Sinn Fein

An alternative to Partitionist thinking in the Post-Good Friday era

by Pádraig Ó Duirnín

Writing just over a century ago in March 1914, James Connolly, with a canny farsightedness, predicted that the partition of Ireland would lead to a ‘carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, and would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements while it endured’.[1] The primary determinant of partition was not the Protestant Unionist population in North-East Ulster, largely reactionary as it might have been, but the over-arching role of British Imperialism in Ireland. The Anglo-Irish Treaty which institutionalised partition was agreed upon in London, and the British negotiating party faced by the representatives of the incipient Free State included Lloyd George, Austen Chamberlain, and Winston Churchill, not Carson or Craigavon.

Connolly’s ‘carnival of reaction’ of course came to pass, with the establishment of a deeply conservative, ultra-Catholic agrarian state in the South, the ideological remnants of which have yet to be fully overcome, and a sectarian ‘Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people’ in the North. The forward march of Irish Labour was well and truly halted. The violent suppression of the Civil Rights movement amongst the Catholic Nationalist community in the Northern six counties led into the conflict euphemistically known as ‘the Troubles’ between 1969 and 1998. For thirty years, the British state did not hesitate to deploy a force of over 20,000 troops to streets which were supposedly as ‘British’ as Birmingham or Liverpool.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, amidst the height of the conflict, [Provisional] Sínn Féin adopted a political programme known as ‘Éire Nua’ (New Ireland), which called for a ‘federal, democratic socialist republic based on the Proclamation of 1916’. The federal system envisaged would include the establishment of four Parliaments based upon the traditional provinces of Ireland, including Ulster, but on a nine-county basis (also including Donegal, Cavan, and Monaghan, then and now part of the South). Various political criticisms can be made of Éire Nua – in an article for The Blanket written in 2002, Seaghán Ó Murchú bluntly described it as a document deeply coloured by corporatist-Christian socialist thinking, a document ‘not red enough for the Marxists, certainly green enough for the left, but too nationalistic for the peaceniks’.[2] Nonetheless, it represented a relatively progressive, reasonably coherent Republican political alternative not just to partition but to existing economic doctrine North and South of the border, the likes of which have not been seen since.

Éire Nua was eventually supplanted as the Southern-based leadership of Sínn Féin was replaced by the Northern-based group around Gerry Adams in the early 1980s, a leadership for which ‘the military domination of the republican strategy drowned out the calls for political alternatives in a post-British island-wide government’.[3] It can be argued that the present position of Sínn Féin as the administrators of a reinforced, albeit slightly more generous partition settlement is in part due to the lack of a coherent, developed political programme within the Republican movement once the military avenue had reached inevitable exhaustion.

Sínn Féin and the Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) brought an end to a conflict which had undoubtedly run its course, but nonetheless, neither the agreement nor Sínn Féin’s policy approach since have succeeded in addressing the fundamentals of the issue of partition; the GFA was an attempt to deal with what is seen as an inter-communal problem in the North, rather than a matter between the British state and the Irish people as a whole. With the GFA, the political concession gained by Sínn Féin was recognition by Westminster that their political position in the North could become that of state-legitimated representatives of a particular community in the Stormont Assembly. Given the nature of enforced coalitions within the Stormont system, –which exist in order to prevent a return to the sectarian one-party state which existed before 1972 – Sínn Féin in the six counties, like the SDLP, UUP, and DUP, cannot be voted out of power, therefore operates politically with two core purposes:

a)     Seeking dominance of the Nationalist ‘side’ against their primary community rivals, the SDLP. This goal was accomplished at the 2003 Assembly elections and was maintained after restoration of Stormont in 2007. Sínn Féin have finished second to the DUP at every Northern election since.

b)    the demographic game, with the eventual expectation that the Nationalist ‘side’ will one-day outnumber the Unionist, at which point a border poll can be called with the agreement of the Northern Ireland Office at Westminster, reuniting Ireland through the achievement of a particular majority in that part of the country which remained under British control in 1922. The British Northern Ireland Secretary still maintains the right to over-ride the result of any poll.

Whilst the SDLP are in decline as a political force, having lost over 80,000 votes in the North since 1998 (indeed, British intelligence described them as an ‘aging party’ as early as 1983)[4], of late an electoral challenge has begun to arise at a local level, with the election of ‘dissident’-aligned Republicans such as Gary Donnelly in Derry, and more conventional left-type groups such as People Before Profit in Belfast, amongst several other independent Republican and/or Socialist candidates. Lack of progress after sixteen years of the GFA over resolving the issue of partition has gone hand in hand with Sínn Féin’s administration of the Tory/Lib Dem Coalition’s cuts in the North, whilst it postures as the ‘anti-austerity’ option south of the border.

The 1916 Societies and ‘One Ireland, One Vote’

In recent years, Republicans in Tyrone frustrated at these developments and in the political direction of Sínn Féin have formed a group known as the ‘1916 Societies’ – grassroots, autonomous local branches of which now exist across Ireland, and to which the Scotland-based James Connolly Society are now also affiliated. Rather than looking towards short-term electoralism, the Societies have worked on in areas such as anti-eviction campaigns, providing direct assistance to some of the nearly 200,000 families in the twenty-six counties threated with foreclosure since the Irish economic crisis, as well as in campaigns against internment and sectarian parades in the North. Whilst the Societies have arguably not entirely broken free of the under politically developed communalism rife in the North, (as critiques from the Anarchist Workers’ Solidarity Movement suggest)[5], they have nonetheless moved a Republican perspective back towards a decommunalised understanding of partition, one in which the relationship between the Irish people as a whole and British imperialism is the key dynamic.

At present, and particularly important in the context of the Scottish independence referendum on the 18th September, the Societies have launched a campaign calling for ‘One Ireland, One Vote’. ‘One Ireland, One Vote’ is of interest particularly because it represents a break from the Westminster-approved politics of Good Friday, in that it does not accept partition as a fait accompli, but also from the blinkered militarism which led the Republican movement into that corner: the all-Ireland referendum it calls for is fundamentally a citizens’ initiative. Whilst a new political programme for a united post-partition Ireland approaching the depth of ‘Éire Nua’ does not yet appear to be on the Societies’ agenda, the ‘One Ireland, One Vote’ campaign provides fruitful circumstances for the development of such a programme, as the upcoming Scottish referendum has produced a variety of such visions on the other side of the Irish Sea. Even if the prospect of immediate success is somewhat limited, the framework the campaign presents should nonetheless be given attention by Republicans and Socialists interested in moving towards an Ireland which can overcome both the geographical and social consequences of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.



[1] James Connolly, ‘Labour and the Proposed Partition of Ireland’


[3] Ibid.




Author can be found on twitter: @fernetower