Sinn Féin: Has it become James Connelly's socialist utopia?

The February 2020 election in Ireland saw a big swing to the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party. They narrowly failed to win the most parliamentary seats, and beat the ruling Fine Gael party. But the election result was far from being some right wing nationalist reaction that we’ve seen in other countries. This was more about everyday social issues affecting the people of Ireland. The Irish economy is booming, yet there is a growing dissatisfaction with how successive governments have handled issues like social welfare, health, and particularly housing. So has Sinn Féin metamorphosed from a single issue nationalist agenda into a party focusing on largely socialist issues? Well the answer isn’t that simple. To understand how Ireland has arrived at this point, you need to look a little bit at the past.

Sinn Féin was founded in 1905 in an attempt to bring together the disparate Irish nationalist groups that existed at that time. To this day it has alleged links with terrorism, an allegation it strongly denies. It’s problem is it’s association with men like Jerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, who decided to join the political struggle after being jailed on terrorism charges in the 1970s. It isn’t denied that both held senior positions in the IRA before being jailed, and it is their association with what is a political party that haunts Sinn Féin to this day.

So what does Sinn Féin stand for?

The party is clear on the issue of Irish independence. It wants the 32 counties of Ireland to be reunited as one nation, meaning the end of Northern Ireland. After being founded, it took the decision not to take their seats in the UK parliament, a vow that still exists today although they haven't stood in a UK constituency recently. Probably the most famous, or infamous depending on your view, Sinn Féin MP of recent times was Bobby Sands. A convicted IRA terrorist, Bobby Sands was elected as MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 1981. Already on hunger strike before his election, he died a few weeks later. It is this association with a terrorist past that casts a shadow on Sinn Féin’s political activities, but it is all too easy to write them off as a political front for the IRA.

To answer what the party stands for now, you need to look at the state of Irish politics from 1905 onwards. The early part of the 20th century was divisive, with almost continual conflict with the UK. In the space of ten years, Ireland saw the Dublin Lockouts, the Easter Uprising, the War of Independence, and Civil War. It was a period that saw a surge in Irish nationalism in many forms. Initially not military, it took the form of increasing interest in the Irish language and history. Yet it was also a time where ordinary working class Irish were increasingly repressed after the horrors of the famines and mass immigration of the 19th century. The status quo saw the UK treat Ireland poorly, and with only a select few Irish being able to vote, it was a increasingly volatile atmosphere. 

Yet it would be unfair to think of Sinn Féin as a single issue party, bound to Irish independence. That may have been the case in its early years, but as their influence and success increased they had to broaden their appeal. In the early days of its existence, Sinn Féin called for home rule for Ireland but ruled by the UK monarchy. It was this reason that its members didn’t take part in the 1916 Easter Uprising. The republicans that did, namely the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Irish Volunteers, and the Irish Citizen Army wanted no such link with the UK monarchy. They wanted total independence.

Matters came to a head in 1917 when the disparate groups came together in Dublin. With participants of the Easter Uprising and their families now amongst its membership, a motion was passed that read:
"Sinn Féin aims at securing the international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish republic. Having achieved that status the Irish people may by referendum freely choose their own form of Government."
It was a fudge that left open the form of a future Irish constitution, but also set the tone of what was becoming an increasingly hard line nationalist political movement.

Progression into Politics and an Armed Struggle

The 1918 general elections were a watershed moment, with Sinn Féin winning 73 of the 105 seats. On the back of that result, andmindful that they still refused to take their seats in a parliament they didn't recongnise, the MPs met in 1919 and proclaimed themselves Dáil Éireann, the parliament of Ireland. Ireland was still at this time part of the UK and they didn’t recognise the Dail, but this act marked a line in the sand of their intentions.

Sinn Féin supported the IRA in its struggle to free Ireland from UK rule during the War of Independence. It also participated in the negotiations for the Anglo Irish Treaty that finally brought independence for all but the six counties in the north. But it was this later act that ultimately brought the divisions in its ranks to the surface, and led to civil war. The conflict lasted just under a year, but its effect was to last a lot longer.

Politically Dáil Éireann was deeply divided following the Civil War. Comrades that had fought alongside each other during the War of Independence, now fundamentally disagreed with each other. The Anglo Irish Treaty negotiations are shrouded in controversy with each side blaming each other for the final text, but the division of Ireland into the six counties in the north and the 26 in the south was ratified by the Irish Parliament. 

Following the civil war and victory for the pro-treaty side, the pro-treaty supporters founded Fine Gael, whilst the anti-treaty supporters formed Fianna Fáil. Most Sinn Féin supporters were anti-treaty, Fianna Fáil made massive gains and in 1927 general election. with Sinn Féin only winning six seats. For the next 40 years, Sinn Féin was largely a spent force, virtually bankrupt, and with minimal political representatives. Itt moved to the left of political spectrum, angering more traditional nationalists.

