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9 September 2023

The strange rebirth of Sinn Féin

Under Mary Lou McDonald the party is on the path to power – but can she keep its uneasy alliance from unravelling?

By Finn McRedmond

Sinn Féin is in psychological turmoil. It wants to be seen as a contemporary party fit for office, shorn of its violent history and no longer inextricably tied to the IRA. But it does not want to betray its legacy, namely those who fought and died for the republican cause. The party’s president, 54-year-old Mary Lou McDonald, has come to symbolise this bipolarity: she is a slick, well-educated politician with a Dublin accent and the manners of a Tory; she is also willing to defend the party’s militant record and commemorate the lives of the IRA. As Sinn Féin has emerged as the most popular and well-funded party north and south of the Irish border, the question lingers: what does it mean for Sinn Féin to absolve itself of its bloody past? And does it even want to?

Modern Sinn Féin’s roots lie in 1969 Northern Ireland, as the remnants of an old party cohered as the political wing of the IRA. Its name – roughly translated to “ourselves alone” – makes its founding principle clear. Sinn Féin would attempt at the ballot box what the IRA was doing on the ground: fighting for a unified Irish republic. In 1981 a close adviser to Gerry Adams questioned at a party meeting: “Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”

In 1983 Gerry Adams became president of the new Sinn Féin. The sense that the modern party and the IRA were co-dependent entities would be hard to shake from here. But now, after years of successful reputation laundering, Sinn Féin holds the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. McDonald became the party’s president in 2018 and in 2020 it won 24.5 per cent of the vote in the Republic. Under Gerry Adams in 2011 it received only 9.9 per cent.

The Long Game: Inside Sinn Féin by Aoife Moore attempts to track the strange evolution of Irish republicanism from murderous irredentism to a legitimate mainstream operation. The greatest difficulty for Sinn Féin – the Gordian knot that defines the party – is how to honour its nationalist legacy and ambition without alienating the cautious voter.

By the 2000s Ireland was a changed place. The war was over; the fractious peace – won by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, under which the IRA began decommissioning its weapons – was holding, for now. Adams understood that the party needed to adopt a veneer of corporate-marketability to reflect the tempo of the new Ireland. It was quite the volte-face for Adams and his right-hand man Martin McGuinness (a fellow suspected former paramilitary). Both used to boast that Sinn Féin and the IRA were essentially one and the same operation.

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Yet, as Moore explains, “if the party was to make real headway in the Republic it needed a leader without IRA connections”. And so, thanks to the personal patronage of Adams, McDonald shot through the ranks of Sinn Féin, became vice-president in 2009 and eventually replaced Adams as president after his 35-year tenure in 2018. McDonald represented not just a softening of the war-weary party, but a conscious break with its paramilitary associations. Unlike McGuinness and Adams, McDonald did not have to deny or justify membership of the IRA.

She did, however, have to win over the hardmen of Sinn Féin. McDonald was a woman from “leafy” Dublin with a degree in English literature. Her first foray into politics had been joining the establishment party Fianna Fáil in 1998. Her republican credentials were questionable.

In 2001 McDonald attended a commemoration for IRA volunteer Tom Smith, and stood with convicted IRA member Nicky Kehoe. It was clear that “the girl from Rathgar had no apparent objection to appearing with former paramilitaries to commemorate other paramilitaries”, Moore writes. In 2003 McDonald spoke at a service for the republican veteran of the 1916 Easter Rising, Seán Russell. Russell travelled to Nazi Germany in 1940, where he met with Joachim von Ribbentrop, trained with the Abwehr and discussed obtaining weapons for the IRA in return for assisting the Germans with intelligence. It was, according to Fintan O’Toole, “a kind of trial – McDonald’s chance to prove that there was no aspect of the IRA’s history that she would ever disown, even if it involved Nazis”.

McDonald was intended to be the acceptable face of modern Irish nationalism, the new leader without any connections to the IRA – but it was clear she had not rid herself of all associations. In June 2021, during the pandemic, McDonald, Adams and Sinn Féin’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill attended the funeral of the former IRA intelligence officer Bobby Storey. After a public outcry at their disregard for Covid restrictions, both McDonald and O’Neill were forced to apologise.

[See also: Still on the edge of terror]

In the mid-2000s the paramilitary involvement in the party was still unmistakable. An aide of McGuinness told Moore: “Them people don’t just f***ing evaporate… They ended up in party positions.” In the early 2010s, Moore reports that an “inner-city IRA veteran” was asked by the party’s national executive to vet a candidate for council selection in McDonald’s own ward. Members of that national executive have, as the Business Post reported in 2020, served jail time for Provisional IRA activity. Some critics suggest that true power in Sinn Féin resides not in the hands of the elected politicians, but in more sinister places.

Nevertheless, McDonald is presented as the standard bearer of a new, purified Sinn Féin. And it seems even Great Britain is psychologically adapting to this new dawn in Irish nationalism. It used to be illegal for British broadcasters to air the voices of Sinn Féin politicians. Now the Financial Times describes O’Neill as “personable” and notes her sympathetic backstory. She attended the coronation of King Charles III earlier this year.

The threat Sinn Féin poses to the United Kingdom is not as great as it may seem. First, the appetite for a united Ireland – north and south of the border – is not currently widespread or deeply felt enough to justify calling a referendum. Second, it is not true that a vote for Sinn Féin is a single transferable vote of interest in a united Ireland. The raison d’être of the party might be Irish unity, but in 2020 it found its support by capitalising on the perceived economic failings of the establishment parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Sinn Féin’s manifesto contained hardly any mention of the constitutional upheaval required for the establishment of a new Irish state.

Young voters – who have no living memory of the horrors of the Troubles – are drawn to the party for its mix of leftish populism and social liberalism (the party broadly supported legalising abortion in the Republic’s 2018 referendum). So now Sinn Féin is in an odd place: a party replete with members happy to rub shoulders with violent killers, but whose southern support is no longer rooted in nationalist ambitions.

The Long Game exposes this central tension. But the title itself implies a teleology: not only that Irish nationalism would morph from violent terrorism into a cooperative mainstream movement; but that this was, in fact, the plan all along. Moore writes that McDonald’s accession to the office of the taoiseach – if it comes to pass – will be “the crowning achievement of the party’s long game”. In this whiggish history of the party the arc of time, then, bends not towards justice but to Mary Lou McDonald having a detailed policy on road traffic.

The ultimate goal might be Sinn Féin taking power north and south of the border. Yet so long as its support emerges not from nationalist zeal but from housing and health policy, it is hard to believe that this is what Adams and McGuinness had in their grand plan for Irish unity in the 1980s.

It may be premature, even now, to consider what a Sinn Féin government might look like. Polling suggests that in the Republic’s next election in 2025 it will be the most popular party, but to form a government it will need to cobble together a coalition of smaller parties or coax Fianna Fáil out of a decades-long enmity. Neither are a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the parliamentary arithmetic is still not there.

The Long Game is a useful account of today’s Sinn Féin but, although it points out the paradox in the party, it does not get us any closer to how to deal with it. The critical questions remain: not only if Sinn Féin can ever escape its history, but whether voters should allow it to.

The Long Game: Inside Sinn Féin
Aoife Moore
Penguin, 336pp, £17.99

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[See also: “We’re on the road to a united Ireland – and that’s going to be unstoppable”]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites