Return to History Menu
100 Years of Sinn Fein – Part 7

Joe Craig

15th September 2005

Initially the left turn of the Provisionals in the late 1970s did not mean very much. Although a real political organisation, Sinn Fein, had begun to be built the chronic weakness of Republican politics had yet to be overcome. At that point they could still not even pose the question of standing in elections though the practice had a long Republican history going back to the 1870s.

This weakness could be seen over the issue that was to dominate the political development of the Provos for over a decade and which was to put to the test its old and new political approaches – the attempt to criminalise Republican prisoners when political status was removed. Sinn Fein initially rejected approaches from Peoples Democracy to campaign on the issue and instead it was the prisoners and their relatives who forced the issue. When the leadership responded it was in the same old militaristic way – by shooting prison officers. It also demanded that anyone who wished to campaign for political status had also to declare their support for the IRA’s armed struggle. This approach failed and the prisoners were compelled to take desperate measures.

The prospect of a hunger strike necessitated a different approach from the Provisional leadership and they embarked on a course of opening up a campaign based on political struggle, while the IRA’s armed actions were greatly reduced. The H-Block/Armagh Committee included left organisations and independent republicans in what appeared a democratic attempt at mass political mobilisation. In fact the campaign was never allowed to escape the control of the Republican leadership which continued to engage in secret diplomacy with the Catholic Church, capitalist Ireland and the British. This led to the end of the first hunger strike campaign and the claim of victory, one of many such claims before and since, but in this case the claim was rapidly exposed as empty. A new hunger strike was called and one that was expected to go to the death.

Republican prisoners showed extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice but their heroism was not matched by the politics of their movement. They inspired many thousands and gained the active support of the broad nationalist constituency in the North, and mass sympathy in the South, but this was not enough. The hunger strike had to be called off after the death of ten prisoners and although some concessions were quite quickly given by the British it was clear that the campaign had been defeated.

Two developments that proved that political status had not been won were restrictions on the voices of Republicans on television and the introduction in the South of extradition which had previously been withheld by the Southern State on the grounds that Republican offences were political.

The Provos claimed the hunger strike as a victory and held up their subsequent electoral victories as proof of their claim, although these were a pale shadow of the mass mobilisation that created them. They were also satisfied that they now more or less monopolised what was to pass as the future of the struggle against British imperialism. They also read this monopoly back into history so that the previous fifteen years were ones simply of the Provos versus the Brits, ignoring the significant contribution of thousands of others and of other organisations. It was now all simply a history of the Republicans and the Republican community engaged in the Republican struggle.

During the hunger strike the left had emphasised the importance of electoral intervention but only in order to demonstrate support and as a spur to organisation. The Provos had rejected such interventions; afraid of failure, dismissive of its efficacy in achieving real change and critical of the possibility of electoralism. Having stumbled into elections they then went on to prove that they were indeed unable to contest elections without succumbing to the latter danger. Told that it was necessary to challenge existing leaderships of nationalist workers in the SDLP and Southern parties, they reduced this to lobbying. Asked to expose them and trade union leaders, they understood this in terms of seeking their support. While loudly proclaiming their popular credentials they continued their elitism in their new political activities through secret diplomacy hidden from their support and even from the leadership of the united campaign that had been set up to organise the H-Block/Armagh struggle.

After the hunger strike the prisoners bitterly denounced the role of the SDLP, Southern parties and the Catholic Church, but the lessons ultimately learnt by the leadership were not that a long hard struggle would be necessary to win their supporters but that a long struggle was needed to win the support of these parties themselves. Within five years of their great betrayal the Provos were seeking nationalist unity with the Green wing of middle class and capitalist Ireland in secret negotiations facilitated by the Catholic Church – the constellation of forces that had betrayed the hunger strikers.

This was not a question of an unprecedented u-turn. Already in the hunger strike the Provos had shown their unwillingness and inability to challenge the parties of Irish capitalism. When called upon to stand candidates in the Southern general election they insisted on prisoner candidates who would obviously not be free to take a stand on the other vital issues of Irish politics, which at that time were contributing to a heightened period of political instability. This unwillingness to challenge the capitalist parties was made explicit when it was stated that prisoner candidates only wished to borrow votes.

