Sinn Féin

Sinn Féin shĭn fān [key] [Irish,=we, ourselves], Irish nationalist movement. It had its roots in the Irish cultural revival at the end of the 19th cent. and the growing nationalist disenchantment with the constitutional Home Rule movement. The founder (1900) was Arthur Griffith, who in 1899 established the first of the patriotic journals, The United Irishman, in which he advocated complete national self-reliance. The movement was not, at first, an overtly political one, nor did it advocate violence. Its method was, rather, one of passive resistance to all things English and included an attempted revival of Irish Gaelic.

In 1905, Sinn Féin was organized politically, but until the outbreak of World War I it gained little strength. The British suppression of the Easter Rebellion of 1916 greatly stimulated its growth. In 1917 many of its leaders, released from internment, met to reorganize under the leadership of Eamon De Valera. In the election of 1918, Sinn Féin put up a candidate for every Irish seat in the British Parliament and won 73 seats. To protest British rule over Ireland, the elected members declined to go to Westminster. Instead, they set up an Irish assembly in Dublin, called the Dáil Éireann, which declared Irish independence. The British attempted to suppress terrorists, led by Michael Collins, by a policy of counterterror and sent (1920) a body of military irregulars, popularly known as the Black and Tans, to reestablish order. The populace rallied to Sinn Féin.

In 1921 the British government yielded and began negotiations to establish the Irish Free State. The partition provisions of the resulting treaty did not, however, satisfy the militant wing of Sinn Féin, represented by De Valera, and civil war ensued. Gradually most of the country became reconciled to the new government, and Sinn Féin virtually came to an end when De Valera withdrew from it in 1927 and entered the Dáil.

In 1938 the few remaining intransigents merged with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), becoming the terrorist organization's political arm in advocating unification of Ireland by force. In 1969, along with the IRA, it split into official and provisional wings. The Marxist-oriented official Sinn Féin eventually became the Workers' Party, while the provisional wing continued to support the provisional IRA's use of terrorist activities to achieve unification. Gerry Adams headed the latter party from 1983. In 1986, Sinn Féin ended its boycott of Republic of Ireland's parliament, permitting its members to sit for the first time since the parliament was established in 1922, but it did not win any seats until 1997. Party members elected to the British parliament, however, boycott the body. Since 1997 the party has won at least two seats to that body; more often at least four.

In late 1994, after the IRA and Protestant militias agreed to a cease-fire, efforts were begun to negotiate a settlement of the Northern Ireland issue. However, the peace process was put in jeopardy by renewed violence on the part of the IRA in 1996. Because of this, negotiations begun in June, 1996, did not include Sinn Féin. Following a renewed cease-fire in July, 1997, the group participated in peace talks begun in September of that year.

In 1998, agreement was reached concerning political restructuring in the province that would allow Protestants and Catholics to govern jointly in a democratically elected assembly. Members of Sinn Féin were elected to the assembly and participated in the province's government, but moderate Protestant leaders insisted on IRA disarmament (finally begun in Oct., 2001) as a condition for Sinn Féin's long-term participation in a broad-based government.

In 2002 the arrest of party members on charges of spying for the IRA led Protestants to call for Sinn Féin's ouster from the government, and home rule was suspended. Elections in Nov., 2003, which made Sinn Féin the largest Irish nationalist party in the assembly, did not lead to the reestablishment of home rule. In 2005 senior party members were accused of sanctioning alleged IRA robberies. Later in 2005, charges stemming from the 2002 case were dropped, and one of the accused spies admitted to being a long-time government informant, prompting charges that the spying case was a politically motivated attempt to aid moderate Protestant Unionists. Sinn Féin remained the largest Catholic party after the Mar., 2007, elections, and later that month the Democratic Unionists, the more militant Protestant party, agreed to enter into a power-sharing government with Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin has continued to be the largest Northern Irish Catholic party in subsequent elections.

Sinn Féin's showing in parliamentary elections in the Irish Republic was not significant from 1986 (when it decided to end its boycott) until 2011, when the party won 14 seats and became the fourth largest party in the lower house. In 2016 the party further increased the number of seats it won, and became the third largest party. Adams was succeeded as party president by Mary Lou McDonald in 2018. In 2020 Sinn Féin, in a significant victory, won a vote plurality but ended in second place in terms of seats.

See R. Davis, Arthur Griffith and Non-violent Sinn (1974); M. Dillon, The Dirty War (1990); P. Taylor, Behind the Mask (1998).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: British and Irish History