The Early Years
The original Sinn Féin movement was centred around the work and propaganda campaign of Arthur Griffith, a nationalist typesetter, and William Rooney, a republican office clerk, both of whom were very active in nationalist clubs in Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century. In his account of the movement’s early years, the propagandist Aodh de Blácam says that Sinn Féin “was not a party: it was the amorphous propaganda of the Gaelicised young men and women”. Griffith was first and foremost a newspaperman with an impressive network of friends in the Dublin printing industry. His propaganda newspapers, the United Irishman and Sinn Féin, channeled the enormous energy of the self-help generation into an unorthodox political project based on the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy of 1867 and the theories of the German nationalist economist Friedrich List. Tapping into the growing self awareness of an Irish identity which was reflected in movements like the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Gaelic League (Conradh na nGaeilge) and in the founding of the Abbey Theatre, he created a loose federation of nationalist clubs and associations which competed with John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party to embody the aspirations of 20th century nationalists.
Most historians opt for 28 November 1905 as the founding date because it was on this date that Griffith first presented his ‘Sinn Féin Policy’. In his writings, Griffith declared that the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 was illegal and that, consequently, the Anglo-Irish dual monarchy which existed under Grattan’s Parliament and the so-called Constitution of 1782 was still in effect.
Though Sinn Féin had a high name recognition factor among voters it attracted minimal support. By 1915 it was, in the words of one of Griffith’s colleagues, “on the rocks”, so insolvent financially that it could not pay the rent on its party headquarters in Harcourt Street in Dublin. It was rescued by the mistaken belief among the British administration running Ireland from Dublin Castle that it had been behind the 1916 Rising, an unsuccessful attempt to establish an Irish Republic.
The Easter Rising, 1916
Sinn Féin was not involved in the failed Easter Rising, despite being blamed by the British Government for it. The leaders of the Rising were certainly looking for more than the Sinn Féin proposal a separation stronger than Home Rule under a dual monarchy. Any group that disagreed with mainstream constitutional politics was branded ‘Sinn Féin’ by British commentators. The term ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’ was also used by the mainstream Irish media, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and even by a few of those involved in the Rising.
Later in 1916, surviving members of the Rising led by Éamon de Valera joined the party and soon took control of it. De Valera replaced Griffith as president. It nearly split between its monarchist and republican wings at its 1917 Ard Fheis (conference) until, in a compromise motion, it proposed the establishment of an independent republic, after which the people could decide whether they wanted a monarchy or republic, subject to the condition that if they chose a monarchy, no member of the British Royal Family could serve as monarch.
Sinn Féin’s status was boosted in public opinion by the anger over Maxwell’s execution of Rising leaders. This was despite the fact that, before the executions, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Irish Independent newspaper (the biggest selling daily newspaper in Ireland then and now) and many local authorities actually called for the mass execution of Rising leaders. Yet even that public sympathy did not give Sinn Féin decisive electoral advantage. It fought a tough battle with the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond, later John Dillon, with each side winning by-elections. It was only after the World War I German Spring Offensive, when Britain threatened to impose conscription on Ireland to bring its decimated divisions up to strength, that the ensuing Conscription Crisis decisively swung support behind Sinn Féin.
1918 Electoral Victory
Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland’s 106 seats in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament at the general election in December 1918and many of the seats it won were uncontested. There were four reasons for this. Firstly, despite being the largest party in Ireland for forty years, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had not fought a general election since 1910. In many parts of Ireland its organisation had decayed and was no longer capable of mounting an electoral challenge. Other seats were uncontested because of mass support, with other parties deciding that there was no point in challenging Sinn Féin given it was certain to win. Contemporary documents also suggest a degree of intimidation of opponents. (Piaras Béaslaí recorded one example in a by-election in Longford in 1917 where a Sinn Féin activist put a gun against the head of a Returning Officer and forced him to announce the election of the Sinn Féin candidate even though the IPP candidate had more votes. Potential candidates who were thought of as serious challengers to Sinn Féin candidates were warned against seeking election in some Ulster constituencies and in Munster, though in Cork all the All-for-Ireland Party MPs stood down in favour of Sinn Féin candidates.
