The New Politics of Sinn Fein

The conversion of Provisional Republicans from fanatical terrorists into mainstream politicians was central to this ‘new normality,’ if only because the main focus of British state strategy for nearly 40 years had been on defeating Republicanism’s political and military challenge to the constitutional status quo … As the process of institutionalisation deepens, the power of the movement becomes measured more by the ability to obtain resources and political benefits from the state on behalf of its constituency than by its commitment to radical change – Kevin Bean

Before setting out on his substantive analysis of Sinn Fein’s ‘new politics’, completed in 2007, Kevin Bean invited his audience to consider the backdrop against which his case is constructed. Provisional republicanism had come to accept the British state’s definition of the conflict and had acquiesced in what it had long opposed; Irish unity could only come with the consent of a minority in the North of Ireland. The ‘volte face’ that the Provisional leadership managed to accomplish may have been carried out with much dexterity but it had to be situated in a wider process which has been both long and complicated. Bean rose to the challenge of explaining the objective pressures and constraints that shaped the collapse of the republican dimension of the Provisional project.

The author leaves his readers in no doubt as to the outcome of the Northern conflict. Since 1998 republicanism has undergone ‘a decisive defeat.’ The resistance community became an electorate while community bodies evolved into businesses. Bean offers an illustration of this process in his comments about ‘the evolution of the Andersonstown News from a newssheet for the Andersonstown Central Civil Resistance Committee in 1972 to a privately owned media group of locally influential newspapers.’ He then complements this by shifting focus to the IRA by citing an observer of the 2005 Bodenstown commemoration: ‘gone were the paramilitary trappings and in their place a colour party wore green blazers. It could have been a parade led by tennis umpires at Wimbledon’.

While accepting that the trajectory of the Provisionals must be understood as being rooted in the dialectic between them and the British state, in this work Bean offers a more panoramic view of the array of forces that lay behind the British front lines. Rather than isolate British military strategy and corresponding political negotiations with the Provisional leadership, Bean creates a mosaic upon which a multiplicity of apparatuses were at play. These were attuned more to the Ideological State Apparatuses of Althusserian theorising than to the Repressive State Apparatuses which featured in the work of the 20th Century French Marxist thinker. The purposeful coupling of political direction with social policy would carve out a strategic cul de sac into which Provisionalism would be pushed and pulled. In the words of one former British minister the purpose was to draw Sinn Fein into ‘a very different part-public part-private partnership which was the essence of our long term solution.’ By 2000 a British secretary of state could confidently pronounce ‘today Catholics are part of the establishment as never before.’ This, added to the admission by Gerry Adams that in the South Sinn Fein is an establishment party, shows the distance travelled from the heady days of violent conflict when Sinn Fein could plausibly claim to be something other than a Catholic party for a Catholic people.

At the heart of the case made in this book is that communitarianism was a powerful ideology inserted into Northern Irish political discourse and practice primarily by the British state and European Union, but also by the British Left. Situated in a postmodernist context this influenced the Provisionals’ communal and identity politics which saw their uninterrupted drift into an accommodation with the British state on British terms.

Bean suggests that this ideological penetration of the Provisionals was in fact pushing something of an open door given the pre-existing susceptibility of the Provisionals to postmodernist influences. The reason for that susceptibility was that within the Provisional mindset identity politics had long occupied a commanding height. This came to usurp a more universalist liberationist thrust guided by a grand vision of who should run society. It is an academic way of saying the Provisionals settled for the internal conflict model long in vogue in established circles but for equally as long rejected by the Provisionals. In the stand off in the battle for definition the Provisionals were first to blink. The British had successfully defined the problem as one of two tribes rather than a national liberation struggle against a foreign power.

The upshot was the primacy of the micro-narrative identity politics rather than a nationalist or socialist macro-narrative taking a firm definitional grip on the causes and range of outcomes to the Northern conflict.

In criticising this particularism that the Provisionals lapsed into Bean needs to do more to dislodge the view that in attacking postmodernism his real target is an ideological pluralism which he finds less appealing than the more totalising grand narratives that have shaped his reading of both history and politics.

