Return to History Menu
100 years of Sinn Fein - Part 2

Joe Craig

15th March 2005

This is the second part of a series on the history of Sinn Fein. The first part appeared on 1 February.

The founding of Sinn Fein in 1905 took place in a period known as ‘la belle époque,’ a period of economic growth during which the general view that society everywhere was progressing forward was widespread and was sustained by reforms that contributed to rising living standards. In Ireland a policy of ‘killing Home Rule by kindness’ had been introduced and the land question was being solved as far as the British were concerned by facilitating the purchase of land by the natives.

The policy of seeking Home Rule though pressure on the British Liberal Party had its ups and downs, but a more radical alternative that had credibility appeared off the horizon. In the rest of Western Europe the growth of mass workers parties in the Second Socialist International, especially in Germany, and their parliamentary achievements gave rise to the view that socialism could be achieved without recourse to revolution. The theories developed by Marx seemed to belong increasingly to a bygone age.

If today we are being reminded of the founding of Sinn Fein, of much more significance is the anniversary of the 1905 Russian Revolution. For the first time in history a nationwide workers revolution had erupted and had taken the theories of Marx out of the British Library, into the factories and onto the streets. The Tsarist monarchy was rocked and did not fall, but restoration of the status quo belied crumbling foundations. In 1903 attempts by assorted nationalists and republicans to upset the visit of King Edward VII to Dublin failed and it went off successfully. In both countries organised radical opposition was reduced to tiny groups that seemed out of touch with reality.

Reality, however, is more than appearance: Marx once remarked that if they were the same there would be no need for science. Beneath the surface the gathering contradictions of the international capitalist system were accumulating and would shortly burst through the calm surface of day to day events shattering utterly imperial dynasties that had existed for centuries and empires on which the sun never set. The process was to last over 30 years and only came to a temporary equilibrium with the emergence of a new imperialist hegemon – the United States of America.

Time of Revolution

The contradictions of the international capitalist system were reflected in great power rivalry which exploded into world war. The war put enormous strains on every capitalist country and opened gaping wounds in the weakest seams of their societies. In Russia underlying industrial weakness and peasant oppression undermined and then shattered the semi-feudal absolutist regime of the Tsar. Revolution broke out in February 1917 and then in October of the same year when the world’s first workers state was created under the leadership of the Bolshevik party.

Revolution broke out in Finland, in Austria and Hungary and soviets – workers councils – sprang up in Bavaria while mass factory occupations took place in Italy. The British Prime Minister Lloyd George stated that:

The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but of anger and revolt amongst the workmen against the pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other.

In Ireland this was reflected in the 1916 rising defended by Lenin as a national component of a world-wide process of social revolution even if it took place under a banner with ‘petty bourgeois prejudices.’

This was followed by a general political crisis caused by the imperialist war, especially by the threat of conscription, which led to mass demonstrations of opposition to British rule, a general strike, the creation of Irish soviets and a guerrilla war over most of the country.

The republican movement led by the IRA and with Sinn Fein as its political expression took the leadership of this national struggle. The working class movement, shorn of its political leader, James Connolly, accepted the republican slogan that ‘labour must wait.’ The demands of the working class were to be subordinated to the demands of the ‘nation.’

The contrast with the majority of Russian Marxists who believed themselves before 1917 to be involved in a national democratic revolution could not be clearer. For them it was the working class that was to lead the democratic revolution and in 1917 they rejected the calls of right wing ‘socialists’ who wanted to limit the revolution to one that united all classes and which therefore would never go beyond what the capitalists would accept. They thus went beyond the purely democratic revolution in February to make a workers revolution in October.

In Ireland the failure of the working class movement to take leadership of the struggle led not just to the defeat of those who wanted socialism but also to defeat of the national revolution. That the struggle was defeated was understood by many at the time – but not today.

Ireland’s War of Freedom

Sinn Fein became the fastest growing political movement ever in Ireland as it entered 1918, yet five years later it was to be irretrievably split and on the road to oblivion. At its height it had over 120,000 members and in the election of that year swept the boards everywhere outside the north-east of the country where unionists and the rump of the dying Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) held sway. It effectively captured the demand for independence popularly supported across all classes outside the north-east except for the landlords, capitalists and those connected to the British state bureaucracy. As we have noted, it was helped in that it had no rival in the struggle.

It was also helped by the vagueness of its politics and the initial appropriateness of its tactics to the prevailing mood, not to mention their success. It opposed the war, demanded complete independence and backed this up with tactics that expressed popular desire to be rid of the British. It championed boycott of British institutions, and therefore any responsibility to bear sacrifices in the World War, abstentionism, and the creation of separate and parallel governmental institutions to those of the British authorities.

It never attempted to justify in any political-strategic way the armed campaign of the IRA, a remarkable situation that was to be repeated again and again. No political rationale for its strategic efficacy was advanced and defended against other possible revolutionary strategies. Justification became either moral – we have the ‘right’ because we are oppressed – or, dishonestly, it was stated that there was no alternative, which, if it was true, meant no special approbation was called for or required. This reflected the supremacy of the armed wing of the republican movement – they were too busy fighting to provide justification for their strategy of fighting and the supremacy of armed struggle was not subject to the debates and decision of the political arm of the movement.

