THE HISTORY of Sinn Féin from its inception under the influence of the dual-monarchist nationalist Arthur Griffith to it’s current state as a thriving all-Ireland, party of radical republicanism is something of a political roller-coaster ride -- though some would argue that the links between the former and the latter extend little beyond the name.
The tale, which encompasses spectacular success, equally spectacular decline, lengthy periods of virtual moribundity and eventual resurrection, is ably recounted here by the nationalist political commentator and historian Brian Feeney.
Spurred on by the party’s growth and electoral successes north and south of the border -- it remains the only major political party to operate in both jurisdictions -- Feeney’s account makes for fascinating reading.
This is especially true of the period following the 1916 Easter rising, which saw a party which had played no part in the insurrection become the main beneficiary of the public’s outrage at the brutality of the British response.
The party’s election victory of 1921, fought in the north on an abstentionist basis, could easily have been the last hurrah of a, by then, irrevocably divided national movement.
Despite efforts by the anti-treatyites to retain control, Eamonn De Valera’s decision to found a new republican party, Fianna Fáil, saw the already battered remnants of Sinn Féin pushed further to the political margins.
This is where it effectively remained until developments within modern republicanism, brought about as a result of the conflict in the north of Ireland from the early 1970s onwards, breathed new political life into the organisation.
The party’s extraordinary political transformation from its position as little more than a support group for the IRA -- the ‘junior partner’ of the what is usually referred as the republican movement -- into the, growing and increasingly successful political party of today, is one of the most remarkable political stories of our time.
Not surprisingly, is this latter period which provides the other key point of focus in Feeney’s book. Rightly so, though it is to be hoped that further more in-depth studies are also in the pipeline.
Feeney, a former executive member SDLP, is clearly an admirer of the current Sinn Féin leadership and highly sympathetic to the role they have played in reasserting the primacy of politics over militarism within mainstream republicanism.
Even so, he simply can’t resist the temptation to trot out the political canard originated by the former SDLP deputy leader Seamus Mallon of equating the Sunningdale and Good Friday agreements.
Mallon, one of the SDLP’s staunchest critics of Sinn Féin, famously styled the deal agreed on Good Friday 1997 as ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’.
While there are undoubtedly a number of obvious similarities, the Good Friday deal contains a number of important factors either missing or appearing in weaker forms in its predecessor. Not least among these are the formal involvement of mainstream republicans and ‘up-front’ commitments -- to date only partially fulfilled -- of fundamental human rights and policing reforms based on ‘parity of esteem’ and ‘equality of treatment’.
It is also very disappointing that a book written by a professional historian includes only minimal footnotes, no appendices and no bibliography.
These gripes apart, Feeney’s book serves as useful overview and is to be welcomed. The task for historians now will be look in greater depth at some of the key periods in the development of modern Irish republicanism.
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