Genesis of ‘new Sinn Féin’
Kevin Bean looks back to the 1980s and 90s and the taming of the republican movement
Gerry Adams’ departure as president of Sinn Féin coincides with yet another political crisis in the government of Northern Ireland. The now familiar and wearying routine of ‘final meetings’, deadlines and recriminations about ‘bad faith’ seem to have settled into the stale choreography of crisis that has marked ‘the peace process’ in Northern Ireland for the last 25 years or so.
However, could Adams’ apparent departure from front-rank politics also coincide with something more significant than just ‘business as usual, albeit under new management’? The collapse of the Stormont executive last year, the continuing failure to find agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin over key sticking points, such as the status of the Irish language, combined with the uncertainties about the impact of Brexit on Ireland, have led some Tories and a pro-unionist Labour MP to question whether this is a crisis too far and the Good Friday agreement has finally run its course.1
Questioning the current impasse is not, however, confined to Tory Brexiteers and their fellow-travellers on the Labour right. Republican critics of the Provisional leadership have their own take on the political stalemate, arguing that it shows that the whole Provisional project - so closely identified with Gerry Adams since the late 1970s - has been a complete failure.2 This hiatus in the forward march of Provisional Sinn Féin all seems a long way from the bright strategic vision for a “new terrain of struggle” outlined by Gerry Adams following the Good Friday agreement in 1998.3
It is also a long way from the commitments made by Adams and his comrades, as they consolidated their leadership over the Provisional movement in the 1980s.The strength of this hold was shown by the decision of the 1986 Sinn Féin conference, or ard fheis, to overturn the long-standing republican policy of not participating in ‘partitionist’ parliaments, thus allowing candidates to take their seats if elected to the Dublin parliament.4
In proposing that abstentionism was a tactic, not a principle, Adams reiterated his commitment to a new type of republican politics that would result in the “revolutionary reconquest of Ireland”.5 The leadership reassured delegates that it had “absolutely no intention of going to Westminster or Stormont” or “edging the republican movement onto a constitutional path”. Reaffirming support for the IRA’s armed struggle, by stating that “the war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved”, Martin McGuinness concluded his own speech with an appeal for unity: “If you allow yourself to be led out of this hall today, the only place you’re going is home. You will be walking away from the struggle. Don’t go, my friends. We will lead you to the republic.”6
Given the success of the ‘armalite and ballot paper’ strategy since 1981, the confidence of the majority of military and political activists who remained with the Provisionals must have seemed fully justified. In the light of the subsequent failure of ‘dissident republicans’ to develop as significant rivals to the Provisionals, Adams, McGuinness and co could easily dismiss them as yesterday’s men who have remained in the political wilderness.
However, the fundamental questions of republican ideology and strategy posed during the debate on abstentionism are not so easily ignored and were to continually re-emerge in an even more intense form, as the peace process got under way, and the Provisionals were transformed from insurgents into a party of government. Thus it became commonplace amongst both commentators and republican critics in the late 1990s and 2000s to describe the Provisionals as ‘New Sinn Féin’, drawing a comparison between their abandonment of core principles and a newfound emphasis on spin, and Tony Blair’s revisionist ‘New Labour’ project in Britain.7
A common strand in dissident critiques was the idea that the Provisional movement had gone from being the vanguard of the historic struggle for an independent, 32-county republic to a counterrevolutionary barrier protecting the British presence in Ireland. The 32 County Sovereignty Movement, for example, declared that “British strategy has now reached its pinnacle ... with a Provisional Sinn Féin leader ... as a minister of the British crown, calling IRA volunteers ‘traitors’.” Meanwhile other republicans accused McGuinness, now the deputy first minister, of prostituting “every republican cause that has been adopted since ... 1798” and turning his back on “anything to do with a united Ireland”.8 The astonishing depth of hostility in these statements not only revealed the gulf between former comrades, but also suggested a weary disenchantment and a sense of terminus: for revolutionary republicans, Adams and McGuinness had long since passed over into the enemy camp.9
Whilst many traditional republicans saw this transformation as the result of an individual betrayal by Gerry Adams or the inevitable consequence of electoral politics, these tropes do not really explain the counterrevolutionary trajectory of the Provisionals. In part these developments were underpinned by the radically altered political and social terrain that was emerging in Northern Ireland during the 1980s and 90s.The most significant feature of this new landscape was the changing relationship between the nationalist community and the British state, which would ultimately prove decisive in shaping republican politics through the institutionalisation and incorporation of Provisionalism into the status quo in Northern Ireland.10
From the 1970s a series of British political initiatives, such as the Sunningdale (1973) and Anglo-Irish (1985) agreements, were designed to counter a perceived nationalist alienation from authority, undermine support for militant republicanism and bolster constitutional politics. However, if these political initiatives had a limited immediate impact, it was the state’s deployment of the ‘economic instrument’ - the ‘economic and social war against violence’- that was to have much wider and largely unforeseen long-term political and social implications, especially for the nationalist population. The net effect was that social and economic change in the 1980s and 90s - both independent of and mediated through the state - was combined with British state strategy to reshape the terrain on which republican politics were conducted.11 One significant and widely-noted result of these changes was the development of a new, nationalist middle class employed in the public sector, alongside the emergence of a new layer of nationalist business and social entrepreneurs.12