Republicans will no doubt defend this approach, because of the urgent time constraints imposed by the hunger strike, but they cannot avoid the charge that such an approach exposed a weakness that they thought could be overcome simply because of the circumstances of dying prisoners. They also bear heavy responsibility for the political weakness and isolation that their struggle had been forced into in the first place. In effect the prisoners asked for sympathy not political support, and sympathy was unfortunately all that they got.

The hunger strike once again threw into relief the strategic context in which the Provisionals operated. They were a small military, and now electoral, force which was based on a minority of a minority in a corner of the country in which the majority was decisively in support of imperialism. Historically this position of weakness had led the nationalist minority to avoid politics, accept impotence or seek reform from the British within the state. Only a minority thought this position of weakness could be overcome decisively by an act of will through attempting to make armed struggle the means of changing the balance of forces.

The early seventies had shown that mass political action had been able to break the weakest link in the mechanism of imperialist control – Stormont. Subsequent developments had shown it could go no further and certainly not defeat British imperialism itself. The next weakest mechanism of the imperialist settlement was the Southern State but the Provos’ anti-imperialism never went beyond the boundaries of nationalism and could not therefore set itself the task of overthrowing the Southern State. To do this required a revolutionary programme based on class politics and socialism. Left republicanism failed to come anywhere near to the mark.

Breaking the Impasse?

This weakness of the Southern State was reflected in reaction to the electoral victories of Sinn Fein. Fearful that it would become the largest nationalist party in the North, and of potential destabilisation of the South, the Southern establishment took a number of initiatives to bolster the SDLP. This included a New Ireland Forum which established an alliance of Southern capitalist parties and the SDLP intent on isolating the Republicans and pressurising Britain for a settlement that would protect their interests. When Margaret Thatcher arrogantly dismissed each of their three proposals in her ‘out, out ,out’ speech it was such a humiliating demonstration of the relationship of power between the British and Irish States that the British themselves recognised its alienating effects and its undermining of their Dublin allies.

The effective upshot was the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in which the British promised to allow the Irish State a consultative role on its rule in the North. The unionists went berserk even though no executive, never mind legislative or constitutional, authority was conceded. The South got all it wanted – the appearance of a minimum of power with no responsibility. It could be argued that even conceding the need for support from the Southern State was an indication of weakness on behalf of the British but it might more accurately be seen as the British demonstrating its strength through its ability to tie into its rule the more active support of the weak native capitalist class.

The Provos denounced the Agreement but then claimed that any concessions it delivered were all due to them! The nineteen eighties were to be dominated by republican calls for nationalist unity, but the nationalists had just united in order to defeat the republicans. So what did the Republicans do? Well, they continued to demand nationalist unity!

Serious consideration of a socialist perspective was excluded, as Gerry Adams explained: ‘I don’t think socialism is on the agenda at all at this stage except for political activists of the left. What’s on the agenda now is an end to partition. You won’t even get near socialism until you have national independence.’ Prosecution of the war continued but even after the fillip to Provisional ranks following the hunger strike the level of activity was never going to go back to that of the early seventies. In the second half of the eighties only 55 British soldiers were killed by the IRA, less than half that of 1972.

During this period there were 100 fatalities in the locally recruited forces including the RUC but no one could be under any illusion that this level of loss would create demoralisation in these forces which consistently had more applications than vacancies. The higher losses among these almost wholly Protestant forces led to calls from Adams to target the British Army but the IRA proved incapable of doing this. (It has been argued that this had the effect of forcing Republicans to realise their weakness, so strengthening the Adams ‘peace process’ faction.)

The British had developed tactical and operational measures as well as technology that nullified almost everything the IRA could throw at them, when they attempted to. The British employed irregular tactics such as the SAS, and a shoot to kill policy targeted at IRA members and anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the way. They also infiltrated the loyalists in order to make them more efficient at killing republicans and infiltrated republican ranks to make it easier to kill and capture Republicans. Obviously only a part of the penetration of the IRA has been revealed, protecting British agents and the republicans’ embarrassment.

The IRA continued to have isolated successes such as the Brighton bomb in October 1984, but even if it had been successful and killed Margaret Thatcher this would not have fundamentally changed the conditions of the Provisionals struggle in the North except to provide the conditions for an escalation of repression. This indeed was part of the thinking behind the attack. The Provisionals had always had a view that provoking a crackdown would only bolster popular support for themselves and their struggle by making the British presence more unpopular.