In this work Bean declines to buy into the notion of many dissenting republicans that Sinn Fein leaders simply sold out and took the bribe. In his view they were squeezed by the social and political context shaped by a British state more powerful than them. It is a necessary foil to the dubious critique that personal corruption and ambition was the primary determinant in the failure of the republican project on the Provos’ watch. Where they exist corruption and ambition are more features of the management of the defeat than they are causes of the defeat itself.

Central to grasping this is an appreciation of the advent of the community sector which helped transform the Provisionals from being challengers to British state power into a junior partner in administering that power. ‘While the Provisionals acknowledged that ultimate power resided with the British state, some of the state’s functions were in effect, sub-contracted to the Provisionals.’

Here Bean traces the importance of British state community-cum-economic initiatives initially designed to marginalise the Provisionals but which eventually brought them into the British state fold. Rather than being simply bought off ‘the powerful forces of state, economy and society provided the external context for the ideological exhaustion of the Provisional national liberation project.’ At this point republicanism gives ‘the appearance of an ideological project that has run its historical course.’

Bean tries to broaden out the explanatory framework so that the collapse of the republican dimension of the Provisional project does not come to be seen as reducible to the ‘secret diplomatic history of the IRA.’ In this sense, while not the author’s intention, it complements rather than detracts from Ed Moloney’s Secret History of the IRA by providing a backdrop against which the one man band of Adams played its diplomatic tune.

Bean suggests that in the 1980s neither Adams nor his colleagues could have known where the process of managed retreat and negotiation was leading and feels that republican critics of Sinn Fein mistakenly see in an ‘inchoate ideological direction’ a ‘deep laid plot contrived by the Adams leadership.’ He cites one former Sinn Fein ard comhairle member who felt the perspective of Adams was pragmatism rather than politics; he went where the process led him.

Against this there is the recently expressed view of another former ard comhairle member, the revisionist writer Danny Morrison, who in February past claimed the intent behind Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy being dropped in 1986 ‘was to facilitate the opportunity - to get to the position where they are today.’ Even while this is post hoc revisionism and something Morrison, never the sharpest of analysts, realised decades after the event, there remains too much evidence against sustaining Bean’s line of reasoning that the outcome was fortuitous rather than designed. In fact the outcome was so easily read off from the facts on the ground as each stage of the process unfolded that the strategy’s republican critics could from the earliest stages accurately forecast its trajectory with consummate ease. They proffered Adams’ innate caution as the reason for what Bean terms the hesitant evolution of policy. Bean in stripping the Adams project of any teleology tends to attenuate an otherwise robust critique.

The evidence available thus far indicates that the Provisional republican venture ended up close enough to where Gerry Adams concluded it would go as far back as 1982. Rivers may change their course at times but invariably they reach the sea. Adams might have felt that given the balance of political forces it was as much as could be achieved but that is a perspective that requires a different analytical focus than what is under discussion here.

Bean introduces an element of nuance with his argument that the Provisionals were defeated not destroyed. It is a useful contextualisation in which to place the defeat. Often because there was no destruction in terms of organisational obliteration, while sufficient space was carved out to allow morphing to occur, the argument is frequently made by project apologists that somehow defeat was avoided and that a draw of sorts was achieved. Destruction, however of insurgents, is not the primary goal of modern states. Defeat followed by cooption is. Given that there has to be something to co-opt organisational structures of the former insurgents can be maintained providing that they are divested of any insurrectionary characteristics.

The New Politics of Sinn Fein adds to an ever growing understanding of how a well armed modern guerrilla movement can be neutralised. Bean outlines his perspective well but he could have explained it to so many more people had he divested the work of some of the more top heavy theorization and conceptualisation that makes an otherwise excellent book a task that academics might enjoy but which the average reader is likely to find hard going. Bean however had to press certain academic keys in order to hit a note that would be heard in the senior echelons of erudite institutions where, if he is not unfortunate, his analytical skills are likely to resound for some time to come. But the reading public who have an interest in modern Irish history would benefit enormously were a popularisation of the ideas in this book to occur. Simply put, Kevin Bean is one of the most penetrating analysts of the republican scene and his views deserve a much wider airing.