A movement that downgraded politics in such a way could use particular tactics to capture general support at a particular moment but paid a fatal price when political circumstances changed. At the most basic level the membership received little political education and were ill prepared to debate such changes and to discuss new strategies. They were subject to conflicting loyalties to personalities at the top of the movement, hence the importance of prominent leaders such as Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, and not to rival political programmes.

In fact the absolute poverty of Irish republican political thought is notable. Only a small number of republicans such as Liam Mellows attempted to derive political lessons from the struggle, but despite their integrity, they bear unfavourable comparison with those political theorists who rose up from the Marxist movement. The poverty of Irish republican political theory is stark and they have produced no one comparable to Connolly, who noted that the movement united on only one thing, the use of armed force to expel the foreign oppressor.

Belief in the unity of the Irish people left them at a complete loss when it was clear that the Irish people were not united. To the unionism of Protestant workers in the north-east they had literally no answer whatsoever. Having no common national political programme with this population and incapable of appealing to common class interests they were left with nothing. It was not only that the strength of imperialist-inspired sectarian division and lack of working class content to their politics meant they were heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, their bourgeois politics actively embraced the Church. In Ulster they accepted that Cardinal Logue should choose the allocation of seats between themselves and the IPP. Their republican courts defended bourgeois private property from workers who attempted to seize it and they made inconsequential appeals to international imperialism through the Versailles Peace Conference following World War 1 which were ignored. In fact they were not even given a hearing.

This chronic inability to understand the nature of imperialism meant they completely failed to register the threat of partition, believing right up to its imposition in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 that it was not going to happen. They made no provision for it just as they had no policy to prevent it. Once again it took a socialist, James Connolly, to warn of its disastrous consequences when he predicted it would create ‘a carnival of reaction.’

As the historian of Sinn  Fein, Brian Feeney put it, ‘during the whole period from 1916 to 1921 the fate of northern nationalists was literally the last thing the Sinn Fein leadership thought about.’ Another example of the profound lack of continuity in the 100 year history of that organisation. It was not the substance of the split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the Sinn Fein organisation in the North even supported the Treaty though it enshrined partition. One reason being the opposition of unionism. Not for the last time would the most reactionary policy be accepted on the basis that unionism didn’t like it.


To DeValera ‘...Sinn Fein is the nation organised. I never regarded it as a mere political machine.’ But nations are divided by forces stronger than nationalism and it was to be sooner rather than later that these forces were to split ‘the nation organised.’ Having nailed down partition the British forced a settlement on republicans which was enshrined in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, signed on 6 December 1921. On 7 January 1922 the Dail voted 64 to 57 to endorse the Treaty and within a few years Sinn Fein went to a situation of not even being a political machine.

Division centred not on partition but on the requirement to give an oath of allegiance to a foreign king. The quasi-theological thinking of Irish republicanism that substituted for class politics was exposed. Such a basis for fighting the Treaty was incapable of mobilising the Irish people. This was shown in the relative ease by which the anti-Treaty forces were defeated despite a majority of IRA men opposing the Treaty. Once again personal loyalties to individuals rather than commitment to a political programme determined how many went in the split.

The Treaty had been preceded by a truce between the British and the IRA beginning on 9 July 1921. During the summer and autumn of that year Sinn Fein grew rapidly again. ‘Never had it been more popular or fashionable to be a Sinn Feiner in the months before the party’s disintegration’ (Michael Laffan) In fact the political weakness of the organisation meant that it did not even vote on the Treaty as an organisation! Sinn Fein had no policy on the issue that was to produce civil war! The majority probably supported it but the IRA and the Dail were where the real debate and decisions were taken.

The coming Dail elections thus saw the ‘political’ side of the movement become the site of an unprincipled and temporary compromise as one panel of Sinn Fein candidates stood in proportion to the strength of the two sides in the existing Dail. The real split and reorganisation of opposing forces took place in the IRA, but with no political programme beyond a more pure ‘Republic,’ the anti-Treaty forces wee quickly defeated. Once again the workers movement, led by reformist elements far removed from the conceptions of Connolly, backed the legitimacy of the Treaty and became the loyal and ineffectual opposition.

Even had a revolutionary workers movement existed it would have been impossible to form political unity with the anti-Treaty forces. While there is evidence of a sociological and geographical aspect to the split there is little evidence that the anti-treaty side represented, even in distorted form, the programme of the working class. Collaboration could therefore only have been of a purely contingent, practical-military nature.

But this is academic. There was no revolutionary workers movement and politics became dominated in the North by unionism and a clerical afflicted nationalism, while in the South the organisational divisions of the civil war became the template for a reactionary political consensus. The struggle that had begun in 1916 had been defeated. The majority of republicans understood this even if their understanding was not that of socialists. The new arrangements were comfortable enough for British imperialism, for unionist capitalism in the North and for the wealthy ranchers and bourgeoisie in the South. For the working class and small farmers the new States delivered sectarianism, emigration and, for small farmers, disappearance.

Sinn Fein was reduced to a rump with its more doctrinaire members harbouring reservations even about the name, because it had monarchical connotations. The IRA having dumped arms consoled itself with preparing for a ‘second round’ against the forces of the Free State.



Return to top of page