The Formation of Provisional Sinn Féin

In January 1970 a  proposal to end abstentionism from the Dáil, the Parliament of Northern Ireland and the Parliament of the United Kingdom was put before Sinn Féin members. The IRA's convention had a already adopted a similar motion in December 1969, but the proposal failed to meet the required two thirds majority. It was then that a motion was introduced in support of IRA policy, at which point the dissenting delegates walked out of the meeting citing:
  • Their opposition to the ending of abstentionism.
  • The drift towards "extreme forms of socialism".
  • The failure of the leadership to defend the nationalist people of Belfast during the 1969 Northern Ireland riots.
  • The expulsion of traditional republicans by the leadership during the 1960s.
Later the same year the dissenting delegates formed what became known as Official Sinn Féin, but because its commitment was to military action rather than political, its influence was minor. It was only when internment was introduced in Northern Ireland that its support grew.

Modern times

In more recent years Sinn Féin has taken its seat in both the Dail and Northern Ireland parliament, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing. There was the well publicised ban on any Sinn Féin politicians being broadcast on UK mainstream media. The embargo proved utterly pointless as media outlets just had their words spoken by an actor. It also acted as a PR coup for the republican cause. There was also the fact that in the early days Northern Ireland Unionists simply refused to talk to them.

As the challenges facing Ireland changed, so did the need to broaden its appeal. With several generations of Irish having grown up with Ireland just being the 26 counties, the status quo is acceptable to all but a few hardline nationalists. Many Catholic voters just wanted peace. So why should they vote for a hardline nationalist party that would likely bring anything but that?

The everyday reality

Last weekend’s election could be seen as another country voting for an extremist party by way of a protest vote against the establishment. This is a simplistic argument, with the reality more nuanced. Ireland’s economy is doing well. So well that it tops all other European Union nations. It has a young, well educated population who’ve become less entrenched with the main political parties. Social issues like housing and the welfare state have come to the fore in a way Ireland hasn’t seen before. In short, many Irish see a disconnect between what the country should be achieving and what is being achieved. It is into this political vacuum that Sinn Féin has seized its opportunity. It’s socially progressive manifesto feeds into the concerns of voters.

The interesting part of this story is just how Sinn Féin has progressed from the early days of the 20th century. James Connelly’s Irish Citizen Army was founded out of the trade union movement in 1913 to protect workers during the Dublin Lockout. Essentially a socialist organisation, its modus operandi weren’t military but to protect workers rights, although its members were often armed with clubs and other small weapons. However this was a defensive reaction to the aggressive actions of the police against the strikers. 

That James Connelly signed the Declaration of Independence in 1916 and led his men in the Easter Rising, could be seen in the same context. To some, it was a struggle for freedom from a UK government that denied ordinary Irish men and women their rights. Socialism and nationalism were congenitally joined. But that’s simplistic. The disparate group of men that fought for, and depending on your point of view, delivered Irish independence had different political ideologies. Some didn’t so much see it as a political issue, as a basic human right of self determination.

Connelly was arguably the most hardline of the rebellion’s leaders. It is widely accepted that other leaders kidnapped him for several days before the 1916 rebellion, to prevent him from going it alone with his army when it was suggested the uprising be delayed. His socialist (some might even say Marxist) background is what brought him to the forefront of the independence movement. It is also part of what Sinn Féin has become. It is the natural progression of the Irish independence movement. They see unfinished business whilst the country is divided into 26 and 6 counties, and that independence for ALL the people of Ireland hasn’t been delivered.

In last weekend’s general election, Sinn Féin made massive gains. Whilst they still demand the reunification of Ireland into a single country, that demand has taken a back seat in recent times. It now has policies on social issues like housing, health, and welfare. It’s policies have resonated with those who see the main parties as too close to each other politically. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are centrist parties, whilst Sinn Féin is unashamedly left of centre. So it shouldn’t be a surprise if the electorate feels disenfranchised by the status quo of the previous 100 years.

Ireland is a very different country from 100 years ago. The fact that the political picture hasn’t changed in that time is slightly surprising, but then the country has had a lot of scars and wounds that have (mostly) taken time to heal. There’s an optimism in the country, but a feeling that the political picture hasn’t kept pace with it. Into this feeling of disenchantment came an old single issue party, that has reinvented itself. In effect it has gone back to its roots and come up with a string of policies that mirror the sentiment, if not the actual actions, of the early 20th century socialist movement.

Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin‘s President, yesterday won the most votes in the Dail to become Ireland’s next Prime Minister. She didn’t win an overall majority, but the fact she won the support of several minority parties is significant. The weeks to come will undoubtedly result in a power struggle between the three main parties, to see if they can put their differences aside for the sake of the country. Fina Gael has already said it won’t enter into a coalition with Sinn Féin. So has Fianna Fáil, but their rhetoric has softened a little recently. So it isn’t impossible that Ireland could see a Sinn Féin leader on the world’s stage. If so they’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with other world leaders at summits and conferences. 

What will happen then, and what will happen to the issue of Irish reunification? Whatever happens we are a step closer to James Connelly’s vision. Would he be proud of where they are? Probably not, after all he was a hardline nationalist that wanted nothing more than a 100% independent country. He would never have accepted the Anglo Irish Treaty, but he’d also have thought the struggle for 21st century social issues mirrored his struggles. To compare the socialist struggle of early 20th century Ireland today may throw up lots of anomalies, but there are parallels to be drawn.