They had two arguments to justify such a view. Firstly, they could reject criticisms of those who always attacked them for being responsible for the excesses of the British by pointing out that the British should be held responsible for their own actions and that any argument otherwise, carried through to its logical conclusion, led to the abandonment of any struggle threatening British rule no matter how carefully constructed. Indeed the possibility, in fact the inevitability, of repression faces any struggle that threatens imperialism’s interests. The second reason was that increased British repression in the early seventies, from the Falls curfew to Bloody Sunday, had all failed and had only increased resistance.

These arguments involve two mistakes. Firstly, while it must always be argued that imperialism bears responsibility for its own actions, it is up to the opposition to limit its options by creating political conditions that restrict its ability to mount brutal repression. The second point is one we have already made. Armed struggle could ride the tide of the growing mass opposition of the early seventies without fatally damaging it because the British and Unionists could easily be seen as the aggressor, upholding an unjust political system. By the eighties the mass opposition had been exhausted and no longer existed. The response to repression, which could easily be portrayed by the British as having been provoked, would more likely have witnessed people putting their heads down, not sticking them above the trenches.

To put it in the idiom of military doctrine which supposedly informed IRA actions: ‘As “location, location, location” is the central truth which unlocks the mysteries of property valuation, so “context, context, context” decodes the origins, meaning, character and consequences of warfare.’ (Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare, Colin S. Gray) In the context of retreat it is foolish to provoke enemy violence when one has no defence except a hope that the enemy will do you a favour and provoke resistance. The British had tailored their mass repression since the early seventies (partly because they no longer faced mass resistance) and used more precise techniques, as we have said, even trying to get the loyalist killer squads to be more accurate and move away from the ‘any Taig will do’ approach.

The other major success in narrow military terms was the bombing of commercial London. In April 1993 an IRA bomb in the Baltic Exchange cost an estimated £700 million worth of damage. The total paid out in compensation in the North at that point was less than this – £600 million. ‘Two bombs set off in the City of London, Britain’s financial heartland, actually inflicted more financial damage than all the 10,000 bombs which had gone off in Northern Ireland.’ (Making Sense of the Troubles, McKittrick & McVea) The problem was that this could not be repeated; the British were hardly likely to make a habit of letting the IRA import bombs from South Armagh to blow up London. Another question was also invited – just what was the effectiveness of the 10,000 previous bombs and what was the point of all the sacrifice that they involved?

War and Elections

These spectaculars disguised, for those that did not want to see, the reality that the IRA was being ground down and defeated. Losses of whole units, most tellingly at Loughgall in April 1987 when the British killed eight IRA members, were extremely demoralising and removed experienced volunteers who could not be replaced. But it was not only the actions of the British, but of the IRA themselves, that demoralised Republicans. There was never any end to the disasters that went with the Provisionals bombing campaign, from Bloody Friday and Claudy to La Mon, Enniskillen and Frizzells fish shop on the Shankill Road in Belfast. The mistakes were inescapable products of the tactic that was employed and the pressures that the IRA was under. No amount of being careful could prevent them, but still the IRA ploughed on.

A long time before, in 1971, a British Secretary of State, Reginald Maudling, had spoken of ‘an acceptable level of violence’ and as far as the British were concerned by the end of the eighties this had been reached a long time before. The campaign of the IRA was many things but a real threat to continued British occupation was not one of them. Some IRA members knew that the level of their activity was insufficient and advocated an ‘all-out war’ but this would have raised activity only momentarily, produced negative political consequences and led to a further retreat. For a while the IRA entertained the idea that weapons from Libya would allow them to launch a ‘Tet’ offensive, named after the offensive by the Vietnamese that so undermined the American occupation, but this was never possible, even before the capture of the last and largest shipment of weapons. This offensive appears to have been viewed as some sort of final push that would be decisive in shifting the British, ignoring the point that in guerrilla war there are no decisive engagements.

