decided to abandon decades of abstention from political activity and contest the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election. In April 1981 Bobby Sands, the leader of the hunger strikes, was duly elected MP. At that year's Ard Fheis (annual party conference), leading republican Danny Morrison summarized this strategy of militarism and electoralism as combining the ballot box with the Armalite (a light machine gun, popular with the IRA at this time). Politics began to complement, but not replace, armed struggle, and Sinn Féin became increasingly influential in the republican movement. By 1986 Sinn Féin had abandoned abstentionism and had recognized the southern Irish state, allowing Sinn Féin to take up their seats in the Irish Dáil.
The first signs that politics might one day replace armed struggle as Sinn Féin policy came at the end of the 1980s. Acknowledging the need to find agreement with the unionist majority in Northern Ireland, the 1987 Sinn Féin election manifesto, A Scenario for Peace, was an important policy statement that affirmed the necessity of a political route for the party. What became known as the peace process in Northern Ireland can be seen to have commenced shortly afterward in 1988 when John Hume (leader of the majority nationalist party in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour Party [SDLP]) began secret talks with Gerry Adams. These discussions were initially fruitless, but marked the starting point of Sinn Féin's entry into the political mainstream.
Following the Hume-Adams document of April 1993 and the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 between British Prime Minister John Major and the Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, an IRA cease-fire began in 1994. Subsequently, Sinn Féin political progress was slow but assured during the 1990s. In the 1997 Irish elections, Caoimhghín ó Caoláin became the first Sinn Féin member to take his seat in the Dáil Éireann since 1922. The historic 1998 Belfast Agreement (called the Good Friday Agreement) admitted Sinn Féin to all-party talks, restored devolved government to Ireland, and established a North-South ministerial council. It was, in the historian Alvin Jackson's description, the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 for slow-learning republicans. Seen by Sinn Féin as an interim measure on the road to an independent Ireland, the Belfast Agreement brought the party fully into the political mainstream, and in the 2001 general election, Sinn Féin surpassed the SDLP as the majority party among the Catholic nationalist community of Northern Ireland, winning 21 percent of the vote in the national and local elections.
Davis, Richard P. Arthur Griffith and Non-Violent Sinn Féin. Dublin, 1974.
Feeney, Brian. Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years. Dublin, 2002.
Jackson, Alvin. Home Rule: An Irish History 1800–2000. London, 2003.
Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916–1923. Cambridge, U.K., 1999.
O'Brien, Brendan. The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Féin. 2nd ed. Syracuse, N.Y., 1997.
Taylor, Peter. Provos: The IRA and Sinn Féin. Rev. ed. London, 1998.
Sinn Fein / ˈshin ˈfān/ a political movement and party seeking a united republican Ireland.DERIVATIVES: Sinn Fein·er n.