The impact of this “rising nationalist bourgeoisie” has been linked by some commentators to political demobilisation and a deepening rapprochement between a new nationalist elite and the state.13 Nationalist civil society in general, and community organisations in particular, became increasingly oriented towards the British state (and the European Union) for funding and resources. These developments in civil society were also mirrored by an institutionalisation process within the Provisional movement itself. Since the Provisionals had deep roots in the nationalist community, with membership drawn from the same milieu as community activists (frequently being the same individuals), similar processes of organisational formalisation and engagement through these nodal points with the state were perhaps inevitable.14
One of the paradoxes of the British policy is that not only did it fail to destroy its Provisional opponents: it actually strengthened them and facilitated a process of institutionalisation and collaboration during the peace process. As part of the ‘ballot paper and armalite’ strategy republicans had developed a strong organisational structure within the nationalist community. This was further consolidated as a structure of power by the access to resources that were gained as a result of these burgeoning contacts with the state. Community organisations and political structures that had originated as agencies of revolutionary mobilisation became gatekeepers between the state and the nationalist community, as well as acting as transmission belts for the Provisional movement.15 Even before the peace process the “broad republican community”, as the Provisionals defined it, were acting as partners in the state’s community strategy and, even if they believed it was they who were subverting it, in practice it was the state that was both subverting and transforming their revolutionary strategy.
As the state now increasingly shaped the terrain, so it defined the agenda for nationalist civil society. The impact was as much ideological and cultural as material: the discourse of ‘equality’, ‘fair employment’ and ‘cultural tradition’ popularised by British initiatives such as the Anglo-Irish Agreement (1985) and the Fair Employment Act (1989) were to find their way into the ideology and policies of Sinn Féin in the late 1980s; the particularistic rhetoric of cultural and identity politics increasingly took the place of universalist themes of national self-determination in Provisional rhetoric.16
Most importantly, from the late 1980s onwards, key parts of the Provisional political agenda were concerned with making demands directed towards the Northern Irish state. Whilst republicans were theoretically committed to overthrowing that state, their political practice was to bargain with it and to mobilise in order to pressurise it into granting concessions. With the acceptance of the new dispensation after the Good Friday agreement, this theory and practice were blended into a new synthesis. Thus the Provisionals were essentially functioning within an ideological framework and political context defined by the British state.17
Consequently, the peace process and the resulting political settlement after 1998 merely formalised what had been a growing structural relationship between the nationalist community, the Provisional movement and the British state. Whilst later dissident critics suggested that Provisional Sinn Féin’s movement into mainstream politics was the result of the corruption of individual leaders or attributed its betrayal of republican principles to the ‘fatal embrace’ of electoral politics, the political and organisational transformation of Provisionalism is arguably as much a product of social and economic forces and British state strategy that have transformed the nationalist community as a whole since the late 1980s.18
Notwithstanding Martin McGuinness’s confident assertions at the 1986 ard fheis about the effectiveness of the ‘ballot paper and armalite’ strategy, it was becoming increasingly clear that both the military and the electoral facets of the Provisional campaign had been contained.
The movement’s military capability, as measured in levels of violence and effectiveness, noticeably declined after the defeat of the IRA offensive of 1987-88. Likewise the ballot paper was not bearing the anticipated fruit on either side of the border. Despite the end of abstentionism, Provisional Sinn Féin’s vote in elections to Leinster House did not exceed two percent until the election of one candidate in 1997. North of the border electoral support plateaued after 1985, as the Social Democratic and Labour Party reaped the benefits of the Anglo-Irish agreement and its related policy initiatives on discrimination, fair employment and cultural recognition. When Gerry Adams lost his West Belfast Westminster seat to the SDLP in 1992, it seemed that the Provisionals’ electoral strategy had reached its nadir.
It was in this period that the political direction of ‘New Sinn Féin’ became clear. This reflected the movement’s communal rootedness, intellectual eclecticism and a limited republican theoretical tradition, resulting in a growing emphasis on the local and the communal at the expense of the more universalist conceptions of class and nation. It took a much less optimistic view of the potential for remobilising a mass movement through revolutionary subjectivity, arguing instead that a qualitatively new political situation was developing both in Ireland and internationally. From the late 1980s the Adams-McGuinness leadership attempted to manage these tensions through a controlled debate, conducted through public speeches and conference discussions, as well as articles in party newspapers and internal magazines. Drawing on the experience of the H-block and hunger strike protests as a models of popular mobilisation, the leadership advanced a new ‘broad front’ strategy, which required building a coalition with potentially progressive anti-imperialist elements outside the republican movement.
