The Long March: The Political Strategy of Sinn Féin, 1981-2007

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With the ongoing instability of the devolved institutions and the degeneration of the relationship between the First and deputy First ministers, it is an apposite time to revisit a rather under-rated monograph from the beginning of the year.

The Long March: The Political Strategy of Sinn Féin, 1981-2007‘ by Cambridge historian, Martyn Frampton, is a necessary corrective to the peace process teleology of Moloney and other writers who view Sinn Féin’s political strategy since their first foray into electoral politics at the height of the hunger strikes as inexorably leading towards the St Andrews Agreement.  While it may seem this way on the surface, Frampton skillfully demonstrates with a wealth of primary source material how the peace process is not some pre-determined dialectic whereby the extremes become their negation and Northern Ireland basks for ever more in the light of a harmonious ideological synthesis.

Rather, on the part of Sinn Féin, the peace process represents nothing more than an alternative avenue through which to pursue what has always been its central objective: a 32-county United Ireland.  In his own words: “The argument of this study is that the political evolution of Sinn Féin can only be properly  understood when placed in the context of the party’s ‘ideological objective’ and the effort to achieve it.”  This, of course, begs the question of what is to happen if the current political institutions block this effort, and therein lies the contemporary significance of the book’s analysis.

Frampton develops his argument on the basis of a painstaking reading of republican’s own literature and newspapers, interviews with leading figures such as Danny Morrison, Jim Gibney and Eoin O’Broin, and various other political commentators.  The value of this is that the author is able to decode what leading republicans have said themselves in a way that the media is all too incapable of doing, lest it dent the simple peace process narrative.  For instance, in a section about the ideological battles raging inside the Provisional movement during the 1980s, the words of Gerry Adams make it very clear what Sinn Féin’s priorities are:  “There is no Marxist influence within Sinn Fein, it simply isn’t a Marxist organisation.  I know of no-one in Sinn Fein who is a Marxist or who would be influenced by Marxism.”  Moreover, Adams made it clear that it was perfectly possible to be a ‘non-socialist republican.’

Socialism, therefore, like the peace process, can plausibly be seen as a means of raising support for the Republic in working-class areas, an ideological adjunct with a functional value but not an end in itself.  A United Ireland remains the adjective, everything else is a tactic.  As Pat Doherty made very clear in 1996, “Tactics are there to be adapted and changed when the need arises… principles are there to be achieved.”

The argument is developed further with regard to the nature of ‘armed struggle’.  In the early 1980s Sinn Féin was the support apparatus for the IRA; by the time of the second IRA ceasefire the inverse was true.  However, the journey in between was one of labyrinthine complexity, nuance and triangulation.  It traveled via the 1981 Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election, suffered navigational problems in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the destination was still not clear by the end of the 1990s.  Far from a pre-determined move towards politics and away from violence, Frampton emphasises the inter-relatedness of the two efforts.  Through much of the 1990s the stress was on ‘Tactical Use of Armed Struggle’ and Frampton is of the view that it was by no means clear that armed struggle was completely off the table as late as 1998.  If it were not for Omagh and 9/11, he suggests, Sinn Féin would have kept the option open.

However, by the time of the second ceasefire it is the case that Sinn Féin was in the driving seat, not the IRA.  This did not mean an a priori acceptance of the principles of power-sharing and the end of war.  Instead, politics was ‘the continuation of that war by other means’ and became the primary weapon following the outcry over the Northern Bank robbery and the murder of Robert McCartney.

‘The Long March’ also notes the fortunes of the party in the Republic of Ireland.  Since the time of publication, Sinn Féin has lost its Dublin seat in the European Parliament and the party’s progress has stalled.  Ed Moloney has argued recently that this puts the overall Sinn Féin strategy in peril, based as it is on gaining political power on both sides of the border.  What role this failure will play in shaping Sinn Féin’s strategy in the North remains to be seen but it will undoubtedly be an important factor in a party which places much emphasis on its all-Ireland nature.

Finally, Frampton notes the growing authoritarianism of the party as the leadership attempted to shift republican strategy away from violence.  Debates took place once the leadership had made up their minds; discussions were acts of persuasion for publicity purposes.  In accordance with his central argument, however, Frampton does not believe the republican leadership has sold out.  Rather, they have changed the tactics but kept the objectives.  In case we have any doubts, the author makes himself clear regarding Sinn Féin acceptance of the Good Friday Agreement: “[Endorsement of the Agreement] did not represent an acceptance of either the Unionist veto or Northern Ireland’s right to exist.  The republican movement’s subversive intent in relation to both remained intact.  At root, the change was one of form, not substance.”

The only question is whether the new tactics have any chance of fulfilling the party’s core objective; there are growing numbers who have doubts, especially on the emotive issue of policing.  Although ultimately beyond the scope of the work, Frampton raises these questions.  He notes the faltering progress of the party in the South, the increasing criticism of Sinn Féin from Eirigi and ‘dissident’ republican groups, and he makes clear that his interpretation of Sinn Féin’s tactical transformation does not necessarily suggest that the ballot box will be more successful than the armalite.

If we accept the argument of this book we accept that Sinn Féin, unlike the SDLP who they are on a superficial level often supposed to have imitated, have no ideological attachment to powersharing.  The current political dispensation is one embraced on account of its supposed functionality and the failure of ‘armed struggle’; therefore, we should not necessarily expect Sinn Féin to co-operate with the devolved settlement in the long term if it no longer facilitates them in achieving their core objectives.  Indeed, Eamonn McCann makes a similar point in a recent article.

This is a pessimistic analysis but one which makes a lot of sense and is argued cogently by the author.  If true it raises grave doubts about the survival of devolved institutions run by Sinn Féin and the DUP; it brings to light the contradiction of a party attempting to govern yet ultimately wishing to destroy the state of Northern Ireland and adds a dangerous dimension to the current crisis over Policing and Justice.  All eyes will be on Sinn Féin to see how they resolve this crisis and whether or not they will be able to appease their own supporters indefinitely if their central objective of a United Ireland begins to look increasingly unlikely.  Despite the Stormont spin, the Northern Ireland ‘problem’ is by no means solved.


One Response

  1. Wally Wimpf

    December 18, 2009 3:12 am

    Northern Ireland hasn’t gone away, you know. People in the republic and people in England including media hacks continue to turn their backs on the sadly divided society of the north. Northern Ireland is an Irish problem, a UK problem and a problem of European dimensions. In the European context think of ethno-linguistic fissures in Belgium and former Yugoslavia. Think of muslim culture in la France laïque. Think of Turkish minority citizens and guest workers in Germany. Think of the violent cracks in the multicultural and postmodernist facade of Dutch society. Too many British and Irish people regard Northern Ireland as a freakish society unlike anything elsewhere.

    An interesting review of what seems to be an interesting book btw.