Sinn Féin (“ourselves” or “we ourselves”) and Sinn Féin Amháin (“ourselves alone”) are Irish-language phrases used as a political slogan by Irish nationalists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. While advocating Irish national self-reliance, its precise political meaning was undefined, variously interpreted as the aim of a separate Irish republic or (as advocated by Arthur Griffith) that of a dual monarchy. Its earliest use was to describe individual political radicals unconnected with any party and espousing a more “advanced nationalism” than the Irish Home Rule movement. In the 1890s “Sinn Féin, Sinn Féin amháin” was the slogan of the Gaelic League, which advocated the revival of the Irish language.
The literal translation of sinn féin is “ourselves” or “we ourselves”. Among Irish speakers, “Sinn féin! Sinn féin!” was also an exhortation to quell a brimming feud, i.e. “we are all one here!” When English-speakers adopted the slogan, the most common gloss was “ourselves alone”, which was also used as a political slogan; it is unclear whether the English or Irish version came first. Ben Novick says the less accurate translation was adopted “as it more clearly summed up the philosophy behind the movement”. Alvin Jackson says it may have been a construct of opponents to highlight the individuals’ political isolation or the perceived selfishness of abandoning Britain, as in this Punch parody from the First World War:
- [..]For Truth and Right the fools may fight,
- We fight but for “Ourselves Alone.”[..]
Christopher Hitchens, writing of the Field Day anthology of Irish literature, says:
- [T]here is a wonderfully strict correction of Louis MacNeice. In ‘Autumn Journal’ he commits the solecism of translating the Gaelic words Sinn Fein as `Ourselves Alone’. This is how every English schoolboy has been taught to render these words since before the Black and Tans. No, say the editors — Messrs Heaney and Friel and Deane and Paulin and Carpenter and William[s] and the rest. This is too common a mistake. The words mean ‘We Ourselves’. I cannot think how such an important literal translation, with all its ironic implications, took so long to be made. Still, what correction could be made with more grace? Who will not be sad to think of what was perhaps lost in translation?
Ourselves Alone was a 1936 British film, set during the Anglo-Irish War of 1919–21.
A collection was published in 1845 of poems printed in The Nation, the nationalist newspaper of the Young Irelanders. It includes a poem entitled Ourselves Alone by “Sliabh Cuilinn” (John O’Hagan):
- […]Too long our Irish hearts we schooled
- In patient hopes to bide,
- By dreams of English justice fooled
- And English tongues that lied.
- That hour of weak delusion’s past—
- The empty dream has flown :
- Our hope and strength, we find at last,
- Is in OURSELVES ALONE.[…]
Another poem in the same volume, The Spirit of the Nation by D.F. McCarthy, uses the expression “Sinn Féin”. The gloss in the original for this is ‘Ourselves—or “OURSELVES ALONE.”‘
- […]A chuisle mo chroidhe, we are wounded and sore,
- So bad that we cannot endure it much more.
- A cure we must have, though the Saxons may stare
- And “curse like a trooper;” but devil may care,
- Sinn Féin is our watch-word—so devil may care.[…]
The glossary at the end of the volume renders sinn féin as “we ourselves”.
A nationalist play by “Tom Telephone” (Thomas Stanislaus Cleary) published in 1882 was entitled Shin Fain; or Ourselves Alone.
In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, set in 1904, The Citizen, a boorish nationalist partly modelled on Michael Cusack, shouts “Sinn Féin! Sinn Féin amháin!” during an altercation with Leopold Bloom; these were also the titles of two nationalist ballads.
The name was adopted by Arthur Griffith for the “Sinn Féin policy” he presented in 1905, and the Sinn Féin party formed over 1905–07. In the 1910s, “Sinn Feiners” was a common, often derogatory, label for militant nationalists, regardless of any connection to Griffith’s movement. A 1915 mock-unionist article in a University College Dublin student journal distinguished types of Irish nationalist:
- The principal factions are the Separatists, who want to set up a Republic by force of arms; the Sinn Féiners, who want to get the Union repealed by means of passive resistance; and the Constitutionalists, who want to win Home Rule by speechifying. There are also some people who want to set up Home Rule by force of arms, but they are not worth considering, for they haven’t any arms.
