Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922

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Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922

The Sinn Féin Party dominated Irish nationalism between 1917 and 1922, but for many years it had been a marginal group in Irish politics. It was effectively the creation of Arthur Griffith, a brilliant and acerbic journalist who in 1907 formed a united party out of competing and overlapping groups. Under his influence its policy was to restructure the United Kingdom by establishing a dual monarchy similar to that of Austria-Hungary: Irish MPs were to abstain from the House of Commons and form a separate parliament in Dublin. By the standards of Irish nationalists he was obsessively concerned with economic issues, arguing in favor of industrialization and the protection of Irish products against foreign (specifically British) competition.

Griffith's first Sinn Féin Party made little impact. It was Dublin-centered, had no more than 128 branches at its greatest extent, and fought (unsuccessfully) only one by-election. Its inability to contest any seats in either of the general elections of 1910 illustrated its weakness, and it was moribund long before the outbreak of World War I.

However, Griffith remained an influential propagandist and, using the name of his party as that of his weekly newspaper, proved Sinn Féin to be popular and adaptable. When the paramilitary Irish Volunteers were formed in 1913, they were called the Sinn Féin Volunteers, often to the members' disgust. The Easter Rising, which was carried out largely by Volunteers, was similarly mistitled. The result was that an insignificant political party became closely identified with a heroic and romantic insurrection. As the rising acquired a retrospective popularity, Sinn Féin was able to benefit from the swing in public opinion against the British government and the Home Rule Party.

In early 1917 the Irish Volunteers, including former rebels who viewed politics with suspicion or disdain, realized that there was no possibility of another rebellion in the near future. Many of them drifted into political activity, often by chance or for lack of something better to do, and combined forces with the more moderate elements associated with Griffith. Together they led a grouping that in the course of the year became the second Sinn Féin Party.

The Second Sinn FÉin Party

Even more than its prewar predecessor, this body was an alliance of political and military elements, of moderates and extremists. Some of its members believed strongly in democracy and political activity, while others regarded the tasks of contesting elections and converting public opinion as no more than an unwelcome prelude to another rising. But the members were able to cooperate effectively and to overcome differences that threatened to disrupt their efforts. They won a series of by-elections, thereby providing the movement with publicity and self-confidence. The new party was fashionable, acquired the glamour of success, and spread rapidly. By the end of 1917 it had more than 1,200 branches and probably over 120,000 members. Most of its supporters were former Home Rulers, with the result that the party inherited many of the skills and habits of its rival. Sinn Féin's constitution was changed so that it became a republican movement, abandoning the old policy of a dual monarchy, and Griffith was replaced as president by Eamon de Valera, the senior surviving leader of the Easter Rising.

In early 1918, Sinn Féin experienced three successive by-election defeats at the hands of the Irish Parliamentary Party, but it was able to play the principal role in organizing resistance to British plans for imposing conscription on Ireland. Irish nationalists flocked to join Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers. The arrest of de Valera, Griffith, and other prominent members of the party gave it the aura of martyrdom while also confirming the general belief that the Sinn Féin movement provided the only effective organized civilian resistance to conscription.

Despite the imprisonment of most of its leaders, Sinn Féin was able to wage a formidable campaign when a general election was held in December 1918. The Labour Party stood aside, and Home Rulers were so demoralized that they did not contest twenty-five nationalist constituencies. Sinn Féin won a total of seventy-three seats, the Parliamentary Party six, and the unionists twenty-six. One Sinn Féin candidate, Countess Markievicz, was the first woman to be elected to Parliament, although her resolve to abstain from Westminster guaranteed that she would not take her seat. Sinn Féin's political supremacy in nationalist Ireland was comparable to that of Charles Stewart Parnell in the late 1880s.

The Decline of Sinn FÉin

In January 1919 Sinn Féin MPs met in Dublin, proclaimed themselves Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament), and re-proclaimed the republic of Easter 1916. De Valera was later elected president, a cabinet was approved, and the new government attempted to take over the administration of the country. Ironically these actions, implementing Sinn Féin policies, which Griffith had outlined for almost twenty years, were among the factors that brought about the party's dramatic decline. Most of its aims had already been achieved; in particular, it had educated and organized Irish nationalism, defeated the Home Rule Party, and implemented a policy of abstention from Westminster. Its remaining objectives could better be achieved by the Dáil government or by its army—the Volunteers, who were now more widely called the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

As Ireland was polarized by the Anglo-Irish War of 1919 to 1921, the party often seemed to be superfluous, its members' enthusiasm dwindled, and it was banned by the British authorities. In many parts of the country it faded away, although it could be revived for basic electoral purposes. It was able to fight local elections in 1920 and a general election in 1921 (when seats were contested only in the newly created Northern Ireland and all its candidates were returned unopposed in the south). Only with the truce of July 1921 could Sinn Féin reemerge and resume its normal activities. In the course of the following months it was reconstituted. It enjoyed a brief Indian summer and became more popular than ever before.

This pattern was short lived. When the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in December 1921, the party split in two—like the rest of nationalist Ireland. The uneasy compromise between moderates and extremists negotiated in 1917 could not survive the compromises that were imposed by an agreement with Britain. Rival factions tried to seize control of Sinn Féin's machine, its assets, and its image. The party was patched together unconvincingly in May 1922 as part of the Collins–de Valera pact, under which pro- and antitreaty candidates were supposed to bury their differences and campaign together as a "panel." In theory Sinn Féin candidates won more than 60 percent of the vote, but the reality was that the electors' loyalties lay with either Michael Collins's provisional government or with the antitreaty republicans. Sinn Féin served only as a platform that could be used by the two "real" parties. Within weeks open warfare had broken out between the government and its republican opponents, and the second Sinn Féin Party promptly disintegrated. Its name was later appropriated by a series of minority republican groupings.

The party's ignominious end should not distract attention from its considerable achievements—above all its mobilization and radicalization of Irish nationalism and its maintenance of political traditions and values in the midst of what was largely a military revolution. The rapid consolidation of democracy in independent Ireland was eased by the activities of the Sinn Féin Party in the years after the Easter Rising.

SEE ALSO Civil War; Collins, Michael; Cumann na mBan; de Valera, Eamon; Electoral Politics from 1800 to 1921; Gonne, Maud; Great War; Griffith, Arthur; Home Rule Movement and the Irish Parliamentary Party: 1891 to 1918; Markievicz, Countess Constance; Pearse, Patrick; Politics: 1800 to 1921—Challenges to the Union; Redmond, John; Struggle for Independence from 1916 to 1921; Primary Documents: Address at the First Annual Convention of the National Council of Sinn Féin (28 November 1905); Resolutions Adopted at the Public Meeting Following the First Annual Convention of the National Council of Sinn Féin (28 November 1905); Proclamation of the Irish Republic (24 April 1916); Declaration of Irish Independence (21 January 1919); The "Democratic Programme" of Dáil Éireann (21 January 1919); Government of Ireland Act (23 December 1920); Proclamation Issued by IRA Leaders at the Beginning of the Civil War (29 June 1922)


Boyce, D. G., ed. The Revolution in Ireland, 1879–1923. 1988.

Davis, Richard. Arthur Griffith and Non-Violent Sinn Féin. 1974.

Feeney, Brian. Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years. 2002.

Glandon, Virginia E. Arthur Griffith and the Advanced-Nationalist Press: Ireland, 1900–1922. 1985.

Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916–1923. 1999.

Maye, Brian. Arthur Griffith. 1997.

Michael Laffan

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Sinn Féin Movement and Party to 1922

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