The other prong of Republican activity was electioneering which initially had frightened the constitutional nationalist parties and had persuaded the British to launch the new initiative that became the Anglo-Irish Agreement. British policy had created a Republican constituency and the hunger strikers and the campaign in their support had enlarged it. Now assiduous constituency work and the more dynamic activity of Republicans compared to their SDLP competitors had brought electoral rewards. The hard work of activists who appeared, and were, closer to the lives of working-class nationalists gave Sinn Fein a solid and growing electoral support. This increased from 10.1% in the Assembly elections of 1982 to 13.4% in the General Election of 1983 but declined to 10% in the General Election of 1992. Attention focused on their share of the nationalist vote but for a movement bent on overthrowing the State these percentages of the total vote in the North should have been much more sobering.

It was increasingly recognised by some Republican leaders that the IRA’s campaign did not have the support of the majority of nationalists; for all that they refused to regard them as the terrorists of British and Unionist propaganda. The conflict between the two tactics was clear to everyone, getting votes to increase IRA activity had been the original idea but it wasn’t going to work. Some Republicans looked for a way out and followed the logic of nationalist unity to its conclusion. They looked on electoral gains as the area in which tangible progress had been made and morale boosting victories registered. The result was the peace process.

We will not go into the labyrinthine course of this process here which has been analysed over many articles on this website and in a book by Socialist Democracy. We have in the past argued that the alternative to armed struggle and electoralism is mass political action on a socialist programme. We are perfectly aware that over what is now nearly four decades of struggle it would not have been possible to maintain mass political activity. The point is to lead it when it does exist on the basis that it is this which is decisive in political struggle and to prepare to build it when the conditions are not yet ripe. This latter position was undoubtedly the situation after the defeat of the hunger strike. The point however is that at various times mobilisation was possible, one only has to think about the reaction to the annual Drumcree events to recall the possibility of creating grassroots democratic bodies that could have mobilised and increased the consciousness of political activity. Above all even in times of political passivity it is the duty of revolutionaries to educate the working class even if the fruits of this education are for the future and only a minority appears able at the time to receive the message.

The utter demoralisation of the Republican’s struggle became evidenced when they failed to repeat the traditional policy after previous defeats, when arms were dumped while political principles were maintained. The policy of the Provisionals became the worst choice in both fields – surrendering arms and abandoning every political principle ever held.

Peace Process

The road to this capitulation followed two political signposts. The first was about the nature of the British presence and the second was the rights of unionism. In the original dialogue between Sinn Fein and the SDLP the Republicans had argued that the British were a colonial power and the unionists, the ‘child of imperialism’, had no right to a veto on national self determination, which was a democratic demand. On both counts they were absolutely correct. The SDLP argued that the British were neutral and that the British would accept whatever were the wishes of the Irish people. The Irish people, they maintained, were primarily divided not by the border but by tradition and while the unionists had ‘no right whatsoever’ to a veto over British policy they had a ‘natural veto since they live on this island.’ They had a veto based on ‘numbers, geography and history.’

It has become commonplace to state that the Provos eventually came to agree with John Hume and his more coherent and logical argument, and that they abandoned their blinkered view that the unionists were Irish. In fact what these quotes show is that Hume’s opposition to violence as a means of deciding political questions was confined to his opposition to those with the smallest arsenals. The unionists, backed by the British, had to be given their veto not because of any political principle but because of their power, in effect they had the biggest guns. As for the stupidity of Republican claims that the Unionists were Irish, the SDLP believed this as well, but once again their grovelling attitude to British power meant that this was ignored when the unionist minority was assigned rights which abrogated those of the majority. In fact, not only did the SDLP regard Unionists as Irish, so did the British and so did many, if not most, Unionists – except when the latter wanted to avoid the seemingly natural political consequences, whereupon they defined themselves as British and quietly ignored their whole history. The SDLP believed, like most people outside of unionism, that the problem had been a colonial one but were unable to say when and how this had changed.

The Provisionals rejected the programme of the SDLP in no uncertain terms:

‘Sinn Fein is totally opposed to a power sharing Stormont assembly and states that there cannot be a partitionist solution. Stormont is not a stepping stone to Irish unity. We believe that the SDLP’s gradualist theory is therefore invalid and seriously flawed.’ (Sinn Fein 1988)

As we write today every structure in these foundations of Republican politics have been demolished. What now exists is the wreck of the programme of the SDLP, except with more aggression, more attitude.

