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A century of splits and the 'passing on of authority' : How does the modern Sinn Féin trace its roots back to the civil war?

The party of today owes its success to the peace process, writes Brian Hanley.

Brian Hanley

It’s been a week where the three main parties in this country – Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and now Sinn Féin – were left reeling and trying to come to terms with the new political reality following a seismic election.

Many TDs from the traditional two ruling parties – FF and FG – went to ground and refused to comment on the possibility of forming a coalition with Sinn Féin, but some, like FF’s Jim O’Callaghan, insisted they would never support such a move.

By Thursday, the FF parliamentary party had made it clear that coalition with Sinn Féin was out of the question.

However, Fianna Fáil stalwart, Eamon O’Cuiv (grandson of Éamon de Valera) was one of the few TDs who referred to the “similarities” between his party and Sinn Féin.

So, at such a critical juncture in Irish political life, we asked historian Brian Hanley to trace back through the history of the Sinn Féin party:

THE THREE MAJOR parties of southern politics have their roots in the split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Then a majority of the Dáil voted narrowly to accept a compromise with Britain that allowed the 26 counties to become a Free State, but only within the Commonwealth.

Sinn Féin, the coalition that had held together as the political leadership of the independence struggle then split.

In general elections of June 1922 pro-Treaty Sinn Féin (effectively the government party) led by Michael Collins won 58 seats while those who opposed the Treaty, led by Eamon de Valera, took 36 (The Labour party and others also won substantial votes).

The split was followed by a bloody civil war after which the victorious pro-Treatyites now led by W.T. Cosgrave renamed themselves Cumann na nGaedheal (which made up the largest part of Fine Gael founded a decade later).

Civil War politics is born

Another election followed the end of the Civil War, which Cumann na nGaedheal won, taking 63 seats. 44 Anti-Treaty Republicans, who now were sole custodians of the Sinn Féin label, were elected.

The formal position of Sinn Féin was that the Second Dáil, (elected in 1921) remained the legitimate Irish parliament with the Free State merely a British puppet regime. Entering Leinster House would be a betrayal of the Republic.

However by 1926 de Valera, along with IRA leaders like Frank Aiken realised that the republican movement would stagnate if it did not recognise that the majority of voters had accepted the new state.

In 1926 de Valera formed Fianna Fáil, taking Aiken and other senior figures, such as Countess Markievicz and Seán Lemass with him.

Fianna Fáil argued that TDs could enter the Dublin parliament if the Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch was removed.

In 1927 however, following a crisis occasioned by the assassination of the Minister for Justice Kevin O’Higgins, 57 Fianna Fáil TDs took their seats, de Valera dismissing the oath as merely an ‘empty formula.’

Five Sinn Féin TDs had been elected, but refused to take seats; the party did not contest another southern election until 1957.

The split in the ranks

Many leading IRA figures followed de Valera, though their organisation maintained armed opposition to the Free State. At a local level, there was a cross over between Fianna Fáil and the IRA for several years.

Sinn Féin, in contrast, was reduced to a purist rump refusing to engage in day-to-day politics, while the IRA embraced left-wing activism.

De Valera’s party soon attracted popular support as much for its social and economic policies as its republicanism and rapidly eclipsed a conservative government seen as out of touch and elitist. In 1932 Fianna Fáil won 72 seats and formed a government with the support of Labour.

A year later de Valera’s party won 77 seats and consolidated itself in power. In both elections the IRA had supported the party, hoping de Valera would move towards dismantling the Free State.

Sinn Féin, in contrast, looked on aghast and continued to denounce any participation in parliamentary politics as treachery. By 1936 relations between Fianna Fáil and the IRA had soured, the government banning the organisation.

As the IRA became more isolated it decided to concentrate on a military campaign against partition. To secure the necessary legitimacy to ‘declare war’ on Britain, during 1938 it sought out seven former Sinn Féin TDs who maintained allegiance to the Second Dáil, who in turn passed on their governmental ‘authority’ to the IRA. (This is a position which some doctrinaire republicans still claim to hold today).

However, the IRA was effectively crushed both north and south during the war years and Sinn Féin remained marginal. Some republicans, despairing of political irrelevance, formed a new party called Clann na Poblachta, which became part of the first coalition government (with Fine Gael and Labour) in 1948.

Provisional IRA 

The IRA leadership realised they needed a political face and effectively took over what remained of Sinn Féin. From 1948 the party was the public face of the IRA, though always a junior partner to it. During the 1950s the focus for republicans was on an armed struggle against partition, which began in 1956.

In the early stages of the ‘Border Campaign’ four Sinn Féin TDs were elected to the Dáil; none took their seats. The armed campaign formally ended in early 1962, by which time all four seats had been lost. In the aftermath a new republican leadership, under Cathal Goulding, undertook a rethink, once again embracing social agitation and considering the possibility of taking parliamentary seats.

This policy was denounced by those such as Ruairí Ó Brádaigh who saw it as the first step towards abandoning republicanism. However, the violence which erupted in Belfast and elsewhere after August 1969 was the major reason for a new split in the republican movement.

Accusing the Dublin IRA leadership of having failed to protect nationalists, Belfast dissidents joined forces with southern traditionalists and formed the Provisional IRA in late 1969.

In early 1970 Sinn Féin also split, Goulding’s supporters becoming known as the ‘Officials.’ Official Sinn Féin dropped the abstentionist policy and as Sinn Féin-the Workers’ Party won its first Dáil seat in 1981. In 1989, as the Workers’ Party, it took seven seats.

Provisional Sinn Féin, meanwhile, led by Ó Bradáigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill, both senior IRA members, fully supported the IRA’s armed struggle, while maintaining a policy of non-recognition of the southern state.

In real terms, the party was both a support organisation and vehicle for publicity for the IRA. Sinn Féin members were banned from RTE, the party widely regarded as ‘subversive’ and members suffered deadly attacks in Northern Ireland itself (where it was illegal until 1974).

Hunger strikes, 1981

Though it had held a few council seats across the Republic, it was not until after the H-Block hunger strikes in 1981 that Sinn Féin emerged as a real political force.

Then, increasingly under the direction of a younger, northern leadership, many of them senior IRA figures, it entered electoral politics as a campaigning, left-wing party. In 1983, Gerry Adams, (who replaced Ó Bradáigh as party leader that year) won a Westminster seat.

There remained complete support for the IRA’s armed struggle, summed up in a phrase made famous by senior republican Danny Morrison as a strategy of ‘armalite and ballot box.’

As the 1980s wore on, however, the balance of influence between Sinn Féin and the IRA slowly began to shift. While maintaining its policy of abstention towards the British parliament, Adams and his supporters realised that progress in the south was impossible without being prepared to enter the Dáil.

In 1986 Sinn Féin agreed to take seats, if elected, in Leinster House. (Ó Bradáigh and his supporters left to form Republican Sinn Féin). While party support peaked in Northern Ireland at around 11% (with Adams losing his seat in 1992), in the Republic Sinn Féin never gained more than 2% of the vote.

Put simply, while the IRA campaign was ongoing there was no prospect of Sinn Féin becoming a major political force, a factor recognised (if not openly acknowledged) by senior republicans.

The desire to become a genuine all-Ireland movement was one factor in the long process which brought about IRA ceasefires and decommissioning.

The peace process has been good to Sinn Féin and the dynamic, community-based party of today is as much a product of the last 20 years as it is of the long history it claims continuity from.

Brian Hanley is a historian and author. His most recent book is The Impact of the Troubles on the Republic of Ireland, 1968-79.’

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