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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - Profiles

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Sinn Féin

Arthur Griffith helped found the Sinn Féin movement in 1905. Its formation was symptomatic of the emergence of a more militant nationalist spirit in Ireland. Its name ‘Ourselves’ indicated an emphasis on economic and cultural self-sufficiency, as well as political independence. Deriving his ideas from European experience, Griffith provided the organisation with its programme. He rejected force. To achieve nationalist aims, he advocated passive resistance. Irish MPs would withdraw from Westminster and form a national assembly in Ireland whose moral authority Irish people would recognise and the British government would, in time, ultimately be compelled to accept. In economic affairs, he urged the need for high protective tariffs so enabling Ireland to exploit its domestic market, develop its own resources, support itself and end emigration. By adopting these policies, Ireland would thus become an equal partner with England in a dual monarchy under the Crown.

Image of Sinn Féin logo

A Sinn Féin logo from 1916 ©

Before 1916, Sinn Féin was unsuccessful in electoral terms. But it had a disproportionate influence on contemporary political thinking, mainly through Griffith`s writings which inspired a revolutionary generation. Sinn Féin thus obtained notoriety for its stridently anti- British propaganda and later, in wartime, its opposition to military recruitment. As a result, it was widely held responsible in both Britain and Ireland for the Easter Rising, though as an organisation it had not participated. Due to this association, as public admiration for the Rising grew, so also did the popularity of the party. During 1917, the movement was reshaped, its organisation was transformed and its policies modified as it expanded and absorbed a number of militant nationalist groups. It also began electorally to challenge the Irish Parliamentary party (IPP), exploiting the growing anti-English sentiment in Ireland and the increasing support for an independent republic. The re-formed party was a coalition – containing militants who supported force to get a republic, and also more moderate nationalists from the original Sinn Féin movement, who were still committed to passive resistance. These inherent strains were evident in the compromise wording of the party’s main objective, agreed at its convention in October 1917, which stated that it aimed at ‘securing the international recognition of Ireland as an independent Irish republic. Having achieved this status, the Irish people may by referendum freely choose their own form of government.’ At this convention, Griffith stood down as President in favour of Eamon de Valera, the only surviving Commandant of the Rising.

In the December 1918 general election, Sinn Féin won 73 of the 103 Irish seats, though obtaining less than 48 per cent of the votes cast. The IPP’s 50-year domination of Irish politics thus ended as its representation collapsed. Honouring its electoral pledges, Sinn Féin then formed the Dail government in Dublin in 1919 and declared Ireland to be an independent republic. Its political activities were, however, overshadowed by the IRA’s military campaign in the Anglo-Irish War (1919-21) – a campaign which Sinn Féin assisted but never effectively controlled. The Sinn Féin movement split over the terms of the 1921 Treaty, which was negotiated by some of its leaders after the conflict had ended. De Valera led those who opposed the settlement - they retained the name Sinn Féin - and supported the republican side in the Irish Civil War (1922-23). After suffering military defeat, there were further divisions when he, and his supporters, formed a new party, Fianna Fail in 1926; its members took their seats in the Free State Dail during the following year.

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