The Provisionals changed by degrees, through revolutionary opposition to the SDLP to loudly championing nationalist unity. From describing the British as imperialists who had to get out to allies who had to act as persuaders for Irish unity. From seeking negotiations in order ‘to smash the union’ (Martin McGuinness) to seeking a role in its administration. From opposing the unionist veto to voting 94.6 per cent at their Ard Fheis to delete articles two and three and insert the unionist veto in its place. From describing decommissioning as ‘ludicrous’ and an ‘unrealistic and unrealisable demand which simply won’t be met’ to proposals to give up on the IRA completely. From going into the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement chanting ‘No return to Stormont’ to championing themselves as the biggest supporters of the Stormont Assembly.

The glaring u-turns on every aspect of principle were accompanied by claims that the IRA was undefeated. As we have pointed out before, the ceasefire, decommissioning and now promises to more or less disappear, while the enemy has done none of these and remains in power, are as clear an example of defeat as one is ever likely to see. War may be seen as a duel in which protagonists attempt to impose their will on the enemy. The Republican capitulation and political collapse demonstrates whose will has been imposed.

The defeat has been so total that an explanation is demanded. These have been supplied from various quarters, with many giving pride of place to the wily skills of Gerry Adams and his supporters, particularly for having brought the vast majority of the movement with them. These skills consisted partly of promising total commitment to the armed struggle, which bought off the militarists, while political compromises were embarked on that would ultimately throttle it. Everything became a question of tactics, all the more easily since there was no strategy. The Provos had never overcome the defects of their birth and their utter failure to develop a real political programme beyond the most basic left them with no theoretical weapons to dismiss the nonsense flowing from the Adams camp. The nadir was reached when they voted to ditch a fundamental element of Republican policy at their Ard Fheis with a majority that could have made Stalin blush. While not denying the contribution of the careful manoeuvring of Adams there are more fundamental causes of much more significance. These may perhaps be classified into two.

Firstly the only alternative apparently on offer was continuation of the armed campaign and the armed campaign, it was increasingly clear, was failing. The exhaustion it engendered, the obvious penetration by the British, its degeneration and the demoralisation it engendered were all factors making armed struggle not so much an argument against the new ‘peace process’ policy as its strongest argument in favour. The failure of those who did break away, particularly the disaster of the Omagh bombing, seemed only to certify the futility of a new armed campaign. In any case, British successes against the IRA following the breakdown of the first IRA ceasefire were evidence enough of the cul-de-sac facing a renewed armed struggle.

In one sense this demoralisation was itself a reflection of exhaustion, and former IRA leader Brendan Hughes has stated that many became weary ‘not because people are war weary – they are politics weary… The political process has created a class of professional liars and unfortunately it contains many Republicans.’

So if the poverty of the only apparent alternative was one argument the other is that the ‘peace process’ strategy was supported by all the strongest forces in Irish society, from the British to the Irish establishment to mighty US imperialism. Every retreat, every ditching of Republican policy, was loudly cheered by these forces and by their media supporters who informed the Republicans of what great political operators they were. This support went from public endorsement to the most careful cooperation with the Adams leadership. This could be seen in such actions as the British release of the ‘Balcombe Street’ IRA unit to the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis as a means of supporting the arguments of the Adams faction, or – more secretively – preventing known IRA opponents of Adams from going to IRA meetings while allowing his loyal supporters to attend.

Present and Future

The peace process ended a resistance to imperialist rule that was already effectively dying. Electoralism was the product of circumstances and of exhaustion. Internationally the working class and the left were in retreat and capitalism seemed triumphant, leading one leading Sinn Feiner from Derry to claim that they had ‘no problem with capitalism.’ In the South there was a booming Celtic Tiger and defeat of working class struggle primarily through social partnership. In these circumstances it has been hard enough for the left to orient itself and maintain some sort of revolutionary programme.

The Provisionals have thus built their organisation and constituency without the help or hindrance, or shall we say test, of major class struggles. Patient constituency work which has really been just good old traditional Fianna Fail clientelism has not been interrupted by class struggle that would upset the lowest of horizons from framing Republican political activity and mobilisation. The calculated ambiguity of much of Provo politics has been admired by many commentators who seem oblivious to the fact that conditions have allowed the Provos to get away with it. Even so the hypocrisy of Provo politics is not hard to discern – for example opposing bin charges and supporting them at the same time.

