Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Birth and Early Years of Sinn Fein

It was in April 1907 that the political grouping known as Sinn Féin emerged from a combination of the Dungannon clubs founded two years earlier by Bulmer Hobson and Cumann na nGaedheal founded in 1900 by Arthur Griffith. ‘Ourselves alone’, the English translation of the name Sinn Féin, was a constitutional organisation which sought to achieve political freedom for the island of Ireland and the Irish people. Its first appearance on a ballot paper was in a February 1908 by-election when its candidate, Charles Dolan, was defeated. The postponement of Home Rule until the end of World War I and the Easter Rising erroneously called by the English authorities ‘The Sinn Féin Rising’ gave the organisation a prominence in Irish political life it had not previously experienced. Sinn Féin Clubs sprung up throughout Ireland and here in Athy the Sinn Féin Club was founded in 1917. In February 1917 Count Plunkett, father of Joseph Plunkett, one of the executed 1916 leaders, was returned as the first Sinn Féin Member of Parliament for the north Roscommon constituency. Three months later south Longford returned another Sinn Féin member, as did Kilkenny city in August 1917. In October 1917 Eamonn de Valera was elected president of Sinn Féin and he witnessed the huge growth of the organisation following the anti-conscription campaign of 1918 and the arrest of many Sinn Féin leaders during the German plot episode. The General Election of December 1918 saw the election of 73 Sinn Féin members and the decimation of the long established Irish Parliamentary Party lead by John Redmond which returned with only 7 members of parliament. The Sinn Féin members who refused to sit in the House of Commons met in Dublin as the first Dail and in the ensuing War of Independence acknowledged the Irish Republican Army as the army of the Dail. It was not until 1920 that the name I.R.A. was commonly given to the armed force which had emerged from the Irish Volunteers founded in November 1913. The Anglo-Irish Treaty led to the breakup of the Sinn Féin party and the I.R.A. In the Free State elections of June 1922 the anti-treaty candidates won 36 seats as against 58 seats won by pro-treaty candidates. The anti treatyites, retaining the name Sinn Féin, refused to enter the Dail. They soon lost support in subsequent local elections and de Valera as President of the organisation sought to change the policy of abstention provided the oath of allegiance was removed. He failed to get majority support for this proposal and in March 1926 de Valera resigned as President of Sinn Féin. Two months later the Fianna Fáil party was founded following a meeting in the La Scala Theatre Dublin. In November 1925 the I.R.A. withdrew its allegiance from the de Valera led Sinn Féin organisation by establishing its own Army Council. It was no longer formally linked to any political party, however many of the new Fianna Fáil party members were still members of the I.R.A. The June 1927 elections saw many I.R.A. officers resigning from the I.R.A. when they stood as Fianna Fáil candidates in that election. The government party, Cumann na nGaedheal, the name adopted in early 1923, unwittingly brought the Fianna Fáil party, largely comprised of former anti-treaty gunmen and supporters into constitutional politics. Following the assassination of minister Kevin O’Higgins, the government passed a law excluding from the Dail any T.D. who refused to take the oath of allegiance. The former I.R.A. members, now members of Fianna Fáil led by de Valera, decided to enter the Dail and sign the Dail register ‘as a formality without taking any oath to the King of England’. We are told that some of them were armed as they took their places in the Dail chamber. The Fianna Fáil party won the 1932 and the 1933 general elections and immediately set about implementing the country’s biggest ever housing programme as part of the Slum Clearance Programmes of the 1930s. It also took action against former comrades who were still members of the I.R.A. and who had early in 1931 executed two of its own members and killed a Garda Superintendent in Tipperary. The I.R.A. had been declared illegal by the Cumann na nGaedheal government in 1931, but the Fianna Fáil government on first entering office in 1932 lifted the ban. However, in 1936 when the I.R.A. refused to disarm and following a number of violent incidents the Fianna Fáil government, much to the dismay of de Valera’s old I.R.A. comrades, banned the I.R.A. The electoral success of the current Sinn Féin party has echoes of the 1918 General Election and its aftermath. However, the hope is that the future political path of Sinn Féin may not be as rocky as that experienced by de Valera and his party when they first embraced constitutional politics.

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