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Sinn Féin's hundredth birthday

About the author
Richard English is professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of Ernie O’Malley: IRA intellectual (Oxford University Press, 1999) and Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (Pan, 2003)

The founder of the Irish nationalist political movement Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith (1871-1922), might seem an unlikely figure for Gerry Adams’s modern-day party of the same name to celebrate. The Dublin typesetter and journalist Griffith – who publicly set out the Sinn Féin policy in 1905, when Ireland as a whole was ruled directly from London in accordance with the Act of Union of 1801 – was not himself a republican. Indeed, he drew on Austro-Hungarian experience to advocate a constitutional model based on the idea of “dual monarchy”, and his preferred version of Irish nationalism did not involve the espousal of revolutionary violence.

By contrast, Adams’s own “Provisional” movement – formed in January 1970 in a breakaway from the existing (or “Official”) Sinn Féin under pressure of spreading violence in Northern Ireland – has been explicitly and committedly republican and has (under the banner of its Irish Republican Army partner) engaged in a bloody war lasting almost three decades from the early 1970s. Griffith famously opposed socialism, and he was markedly anti-Jewish; Adams’ Sinn Féin has long proclaimed itself a socialist party, and has sought to style itself as progressive on issues of ethnic tolerance and diversity.

Also in openDemocracy on modern Irish politics and nationalism:

Robin Wilson, “The end of the IRA” (March 2005)

Paul Arthur, “The end of the IRA’s ‘long war’” (July 2005)

Stephen Howe, “Mad dogs and Ulstermen” – part one and part two (September 2005)

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Yet here, at the hundredth anniversary of Griffith’s initial exposition of Sinn Féinism, are the 21st-century Sinn Féiners engaging in protracted centenary celebrations.

Of course, when Adams speaks of his “party’s celebration of its hundredth anniversary”, he is not quite telling it straight. There is no direct organisational lineage providing continuity between Sinn Féins old and new. It’s been a stop-start century, as far as Sinn Féin has been concerned, with Adams’ Provisional version merely one of a series of new starts which have deployed the old name.

From violence to politics

Nearer to the mark is the modern party’s enthusiasm for what it calls “a century of struggle for Irish freedom”. For in terms of goals and attitudes, there are obvious reasons for the Sinn Féin name to be lastingly relevant to those like Adams and his comrades, and for the modern party now to hold a big centenary birthday party. What Arthur Griffith set out in Dublin on 28 November 1905 was an impressively powerful nationalist philosophy of self-reliance. Sinn Féin – in English, “Ourselves” – involved not only an emphasis on Irish distinctiveness, but also a crucial stress on the nation’s own capacity and strength.

It wasn’t just that Ireland was culturally different from England, so the argument ran, and that it therefore deserved political independence. The point was also that Ireland would only remain under English domination as long as the Irish allowed this to be the case. Irish nationalists had the resources with which to free themselves, and they could be free if they trusted to their own ways and their own strength. As Sinn Féiners, therefore, you not only defined yourselves as different from your national enemy, you engaged in a struggle marked by self-reliant confidence.

This involved culture (with a stress on Gaelic language and sports, for example) and economics (in the form of protectionist policies); and it ultimately involved a withdrawal of elected Irish representatives from the London parliament which claimed to rule Ireland. Irish culture, economy and politics were different from England’s, and Irish nationalists could themselves simply create their own alternative world, as a way of achieving freedom. Sinn Féin was a politics of attitude. We’ll do it Ourselves.

This is the key to understanding why Adams and Co. are now keen to claim the Sinn Féin inheritance. For what Griffith set out was a philosophy which encapsulated the very essence of nationalism – a politics of proudly self-defining community, confident both in its own distinctiveness and in a struggle which would achieve power in its own way. For early-20th-century Sinn Féiners, as for the 19th-century Fenians before them and the Provisional IRA much later on, defiance was to replace deference in the politics of nationalist pride and resistance.

And this, in its cultural and political form, is now more relevant than ever to modern Sinn Féin. For decades, its republican politics were very much a subservient feature of the IRA’s armed struggle: violence would achieve freedom, and the party was merely facilitating this process. But the IRA’s campaign did not, in fact, bring victory, but rather a bloody stalemate. And in order to move their struggle forward, Irish republicans opted for an aggressively-tinged politics rather than a politically-motivated violence. In short, they opted for a peace process.

So, in the post-armed-struggle Ireland of 2005, Arthur Griffith (himself a man who shifted from secret-society membership to more cultural and formal politics) might be judged of greater importance and resonance. If modern-day republicans are no longer directing their energies so forcibly towards military struggle, then there is a need for other forms of campaign. Hence, in part, the long shelf of books by former IRA men and women – whether memoir, prison journal, academic study, political argument, or fiction.

And hence, perhaps, a certain measure of hope. For the Provisionals’ reinvention of themselves – as peacemakers rather than bombers, writers rather than prisoners, pragmatic politicians rather than millenarian revolutionaries – does contain lessons of relevance elsewhere too. It’s not that Irish republicanism has entirely eschewed violence and intimidation (the grisly Belfast killing of Robert McCartney in January 2005 hideously reminds us of what some of the comrades are still capable of doing). But it is true that IRA violence has mostly stopped; that it has stopped because even this most durable of terrorist organisations came to recognise the futility of its violence; and that killers have seen ways of establishing political momentum in a post-violent form of political struggle.

The virtue of self-reliance

In this sense – in a world in which many young people, from Yorkshire to Iraq to Palestine, are now being radicalised into the role of bomber – there are surely some lessons for all to learn from Ireland. If even Gerry Adams is prepared to star at a birthday party for an irenic cultural nationalist form of politics, then there is surely some sign that even the most bloody of zealot-movements can find more peaceful politics to be a more successful way of doing business.

The picture is not, of course, an entirely pretty one. Northern Ireland is still in an utterly sectarian and divided state, and Sinn Féin’s cultural nationalism has no serious chance of bridging the divide between Catholic and Protestant there. Research shows that even the Democratic Unionist Party – the party of Protestant preacher Ian Paisley – has more Catholic support than Sinn Féin has Protestant: the figures are 1% and 0% respectively.

Richard English is professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. He is the author of Ernie O’Malley: IRA intellectual (Oxford University Press, 1999) and Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA (Pan, 2003)

So what we’re facing is a culture war and a political struggle between two antagonistic communities, rather than any harmony between them. In terms of cultural output itself, there’s also a long way still to travel. Republican authors have yet to produce anything which can match the kind of post-revolutionary intellectual reflection offered by figures such as Sean O’Faolain, Liam O’Flaherty or Ernie O’Malley, a literature born of disenchantment with the new Ireland created in the 1920s.

But the politics of confident self-reliance have been the basis on which Irish republicans have shifted so powerfully from bombs to more conventional politics. The attitude contained in Arthur Griffith’s marvellous brand name of 1905 has helped to ease the path from violence to something more constructive. To this extent, and for all the historical amnesia which it has involved, we should all perhaps be glad that Sinn Féin have bothered to hold this year-long party in their own honour.


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