Irish-America, the End of the IRA’s Armed Struggle and the Utility of ‘Soft Power’- Cochrane

Sinn Fein: a Hundred Turbulent Years- Feeney

Causes and Ideology

The issues that the Sinn Fein administration concerns itself with have shifted dramatically in the past few decades. Sinn Fein had little interest in catering to the daily needs of the Irish public during the Troubles, as the IRA and the party saw the impact of internment as a prerequisite concern. However, since the ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement (and the resulting tentative peace between the Republic and the UK), Sinn Fein has been forced to adapt to the concerns that have taken precedence in contemporary Ireland in order to survive as a party.


Stances on water rights, universal healthcare, and the EU amongst other issues addressed by the party all indicate the democratic socialist nature contemporary Sinn Fein. However, Sinn Fein continues to stress the necessity of a United Ireland when vocalizing positions on more specific modern issues. The ideology page of the Sinn Fein website stresses, first and foremost, that “The achievement of a United Ireland is within our reach and unity offers the best future for all the people of Ireland. In these harsh economic times, it is also the best way forward from a financial and social perspective.” Thus, despite the expansion of Sinn Fein, the issue that originally led to the formation of the party remains its primary concern.


In April 2015, Gerry Adams announced a renewed bid for a United Ireland. Although the issue sometimes gets overshadowed by more pressing political concerns, Adams and Sinn Fein plan to use the centennial celebration of the 1916 Easter Rising as a springboard for discussions of reform. Sinn Fein has cemented its role as the primary leftist populist movement in Ireland by its positions on more specific political issues, but has also remained the party most passionately fighting for a United Ireland, its original goal.


Sinn Fein members marching in the

2015 Easter Monday celebration

Political Causes of Modern Sinn Fein

The modern Sinn Fein political platform is considerably less revolutionary as the party is a participant in the far more normalized Irish democratic process. In the six counties of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein claims a majority of the Irish nationalist electorate. Sinn Fein capitalizes on considerably more domestic concerns than in the past as a way to attract a more diverse voting bloc.


One of the major causes undertaken by Sinn Fein is the issue of water rights in modern Ireland. Irish Water, the water utility company established in 2013 by the Water Services Act, is seen by many citizens as exploitation by the government of a service that should be a civil right in the country. Charging for water is considered by many to be a serious abuse of power, and Sinn Fein has vocally made its stance on the issue very apparent: if in power after the next election, the new government’s first move will be to abolish Irish Water and its corresponding water charges.


Sinn Fein also has a notoriously liberal stance on issues of healthcare in Ireland, and proposes adopting a universal healthcare system similar to England’s. Its proposal emphasizes: “A new universal public healthcare system for Ireland that provides care to all free at the point of delivery, on the basis of need alone, and funded from general fair and progressive taxation,” and “Fundamental re-orientation of the health system to adopt a central focus on prevention, health promotion and primary care (including mental health care), and on ultimately eliminating poverty and inequality, which are key underlying social and structural causes of ill-health and premature death.” Such an approach to healthcare is decidedly liberalist and aimed at providing the most good possible for the general public.


In terms of international politics, Sinn Fein has taken a very critical stance on the role and vitality of the European Union (of which Ireland is a member). It has outlined clear goals (similar to the Irish Water crisis) that it will undertake if it obtains a parliamentary majority, the purpose being to pull back from the EU, make the organization more transparent, and attend to the pressing economic and environmental needs of the Irish population that are not appropriately being addressed in the current European Union.


Although the issues undertaken by modern Sinn Fein are undoubtedly diverse, the populist United Ireland theme is plainly applicable to all current political stances vocalized by the party.

How Sinn Fein Transformed into a Political Party

The beginning of the role of Sinn Fein in Irish politics was certainly unconventional. During the infamous H-block hunger strikes in Belfast in the early 1980s, the Irish public responded to the British government’s unrelenting treatment of Irish political prisoners by electing Bobby Sands, the leader of the hunger strike, to the United Kingdom government. Although Sands died during the strike, his electoral victory was indicative of a significant shift in the approach of Sinn Fein from one of guerilla force and abstentionism to one of influential political participation. Sinn Fein candidates began running for Northern elections, and further political expansion in the South was quickly undertaken. The approach of this “new” Sinn Fein included “a radical political agenda based on energetic and aggressive representational politics,” which allowed them to quickly forge “a crucial connection with the electorate that republicans had lacked since the emergence of Fianna Fail in 1926” (Feeney 8). Sinn Fein was able to play a political role that other parties failed to in the 20th century by connecting more persuasively with the people.


Sinn Fein quickly began adopting the more multifaceted approach of simultaneously employing force through the IRA and increasing political clout by gaining seats in the government. This was referred to as the “Armalite and ballot box” strategy, and was effective until it became apparent that one approach was beginning to undermine the other. The Irish population was becoming tired of perpetual violence in civilian regions, and the official ceasefire of the IRA in 1998 and the Good Friday Agreement between the Irish and UK governments were a welcome reprieve from indiscriminate killing in the North.


All of this sudden political popularity led to the rise of significant individual leaders within the party. Gerry Adams was imprisoned for his suspected involvement with the IRA in the 1970s, but after his release became increasingly involved with Sinn Fein and was elected the head of the party in 1983. However, he has remained a provocative and contested leader through the beginning of the 21st century, mainly due to his suspected violent past. The international press frequently covers his actions, and media coverage by the United Kingdom is often highly critical of both his political and personal life. Recently, Gerry Adams has come out and denounced both the IRA and claims that Sinn Fein is still an affiliate as a result of the killing of republican Kevin McGuigan in Belfast. Although the era of the Troubles has technically ended, leaders such as Gerry Adams frequently have to face the reality that the period and its significance are not so very far in the past.


