The Rise of Sinn Fein and the Abuse of the Past

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Speaking at a fundraising event in New York last week, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams remarked that during the War of Independence, Michael Collins had his men enter the offices of the Irish independent, hold the editor at gun point, and dismantled the printing press. This was in response to that papers accusation that Collins and his men were guilty of ‘murder most fowl.’ He went on to say ‘I’m obviously not advocating that.’[1]

Notwithstanding this qualification, Adam’s comments have been criticised by his political opponents and by the media. Such criticism is yet another example of the fear of the rise of Sinn Fein and the desire of the established parties, as well as some sections of the media to vilify the party. Opponents of Sinn Fein point to the party’s violent past in an effort to discredit its current leadership and to scare the public into thinking that Sinn Fein still advocates violent methods.

The Irish state: Born in Violence

On Easter Monday, 1916, a tiny, unrepresentative armed group, comprising of Irish Volunteers who had not gone to fight in the Great War and members of the Irish Citizens Army, affect a military insurrection which primarily took place in Dublin city.  More civilians were killed during Easter week than British soldiers or Irish rebels.

During the conscription crisis of 1918, Cathal Brugha, seemingly disillusioned with political developments and the temporary alliance between Sinn Fein and the Irish Parliamentary Party, decided to take matters into his own hands. He travelled to London with a group of IRA volunteers, intent on assassinating British cabinet ministers in the vicinity of Westminster. The mission was abandoned when the conscription crisis was overcome, though the INLA implemented their own, modern version of the plan when they blew up Airey Neave with a car bomb as he left the House of Commons car park in 1979.

During the War of Independence, some terrible acts of violence occurred: after all, it was a war! On Bloody Sunday, the IRA carried out an operation against what they believed to be a British spy ring in the city – they killed 14 men that morning. As careful historical research has made clear, not all of these men were spies, let alone combatants. [2] Later that day, crown forces drove into Croke Park, opened fire on the crowd and killed over a dozen civilians. There is still debate over who fired first.[3]

When the innovative Minister for Finance Michael Collins rolled out the ‘Republican Loan’ to raise money for the establishment of an independent Irish state, the British sent a forensic accountant, Alan Bell, to Dublin to investigate the money trail. Concerned that Bell would scupper the revenue raising scheme, Collins dispatched members of the squad to deal with the inquisitive accountant. Bell was escorted off a city centre tram and executed in the street in broad daylight. [4]


The point is that the history of this revolutionary period is replete with examples of violence. The same can be said of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Armed separatists, operating without a popular mandate, sought to remove the British army from the north through violence. However, there is one crucial difference between the IRA in the time of Collins and the IRA in the time of Adams: In 1921, the British capitulated. In Northern Ireland, they did not.

The result has been that southern politicians consider it legitimate to celebrate the founders of their various parties. They portray them as revolutionaries, politicians and visionaries. While many of them were these things, they were also soldiers who fought against the British state to secure Irish independence. Fine Geal remember Michael Collins at Beal na Blath every August. This year, George Hook delivered the commemorative speech, extoling Collins as a ‘military figure’ and a ‘nation builder.’ Fianna Fail celebrate the founders off their own party and indeed Labour do the same.

The difference is that in Northern Ireland, those who fought the war were not successful. Instead, they had to revise their demands. What the IRA and Sinn Fein settled for in the terms of the Good Friday agreement is unrecognisable from their original demands: a complete British withdrawal in the lifetime of the sitting London government.

During the Peace Process, and even before it, constitutional politicians constantly implored Republicans to end the armed struggle and work on achieving a political settlement which would bring about peace. While Sinn Fein and the IRA were intimately involving the war, they were also instrumental in making the peace.

The established parties are content to celebrate their own violent past, but then heap scorn on the violent past of Sinn Fein. This is disingenuous. Whether we like it or not, violence has played an important role in 20th century Irish history. Politicians who are weary of the rise of Sinn Fein are would be better off critiquing that party’s policy proposals rather than using Sinn Fein’s violent past to discredit the party.




[2] Ann Dolan ‘The dead of Bloody Sunday morning’ in David Fitzpatrick Terror in Ireland.

[3] See Essay

[4] Charles Townshend, The Republic, 192.

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