When the Irish Volunteers split in September 1914, the more militant group was soon dubbed the “Sinn Féin Volunteers” by the security forces of the Dublin Castle administration. Likewise, the 1916 Easter Rising was quickly dubbed the “Sinn Féin rebellion” by British-oriented newspapers. However, the Sinn Féin party had no role in the Volunteers or the Rising, although many members had participated. All members of the party’s National Council were interned after the Rising. The distinction between the specific party and the broader slogan of radical nationalism was finally blurred in 1917, when Griffith yielded leadership of the party to Éamon de Valera, the senior surviving leader of the Rising.
Sir Warren Fisher was sent by the UK government in 1920 to report on the Dublin Castle administration; in his highly critical report, he stated:
- the phrase ‘Sinn Fein’ is a shibboleth with which everyone not a ‘loyalist’ is denounced, and from listening to the people with influence you would certainly gather that Sinn Fein and outrage were synonymous.
The phrase “Sinn Féin” is Irish for “ourselves” or “we ourselves”, although it is frequently mistranslated as “ourselves alone” (from “Sinn Féin Amháin“, an early 20th century slogan. The meaning of the name itself is an assertion of Irish national sovereignty and self-determination – i.e. the Irish people governing themselves, rather than being part of a political union with Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) under the Westminster Parliament.
Around the time of 1969–1970, owing to the split in the republican movement, there were two groups calling themselves Sinn Féin; one under Tomás Mac Giolla, the other under Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. The latter became known as Sinn Féin (Kevin Street) or Provisional Sinn Féin, and the former became known as Sinn Féin (Gardiner Place) or Official Sinn Féin. As the “Officials” dropped all mention of Sinn Féin from their name in 1982, instead calling itself the Workers’ Party of Ireland, the Provisionals were now generally known as Sinn Féin. Supporters of Republican Sinn Féin, which came from a 1986 split, still use the term “Provisional Sinn Féin” to refer to the party led by Gerry Adams.
Sinn Féin members have also been referred to as Shinners, a term intended as a pejorative.
Sinn Féin was founded on 28 November 1905, when, at the first annual Convention of the National Council, Arthur Griffith outlined the Sinn Féin policy, “to establish in Ireland’s capital a national legislature endowed with the moral authority of the Irish nation”. The party contested the 1908 North Leitrim by-election, where it secured 27% of the vote. Thereafter, both support and membership fell. At the 1910 Ard Fheis (party conference) the attendance was poor, and there was difficulty finding members willing to take seats on the executive.
The campaign car of Joseph McGuinness, who won the 1917 South Longford by-election whilst imprisoned. He was one of the first Sinn Féin members to be elected. In 1921 he sided with Collins in the Treaty debate.
In 1914, Sinn Féin members, including Griffith, joined the anti-Redmond Irish Volunteers, which was referred to by Redmondites and others as the “Sinn Féin Volunteers”. Although Griffith himself did not take part in the Easter Rising of 1916, many Sinn Féin members, who were also members of both the Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, did. Government and newspapers dubbed the Rising “the Sinn Féin Rising”. After the Rising, republicans came together under the banner of Sinn Féin, and at the 1917 Ard Fheis the party committed itself for the first time to the establishment of an Irish Republic. In the 1918 general election, Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats, and in January 1919, its MPs assembled in Dublin and proclaimed themselves Dáil Éireann, the parliament of Ireland. The party supported the Irish Republican Army during the War of Independence, and members of the Dáil government negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty with the British government in 1921. In the Dáil debates that followed, the party divided on the Treaty. Anti-Treaty members led by Éamon de Valera walked out, and pro- and anti-Treaty members took opposite sides in the ensuing Civil War.
