The Duality of Sinn Féin:
The Past, Present, and Future of Ireland’s Rising Political Party
In a few years, the Republic of Ireland’s next elections will be held. In the 2016 election the up-and-coming Sinn Féin party, headed by Mary Lou McDonald, won 13.8% of votes, in the 2020 election it won 24.5%. It reached its peak in June 2022 when opinion polls placed them at 36% and have settled at 33% as of the most recent polls. The party has more than doubled its support in nearly half a decade and has room to grow. Many of the Irish commentariat have belittled Sinn Féin because of its historic ties to the Troubles but it appears Sinn Féin is too popular for the establishment to ostracize any longer. There is an overwhelming popular sentiment that the two dominant parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have failed. Some allege they need to be punished and Sinn Féin given a chance. In the north, the historic 2022 election resulted in Sinn Féin being the largest party elected. Sinn Féin Vice-President Michelle O’Neill is primed to be the future First Minister of northern Ireland. The speculation around “if” Sinn Féin will control the two governments is over. Now that it is a foregone conclusion that it will, we can begin to articulate what that future will look like.
The funny thing about a Sinn Féin future is that it is so mysterious because Sinn Féin itself is mysterious. To the casual observer, Sinn Féin is your typical populist-left party that had something vaguely to do with a conflict in northern Ireland whose tensions and details have all but faded. To those a bit more acquainted, Sinn Féin takes on a dark and light duality. Either the heirs of extremist terrorists or freedom fighters. This analysis while conventional lacks in its ability to fully comprehend Sinn Féin. The prior duality, for both sides, begs questions. These questions have to do with the history of the past 100 years. They have to do with the four societies of northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. Ultimately, they all lead back to the maelstrom of the Irish Revolution.
This is why I offer a new duality of Sinn Féin: new and old. Sinn Féin’s slogan is “time for change”. It markets itself as the new and progressive future yet its entire raison d'être is that it is the true claimant to the legitimacy of the Irish Revolution. It seemingly is a party that wants to modernize Ireland into the current year while also fulfilling the goals of a 900-year-old ethnoreligious tradition. Its newness highlights the particularity of “a” rather than “the” Sinn Féin party. Its oldness opens up the universality of Sinn Féin. The awkward fact of Irish politics is that Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin are all equal heirs to the Sinn Féin of the Irish Revolution. The contest for the legitimate heir was first seen in the Irish Civil War whose two sides later evolved into the offspring of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and have since governed so indistinguishably leading some to consider Ireland, effectively, as a monoparty state.
The minority of splinter groups on the losing side of the Irish Civil War were radical left-wing socialists and right-wing nationalists persecuted by both the UK and southern Ireland. These two minority splinter groups would vie for the ownership of the Sinn Féin name over the next 100 years. It is here we have a clearer picture of McDonald’s iteration. It is a party trying to balance socialist progressivism with traditional nationalism. It is a party that seeks to create a new Ireland by reunification. This would not only finally defeat the obvious enemy of the UK but also, less obviously, defeat the southern Republic of Ireland. Sinn Féin’s ideology and policies must be deciphered through a proper accounting of its history to visualize a coherent future under its governance. To better understand all of this history, let’s start at the beginning of Sinn Féin.
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The Birth of Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin was originally founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith. Its purpose was to unite all the Irish nationalist organizations under one umbrella. Griffith’s political organizing and tremendous publishing efforts laid the foundation for the revolution to be built on. When Irish nationalists rebelled in 1916, the British generally saw it as Sinn Féin led although it was less directly involved. The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), Irish Volunteers, and Irish Citizen Army were the driving forces of the 1916 Easter Rising, however, there was a common overlap with Sinn Féin since it represented a big tent for all sympathizers to Irish independence. While Griffith was not directly involved with the Rising, he was a member of the IRB and Volunteers. His newspaper was supported by the IRB, he attended high level meetings with the IRB, and participated in military operations with the IRB and Volunteers.
Griffith may have been a moderating influence but he was not an outsider. In fact, it is believed that those who initiated the Easter Rising deliberately left Griffith in the dark and rejected his offer to join the Rising in real-time in order to save him. They viewed “his pen and brain” as more important and should survive them, which was underscored by the eventual executions of the leaders of the Rising. Griffith, no doubt, would have been among them. Regardless of these nuances, among the British and the Irish in general, Sinn Féin was seen as the torch bearer for the 1916 rebellion. In the aftermath of the Rising, the revolutionary forces took a more active role in organizing Sinn Féin. Griffith enabled his party to coalesce around the passions of the Rising and conceded his presidency to one of the few surviving leaders of the Rising: Éamon de Valera. In the December 1918 UK parliamentary election in Ireland, Sinn Féin won 73 out of 105 seats. About a month later, those Sinn Féin elected officials met in Dublin to declare independence from the UK and set up their own government. During the War of Independence, de Valera spent 1919-1921 in America to raise funds and garner diplomatic good will. This left Griffith as Acting President while de Valera was away.
The Irish War of Independence and brutal UK repression prevented the full actualization of the new Irish state. The signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty at the end of 1921 finally enabled the construction of a state. Griffith became the President of the new Irish Free State. He was the leading intellectual and policy theorist for the movement. He advocated for Gaelicisation of the Irish education system to dispel English propaganda about Irish history and culture as well as to instill Irish values in the population. He desired a “proper transit system” if not through railways then through a canal system. For the poor, he wanted something akin to a full job guarantee to provide fair wages to those who could work as well as a duty to provide relief to those citizens who couldn’t. He also sought to utilize Ireland’s natural resources, like hydropower, to electrify the island. As the 1918 Sinn Féin manifesto stated its main goal was to “develop Ireland’s social, political and industrial life, for the welfare of the whole people of Ireland.”
Griffith’s most dearly held policy objective was the development of Irish industry. He saw this as the backbone of Ireland’s pursuit of full independence. Griffith was a follower of 19th-century protectionist economists like the German Friedrich List and the Irish-American Henry Charles Carey. This school of economic thought differed from both free-trade liberal capitalism and Marxist socialism, and was very critical of each. Protectionism, its antecedents, and its derivatives are largely responsible for the industrial development of many countries. Britain, America, Germany, and Japan have been observed to have practiced these policies during their industrial development phases. Generally, the policies emphasize manufacturing, tariffs on foreign manufactured goods, import substitution, global exports, technology transfer, the building of infrastructure, and state-led financing. The version of this tradition we can most easily see today are the late 20th century East Asian developmental states like South Korea. In summary, Griffith’s Sinn Féin was a modernizing industrialist party that respected national traditions.
The Sundering of Sinn Féin
Unfortunately, in August of 1922 Griffith would suffer a cerebral hemorrhage at 51 years old. Some suggested it was either from his intense work ethic or a broken heart from the Irish Civil War. His heir-apparent was the 31-year-old Michael Collins who championed the War of Independence as the Director of Intelligence for the Irish Republican Army (IRA). After signing the Treaty, he served as the Chairman of the Free State and Commander-in-Chief of the National Army. In that same month, Collins was later killed by anti-Treaty forces. The anti-Treaty Sinn Féin and IRA factions considered the Treaty’s partition of the island, oath to the monarch, and lack of full realization of a republic as grounds for the Civil War.
The Treaty divided Sinn Féin and the Civil War further eroded it. The death of its two most significant leaders, Griffith and Collins, collapsed it. These two deaths would mark the end of an era. The pro-Treaty faction would reconstitute itself into first Cumann na nGaedheal in 1923 and settled into Fine Gael in 1933. The anti-Treaty side would abstain from the Irish Free State elections and fight an armed struggle against it. In 1926, de Valera split from the radical anti-Treaty side to form Fianna Fáil in order to fulfill his ideals by engagement in the Irish Free State’s electoral process. The two dominant offspring of Sinn Féin claim its parentage but have had an uneasy relationship with the application of its original vision. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both saw themselves as victors of the Irish Revolution. However, due to pressures of violent tensions, state-building, bureaucratic governance, economic downturns, and such, it seemed more apparent that they compromised for partial victory. Among a variety of policy deviations, the primary was the end of the armed struggle for northern Ireland.
The radical anti-Treaty factions, now devoid of de Valera and his supporters, were marginalized even further. They were comprised of a majority of nationalist republicans and a minority of socialists. The remnant of this radical anti-Treaty Sinn Féin would linger on effectively defunct until the 1940s when the remnant of the slightly more active IRA would revive it as its political arm. This fractal of the IRA continued guerilla operations in both the north and south which led to increased persecution of this IRA by the south. This is seen in examples like the expansion of the Emergency Powers Act, internment, and executions. It is crucial to understand that, with the legacy of the Civil War and this new gloves-off approach, the Republic of Ireland became just as much an enemy to the IRA as the UK.