However, in practice, as the broad front quickly evolved in the early 1990s from a revolutionary war of manoeuvre into a diplomatic strategy of position, the anticipated situation was reversed: instead of the Provisionals leading the broad front, it was the Dublin government and constitutional nationalism which established their political dominance over the republicans. Although dressed up in the language of transformation and political advance, policy statements like Towards a lasting peace in Ireland (1992) and the ambiguously named ‘TUAS’19 briefing paper for IRA volunteers, which appeared in the months before the first ceasefire in 1994, clearly signalled the movement’s submission to the status quo.
The most startling shift in the New Sinn Féin position relates to its analysis of the nature of the conflict and the means to resolve it. In a radical departure from established republican analysis, with its identification of Britain’s colonial relationship to Ireland as the essential dynamic of the war, the Provisionals now acknowledged that “peace in Ireland requires a settlement of the long-standing conflict between Irish nationalism and Irish unionism”.20
This radically altered analysis echoed both the long-standing position of the SDLP, with its emphasis on the “internal” nature of the conflict and the discourse of “fourth-generation conflict resolution”, which was emerging through the “dynamic momentum” of international peace processes from the early 1990s.21 Thus, in proposing “a democratic resolution and a lasting peace”, New Sinn Féin appealed to the British government to “join the ranks of the persuaders in seeking to obtain the consent of a majority of people in the north to the constitutional, political and financial arrangements needed for a united Ireland” (my emphasis).22
Couched in the language of consent and historic compromise, these new positions departed radically from republicanism’s historic ambition to complete a revolutionary transformation of the constitutional and political status quo. In place of completing the unfinished revolution, the Provisionals proposed a much more evolutionary project of gradualist transition: diplomatic negotiation and political engagement with unionism, constitutional nationalism, the Dublin government and, above all, the British government.
Whilst unionist critics and the British government initially dismissed New Sinn Féin rhetoric as a mere strategy for masking subversive aims behind honeyed words, these new departures really did betoken a historical break with the core principles of Irish republicanism and the beginnings of a fundamental change in the Provisionals’ structures of thought l
1. See Huffington Post February 19 2018: www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/hoey-good-friday-agreement_uk_5a8adf6de4b00bc49f46c3ac; also The Daily Telegraph February 20 2018.
3. See, for example, ‘Speech by Gerry Adams to reconvened Sinn Féin ard fheis, May 10 1998’: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/ga10598.htm.
4. See R White Ruairí Ó Brádaigh: the life and politics of an Irish revolutionary Bloomington 2006, pp297-310 for an account of the debate at the ard fheis, the walkout by republican critics of the Adams’ leadership and the formation of Republican Sinn Féin.
5. G Adams, ‘The politics of revolution’ An Phoblacht/Republican News November 7 1986.
6. ‘Speech by Martin McGuiness on the issue of abstentionism’, Sinn Féin ard fheis November 2 1986: http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/politics/docs/sf/mmcg021186.htm.
7. For a discussion of the significance of this terminology see A Maillot New Sinn Féin: Irish republicanism in the twenty-first century London 2005, pp1-6; and K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007, pp134-36 and 139-41.
8. The Guardian March 14 2009.
10. See K Bean, ‘La strategia dello Stato e l’incorporazione dei movimenti sociali: caso del movimento repubblicano irlandese fra il 1970 e il 1998’ Partecipazione e conflitto No21, 2011.
11. See K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007, pp16-50.
12. F O’Connor In search of a state: Catholics in Northern Ireland Belfast 1993, p16.
13. E McCann War and peace in Northern Ireland Dublin 1998.
14. For examples of this relationship between the Provisional movement and the nationalist community see C de Baróid Ballymurphy and the Irish war London 2000.
15. For examples of the institutionalisation of the Provisionals, see K Bean The new politics of Sinn Féin Liverpool 2007, pp91-131.
16. Ibid pp30-33.
17. See A Aughey, ‘Unionists can add to vision of UK’ The News Letter July 7 2010.
18. See, for an example, an editorial in Republican Sinn Féin’s newspaper, ‘Adams accepts British police’ Saoirse November 2006.
19. ‘TUAS’ was said by some to stand for ‘Totally unarmed struggle’, while others claimed it meant ‘Tactical use of armed struggle’.
20. ‘Sinn Féin maps road to peace’ An Phoblacht/Republican News February 20 1992.
21. M Ryan War and peace in Ireland: Britain and the IRA in the new world order London 1994.
22. Sinn Féin Towards a lasting peace in Ireland Dublin 1992, p12.