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16 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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The rise of Sinn Féin Hear audio clips Audio Clips
Image of John Dillon addressing Longford by-election meeting in 1917

Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Dillon during the Longford by-election, 1917 ©

The executions and deportations after the Rising fuelled popular hostility in Ireland towards Britain. They also increased sympathy for the use of force to achieve independence as well as support for an independent Irish republic. Other aspects of the British government’s policy reinforced these trends - it persisted with nationwide martial law until November 1916; it arrested prominent and articulate critics of its administration and it threatened to impose conscription, so causing deepening resentment, especially among young men. In these circumstances, the appeal of the moderate nationalist Irish Parliamentary Party declined further. It was also damaged by its continuing failure in wartime to achieve Irish self-government.

It was not until 1917 that the IPP’s 50-year domination of Irish politics was challenged. The delay was because its militant nationalist opponents were divided and split into numerous separate organisations, with their own programmes and priorities, and also because the leaders of these had been imprisoned after the Rising. The process of forming a single cohesive political force to challenge the IPP was begun with their gradual release from December 1916.

It was the Sinn Féin party which eventually displaced the IPP. Sinn Féin was not directly involved in the Rising, but benefited immensely from it. It was quite wrongly associated with the outbreak by the Irish public. This was because the role of the Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Council in planning the insurrection was not widely known. Sinn Féin was believed to be involved as it was the best-known, openly anti-English, nationalist propaganda body in Dublin. As admiration for the rebels grew, it had become by mid-1916 a ‘magic name’ in Ireland, instantly recognisable with powerful appeal. In the course of 1917, the movement was transformed. First its organisation changed: it coalesced with and absorbed other militant nationalist bodies and its party branches spread nationwide. Then, in October it elected a new leader - Eamon de Valera - and agreed a new programme, which broadly committed it to the goal of an Irish republic.

The December 1918 General Election was the Sinn Féin movement’s supreme test. Its manifesto offered voters a republic. It also stated that the party would refuse to attend Westminster and set up an Irish assembly as ‘the supreme …authority’. It would make use of ‘every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection’ and appeal to a post-war peace conference ‘for the establishment of Ireland as an independent nation’. Sinn Féin swept the polls winning 73 seats, having previously held 6 (IPP representation fell from 68 to seven). It won because it was the natural focus for the pervasive hatred many then felt towards England. Also it was well organised and led; this was vital as the Irish electorate had trebled since the previous election in 1910. Moreover, Irish voters now aspired to a greater measure of independence than the limited self-government on offer from the IPP.

Image of the first Dáil, 21st January 1919

The first session of Dáil Éireann (Assembly of Ireland) was held at the Mansion House, Dublin 21st January 1919 ©

Sinn Féin acted quickly to fulfil its far-reaching manifesto pledges. It summoned those elected to meet in Dublin on 21st January; 27 of them did so, all of them Sinn Féin members (most of its other successful candidates had been arrested). The occasion was historic. It was the first session of the promised assembly of Ireland (Dáil Éireann). It immediately approved a provisional Irish constitution and then ratified three statements. The first proclaimed the establishment of an Irish Republic. The second was an appeal for recognition and support addressed to all the ‘free nations of the world’. The third, the ‘Democratic Programme’ stated that Ireland would be governed by principles of ‘Liberty, Equality and Justice’, that the government’s first duty would be to the nation’s children, and that all citizens should enjoy an ‘adequate share’ of its wealth. Inevitably these aspirations were to be neglected in the struggle for Irish independence which consumed the next three years.

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Image of Dr. Brian Barton Dr. Brian Barton, Historian, Open University
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Image of Professor Alvin Jackson Alvin Jackson, Professor of Modern History, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Professor Paul Bew Paul Bew, Professor of Irish Politics, Queen's University of Belfast
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Image of Professor Liam Kennedy Liam Kennedy, Professor of Economic and Social History, Queen's University of Belfast
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