With that being said, the IRA took a pragmatic focus and turned only toward the northern illegally occupied six counties. This was most typified by the 1956-1962 Border Campaign. The ideology of Sinn Féin and the IRA of this era was defined by nationalist republicanism and Catholic socialism. The unusual term of Catholic socialism is derived from 19th century Catholic Church encyclicals on economics. In his book Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism, current leading Sinn Féin intellectual and TD Eoin Ó Broin said this era’s Sinn Féin was “characterised by social conservatism and a narrowly defined political nationalism.”
The Splintering of Sinn Féin
The 1960s introduced a global civil rights movement, with left-wing influences, that could be applied to the oppression of northern Irish Catholics. The activism and repression that followed would create the conditions in which the Troubles emerged. During this time Sinn Féin doubted its course. It began to see right-wing nationalism as too divisive when left-wing analysis of class was more unifying. It also saw further military activity as counter-productive to peaceful political representation. The critique was that militant nationalism created an ethnoreligious divide between Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, while socialism refuted the existence of such differences as class was a category that enveloped both groups.
This debate resulted in the split of Sinn Féin, again. In 1970, the left-wing moderates became the Official Sinn Féin and Official IRA while the right-wing militants became the Provisional Sinn Féin and Provisional IRA. The latter would become the more dominant and popular combination. In describing the motivation for the split, former Belfast Commander of the Provisional IRA Joe Cahill said, “I had a feeling ultra-left politics were taking over.” The Officials ended their armed struggle and engaged in elections. It evolved Official Sinn Féin into the Worker’s Party then Democratic Left and finally merged into the Labour Party. This is emblematic of other smaller splinters that occurred too.
The Provisionals eventually dominated the name recognition of Sinn Féin and the IRA. This Sinn Féin was led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. This militant faction continued the armed struggle and abstentionism (rejection of electoral politics) as their primary policies, but also maintained the ideology of right-wing nationalist republicanism and Catholic socialism. This could be seen in literature like Sinn Féin’s main policy document Éire Nua of 1971. It defines its ideal state as a “Democratic Socialist Republic…based on Christian principles…which would strike a balance between Western individualistic capitalism with its poor and hungry amid plenty on the right and Eastern Soviet state capitalism (or any of its variations) with its denial of freedom and humans rights on the left.” Ó Broin corroborated that “Christian socialism provided the foundation” of this era. This iteration would hold sway for the decades to come, however, it would, rather than split again, evolve.
The debate on abstention from political representation arose again. A young Gerry Adams led the pro-elections side of this debate. He eventually gained enough support to win the Presidency of Sinn Féin in 1983. He served as the main face and spokesman for the party. Although violence continued, Sinn Féin pursued a dual strategy of engaging in the political electoral process as well. Participation in elections became an official policy in 1986. This move created another splinter of the remaining hardline abstentionists led by Ó Brádaigh. They created the Republican Sinn Féin affiliated with the Continuity IRA.
The Opening of Sinn Féin:
The ideology of this era was marked by openness. There was a determined effort to find common ground with sympathizers since votes mattered now. Dublin City University Professor Agnès Maillot, in her book New Sinn Féin: Irish Republicanism in the Twenty-First Century, wrote:
“the most notable introduction to this discourse was the working-class element...It was going to embark on class politics…Gradually, the movement started liberating itself from some of the ideological rigidity that it had always viewed as essential to the unity of its ranks…With the hunger strikes and the opening up of the struggle to other sectors of public life, such as community groups or trade unions, leaders like Gerry Adams or Danny Morrison realised that this vision of liberation might have been too narrow and exclusive, and had to be broadened in order to be relevant to a wider section of the population. From the early 1980s, broader issues started emerging that Sinn Féin no longer avoided or ignored. This enabled more radical movements and individuals to contribute to the politicisation of Sinn Féin…Sinn Féin started to work with other groups not necessarily affiliated with its own organisation in order to broaden its political agenda and its appeal.”
