The Big Question

The big question I find being asked at the minute is: What’s Sinn Fein at? My question is: What have they been at since the mid-1990s?

Not so much the “Road to Peace” as the road to constitutional politics, they embarked on the Armalite and ballot box strategy a decade before. Indeed, they stuck a political toe in the water back in 1981 when they decided to back candidates for election to Westminster and Leinster House during the hunger strikes. The candidates included two strikers and it was a Sinn Fein election campaign in everything but name.

The results of the elections encouraged the think tank in Sinn Fein to make a concerted effort to end the policy / tactic (depending on one’s interpretation) of abstention. Skipping past a few years of inside wrangling, the split with the traditional Republicans came in the form of the walk out at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in 1986 when stalwarts and former leaders Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Daithi O’Connaill left the meeting to form Republican Sinn Fein.
What interested me was the claims by the RSF faction that the Adams leadership were telling the remaining traditionalists that contesting elections was merely a tactic that the war would go on – whilst telling the politicos that the war was indeed coming to an end. It all sounds very confusing but the Adams leadership were not confused – they knew what they had to do and they knew how to go about it.
By the time of the 1986 Ard Fheis, the Adams faction knew the state of play. They realised the “long war” was a nonsense, that Irish Unity would not be achieved through force of arms. They needed to wind the military campaign down but with great care. Not all who supported abstention and the campaign had left with O’Bradaigh et al. The hawks would need to be handled gently and persuaded.

Not all were, thus the departure of Ivor Bell and others and then, dramatically Kevin McKevitt and Co who went on to found the Real IRA. But in the main, the Adams leadership kept the majority onboard.
So my question is not how, why or when did the Adams faction decide to wind up the PIRA campaign and take Sinn Fein into constitutional politics. What gave them the JUSTIFICATION or made them believe they had the RIGHT to take the Republican Movement in a direction they said they would NEVER take? They derided and ridiculed the Officials for their ceasefire and entry into constitutional politics and demonised the Old Guard who presided over the 1975 ceasefire. They made grandiose declarations that they would never end the campaign until Ireland was free. So, in that context, why did they feel they could do exactly what they ridiculed and berated, condemned and accused others for doing?

I believe they didn’t actually buy into the notion that they were the heirs of 1798. I don’t believe they even saw themselves as the heirs to 1916. I believe they regarded the PROVISIONAL Republican Movement as theirs to do with as they pleased. With the departure of the Old Guard, the leadership of the 1990s were the original founders of the PIRA and the Sinn Fein we know today. To put it crudely, It’s our thing so we will do as we please. We started it and we will end it.


I often wonder if John Hume thought likewise when he sacrificed the SDLP and gave their clothes to Sinn Fein?
We are where we are and I have posed a question to myself as well as others. It might not be an important question. It’s not exciting like RHI or an emotional hand-wringing eulogy to a retiring politician. But it is something I often wondered about. Anyone like to respond?

William Johnston


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