The New Politics of Sinn Fein by Kevin Bean. Liverpool University Press: 2007.


  1. Mackers,
    his book is brilliant. I know a lot of people who found it heavy going initially, heavy in the academic context.
    However, stick with it, the book is well worth the read.

    I could lend you my copy if you want to read it to Marie at bedtime?

  2. Nuala,

    it is an outstandingly good book. As you say stick with it. The review is lying around a few months now. I told Kevin about three months ago that I would be uploading it but one thing leads to another and other things get thrown up on the blog. Have you met Kevin? Quite often he is in that wee bar in Beechmount - I forget the name of it but it is a house bar type thing.

  3. SF should do the decent thing and re-name themselves SDLP 'B' team. And they should reflect if 30yrs war was the correct way to go about applying for a position with expenses on the local councils.

  4. Nuala,

    he did a very good booklet in the 90s called The New Departure:
    Recent Developments in Irish Republican Ideology & Strategy

  5. Anthony

    A fascinating critique of what appears to be a very in-depth analysis of how a political movement , like the flowing river , adapts to all the "rocks of fortune" and the "soft sand of diplomacy" , and ends at it's only destination , by a vicarious route .
    On the strength of your review , I am going to get a copy , and heavy read though it may be , I have no doubt that it will be both entertaining and enlightening .

    Alan C

  6. Alan,

    in my view it would be money well spent. He is such a good analyst.

  7. I haven't managed to get my hands on this book yet. I met Kevin and know he is passionate about his subject matter. The big question for republicans like myself is: just how big was the lie told us by Adams et al?

    The Hume-Adams document remains a closely guarded secret even today. How much ground did Adams concede in this engagement which acted as a precursor to the negotiations. If what Ed Maloney says is true and everyone knew exactly what was on the menu then we were lied to on a grand scale.

  8. Alec,

    and you are not getting my copy. I don't know how many books you are still returning to me! I am a touch surprised that you even raise this as you know just how big the lie is. The Brits knew from early on just how little Adams was prepared to settle up for. It was conveyed to them often enough. We know an unarmed strategy was being floated as early as 1982 and again in 1986.

    Hume Adams was more a concept than a document. Seamus Mallon made it clear that there was no difference between it and the Downing Street Declaration, if memory serves me right. Myself and Pat Beag had a bad tempered public debate about it in the Felons.

  9. I distinctly recall at the time there being a reference to a document. In fact, some of us asked to see the detail of the dialog between the two but were never furnished with anything tangible. Whatever it was it signaled to the British, in a very clear way, what Adams was prepared to settle for in the talks.

    What I would like to see is all the dirty detail of the process which ultimately lead to the political defeat of Provisional republicanism. The story of the peace process in all its gory detail has yet to be told.

  10. Alec,

    I remember the document being mentioned as well but nobody ever saw it or produced it. The I recall at some point being told it was just a set of principles.

    We will never see all the dirty detail There are bits of it all over the place. I think it is like a jigsaw. We can always increase our knowledge of it but will never get the thing completed. Lots of works need read rather than just one.

  11. Mackers,
    My son and his friends drink in that bar, it is called the 'Hawthorne'
    My son also called Kevin was in the bar the night McGuinness made his first traitors speech.
    He told me some time later, that the bar which is known for its 'quiet pint' atmosphere totally erupted.
    He said, only elderly man who had previously been nearly snoozing, lunched towards the television, yelling 'I would snuff the life out of you treacherous bastard'
    Maybe the other Kevin goes there for the entertainment value.
    Seriously though, Kevin's book is brilliantly reseached and written.
    I think this book, more than any other I have ever read on the subject, clearly presents the pull and the dilemma that community presented for the Provos.