Sinn Féin was opening up, modernizing, and softly shifting to more of a left-wing orientation. Sinn Féin was socialist but more agnostic about it. This enabled continuity with the prior Éire Nua style of Christian socialism and built bridges to other types of socialists. To be clear, it would be inaccurate to describe this iteration of Sinn Féin as orthodox Marxist. In 1979, Adams asserted Sinn Féin “was not a Marxist organization.” In 1986, he said, “I don’t think that socialism is on the agenda at this stage…What’s on the agenda is an end to partition. You won’t get near socialism until you have national independence. It’s a prerequisite.”
The departure of Ó Brádaigh’s faction also diminished the influence of older right-wing sentiments. The new generation of leaders’ socialist agnosticism, inclusion of more sympathizers, and withdrawal of the old right-wing meant that Sinn Féin would slowly shift towards the left. Ó Broin noted that the new generation was less interested in Ó Brádaigh’s old generation’s ideology and “more attuned to the radical political message of People’s Democracy.” People’s Democracy (PD) was a Marxist-Trotskyist party. In his Ulster University PhD Thesis Matthew Collins wrote, “one internal PD document from 1984 proposed a new orientation to the republican movement, noting, ‘Sinn Féin has grown significantly. It is more attractive to left-wing militants…antiimperialist politics today are dominated by Sinn Féin’s turn to the left’... on this basis a significant section of the PD membership voted to join Provisional Sinn Féin.”
While Sinn Féin embraced leftist openness, this openness allowed various seeds of leftism to enter and grow within the party. In the future, this would cause ideological debates within Sinn Féin. The radical conservatism of its older generation and radical socialism of its emerging generation was held together by Adams’ style of agnostic socialism that made 1916 Irish revolutionary and socialist leader, James Connolly, its head rather than Marx.
Adams most likely led the development of Connolly-centrism. In 1979, he said “we must ensure that the cause of Ireland becomes the cause of Labour, a cause neglected since Connolly’s time.” Connolly was a socialist and labour movement activist. He certainly derived much insight from global Marxism but Connolly stood out. In contrast to most Marxists who believed nationalism was a tool of capitalist exploitation, Connolly didn’t reject the legitimacy of nationalism. He created an independent socialist ideology that sought to synthesize socialism with his dearly-held Irish nationalism.
Rather than a derivative of Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, or Trotsky, the socialism of Sinn Féin is coherently self-referential. This prevented Sinn Féin from ever fully embracing Marxist orthodoxy for that would mean rejecting nationalism. Reunification would always be the primary objective, meaning socialism would always have to fit into the nationalist agenda rather than the other way around. Ó Broin generally agrees with this portrayal of Sinn Féin ideology.
The South’s Confrontation of Sinn Féin:
Returning to the southern Republic of Ireland, it must be said that through this period it remained oppositional. As the Troubles heated up, the Irish security forces began to cooperate more with the UK to thwart Sinn Féin and the IRA. In 1976, the Irish state issued a broadcast ban on Sinn Féin that lasted until 1994. This meant none of the activists in Sinn Féin could tell their side of the Irish nationalist republican struggle on the airwaves of the Republic of Ireland. The officials of the Irish state were nervous about the Sinn Féin message. According to Trinity College Dublin Professor Brian Hanley:
“[Labour TD] Conor Cruise O’Brien stressed that the prevailing ideology of the Irish republic, which justified armed force, legitmised the I.R.A.’s armed struggle. He believed that the Provisionals ‘hold the warrant from Pearse and the democratic nationalists can say as long as they like that they don’t, but they do, and their strength deep down is that everybody knows that they do … they are acting on a faith and credo that the rest of us claim to be living by, but don’t really live by. The Provos make people feel dishonest and a little shaky.”
Underneath the surface of the logical need for a state to crack down on paramilitary activity, seemed to be an intense insecurity about the legitimacy of the Republic of Ireland and its two dominant parties. O’Brien laid it all out there on the table. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael gave up on active pursuit of the completion of the Irish Revolution. There was nothing that Sinn Féin said, in regards to armed struggle, that contradicted the original justification for the armed struggle of 1916-1922. O’Brien was greatly opposed to this which was why he led on the previous broadcast ban and desired further censorship.
