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Is Sinn Féin ready for power?
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The February 2020 general election in the Republic of Ireland sent shockwaves through the country’s political system. Sinn Féin, ahead of all other parties in terms of first preference votes, secured its place as a potential coalition partner, a role it has been playing in Northern Ireland since the start of the century. This result not only disrupted the two-party system, it also questioned a narrative that had cast Sinn Féin as an outlier in the political mainstream. However, the prospect of this all-Ireland, radical left and former Provisional IRA associate being in government raises many questions. What does the success of this all-Ireland party say about the prospect of reunification? Can a party over which the shadow of paramilitaries still lingers be fully trusted? And are the radical changes that the party advocates in areas such as housing, public health and taxation a compelling alternative? These are the questions that this book sets out to address.

Sinn Féin, 1926–70
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To date, only two studies deal with Sinn Féin's history from 1905 to 2005: Brian Feeney's Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years (2002) and Kevin Rafter's Sinn Féin 1905–2005: In the Shadow of Gunmen (2005). However, they only dedicate small sections to the era of the fourth Sinn Féin. Nevertheless, Sinn Féin did not disappear altogether from the political scene after 1926. It was undoubtedly overshadowed by more powerful political forces, but although it operated in very restricted circumstances over long periods of time, its final objectives, the end of partition and the establishment of the Republic proclaimed in 1916, always found sufficiently passionate advocates to keep it alive throughout those years. In 1948, during the first convention held since the Second World War, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) decided to resurrect the moribund Sinn Féin, with a limited role, that of assisting the IRA. Sinn Féin therefore became the 'political wing' of the movement. Parallel to these developments, Sinn Féin kept an active role in Northern Ireland, mainly through the Republican Clubs, created in order to circumvent the ban on the party. Sinn Féin's involvement in the Civil Rights movement remains a source of speculation. The history of the fourth Sinn Féin came to an end with the 1970 split between Officials and Provisionals, opening a new page in the fortunes of a party which had substantially morphed during its forty-five years of existence.

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Agnès Maillot

This chapter presents the overarching questions that underpin the study of Sinn Féin and sets out the overall structure that will be used to address these questions.

in Rebels in government
Agnès Maillot

This chapter studies the manner in which Sinn Féin has prioritised and strategised its ultimate, and fundamental, objective – the reunification of Ireland – which underlies most of its political decisions, election campaigns and policy programmes. After having set the historical context of this ideal, an assessment of how Sinn Féin put this ideal at the centre of its peace process strategy is provided. While Sinn Féin is not the only Irish political party that believes in Irish unity, it is unique in the way it conditions all other policies and objectives to this ideal. Since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Sinn Féin is more convinced than ever that this prospect is within reach. The departure of the UK from the EU, while opposed by the party during the referendum campaign, is seen as having the potential to change the situation and to push forward the United Ireland agenda. Undoubtedly the conundrum of the Irish border, exemplified in the controversies generated by the backstop and the Northern Ireland Protocol, has caused a level of resentment and anxiety among Unionism, and in Sinn Féin’s view, has accelerated what they now term an ‘unstoppable’ conversation across the island on the prospect of Irish unity.

in Rebels in government
Agnès Maillot

This chapter looks at the manner in which Sinn Féin has managed its past and its close ties with the former Provisional Irish Republican Army. While suspicion remains high amongst political circles that the Army Council, the ruling body of the IRA, is still in existence and somehow controls, at least in part, the decision making process within Sinn Féin, the party itself denies such allegations and claims that it has successfully turned the page. This is a fraught exercise as the shadow of the IRA lingers on. Furthermore, while distancing itself from its former ally, the party has no intention of disavowing the IRA and continues to justify its actions and methods within the context of the Troubles. This can be potentially damaging as the party’s democratic credentials continue to be questioned in some quarters, although paradoxically it does not necessarily translate into a drop in support. Sinn Féin has had to navigate a hostile landscape on both sides of the border but has also managed to retain, and even increase, a level of support in spite of its past connection with the IRA. The manner in which it has managed its past is exemplified by its discourse on the issue of reconciliation, which is at the heart of any future, long lasting stability in Northern Ireland.

in Rebels in government
Agnès Maillot

In order to achieve its ultimate objective – the reunification of Ireland – Sinn Féin opted, as early as the 1980s to win the hearts and minds, and the votes, of the Irish electorate on both sides of the border. In order to develop a more elaborate political profile, it operated a markedly left-wing turn, both in its discourse and in its policy content. As a result, Sinn Féin has successfully become the main left-wing contender within the Irish political world. The party is now closely identified with issues such as housing and the strengthening of public services, and it has embraced a liberal agenda on issues such as LGBT rights and abortion. This has enabled Sinn Féin to gain the support of a sizeable section of the youth, and it hopes to be able to attract voters in Northern Ireland who do not necessarily identify with the binary identities of nationalism and unionism. While the two main parties in the Republic have yet to accept to share power with Sinn Féin, Republicans have shown that they are serious contenders and that they are determined to be in a position where they have ministerial representation on both sides of the Irish border.

in Rebels in government
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Agnès Maillot

The conclusion draws the book to an end by reminding the reader of the context of upheaval that sees 100 years of Northern Ireland marked in 2021, not least due to Brexit. The centenary of the coming into existence of two states on the island of Ireland will not be celebrated by Sinn Féin given its opposition to such a thing at the time. Yet it marks an optimistic era for the party in that it sees a United Ireland as closer than at any other point in the last century. It is a time when it seeks to further establish itself as the party of a new generation – who no longer ascribe to a Sinn Féin vote the value that their parents might have, and no longer really care to make the connection with the IRA a priority. A major challenge will be holding on to the gains in this generation made in 2020 by keeping its voice distinctive to others in the policy sphere.

in Rebels in government
Agnès Maillot

1946 was a key year for Republicans. It saw the end of internment without trial, which had been in place throughout the war. The formation of Clann na Poblachta might have prompted the Irish Republican Army into actively seeking to form a political movement. At the end of 1948, the Irish Dáil voted the Republic of Ireland Act, officially granting the twenty-six counties the status of Republic and abolishing the 1936 External Relations Act, which devolved foreign policy to the Irish cabinet, and ending its membership of the Commonwealth. The year 1955 gave Sinn Féin the opportunity to play an active political role. For the Irish Communist Party, the Republican leadership had not sidelined the army, but 'saw its role as defending the gains achieved in the political struggle and in an extreme situation as a role of defence'.

in In the shadow of history
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Agnès Maillot

When Seán Mac Stiofáin and his supporters walked out of the Irish Republican Army convention in 1969 and formed the Provisional Army Council, the path that Sinn Féin would follow seemed already mapped out: the divisions that were tearing the army apart were inevitably reflected within the party. Abstentionism was the means of identification of Republicans to their ideology. It became the depository of a number of aspirations, the catalyst of discontent for those who decided to remain faithful to principles and refused any attempted change. The issue of abstentionism revealed a flaw in the party's ideological and strategic make-up: that of its composite nature. Against all odds, whether favourable or unfavourable, Sinn Féin continues to demand the end of partition, disregarding the circumstances and the desirability of such a demand.

in In the shadow of history
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Agnès Maillot

The 1930s were characterised among Republicans by the tensions that dominated the relationships between the different groups. Sinn Féin's role and visibility were increasingly limited, and its rigid stance and principles made it a difficult organisation with which to cooperate. The visit of the Prince of Wales for the inauguration of the Northern Ireland parliament buildings in Stormont, on 16 November 1932, provided Sinn Féin with an opportunity to engage more actively with political activism and embark on a campaign that would, for a time, give the party a level of visibility. The competition for the Republican constituency was taking on a new dimension, with Fianna Fáil determined to occupy the front stage and have its legitimacy as the Republican party recognised once and for all. The Second World War was undoubtedly the darkest period ever experienced by the Republican movement.

in In the shadow of history