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Who are Sinn Fein?

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As counting begins in the Irish elections, Socialist Worker wishes the best to Solidarity-People Before Profit. With Sinn Fein neck and neck for top spot according to exit polls, Simon Basketter looks at the party’s history.
Issue 2691
Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith
Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith (Pic: Outlook/Wikicommons)

Sinn Fein has been a bogeyman—real and imagined—for the British state for over a century.

This began in earnest in the aftermath of an armed insurrection—the 1916 Easter Rising—against British rule in Ireland.

British propaganda targeted so-called Sinn Fein rebels as the insurgents.

It was the name of a party founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905.

Griffith dreamed of Irish capitalists making enough profits to compete with Britain.

He believed in an Anglo-Irish empire ruled by the queen.

He had little problem encouraging racism, and detested socialism and any form of working class militancy.

Griffith didn’t participate in the 1916 rising and urged others not to. Sinn Fein was at a low ebb.

Nonetheless, it became the focal point for open political organising against brutal British repression following the rising.

Previous generations of nationalists were discredited for making peace with Britain.

Sinn Fein quickly became the means by which more respectable elements of Irish society could reconnect with the growing resistance.

Some 1,700 delegates attended a reborn Sinn Fein gathering in 1917.

A month later another meeting of the military organisation, the Irish Volunteers that became the IRA, took place.

Eamon de Valera, who had been part of the rising, was elected president.

The republican movement now had a political and a military wing—and so key elements were in place.

These included an emphasis on national unity that cut across class and postponement of debate on what type of free Ireland they wanted.


The military wing officially complemented the political wing but in reality it dominated.

If including wealthier elements led to compromises on national freedom, more militant elements could look to armed struggle in the absence of a left alternative. 

A process of armed struggle, constitutional compromise, and more armed struggle was inbuilt into the movement.

A British general election in 1918 saw Sinn Fein win 73 out of 105 seats in Ireland.

They set up their own parliament—the First Dail. It met on 21 January 1919.

The same day attacks on British forces signalled the start of the war for independence.

Sinn Fein was not the only possible beneficiary of militant opposition.

A general strike in 1918 against conscription had shown the potential for workers to push struggle forward.

De Valera said achieving national unity meant labour must wait.

The Irish Labour Party took him literally and stood aside in the election, effectively withdrawing from any leading role in the independence fight.

By 1920, a guerrilla war stretched British control to breaking point. Britain responded with more repression.

Meanwhile in the north, Unionist leaders declared war on Catholics.

There were pogroms and shipyards were cleared of Catholic workers and “rotten Prods”—socialists.

While the British government was still nominally in charge of Ireland, the Dail was a government with the full paraphernalia of parliamentary rule.

Irish bosses and landlords demanded Sinn Fein restore order. It did—by, for instance reining in land occupations.


In July 1921 the British government called a truce. Irish independence marked the start of the end of the British Empire.

In 1922 the Dail agreed to ratify the Treaty, which accepted the partition of Ireland.

It flung the country into a year-long civil war, but partition remained.

Pro-Treaty supporters formed a new party,Cumann na nGaedheal, that governed the new Irish statefor nine years.

It merged with other organisations, some attracted to fascism, to form Fine Gaelin 1933.

Anti-Treaty Sinn Fein members continued to boycott the Dail until 1926, when de Valera proposed they take their seats.

When his motion was defeated, de Valera resigned from Sinn Fein and founded Fianna Fail. It became Ireland’s main bosses’ party for decades.

Nationalism could mobilise large sections of the working class.

But Sinn Fein had failed to win the national liberation of Ireland. Its ties to landlords and bosses held it back.

Sinn Fein held its flame aloft but it flickered gradually more weakly as the carnival of reaction of the two Irish states North and South solidified. 

Radical rhetoric—the radicalism of blowing things up—was the flip side of looking to do deals with the establishment.

After the failure of an IRA military border campaign, republicanism reached its lowest point by 1960.British repression in Northern Ireland meant this changed by the end of the decade.

In October 198 police baton-charged peaceful Civil Rights marchers in Derry.

By 1969 the scale of resistance in Northern Ireland meant the Unionist regime couldn’t keep control.

The Labour government sent Britsh troops to prop up the state—and they started killing Catholic civilians.

In 1970 the leftish Official IRA and the more traditionalist Provisional IRA split over whether to take seats in parliaments.

The issue mattered because republican legitimacy rested on their claim to be the real government of Ireland based on an unbroken legacy that stretched back to the First Dail.

So taking part in a parliament is often justified by increasing radical rhetoric. 

Irish elections set to show long term   shift away from three main parties
Irish elections set to show long term shift away from three main parties
  Read More

This can be the language of armed militancy or it can be more left wing.

As repression intensified and armed resistance replaced mass struggle, the Provisionals’ influence grew.

Meanwhile the Officials detoured through Stalinism and splits—with what’s left wallowing in the Irish Labour Party.

Through the 1970s and 1980s Sinn Fein developed renewed leftist rhetoric.

Talk of imminent victory was dropped and a new “long war” strategy was adopted.

Nationalist movements look to both bosses and workers, because loyalty to the nation trumps any class interests.

So the republican use of socialist language went hand in hand with fundraising from right wing US politicians.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, during the fight for a restoration of political status for prisoners and hunger strikes, Sinn Fein was hostile to elections.

It soon did an about-turn and emphasised using elections to win some nationalists in the political establishment north and south.

In 1986, Sinn Fein dropped its abstentionism to the Dail and Stormont.

The grassroots were promised an “armalite and ballot box” strategy but were reassured the first was primary.

The political psychology behind “bombing to the negotiating table” rested on an ability to carry off repeated “spectaculars” that shook the establishment.

Eamon de Valera
Eamon de Valera (Pic: Photo Company Collection/Wikicommons)


The British state couldn’t beat the IRA but the reverse was also true.

That made the political wing more dominant. They followed the route of their predecessors.

Revolutionary nationalists do not seek to end class rule but to cut out a space for themselves within the existing order.

So the shift from armed struggle to conventional politics is not always as far a journey as it might appear.

Radical rhetoric—the radicalism of blowing things up—was the flip side of looking to do deals with the establishment.

And any left rhetoric always lacked recognition that the working class, as a class, could free itself.

The volunteer with a gun was the key agent of change. When that fails, the movement is there to back the men behind the desk.

Today Sinn Fein’s declared aim is to be in government North and South simultaneously.

Through this it hopes to speed the way to a united Ireland.

The old trope about overthrowing both rotten Irish states has been replaced with one that advocates “an all island economy”.

Radical republicans have become government ministers responsible for running a failed Northern state.

Their main hope is to use anti-austerity rhetoric in the South to win state positions, then “move forward the peace process” to a united Ireland.

Yet growing economic integration of Ireland under pro-business governments will hardly bring the working class together in the North, never mind across Ireland.

It may even have the opposite effect.

And the contrast between the rhetoric against austerity in the South and the practice of implementing it in the North is not necessarily resolved to the left.

Whether Sinn Fein ends up in a right wing or a left wing government in the South will affect the shape of that outcome.

But the determination to put nation above class means workers, at best, will still be told to wait.


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