The O’Brien insecurity created an atmosphere in southern Irish intellectual circles that catalyzed conditions for erasure and revisionism. The government canceled commemorations of the Easter Rising in the 1970s, whose prior 1960s commemorations were seen as ultra-patriotic endorsements of political violence. The Republic of Ireland had to distance itself from the reality that violence, indeed, won its freedom. This powerful atmosphere took hold of Irish discourse for the decades to come. Its apex may have been when former Fine Gael Taoiseach John Bruton said “the rebellion was not justified” and believed that “neither the Easter Rising or War of Independence were necessary.” To use an analogy, this would be like an American President criticizing George Washington and canceling Fourth of July celebrations.
The Normalization of Sinn Féin
Peace also became a more demanded objective. The 1990s were comprised of negotiations and ceasefire. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement was signed marking the official end of the violent conflict. The UK got an end to paramilitary hostilities and legitimacy of its authority in the north. Sinn Féin won increased civil rights for Irish Catholics, power-sharing in the northern Irish government, prisoner releases, and most importantly a mechanism to democratically reunify. Sinn Féin, at this point, was just a political party and its affiliated IRA would go through a process of demilitarization.
American influence was also a critical factor in shaping Sinn Féin. America was utilized at first as a base for financial support. The Sinn Féin struggle resonated with many Irish Americans. The lack of direct confrontation with the Troubles and desire to pay tribute to their ancestral homeland made the many Irish Americans a fruitful funding source. The colloquial image of passing the hat around a pub in Bronx, NY denotes the informalness of these fundraising efforts at first. During the 1980s, these operations would become more sophisticated. Wealthier Irish Americans (many in the building sector) attended fancy fundraising dinners and American labour unions (with large Irish American representation) were courted.
Gerry Adams became one of the most recognizable Irishmen in America and was getting closer to elite circles. For example, he prominently marched in New York City’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Also, one such fancy dinner included none other than Donald Trump as a featured guest. According to Maillot, “out of a total of €365,810 received in donations [for 2002], $295,740 came from the US, which made Sinn Féin the greatest beneficiary from donations, since it took almost twice as much as the largest party, Fianna Fáil, which declared €194,615, of which none was recorded as originating in the USA.” The 1990s were a period when Sinn Féin became much richer and well-connected.
As the peace process advanced institutional Washington D.C. would also influence Sinn Féin. The need to gain the support of the Clinton administration as a sympathetic third party in the dispute between the UK and themselves was crucial. The American state wanted to consolidate Ireland into the post-Cold War order of peace and sought to settle this age-old conflict. Aside from diplomatic dialogues, the American state through organizations like the International Fund for Ireland contributed nearly $500 million to encourage peace and economic development in northern Ireland. Additional foreign direct investment from American corporations would surely follow in its wake. The advantages of negotiating power against the UK and financial windfalls for northern Ireland in general meant that it was very much in Sinn Féin’s interest to align with institutional Washington D.C.
It is likely that the Irish American influence on Sinn Féin cemented romantic nationalism and rhetorical neutrality. In order to continue to raise money, earn media support, and the American government’s preference, Sinn Féin had play to the voyeuristic nationalism of Irish Americans. The Irish character and determination for reunification could not be sidelined. Furthermore, radicalness and especially radical socialism was an awkward conversation for Cold War Americans. American discussions were thus very constrained and conscientious of stepping out of rhetorical bounds. While this is not to say Americans dictated to Sinn Féin, it is to highlight the passive reciprocality of the relationship. It is likely that this relationship contributed to the immovability of the reunification policy as well as a very conscientious rhetorical strategy in elections at home.
Sinn Féin had to evolve into a party that could not only garner support for activism but also large swaths to actually get into governance in both the north and the south. Sinn Féin’s political strategy was populist. It campaigned on programs for the alleged unfairly economically downtrodden at the hands of the alleged corrupt elite. It prioritized the products of policy, rather than the ideology behind the policy, in its campaigning. This meant calls for increased welfare, fixing the healthcare system, fighting budget austerity, increased taxation on the rich, and such.
Sinn Féin did not want to be publicly cast as an extreme socialist party. The competition was already crowded with parties like Labour taking up that space on the ballot. More so, it had to preserve its right-wing base. Dublin City University Professor Eoin O’Malley found that when individual issues were polled, Sinn Féin voters were consistently more right-wing. Additionally, the demographic profile of the average Sinn Féin voter matches that of one who would vote for a right-wing party. Sinn Féin had to find a balance between the left and the right. In 2007, they opposed abortion and, in 2008, they opposed the EU Lisbon Treaty contrasted to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael who both supported it. These are examples that highlight the flexibility of Sinn Féin to meld seemingly disparate left-wing and right-wing ideas together.