Gerry Adams has been a powerful yet

controversial leader of Sinn Fein

for decades

Sinn Fein in Contemporary Ireland

Considering it began as a propaganda arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, the political party Sinn Fein has come a long way in terms of rebranding for the purpose of assimilating itself into the modern Irish democratic process. Since the ceasefire of the IRA in 1994, Sinn Fein has evolved into a stand-alone party that backs many prominent candidates and vocalizes positions on many significant issues in current Irish politics. Although during the Troubles (late 1960s-late 1990s) Sinn Fein mainly took stances on issues relating directly to the impact of British internment, contemporary Sinn Fein has adopted new and varying social and economic causes relating to the welfare of the Irish population as a whole. Sinn Fein has transformed itself into a democratic socialist movement, but has retained the goal of uniting Ireland as an undercurrent to more modern political issues.


The Sinn Fein office and shop in the

center of Dublin serves as both an

organizational and outreach center

Section 1: How Sinn Fein Transformed into a Political Party

Section 2: Political Causes of Modern Sinn Fein

Section 3: Causes and Ideology


Walls and Language as Tools of Oppression

Literary works produced by Irish writers often reflect the daily manifestations of perpetual social conflict. Many Irish authors go beyond simply the descriptive to ruminate on the extent to which British internment has impacted the Irish population. Many of the British modes of surveillance established during the 20th century are still observable in Derry and are parallel to the respective environments described in Belfast Diary by John Conroy and “The Ministry of Fear,” while “Casualty” takes a further step to imaginatively respond to and break away from the oppressive nature of Northern Irish life under British rule (both poems authored by Seamus Heaney).

The Protestant walled city in Derry serves as both a mode of surveillance and a tool of psychological oppression, and similar manifestations of British internment can be seen in both Belfast Diary and “The Ministry of Fear.”


Michel Foucault illustrates this concept in Discipline and Punishment in the chapter on his theory of Panopticism. Foucault’s rhetoric effectively emphasizes the draining nature that living under the authority of such a system of discipline produces on the individual.


In the fourth chapter of Conroy’s book, he looks at the role of Cupar Street, or the “peace line” between the Catholic and Protestant districts in Belfast: “In 1980, the peace line at Cupar Street was a few hundred yards long and made up of bricked up rowhouses and sections of corrugated iron… At the far end of the structure, where Cupar Street doglegged into Catholic territory, the army had installed an iron gate to prevent automobile traffic (110). As we saw while visiting Derry, the symbolism of physical barriers still has a bearing on the way the different populations interact today in the North. The Bogside Murals in the Catholic district of Derry serve as a reminder of the significance of the walls and how they impact the population.


In “The Ministry of Fear,” Heaney’s narrator describes the unnerving experience of being searched by policemen at a roadblock simply because his name gives him away as a Catholic: “A light left burning for her in the kitchen. And heading back for home, the summer’s Freedom dwindling night by night, the air All moonlight and a scent of hay, policemen Swung their crimson flashlamps, crowding round The car like black cattle, snuffing and pointing The muzzle of a Sten gun in my eye: ‘What’s your name, driver?”Seamus . . Seamus?” (lines 49-58).

Beyond methods of physical control, the British employed more subtle methods of otherizing the Irish Catholic population throughout the 20th century that still have a bearing today. The language differences between Protestants and Catholics, although subtle to observers, are a very real source of differentiation between the populations.

In Belfast Diary, Conroy describes how readily the Northern Irish are willing to bet on the difference between a Catholic and a Protestant simply from their pronunciations and choice in vocabulary usage: “If a man says the ‘queen,’ you can’t really tell, but if he says ‘the British queen,’ you can assume the speaker is Catholic. Similarly, if he says the ‘pope of Rome,’ he’s Protestant. If he calls the cop ‘a peeler,’ he’s probably Catholic, and he’ll almost certainly call a prison guard ‘a screw’” (108).

In “A Ministry of Fear,” Heaney’s narrator describes the difficulty of being a schoolboy with a Catholic accent: “Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain Were walking, by God, all over the fine Lawns of elocution. Have our accents Changed? ‘Catholics, in general, don’t speak As well as students from the Protestant schools.’ Remember that stuff? Inferiority Complexes, stuff that dreams were made on” (lines 28-35). Language differences between the Catholic and Protestant populations are stilled used in areas such as Derry to differentiate between people even in social settings like pubs.


Heaney’s “Casualty,” however, explores what happens when such tools of oppression are no longer sufficient to prevent a population from first questioning and then resisting exterior control. Heaney recalls the loss of a local fisherman to an IRA bombing and the implications of civilian casualty on personal willingness to submit to further British rule.

Rather than attend the man’s funeral and subscribe to a further manifestation of organized repression, Heaney’s narrator writes of a time when he and the man left the oppressive layout of the city for a moment of relative freedom: “I was taken in his boat, The screw purling, turning Indolent fathoms white, I tasted freedom with him. To get out early, haul Steadily off the bottom, Dispraise the catch, and smile As you find a rhythm Working you, slow mile by mile, Into your proper haunt” (lines 99-108).

Heaney’s immortalization of both the deceased and his personal version of freedom is a remarkably effective means of undercutting oppressive British surveillance mechanisms.





Works Cited

Conroy, John. Belfast Diary: War as a Way of Life. Boston: Beacon, 1987. Print.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon, 1977. Print.

Heaney, Seamus. Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.