All these contradictions will come to a head when, not if, Sinn Fein enters coalition. Current protestations that it has not yet decided or will play it tough are not to be taken seriously. A movement itching to get into coalition with Ian Paisley will not balk at sharing office with any of the Southern parties. In this context economic and political circumstances at the time will determine how quickly and to what extent they become discredited, for discredited they will be. There is, once capitalism is accepted, and the Provos do not ever intend to challenge it, room for only one policy in the South – absolute subservience to multinational US capital. The consciousness of the Republican constituency, of the rest of the working class; the course of class struggle and organisation of the left, will all go a long way to determining the future of the Provos in the South and whether they continue to grow or shrivel to a traditional Republican constituency.

In the North they have, in effect, settled for the reform of the Northern State and some vague (and sectarian) expectation that demographics will end its existence at some point in the future. The Northern State however remains an irreformably sectarian one. Provo efforts at reform thus unavoidably have the character of sectarian competition in which they present themselves as the most aggressive defenders of the interests of the Catholics. Equality becomes equality of two traditions defined in sectarian terms.

This does not mean it is impossible to fight for reforms without being sectarian. It is however impossible to implement a reformist strategy without accommodating to the sectarian framework that embraces political structures and practices in the North. A policy of seeking reforms as part of a revolutionary perspective is altogether different from trying to get a sectarian Agreement at Stormont to work.

The implications of this go further than the Provos would like. It means not just sectarian competition but acceptance of the structures that regulate this competition, including the police. Supporting the police will therefore place enormous strains on the Provos and their ties with their constituency. Already it means that Republicans have to prevent nationalist protest against Orange displays of bigotry, as in Dunloy or Ardoyne, on a more or less regular basis. It means acceptance of British policy that will never look upon loyalist violence in the same way as Republican. It means acceptance that imperialism is not neutral between those that support its rule and the population that has opposed it. Sectarian distribution of resources has no purpose other than to divide and the more aggressive the struggle for the spoils the deeper the division.

The whole situation is unstable but the protracted nature of the political conflict over the last thirty odd years and of the peace process itself, plus the continuing ‘alternative’ presented (by the British, Provos and Republican ‘dissidents’) of renewed armed struggle, will all intimidate renewed political opposition to imperialism. The continuing activities of loyalism will also intimidate but also be a constant reminder of the need for much more radical political solutions.

Again economic circumstances will play a role. The decline in unemployment, even though the religious differential remains high, has ameliorated social contradictions. In opposition – or should we say out of office – Sinn Fein can pose left. In office this becomes harder, but united with extreme loyalism and with some executive responsibility this may not lead to rapid exposure but to a new level of sectarianism which will challenge the left in its attempts to present an alternative.

In short, the present and future of Sinn Fein is as dependant as ever on shifting forces internationally and nationally of which most of its members seem barely conscious. At grassroots level its embracing of imperialism has been reflected in its desire to gain its ‘fair’ share of the resources that imperialism dispenses. This unavoidably leads to corruption both politically and materially. Just as the IRA must go as a recognisable force because one only needs an army to fight, and the fight has been abandoned, so an analogous process will affect Sinn Fein. It too will decay as an active political movement. The reformist perspective of the Republican leadership has no role for an activist organisation. What activism hasn’t been undermined by jobs in the community sector or in the political apparatus, or walked away in disgust at betrayal, will have no purpose. For an electoralist party this will not initially matter but it would represent a process of weakening of the roots of the movement. Combined with the rotten politics of impotence/coalition at leadership level the future of the movement will come up against the limits of sectarian reformism in the North and clientelist subordination to imperialism in the South.

Just as the history of the Provisionals conforms to the previous failures of armed Republicanism there is no reason to assume that its future as erstwhile Republicans in constitutional nationalist mode will be any different from previous incarnations of this Republican evolution. Whether it becomes a new Fianna Fail or Clann na Poblachta hardly matters for socialists. What does matter is that its many genuine members and supporters are won from the movement to a real revolutionary banner, the banner of Marxism. As for genuine Republicanism, the Phoenix has returned to the ashes and that is where it must stay.


Return to top of page