Pearse Doherty, Gerry Adams, Mary Lou McDonald and Martin McGuinness at Sinn Fein ard-fheis. Image: The Journal

Sinn Fein’s history unrolls towards mainstream

As Ireland hunkers down for the 2016 general election, the prospects of Sinn Fein appear rosy. Journalist Deaglan de Breadun recently published a history of the party, concentrating on the rise in its fortunes in recent years.

The saying goes that “journalism is the first draft of history”, and there is some truth in that. In principle, contemporary news reports should be the foundation for subsequent accounts, assuming the reports are accurate. But the prejudices of the historian, as well as the ideology in vogue when the history-book is written, may come between the reader and the truth. We mustn’t forget another saying, coined by Napoleon Bonaparte, that history is “a fable agreed upon”.

In theory, at least, a journalist who covered a series of events as they happened should be ideally-placed to write the history of that period in due course. The present writer, for instance, reported on the initial venture into politics by the modern-day Sinn Féin party and covered the game-changing ceasefire by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in 1994, followed by the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and the establishment of a power-sharing administration in what has now become a mainly-peaceful Northern Ireland.

Whether the theory has worked out in practice in my own case is for others to judge. But there can be little doubt that the Irish peace process is an historic development and that the Sinn Féin party which was previously a brass band for the IRA has since become a very significant political force in both parts of the island of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin has displaced the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the main representative of the nationalist community. Former IRA leader Martin McGuinness holds the post of Deputy First Minister in a power-sharing Executive where Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is First Minister. If anyone had predicted even ten years ago that the militant Irish republicans of Sinn Féin and the hardline pro-British unionists of the DUP would end up working together calmly and efficiently – for the most part – the sanity of the person daring to make such a prophecy would have been questioned.

But that’s the way it has worked out. Not long ago I was told by a senior figure in the Police Service of Northern Ireland that the level of political violence in the North over the space of a year is now the equivalent of a single day’s quota of bombings and shootings in the mid-1970s.

The island still remains partitioned, in line with the terms of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. This divided the country between the six counties of Northern Ireland and the remaining 26 counties, which comprise what is now known as the Republic of Ireland. The minority Catholic nationalist population of the North held the status of second-class citizens and nursed a long and bitter set of grievances for decades. A mass civil rights movement emerged in the late 1960s, which was inspired by the example of the African-American struggle led by Reverend Martin Luther King and even adopted the ballad, “We Shall Overcome”, as its anthem.

Unlike the civil rights movement in the US, the campaign in Northern Ireland deteriorated into a guerrilla conflict, with republican paramilitaries launching regular attacks on the security forces. This continued into the 1990s by which stage it was clear that there was going to be no military solution to “The Troubles” as they had become known.

The British were clearly not going to be forced out, in order to make way for the long-cherished dream of a United Ireland. But neither was the IRA ever likely to be crushed, despite the massive resources deployed for that purpose over the years. A political way forward was needed and, once the IRA campaign came to a halt, the road-map was laid out in the Good Friday, aka Belfast, Agreement.

Joy at 1994 ceasefire
Wild celebrations accompanied the IRA ceasefire declared in 1994. Image: BBC

There have been significant strides since, towards achieving equality between the two communities, Catholic and Protestant, and their political representatives are jointly running the place in many respects, with some powers still reserved to Westminster. Peace reigns, by and large, and people are no longer afraid to turn on their radios to be told of the latest horror, on the morning news bulletin.

In the Republic, also known colloquially as “The South”, or in some quarters by its former title of “The Free State”, Sinn Féin were political pariahs as long as the IRA campaign raged. Their representatives were barred from radio and television and their candidates got very few votes at election-time. It didn’t help that the party had a policy of refusing to take seats in the Dáil, the Irish house of parliament in Dublin. That approach was changed in 1986 and at time of writing 14 out of the 166 Dáil deputies are members of Sinn Féin.

Sinn Fein could double seats in Dail

A general election is due to be held in the Republic on February 26. Although membership of the Dáil has been reduced to 158, many observers expect Sinn Féin to double its representation. There is even an outside chance that the party could end up in a coalition government. Either way, Sinn Féin is advancing and, sooner or later, will probably be in power on both sides of the Irish border. Whether this sets off a dynamic towards the achievement of Irish unity is a matter of conjecture but, in line with the terms of the Good Friday pact, any such development would have to be approved by a majority in both parts of the island.

Labour had a hugely-successful general election last time, in February 2011 and joined the right-of-centre Fine Gael in a coalition government. Sinn Féin also did well, almost trebling its representation in Dáil Éireann.

Pretty soon, the new government came under sustained attack from opponents who said it was essentially implementing the austerity policies of its Fianna Fail-led predecessor. This was grist to the mill of Gerry Adams and his followers who were unsparing in their criticism of the Fine Gael-Labour double-act. Sinn Féin had secured 9.9 per cent of people’s first-preference votes in the 2011 election but, within a year, opinion polls showed their support had almost doubled, and this is still the case at time of writing.

My role-model was the legendary American reporter Theodore H. White (1915-86) who wrote a series of books entitled The Making of the President, covering the elections to the White House from 1960 to 1972. They are examples of what my friend and long-time colleague Conor O’Clery calls “journalistic history”. In other words, you seek to combine forensic research and background reading with the insight and colourful detail of an eye-witness.

One of my main worries in writing the book was that it would be seen as either too soft or too hard on the “Shinners”. They are the most controversial political force in Ireland, and neutral ground on the subject is very narrow indeed. I resolved to stick to the facts and provide evidence-based analysis rather than interposing my own feelings between the topic and the reader. When the book came out, people on both sides of the debate about Sinn Féin said the book was fair and balanced, which was very gratifying.

Founded in 1905

While noting that the original Sinn Féin party of Arthur Griffith was founded in 1905, my main starting-point was 1969-70 when the Troubles started in earnest in Northern Ireland and the Provisional IRA was born. Initially adopting the role of defenders of the besieged Catholic community, the organisation moved into aggressive mode very quickly, and the Provo campaign was launched.

My imaginary reader was a foreign diplomat who takes up a new posting in Dublin at a time in the future when Sinn Féin have either become part of a new Irish government or else achieved the status of main opposition party. A call comes from headquarters back home requesting the diplomat to provide a briefing paper on the party, its background, main personalities and future prospects. The obvious source of comprehensive, unbiased information turns out to be my book, “Power Play: The Rise of Modern Sinn Féín”, launched in October 2015 at a reception where the main speaker was former Fianna Fáil taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

The book was briefly in the non-fiction bestellers list and still appears to be doing well in the bookshops. With a few exceptions, the reviews have been very favourable. The Sinn Fein newspaper “An Phoblacht” (“The Republic”) described it as a “curate’s egg”, which means that it is good in parts. Given that there is in-depth analysis of the party’s policy-shifts on issues such as the 2008 Bank Guarantee and Ireland’s low rate of corporation tax, it was not surprising they had reservations.

Writing a book is hard work but a good reception on publication makes it all worthwhile. Sitting there, tapping away at the keyboard of my laptop  generated a fair amount of strain for the eyes and lower back, but it was comforting to know that there was so much interest in the topic: a party which, whether we like it or not, will have a major say in the future of the island of Ireland.

Link to book: