Via violence to contempt to abstentionism to normalisation perhaps to government.
By Dan Haverty.
It is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of Sinn Féin’s electoral performance in the Irish general election. Once the political wing of the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), Sinn Féin took down a political establishment that had been in power since the state’s foundation in 1922. It won the most first preference votes of any party, topping the poll in a shocking 24 out of 39 constituencies. It secured its place as the leading voice of the Irish left, probably marking the definitive end of the Labour Party’s 108-year run as a relevant force in national politics. Although it only ran 42 candidates across the 39 constituencies (thus ensuring it didn’t win even more seats), pundits agree that Sinn Féin is now one of the dominant forces in Irish politics.
For outside observers, the results mark a dramatic realignment of Irish politics that began with the financial collapse in 2008. For republicans, Sinn Féin’s historic performance brings a highly controversial four-decade-old internal process of politicisation close to final vindication.
The modern iteration of Sinn Féin emerged out of a split within the republican movement in 1970. The ‘Provisional’ faction of the movement (from which modern Sinn Féin emerged) opposed the ‘Official’ faction’s move toward electoral politics, choosing instead to pursue the full unification of Ireland through violence. Born in a culture of absolute contempt for party politics, Sinn Féin’s role was minimal, serving as little more than a mouthpiece for the far larger and more active Provisional IRA.
Sinn Féin began to take on a more important role in the movement’s activities as tensions between authorities and republican internees in Long Kesh prison worsened in the late 1970s. In 1976, the British government chose to revoke political status from paramilitary prisoners in its attempt to “normalise” and “criminalise” the security situation in Northern Ireland. This sparked a spontaneous prison-wide protest among republican prisoners, culminating in the high-profile hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981.
The republican leadership on the outside had little control over the direction of the protest movement, and rather than try to assert authority over its living martyrs, it opted instead to organise a grassroots campaign to support them. Sinn Féin was at the forefront of directing the day-to-day activities of the so-called Anti H-Block committees, organising street demonstrations and fund-raising campaigns that generated a renewed interest in—and sympathy for—the republican struggle.
The campaign escalated sharply in March 1981, when independent Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Frank Maguire died of a sudden heart attack, forcing a by-election for his seat. Sinn Féin was initially reluctant to contest the seat, fearing a loss would undermine support for the prisoners. But it ultimately decided that a strong enough loss would still serve its wider purposes, and it chose to stand lead hunger striker Bobby Sands on an Anti H-Block ticket.
A groundswell of support followed, which Sinn Féin carefully channelled into electoral points for Sands. Sands won the election, sending shockwaves through both the British and Irish political establishments. Two more hunger strikers were elected to the Irish parliament in the general election in June of that year, convincing a large section of the movement that a well-organised, grassroots campaign in support of republican objectives could deliver tangible political results.
In the aftermath of the hunger strikes, Sinn Féin opted for a new strategy combining armed struggle with electoral politics. But by the middle of the 1980s, the Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness-led leadership decided a more comprehensive electoral strategy was needed to advance the struggle. They wanted to build a political movement in the Republic to support the fight for freedom in the North, but they knew this required an economic and social programme independent of the struggle that could appeal to Southern working-class voters. This necessarily had to include a commitment to take their seats in the Irish legislature, an institution Sinn Féin had never previously participated in because it was viewed as a British-imposed body with no legitimacy in Ireland.
The ensuing debate over whether to end abstention from the Irish legislature opened a chasm within the movement, pitting traditionalists against reformists over the soul of republicanism. Abstentionism was first employed in the 1910s in an attempt to render the British parliament inoperable, but it was elevated to principle status after the revolutionary period of the 1920s. Traditionalists argued that it embodied their rejection of British-imposed institutions and thus justified the armed struggle.
On a strategic level, traditionalists always argued that violence was the only force capable of pushing the British out of Ireland. If a political strategy was adopted, its needs would supersede the needs of the armed struggle, and the IRA would have to be restrained and eventually disbanded, thus depriving the movement of its cutting edge. Once defanged, the need to win votes would lead to ever increasing compromises which would push republicans to soften their political aims, thus neutralizing any meaningful threat to the state.