Because twenty-five seats were uncontested under sometimes dubious circumstances, it has been difficult to determine what the actual support for the party was in the country. Various accounts range from 45% to 80%. Academic analysts at the Northern Ireland demographic institute (ARK) estimate a figure of 53%. Another estimate would suggest Sinn Féin had the support of approximately 65% of the electorate (unionists accounting for approximately 20-25% and other nationalists for the remainder). Lastly, emigration was very difficult during the war, which meant that tens thousands of young people were in Ireland who would not have been there under normal circumstances.
On 21 January 1919 twenty-seven Sinn Féin MPs assembled in Dublin’s Mansion House and proclaimed themselves the parliament of Ireland, the First Dáil Éireann. They elected an Aireacht (ministry) headed by a Príomh Aire (prime minister). Though the state was declared to be a republic, no provision was made for a head of state. This was rectified in August 1921 when the Príomh Aire (also known as President of Dáil Éireann was upgraded to President of the Republic, a full head of state.
In the 1920 city council elections, Sinn Féin gained control of ten of the twelve city councils in Ireland. Only Belfast and Derry remained underUnionist and IPP (respectively) control. In the local elections of the same year, they won control of all the county councils except Antrim, Down,Londonderry and Armagh.
Sinn Féin subsequently underwent successive splits (1922, 1926, 1970 and 1986), from which emerged a range of parties, Cumann na nGaedhael, now known as Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Official Sinn Féin, later Sinn Féin The Workers Party, later The Workers Party and thenDemocratic Left, which finally joined the Irish Labour party after serving in government with them, the present day Sinn Féin and Republican Sinn Féin.
The Split over The Treaty
Following the conclusion (December 1921) of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations between representatives of the British Government and de Valera’s republican government and the narrow approval of the Treaty by Dáil Éireann, a state called the Irish Free State was established. Northern Ireland (a six county region set up under the British Government of Ireland Act 1920) opted out, as the Treaty allowed.
The reasons for the split were various, though partition was not one of them — the IRA did not split in the new Northern Ireland and pro- and anti-treaty republicans there looked to pro-treaty Michael Collins for leadership (and weapons). The principal reason for the split is usually described as the question of the Oath of Allegiance to the Irish Free State, which members of the new Dáil would be required to take. It explicitly recognised that the Irish Free State would be part of the British Empire and many republicans found that unacceptable. The pro-treaty forces argued that the treaty gave “freedom to achieve freedom”.
A short but bitter Irish Civil War (June 1922 – April 1923) erupted between the supporters of the Treaty and its opponents. De Valera resigned as President of the Republic and sided with the anti-treatyites. The victorious pro-treaty “Free Staters”, who amounted to a majority of Sinn Féin TDs and a majority of the voting electorate, set up the Irish Free State. The pro-treaty Sinn Féin TDs changed the name of the party to Cumann na nGaedhael, subsequently merging with the Centre Party and the Blueshirts in 1933 to form Fine Gael.
Having temporarily suspended armed action in the Free State, the movement split again with the departure (March 1926) of its leader Éamon de Valera, after having lost a motion to abandon abstention if the statement of “Fidelity to the King” were abolished. He subsequently founded theFianna Fáil with fellow advocates of participation in constitutional politics, and entered the Irish parliament (Dáil Éireann) the following year, forming a government in 1932.
1930s – 1968
In the 1960s the party moved to the left, adopting a ’stagist’ approach similar to orthodox Communist analysis. The party came under the influence of a generation of intellectuals who were associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain’s Connolly Association and sought a decisive break from the confessional politics of the past. The new generation of leaders sought to engage Ulster’s Protestant workers in an anti-imperialist popular front.