The Present of Sinn Féin
The 2010s were when Sinn Féin evolved into what we see today. Adams retired in 2018 and Mary Lou McDonald took over the presidency of the party with Michelle O’Neill as Vice-President. Sinn Féin was now in the hands of another new generation. As conditions changed so did policies. The resolution of the Eurocrisis and Brexit led Sinn Féin to be more pro-EU. The UK may have voted to leave the EU but the region of northern Ireland did not. Sinn Féin sees this as an opportunity to win northerners to its side by offering EU membership through a united Ireland. The party also flipped on the abortion issue. The constraint of social conservatism sourced from its legacy and right-wing base weakened.
Today, Sinn Féin has embraced most socially and economically left-wing positions. The only right-wing positions appear to be an odd softening on global capitalism and emphasis on law and order. Sinn Féin’s 2020 manifesto stated that “Sinn Féin values foreign direct investment and is committed to retaining the 12.5% corporation tax rate that has been key in attracting many multinational corporations to locate in Ireland.” This was before the OECD foisted a tax increase anyway. The Business Post also reported, “[Sinn Féin TD and Spokesperson for Finance Pearse] Doherty had been particularly keen to stress in recent meetings that the party regarded FDI as a key part of Ireland’s economic model, and suggested Sinn Féin’s strong US connections may mean it is even better-placed than others to entice firms to locate and invest here.”
Sinn Féin has no significant critique of the current capitalist model of Ireland. It may want to redistribute wealth more fairly but it doesn’t advocate for the removal of multinational corporations, as they produce the wealth. This might be the result of its ingratiation into American elite circles in the 1990s. Those elite circles do not want to compromise its utilization of Ireland as a tax loophole jurisdiction for EU business activity. American funding has not stopped but has only grown as well. Just last year, Sinn Féin raised over $1 million in America exclusively. This is more than 3 times its American fundraising in 2002. While the two dominant parties of Ireland are unquestionably friendly to America, reports have shown that they are raising far less if anything at all from American sources.
Secondly, Sinn Féin portrays itself as tough, if not the toughest, on crime. Its manifesto stated:
“Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil before them have abandoned working class and rural communities to organised crime gangs. They both starved the Gardaí of the resources they need to protect communities and they both failed to tackle garda corruption. They have not taken the necessary steps to ensure consistent and appropriate sentencing by judges. They are both soft on crime. The bottom line is that we have too few Gardaí. Sinn Féin are proposing record numbers of Gardai and the biggest Garda recruitment drive in the history of the state to protect communities and disrupt the activities of criminal gangs. We need record numbers of gardaí to sit on these criminals, so they simply can’t function…The sentences being imposed on serious and repeat offenders are inconsistent and often too lenient. Longer sentences need to become the norm for serious and violent crimes.”
Not much media has been made about this position from either Sinn Féin directly or the Irish press. It’s an incredibly right-wing message that goes under the radar. This message might be one of its most attractive qualities to its right-wing base.
Aside from those right-wing quirks, Sinn Féin plans to govern as a left-wing party. It will always prioritize reunification, but its number two issue is housing. It desires to impose more state control over the housing market and have the state build houses. The housing crisis is the most tangible of political issues, currently, and Sinn Féin is poised to ride that specific angst into power. It will cast itself as the leftists that can offer real change to housing. An array of related policies would follow: free third level education, more welfare for child support, more spending on healthcare, pursuit of green agenda, and other similar proposals.
The irony is that much of Sinn Féin’s positions are the same as Fianna Fáil’s and Fine Gael’s. Social issues are all but universal among them. Sinn Féin wants mostly the same model but just more public spending and increased government control in certain areas. Its real distinguishing factor is its duality of being new and old. It has no record of leading government and thus provides a reset button to shake up Irish politics dominated by the same two parties for 100 years. Yet, it also offers reunification and the historical gravity that comes with it. By claiming itself as the only one actively pursuing reunification, it implies more congruence with the legacy of the original Irish Revolution. This congruence provides them with more legitimacy as the true heirs that never stopped fighting while the two other parties, according to Sinn Féin, did. After all, it is named Sinn Féin. There is a clear straight line from Arthur Griffith to them, or is there?