But by the mid-1980s, the conflict was nearing two decades old and was seemingly in a stalemate, and the reformists privately arrived at the conclusion that the moment for armed struggle had passed and they could no longer achieve their aims militarily. They feared that if they did not change their tactics, they risked losing the tremendous wave of sympathy generated by the hunger strikes. They concluded that the conditions were ripe enough to move Sinn Féin and the IRA fully out of war and into politics.
The reformists won out, and in 1986, the IRA made the historic decision to drop abstention from the Irish parliament and allow elected Sinn Féin representatives to take their seats. It followed an emotional (and deeply divisive) debate within the movement, leading a faction of traditionalists to leave and form their own breakaway group. It still took decades for Sinn Féin to build a respectable following in the Republic, but the change freed it to begin developing a distinct political program.
From there, the flow of events followed their logical progression. Already in 1987, the Sinn Féin leadership began exploring avenues for peace. After a torturously slow process riddled with seemingly insurmountable setbacks, the IRA finally announced a full ceasefire in 1994, and Sinn Féin committed itself to nonviolence in 1996. The movement collectively signed up to the principles of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, agreeing to end the armed struggle completely and participate fully in new state institutions. At each step along the way, a small but substantial minority of hardliners left the movement, disenchanted with the decision to move into constitutional politics. The presence of this loosely aligned group of dissidents has always loomed over the peace process, and their activities are still a threat to stability today.
Despite the worst predictions of the traditionalists, Sinn Féin has marched relentlessly forward. It overtook the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland in 2003, and after a four-year stalemate with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), it became the leading nationalist voice on the country’s governing Executive, giving it real responsibility for the governance of Northern Ireland.
Since the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union in 2016, Sinn Féin’s ultimate political aspiration—Irish unification—has taken on a renewed relevance, and this seems to have raised the fortunes of nationalist politicians. At the 2017 Assembly elections, unionists lost their numerical majority for the first time since the foundation of the state in 1921. This was followed by the loss of their majority in the British Parliament after the UK general election in December. In both cases, nationalists were among the main beneficiaries. Some opinion polls suggest that support for Irish unity is rising.
The party’s growth has followed a similar trajectory in the Republic. It won its first seat in the Irish parliament in 1997, a number that clawed itself to four by 2007. Sinn Féin capitalised on mass public discontent after the 2008 financial crisis, surging ahead to capture 23 seats at the 2016 elections and culminating in last weekend’s breakthrough performance; Sinn Féin now holds 37 seats, making it the largest party in the Irish legislature, putting it in position to lead the next government.
Remarkably—and importantly—Sinn Féin made these gains without compromising on its core aims (as republican traditionalists had always warned). Sinn Féin’s 2020 election manifesto states unequivocally that “Our core political objective is to achieve Irish Unity”, and party members have consistently called for a unity referendum within the lifetime of the next government. Indeed, before the election results were known, party leader Mary Lou McDonald told reporters that a unity referendum was the price for Sinn Féin entering government. One can expect that, if Sinn Féin does form part of the next government, unity will undoubtedly be a top priority.
Ultimately, it is the prerogative of the British government to hold a unity referendum, and although it is legally obligated to do so when it believes a majority of people in Northern Ireland now supports unity, it will likely only happen when it is politically advantageous (or necessary). The Irish government has rarely used its leverage to meaningfully move London in that direction, but with Sinn Féin at the helm in Dublin, it will have the depth of the Republic’s resources at its disposal (including a sympathetic European Union) to pressure the British government. Combined with its efforts in Northern Ireland to sell unification as a way of preserving the country’s EU membership, this dual pressure strategy could eventually be enough to tip the scales in favour of unity.
The rift between republican traditionalists and reformists never healed, partly because the reformists could only ever be absolved if they could show that politics actually works. Sinn Féin’s leaping electoral gains have far exceeded even the most hopeful prognoses back then, but they have not yet achieved unification. Traditionalists will continue to argue that politics doesn’t work, but with Sinn Féin closing in on its ultimate aspiration, its electoral strategy is also nearing full vindication.