  12. Nuala,

    the name of the bar came toe just after I posted that response to you. I have been in a quite few bars with Kevin ... Belfast, Dublin, London, Southampton, Manchester and Southampton!! I have had him in dives! We like out tipple. He would know a lot of bars in Belfast.

    You are right about what the book does for understanding the dialectic between community and the Provisionals.

  13. Used to stay in Crocus St on my visits to belfast. would always walk by the hawthorn but was too scared to walk in. undoubtedly the shadiest looking bar in all of belfast and thats saying something. wasn't a guy kneecapped in there a few months ago?

  14. Just back from a sheep watching weekend in lovely Leitrim. The bar mentioned is owned and run by a friend of mine Phil Mc Cann bro of Jazz, I like it

  15. Nuala hon I will borrow that book if its ok,seems a worthwhile read.

  16. Ryan,
    Yes to the shady and the knee capping.
    The man in question was allegedly knee capped by the 'super sticks'
    My son is of the opinion that, it is still on of the safer bars on the road.

  17. Fionnuala-

    Can't see any-one worried about what a barstool old codger shouts in a pub- thats about the height of dissent-

  18. Marty,
    Will get Albert to bring it to work tomorrow, if her ladyship wants to call and collect it.

    I really don't know what you mean?
    Anyway I thought we were friends.

  19. book noted for future reference

    John Magir
    greetings from Donegal.

  20. Nuala go raibh maith agat a cara.will do.

  21. michaelhenry,
    So some "old codger" (as you call him) in a bar shouting at the tv annoys you? Believe me, I know quite a lot of people that were really annoyed and angry when that tout McGuiness called people "traitors!" Remember SF are the real "dissidents" in all this, as they ditched any semblance of republicanism ages ago.

  22. michealhenry,
    McGuinness, might have been seriously worried if that 'old codger' had of been behind him on the bridge the other night.
    Apparently, everyone in the bar was shouting 'jump' as McGuinness not Robinson put his foot on the bridge.

  23. Marty,
    Albert has definitely got the book with him today. Monday's are not his best days usually a bit stung from the Sunday booze, not that he would ever admit it.
    Anyway, sincere apologies and enjoy the read.

  24. Fionnuala-

    Don't know if you read ógra shinn féin on the net- but they have just taken another group around armagh Gaol- a lot of our youth has been shown around all the x p.o.w
    camps- i know that you will disagree- but this youth will teach the next youth- people lost their youth in the camps- for their country- it will always be in Irish minds-

  25. Mickerboy the way psf is calling on people to tout on republicans it wont be long before the gaols are filled again,

  26. A very interestesting review.To be honest i am not one of those folks who delve into the analytical world of how we got here,that is for my part something i leave to others.
    I am one of those people that can only see the reality of the picture as it presents itself and i cannot be beguiled by the smoke and mirrors of the SF PRO machine.
    To me debating the whys and hows are debilitating and only deflect from the means to overthrow this mutinous and shameful hijacking of Irish republicanism. By people who are no longer standard-bearers to the spirit of the proclamation.
    From my view,I see Gerry Adams as someone who suffers from mental illness,multiple peronalities,he will be to all what they expect him to be.
    Psychosis,he is totally divorced from the Ideals he set out on in the pursuit of a 32 county socialist Irish republic.
    Delusional,for thinking that all Irish republicans will swallow the lexicon of Gerrys way forward for Ireland.

  27. Eddie,

    ‘To be honest i am not one of those folks who delve into the analytical world of how we got here, that is for my part something i leave to others.’

    Horses for courses just.

    ‘I am one of those people that can only see the reality of the picture as it presents itself’

    And it is a pretty clear picture.

    ‘To me debating the whys and hows are debilitating and only deflect from the means to overthrow this mutinous and shameful hijacking of Irish republicanism.’

    It can often be a chore and off putting to many but I always found debate essential and fail to see what progress can be made without it. Still, I am aware of the old phrase ‘when all is said and done more will be said than done.’! So, as a general rule discussion can become a ruse for doing nothing at a time when something is in need of doing.