The Anachronism of Sinn Féin:
This narrative, in actuality, is anachronistic. It seeks to impose today’s Sinn Féin onto a past that didn’t quite exist. For instance, the Connolly-centrism is quite amusing given Connolly was not a member of the Sinn Féin party. In fact, Connolly co-founded the Irish Labour Party. The wider labour movement that Connolly was a part of was not totally aligned with the nationalists of Sinn Féin. Labour felt nationalism distracted from union organizing across different identities of the working class. Irish Labour also had ties to British Labour which dampened nationalist inclinations to separate these two populations. Irish socialist Sean O'Casey summed up this antipathy to nationalism: "Irish Labour leaders are all painfully ignorant of their country's history, language and literature...sooner or later, will be forced to realize that they must become Irish if they expect to win the confidence and support of the Irish working-class."
Connolly and his specific group of followers were more friendly with the nationalists. The socialists were not part of the plans for the Irish Revolution. Connolly’s unorthodox sect of socialists joined the larger nationalist movement who led the Irish Revolution. Connolly was no doubt impactful but it would be wrong to read this history as him alone conducting it or, even more so, his socialist ideas as primarily motivating it. Prominent Belfast labour activist William Walker called Connolly’s ideas "reactionary doctrines alien to any brand of socialism."
After the Easter Rising and the executions of the leaders (including Connolly) at an official conference, the Irish Labour party’s President Thomas Johnson announced, “this is not a place to enter into a discussion as to the right or wrong, the wisdom or the folly, of the revolt…As a trade union movement, we are of varied minds on matters of historical and political development.” The position of the Irish Labour party was to distance itself from the revolution. In his book Labour in Irish Politics 1890-1930 Arthur Mitchell wrote, “the Labour party would be severely criticized because its parent executive had not protested the 1916 executions, which did so much to swing public opinion to the nationalist side…In reality the [Labour] party was forced out of the  election by negligible support: most workers had already decided to support Sinn Féin." As a final point of distinction between the wider socialist movement and Connolly’s unorthodox socialism, Connolly’s last words to his daughter included this line: ''the socialists will never understand why I am here. They will forget that I am an Irishman.''
This anachronism can be seen in Sinn Féin’s literature and even its tweets. Between the main Sinn Féin and Ógra Shinn Féin (youth wing) Twitter accounts, there are many positive mentions of Connolly. Oddly, there is zero mention of Griffith, its founder, on Sinn Féin’s Twitter account. Ógra Shinn Féin curiously did mention Griffith but in a cryptic way. On 28 November 2021, it tweeted in honor of Sinn Féin’s 116th birthday. It noted Griffith founded the party in 1905 but then claimed: “the IRB infiltrated the party over the years and by 1917 republicans were firmly in the driving seat of the party.” The founder of Sinn Féin, its main thinker, and its steward through the depths of the War of Independence is considered to be someone who needed to be “infiltrated” and tossed aside by today’s Sinn Féin. It's very strange that a party so committed to its legitimacy being based on historical continuity to the original Sinn Féin and the Irish Revolution considers Sinn Féin’s nationalist founder so little yet promotes, so much, a separate much smaller socialist movement that, by its own admission, was not part of the revolution.
The Future of Sinn Féin
This of course can be understood as resentment at the Treaty, Civil War, and later persecution. Anti-Treaty de Valera didn’t escape their scorn either. Ógra Shinn Féin tweeted: “Irish Unity will give us the opportunity to abandon De Valera's Constitution for a backward, conservative, free-market Ireland.” If Adams’ generation of Sinn Féin was moving towards the left, this new 21st-century generation was firmly leftist with less strings attached to nationalism. Ó Broin, as part of the new generation, advocates for a left-republicanism unchained by the past contradictions of combining nationalism and socialism. He even criticized the order of unification first and socialism second as “mistaken.” He would much rather have a Sinn Féin that moves “beyond the nation” and cooperates more with the international left, especially in the EU. He qualified this stance with the assertion: “I’m a cultural nationalist…what does it mean to be Irish? Well, we are everybody who is here. Who is from here, who has come here, who has origins here. Whatever we do culturally, whatever that hybrid mix is, is who we are.” This definition allows him to validate his brand of nationalism while also not being pinned down to any specific nationalist essence or criteria. I’ll leave readers to contemplate the implication of this definition.