Pro-Treaty Dáil deputies and other Treaty supporters formed a new party, Cumann na nGaedheal, on 27 April 1923 at a meeting in Dublin, where delegates agreed on a constitution and political programme. Cumann na nGaedheal went on to govern the new Irish Free State for nine years. (It merged with two other organisations to form Fine Gael in 1933.) Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin members continued to boycott the Dáil. At a special Ard Fheis in March 1926, de Valera proposed that elected members be allowed to take their seats in the Dáil if and when the controversial Oath of Allegiance was removed. When his motion was defeated, de Valera resigned from Sinn Féin; on 16 May 1926 he founded his own party, Fianna Fáil, which was dedicated to republicanising the Free State from within its political structures. He took most Sinn Féin TDs with him. De Valera’s resignation meant also the loss of financial support from America. The rump Sinn Féin party could field no more than fifteen candidates, and won only six seats in the June 1927 general election, a level of support not seen since before 1916. Vice-President and de facto leader Mary MacSwiney announced that the party simply did not have the funds to contest the second election called that year, declaring “no true Irish citizen can vote for any of the other parties”. Fianna Fáil came to power at the 1932 general election (to begin what would be an unbroken 16-year spell in government) and went on to long dominate politics in the independent Irish state.
An attempt in the 1940s to access funds that had been put in the care of the High Court led to the Sinn Féin Funds case, which the party lost and in which the judge ruled that it was not the legal successor to the Sinn Féin of 1917. At the United Kingdom 1955 general election, two Sinn Féin candidates were elected to Westminster, but the party’s vote decreased at the following election in 1959, during the IRA’s Border Campaign. In 1962, supporters of Marxism–Leninism took control of the Sinn Féin leadership from traditional republicans, and started to take policy in a new direction. The same thing happened in the IRA, with the ascent of Cathal Goulding. These people were influenced by Communist Party of Ireland member Roy Johnston’s “National Liberation Strategy” and the theories of C. Desmond Greaves of the Connolly Association (part of the Communist Party of Great Britain). The Garland Commission was set up in 1967, to investigate the possibility of ending abstentionism. Its report angered the already disaffected traditional republican element within the party, notably Seán Mac Stíofáin and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who viewed such a policy as treason against the Irish Republic.
The Sinn Féin party split in two at the beginning of 1970. At the party’s Ard Fheis on 11 January the proposal to end abstentionism and take seats, if elected, in the Dáil, the Parliament of Northern Ireland and the Parliament of the United Kingdom was put before the members. A similar motion had been adopted at an IRA convention the previous month, leading to the formation of a Provisional Army Council by Mac Stíofáin and other members opposed to the leadership. When the motion was put to the Ard Fheis, it failed to achieve the necessary two-thirds majority. The Executive attempted to circumvent this by introducing a motion in support of IRA policy, at which point the dissenting delegates walked out of the meeting. These members reconvened at another place, appointed a Caretaker Executive and pledged allegiance to the Provisional Army Council. The Caretaker Executive declared itself opposed to the ending of abstentionism, the drift towards “extreme forms of socialism”, the failure of the leadership to defend the nationalist people of Belfast during the 1969 Northern Ireland riots, and the expulsion of traditional republicans by the leadership during the 1960s.
At its October 1970 Ard Fheis, delegates were informed that an IRA convention had been held and had regularised its structure, bringing to an end the ‘provisional’ period. By then, however, the label “Provisional” or “Provo” was already being applied to them by the media. The opposing, anti-abstentionist party became known as “Official Sinn Féin”. It changed its name in 1977 to “Sinn Féin – The Workers’ Party”, and in 1982 to “The Workers’ Party”.
