The Rise of Sinn Fein and the Abuse of the Past

Fergus O'Farrell with a piece on examining the way Sinn Fein is treated by other parties on the matter of physical force.  The article featured in Irish Left Review The author is a MA student, researching Cathal Brugha.

Speaking at a fundraising event in New York this month, 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.’

Notwithstanding this qualification, Adams’ 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, effected 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. 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. That evening, two IRA commanders and one Irish civilian were killed while in British custody.

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.


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 of 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.


  1. "The established parties are content to celebrate their own violent past, but then heap scorn on the violent past of Sinn Féin. This is disingenuous."

    Sure its disingenuous Fergus, as is Sinn Féin's denunciation of those who oppose the GFA. Not to mention the ongoing erratic mixture of annunciations from a cohort of anti-agreement former provos, sometimes advocating commemoration of physical force republicans of an earlier phase, then distancing themselves from current physical force republicanism adherents.

    And remember of course we had a presidential election where the press held Martin McGuinness to rightful scrutiny about his past whilst failing to bring attention to the fact that the doyen of liberal Ireland, Michael D, was seeking election to the position as head of state ... the very same state which had sentenced his father to death for his violent actions against its own forces and very foundation. And no enquiry or discussion as to how this might be reconciled!

    Never mind disingenuous (sigh) ... there's a schizophrenic quality to it all.

    Any wonder Irish republicans are such a screwed up lot?

  2. I think the entire narrative has moved way beyond the 'good-old IRA' versus the Provos. Adams and SF had been given a free run during the entire peace process. (some would contend in Adams case during the entire troubles, but that is another story). The media have until recently treated SF with kid gloves. Indeed it was impossible to be critical of the party. This went on for nigh on a decade and a half.

    We are now in the situation where having been wrapped in cotton wool and ushered into the UK constitutional political fold, where they were desperate to be, SF is now being told it is time to stand on its own two feet politically. Adams however can't seem to function without the callipers of a biased peace-process addicted media, an unquestioning media. He is constantly falling on his face.

    With peace secured and people tiring of the one trick pony 'peace-process' slogan of SF, the party has now been sent reeling by Adams and his inability to come to terms with this new equality...of treatment. A kind of 'parity of esteem of media scrutiny', if you like. Every time we see him on our screens or in the papers or online he is on the defensive, attempting to ride-out the latest embarrassing and just as shocking a scandal as the one which preceded it and which he has personally dumped upon the SF party.

    The programme about the phantom research offices on TV and Stormont expenses beg the question is that what it was all about, fraud and a thirty year dirty war fought to enable SF to edge its nose into the trough of local UK government? It would appear the SF office at Westminster was for a government training scheme. The Tory party taught them well. If people in the 26 counties think they are getting something new with SF then they had better reconsider. SF for its part should refrain for counting chickens. Opinion polls may be more to do with anger at the present government that any love of SF.

    If the 'war' in the north was all about a Trojan horse of equality, then Gregory Campbell has told SF what they can do with both the horse and equality...and oh aye, cheers for the decommissioning. Curry my yogurt!!

    There will be much more close scrutiny in the future for Adams and perhaps several other SF people in due course. The peace process is old news. You got your equality Gerry, just not the way you expected it. What's that they say about being careful what you wish for?

  3. Every coward will regale you with all sorts of anidotes.

    Gerald Adams will only ever be able to recount the endevours of others because he has always been missing one vital ingredient, the balls to do anything himself.

    Maybe that is why he denies he was in the IRA, because he does not have any stories to tell. The only story this person could tell is how he led everyone else to become imprisoned or intered in a cemetary near you.

    Any wonder he denies he was in the IRA. Kaisar Sossa