The abandonment of the right-wing compromise for a more pronounced left-wing agenda might alienate Sinn Féin’s right-wing base. It’s interesting to note that between Sinn Féin’s high polling mark of 36% in June of 2022 and its now 33%, immigration has become a very hot-button issue. There has been a proliferation of anti-immigration protests in Ireland. Sinn Féin has stayed silent or agreed with the establishment consensus of pro-immigration. O’Malley’s research tells us that “Sinn Féin support is correlated with anti-immigrant sentiment.” It is probable that Sinn Féin voters, unimpressed with Sinn Féin’s response, were responsible for that 3-point loss.
This problem could combine with others when Sinn Féin gets into power. Running the government could actually prove complicated for a party that has only been known to agitate against the establishment. A negative display of bureaucratic competencies and policy validity could challenge its popularity, especially in the face of exogenous shocks like a global economic crisis. If it accelerates the reunification at all costs, the plight of a net tax drain and volatile northern Ireland will compound things. There’s a decent likelihood that hardline northern unionists will feel subjugated and resort to paramilitary violence. This potential was glimpsed in 2021 when they set fire to buses and cars.
Perhaps Sinn Féin will handle it all easily or it might find the weight of these challenges insurmountable in the 2020s. The economic misfortunes exemplified by the housing crisis, signs of overwhelmed state capacity by immigration, and calls for law and order against a resurgence of paramilitary violence could all combine to fuel, what has long been absent from Ireland’s politics, a right-wing populist party. If dissatisfied voters attribute these negative potentialities to Sinn Féin, it would be hard-pressed to hold power unless it embraces right-wing positions itself — a balancing act it's been orchestrating for its entire history. If not, the Irish political landscape would be open to upstart parties that contest the Sinn Féin establishment. Anti-immigration protestors have made remarks about voting for Sinn Féin all their lives but, now that they feel disappointed, will never do so again. By the 2030s, there could be Irish versions of Trump, Orban, and Bolsonaro gaining popular support. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Fine Gael which could be seen to embrace a moderate right-wing populism similar in style to the UK’s conservative party (especially in its Brexit era). University College Dublin Professor Aidan Regan commented, “if Ireland doesn't see the emergence of an electorally competitive radical right party that mobilises on anti-immigration, it will be an outlier in Europe. Unfortunately, I think it is only a matter of time, and perhaps most likely when SF are an established government party.”
It is possible that Sinn Féin’s redistributionist and bureaucracy-enhancing policies could soothe these problems. If they stick to and even increase their Garda emphasis they could corner the market on being the law and order party. There could also be a compromise made with the northern unionists in regards to economics. Considering Sinn Féin doesn’t provide much detail on changing the south’s foreign capital model, it could win northern unionist support by absorbing some of their economics. The Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) most recent economics plan focused on manufacturing, tradable exports, and specific sectors like semiconductors. The DUP cited influences from contemporary economists like Mariana Mazzucato. Circuitously, she has cited influence from Erik S. Reinert who has cited influence from 19th-century Friedrich List which is the same economist who influenced Arthur Griffith. It would be quite serendipitous for Sinn Féin to return full circle to its founder’s economic ideology in order to find common ground with northern unionists.
Sinn Féin could successfully see the Irish Revolution completed. The passions of nationalism would have been reawakened. Sinn Féin would have finally forced Irish society to come to terms with its revolution, that many had sought to erase or revise. It would force a settlement between the 3 competing claims of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin as to who are the legitimate heirs of the revolution. Its ascendancy would reveal the south’s contradictions and prove Sinn Féin’s core argument right, i.e. if the original Irish Revolution was justified, so was its cause.
The irony is that, like the other parties, Sinn Féin recognized a compromise with the UK, deescalated armed resistance, and sought political and diplomatic solutions over a long time horizon. The two other parties’ non-violent methodology would also be proven right. Regardless, Sinn Féin dominance and Irish reunification would end the need for the south to maintain a revisionist paradigm. Irish history could finally move on.
However, as problems and chaos grow, its dominance could wain. This will be Sinn Féin’s test and it would no longer be able to rely on the duality of being new and old. It would no longer be the new party, it would be the establishment. It would no longer have a nostalgic and motivating quest, it would be a contemporary and regular political party. Sinn Féin might get its wish but might not have the votes to continue on after an interregnum of its own making.
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