Because the “Provisionals” were committed to military rather than political action, Sinn Féin’s initial membership was largely confined, in Danny Morrison’s words, to men “over military age or women”. A Sinn Féin organiser of the time in Belfast described the party’s role as “agitation and publicity”. New cumainn (branches) were established in Belfast, and a new newspaper, Republican News, was published. Sinn Féin took off as a protest movement after the introduction of internment in August 1971, organising marches and pickets. The party launched its platform, Éire Nua (“a New Ireland”) at the 1971 Ard Fheis. In general, however, the party lacked a distinct political philosophy. In the words of Brian Feeney, “Ó Brádaigh would use Sinn Féin ard fheiseanna (party conferences) to announce republican policy, which was, in effect, IRA policy, namely that Britain should leave the North or the ‘war’ would continue”. Sinn Féin was given a concrete presence in the community when the IRA declared a ceasefire in 1975. ‘Incident centres’ were set up to communicate potential confrontations to the British authorities. They were manned by Sinn Féin, which had been legalised the previous year by Merlyn Rees, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Political status for prisoners became an issue after the ending of the truce. Rees released the last of the internees but introduced the Diplock courts, and ended ‘Special Category Status’ for all prisoners convicted after 1 March 1976. This led first to the blanket protest, and then to the dirty protest. Around the same time, Gerry Adams began writing for Republican News, calling for Sinn Féin to become more involved politically. Over the next few years, Adams and those aligned with him would extend their influence throughout the republican movement and slowly marginalise Ó Brádaigh, part of a general trend of power in both Sinn Féin and the IRA shifting north. In particular, Ó’Brádaigh’s part in the 1975 IRA ceasefire had damaged his reputation in the eyes of Ulster republicans.
The prisoners’ protest climaxed with the 1981 hunger strike, during which striker Bobby Sands was elected Member of Parliament for Fermanagh and South Tyrone as an Anti H-Block candidate. After his death on hunger strike, his seat was held, with an increased vote, by his election agent, Owen Carron. Two other Anti H-Block candidates were elected to Dáil Éireann in the general election in the Republic. These successes convinced republicans that they should contest every election. Danny Morrison expressed the mood at the 1981 Ard Fheis when he said:
- “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”.
This was the origin of what became known as the Armalite and ballot box strategy. Éire Nua was dropped in 1982, and the following year Ó Brádaigh stepped down as leader, and was replaced by Adams.
Under Adams’ leadership electoral politics became increasingly important. In 1983 Alex Maskey was elected to Belfast City Council, the first Sinn Féin member to sit on that body. Sinn Féin polled over 100,000 votes in the Westminster elections that year, and Adams won the West Belfast seat that had been held by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). By 1985 it had fifty-nine seats on seventeen of the twenty-six Northern Ireland councils, including seven on Belfast City Council.
The party began a reappraisal of the policy of abstention from the Dáil. At the 1983 Ard Fheis the constitution was amended to remove the ban on the discussion of abstentionism to allow Sinn Féin to run a candidate in the forthcoming European elections. However, in his address Adams said, “We are an abstentionist party. It is not my intention to advocate change in this situation.” A motion to permit entry into the Dáil was allowed at the 1985 Ard Fheis, but without the active support of the leadership, and Adams did not speak. The motion failed narrowly. By October of the following year an IRA Convention had indicated its support for elected Sinn Féin Teachtaí Dála (TDs) taking their seats. Thus, when the motion to end abstention was put to the Ard Fheis on 1 November 1986, it was clear that there would not be a split in the IRA as there had been in 1970. The motion was passed with a two-thirds majority. Ó Brádaigh and about twenty other delegates walked out, and met in a Dublin hotel with hundreds of supporters to re-organise as Republican Sinn Féin.
Tentative negotiations between Sinn Féin and the British government led to more substantive discussions with the SDLP in the 1990s. Multi-party negotiations began in 1994 in Northern Ireland, without Sinn Féin. The Provisional IRA declared a ceasefire in the autumn of 1994. Sinn Féin then joined the talks, but the Conservative government under John Major soon came to depend on unionist votes to remain in power. It suspended Sinn Féin from the talks, and began to insist that the IRA decommission all of their weapons before Sinn Féin be re-admitted to the talks; this led to the IRA calling off its ceasefire. The new Labour government of Tony Blair wasn’t reliant on unionist votes and re-admitted Sinn Féin, leading to another, permanent, ceasefire.
The talks led to the Good Friday Agreement of 10 April 1998 (officially known as the Belfast Agreement), which set up an inclusive devolved government in the North, and altered the Dublin government’s constitutional claim to the whole island in Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution of Ireland. Republicans opposed to the direction taken by Sinn Féin in the peace process formed the 32 County Sovereignty Movement in the late 1990s.
