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The Rise of Sinn Fein







Article by John Gormley

At the beginning of the peace process, following the first ceasefire in  1994, politicians were fond of quoting the Yeats line: “…peace comes dropping slow”. It has been slow. Painfully slow – as was highlighted by the historic handshake between Martin McGuinness and the Queen. Remember, it’s now seventeen years since Prince Charles visited Dublin, and at the time many commentators felt that within a decade Sinn Féin representatives would have put aside their opposition to Royal visits. Those who entertained such thoughts didn’t understand the internal pressures  and sense of grievance within the republican movement. Nor did they appreciate that Sinn Féin has always played the long game. Adams and McGuinness deserve credit for the way in which they have skillfully judged the mood in their own ranks, ensuring never to get too far ahead of those with more fundamentalist views.

The Prince Charles visit provided me with a good insight into McGuinness’s thinking at that time, leaving me with the impression of a man who was serious, pragmatic and somewhat opportunistic. I was Lord Mayor of Dublin and had provoked outrage in certain republican and nationalist circles by suggesting that those who objected to the royal visit to the Mansion House were “diehards”. Space doesn’t permit me here to go into detail about certain incidents surrounding this event (I’ll save all that for my memoirs) but following the successful meeting with Charles, I decided to meet representatives of the Bloody Sunday families, who had been leading the protests. The families not only objected to the royal visit, they also felt hurt that no politician from the south had made an official visit to the site of the Bloody Sunday atrocity. They invited me to visit the memorial in Derry, an invitation which I accepted a number of weeks later. I informed the committee that I would visit the memorial in the company of the independent Unionist Mayor of Derry, Jim Guy. Such a visit was a courageous gesture for any Unionist politician and Jim asked politely that no Sinn Féin representative be present.

Unfortunately, this request was not respected. Just as we approached the area to greet the families, Martin McGuinness materialised from behind the memorial with a photographer in tow. When the subject of the Prince Charles visit was raised I repeated my view that meeting him was ‘the right thing to do.’

“That’s not the view of these people”, Martin McGuinness said. It was an interesting response. I noted immediately that he did not say that this was his view. He had managed to convey the impression that while he represented the families and understood their grievance, he could also understand why meeting Prince Charles made sense. Seventeen years later it made sense for him to meet the Queen but only after the necessary obstacles had been overcome such as vindication of the families in the Bloody Sunday Inquiry. Sinn Féin have shown that pragmatism doesn’t necessarily mean the abandonment of principle: it’s more about choosing a different path to achieve the same end.

In Éamon Mallie’s seminal book on the Provisional IRA,  he gives an amusing account of the split between the ‘officials’ and ‘provos’. While Cathal Goulding and the brilliant Roy Johnston theorised about sectarianism and class struggle, the Belfast lads just wanted to get on with bombing the Brits. This ‘no nonsense’ approach has so far stood the Shinners in good stead. They’ve also had a little bit of luck along the way. After their unsuccessful election of 2007, the global recession gave them the necessary platform  for the 2011 General Election, when their message resonated more strongly with a disillusioned electorate. With no sign of an imminent recovery – despite what the government says – and with more cutbacks likely, Sinn Féin can look forward to even further gains. Not only do they have some very articulate TDs and senators, they also have an excellent backroom team of highly-qualified and motivated graduates. Many of the candidates they are currently grooming are eminently electable in middle-class areas.

While they will make gains, particularly at the expense of Labour, claims by some pundits that Sinn Féin will soon become the second biggest party in the country are wide of the mark. Fianna Fáil haven’t gone away, you know. If the PRI can stage a recovery in Mexico within a twelve-year period, then it’s certainly possible for the Soldiers of Destiny to make some gains in the next election. Sinn Féin won’t be daunted by this prospect. They know that pragmatism and playing the long game will ensure that – as far as a future coalition government is concerned – their day will come.