The party expelled Denis Donaldson, a party official, in December 2005, with him stating publicly that he had been in the employ of the British government as an agent since the 1980s. Donaldson told reporters that the British security agencies who employed him were behind the collapse of the Assembly and set up Sinn Féin to take the blame for it, a claim disputed by the British Government. Donaldson was found fatally shot in his home in County Donegal on 4 April 2006, and a murder inquiry was launched. In April 2009, the Real IRA released a statement taking responsibility for the killing.
When Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) became the largest parties, by the terms of the Belfast Agreement no deal could be made without the support of both parties. They nearly reached a deal in November 2004, but the DUP insisted on photographic and/or video evidence that decommissioning had been carried out, which was unacceptable to Sinn Féin.
On 2 September 2006, Martin McGuinness publicly stated that Sinn Féin would refuse to participate in a shadow assembly at Stormont, asserting that his party would only take part in negotiations that were aimed at restoring a power-sharing government. This development followed a decision on the part of members of Sinn Féin to refrain from participating in debates since the Assembly’s recall the previous May. The relevant parties to these talks were given a deadline of 24 November 2006 to decide upon whether or not they would ultimately form the executive.
The 86-year Sinn Féin boycott of policing in Northern Ireland ended on 28 January 2007, when the Ard Fheis voted overwhelmingly to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland(PSNI). Sinn Féin members began to sit on Policing Boards and join District Policing Partnerships. There was opposition to this decision within Sinn Féin, and some members left, including elected representatives. The most well-known opponent was former IRA prisoner Gerry McGeough, who stood in the 2007 Assembly election against Sinn Féin in the constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as an Independent Republican. Others who opposed this development left to found the Republican Network for Unity.
Immediately after the June 2017 UK general election, where the Conservatives won 49% of seats but not an overall majority, so that non-mainstream parties could have significant influence, Gerry Adams announced for Sinn Féin that their elected MPs would continue the policy of not swearing allegiance to the Queen, as would be required for them to take their seats in the Westminster Parliament.
Links with the IRA
Sinn Féin is the largest Irish republican political party, and was closely associated with the Provisional IRA. The Irish government alleged that senior members of Sinn Féin have held posts on the IRA Army Council. However, the SF leadership has denied these claims. The US Government has made similar allegations.
A republican document of the early 1980s stated: “Both Sinn Féin and the IRA play different but converging roles in the war of national liberation. The Irish Republican Army wages an armed campaign… Sinn Féin maintains the propaganda war and is the public and political voice of the movement”.
The British government stated in 2005 that “we had always said all the way through we believed that Sinn Féin and the IRA were inextricably linked and that had obvious implications at leadership level”.
The Northern Bank robbery of £26.5 million in Belfast in December 2004 further delayed a political deal in Northern Ireland. The IRA were widely blamed for the robbery although Sinn Féin denied this and stated that party officials had not known of the robbery nor sanctioned it. Because of the timing of the robbery, it is considered that the plans for the robbery must have been laid whilst Sinn Féin was engaged in talks about a possible peace settlement. This undermined confidence among unionists about the sincerity of republicans towards reaching agreement. In the aftermath of the row over the robbery, a further controversy erupted when, on RTÉ’s Questions and Answers programme, the chairman of Sinn Féin, Mitchel McLaughlin, insisted that the IRA’s controversial killing of a mother of ten young children, Jean McConville, in the early 1970s though “wrong”, was not a crime, as it had taken place in the context of the political conflict. Politicians from the Republic, along with the Irish media, strongly attacked McLaughlin’s comments.
On 10 February 2005, the government-appointed Independent Monitoring Commission reported that it firmly supported the PSNI and Garda Síochána assessments that the IRA was responsible for the Northern Bank robbery and that certain senior members of Sinn Féin were also senior members of the IRA and would have had knowledge of and given approval to the carrying out of the robbery. Sinn Féin has argued that the IMC is not independent, and that the inclusion of former Alliance Party leader John Alderdice and a British security head was proof of this. The IMC recommended further financial sanctions against Sinn Féin members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The British government responded by saying it would ask MPs to vote to withdraw the parliamentary allowances of the four Sinn Féin MPs elected in 2001.
Gerry Adams responded to the IMC report by challenging the Irish government to have him arrested for IRA membership—a crime in both jurisdictions—and for conspiracy.
On 20 February 2005, Irish Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform Michael McDowell publicly accused three of the Sinn Féin leadership, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinnessand Martin Ferris (TD for Kerry North) of being on the seven-man IRA Army Council; they later denied this.
On 27 February 2005, a demonstration against the murder of Robert McCartney on 30 January 2005 was held in east Belfast. Alex Maskey, a former Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Belfast, was told by relatives of McCartney to “hand over the 12” IRA members involved. The McCartney family, although formerly Sinn Féin voters themselves, urged witnesses to the crime to contact the PSNI. Three IRA men were expelled from the organisation, and a man was charged with McCartney’s murder.
Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern subsequently called Sinn Féin and the IRA “both sides of the same coin”. The official ostracism of Sinn Féin was shown in February 2005 when Dáil Éireann passed a motion condemning the party’s alleged involvement in illegal activity. US President George W. Bush and Senator Edward Kennedy refused to meet Gerry Adams while meeting the family of Robert McCartney.
On 10 March 2005, the House of Commons in London passed without significant opposition a motion, introduced by the British government, to withdraw the allowances of the four Sinn Féin MPs for one year, in response to the Northern Bank Robbery. This measure cost the party approximately £400,000. However, the debate prior to the vote mainly surrounded the more recent events connected with the murder of Robert McCartney. Conservatives and unionists put down amendments to have the Sinn Féin MPs evicted from their offices at the House of Commons but these were defeated.
In March 2005 Mitchell Reiss, the United States Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, condemned the party’s links to the IRA, saying “it is hard to understand how a European country in the year 2005 can have a private army associated with a political party”.
The October 2015 Assessment on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland concluded that the Provisional IRA still existed “in a much reduced form”, and that some IRA members believed its Army Council oversaw both the PIRA and Sinn Féin.
Policy and ideology
Most of the party’s policies are intended to be implemented on an ‘all-Ireland’ basis which further emphasises their central aim of creating a united Ireland.
Sinn Féin currently is considered a democratic socialist or left-wing party. In the European Parliament, the party aligns itself with the European United Left–Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) parliamentary group. The party pledges support for minority rights, migrants’ rights, and eradicating poverty. Although it is not in favour of the extension of legalised abortion (British 1967 Act) to Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin state they are opposed to the attitudes in society which “pressurise women” to have abortions and “criminalise” women who make this decision. The party does state that in cases of incest, rape, sexual abuse, “fatal foetal abnormalities”, or when a woman’s life and health are at risk or in danger, the final decision must rest with the woman. Categorised as “populist socialist” in literature, in 2014 leading party strategist and ideologue Eoin Ó Broin described Sinn Féin’s entire political project as unashamedly populist.
Sinn Féin has been considered to be Eurosceptic. The party campaigned for a “No” vote in the referendum on joining the European Economic Community in 1972. The party was critical of the supposed need for an EU constitution as proposed in 2002, and urged a “No” vote in the 2008 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, although Mary Lou McDonald said that there was “no contradiction in being pro-Europe but anti-treaty.” In its manifesto for the 2015 UK general election, Sinn Féin pledged that the party would campaign for the UK to stay within the European Union (EU), Martin McGuinness saying that an exit “would be absolutely economically disastrous”. Gerry Adams said that, if there were to be a referendum on the question, there ought to be a separate and binding referendum for Northern Ireland. Its policy of a “Europe of Equals”, and its critical engagement after 2001, together with its engagement with the European Parliament, marks a change from the party’s previous opposition to the EU. The party expresses, on one hand, “support for Europe-wide measures that promote and enhance human rights, equality and the all-Ireland agenda”, and on the other a “principled opposition” to a European superstate.