An academic view of the Provisionals during the Troubles. The author studied the subject from Canada and clearly comes from the controversy-free, mainstream academic school of thought:
The IRA and Sinn Féin during the Troubles:
two faces of the same organization
University of British Columbia
Political Science Department
The second half of the 20th century has seen many facets of republicanism in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It started with armed activism, which reached its violence peak in 1969-72, and then the decline of this approach and a heightened importance of political means. At all times, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was at the center of the struggle.
On the political side was Sinn Féin, the Irish Republican Party. The IRA and Sinn Féin were founded at different times, and went through many formations, objectives and ideals before the 1950’s. Still, it was in the second half of the 1900’s that their differences diminished, and they became part of a unified nationalist front. From the early 50’s, the IRA and Sinn Féin, and later Provos and the new Sinn Féin, were under the same control, working as different branches of the same organization.
With the prominence of the IRA throughout the majority of the struggle, it is easy to assume that Sinn Féin was the secondary player in the relationship. Still, a shift of conscience and approach started in the second half of the 1970’s, and by the mid-1980’s Sinn Féin was a more reliable player than IRA itself, being an important political force in Northern Ireland politics. It gained power through the 80’s, which culminated into its acceptance into the peace process in the 1990’s. Sinn Féin reached its period of maximum influence until that point when it became a key player in the Belfast Agreement negotiations. It is safe to say that although the IRA and Sinn Féin saw their influence peak at different times, they were partners throughout the 30 years that led to the Good Friday Agreement, relying on each other as two branches of the Irish republican struggle.
The relationship before 1969
The Sinn Féin was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith (Laffan, 3). It had a nationalist purpose, to insert the “moral authority of the Irish nation” into the country’s politics (Griffith, 161). Its nationalist appeal was nothing new, as the Parliamentary Party (previously known as Home Rule Party) was the main nationalist group in Irish politics at the time (Laffan, 5).
The party’s rise to prominence and first contact with political violence came with the 1916 Easter Rising (Laffan, 43), organized by the Irish Volunteers, the organization that later became the Irish Republican Army (Durney, 8). Many Sinn Féin members were involved, and because of that the rebellion was dubbed by some “The Sinn Féin Rising” (Feeney, 56). After the insurrection, the party acknowledged its Republican ideals, and started advocating for the establishment of the Irish Republic.
The Republican movement grew quicly in the following years, and the Assembly of Ireland (Dáil Éireann) was established in 1918 by Sinn Féin MPs who were elected but did not take their seats in the British Parliament. The Volunteers became of official army of the republic, under the new name of Irish Republican Army. The IRA fought in the War of Independence until the Irish Government negotiated the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty.
The 1920’s saw internal splits in both Sinn Féin and IRA. The party did not support the treaty for it did not involve the whole of Ireland. Because of this, the pro-treaty side of the party split into the Cumann na nGaedheal in 1923 (Gallagher, 41). Sinn Féin members boycotted the Dáil, and did not take seats when elected. In 1926, the party leader Éamon de Valera led a group that was against the abstentionist policy, and created a new party, the Fianna Fáil. De Valera took most of Sinn Féin’s political influence with him (Coogan, 77-78), and over the next four decades, the biggest achievement Sinn Féin accomplished was to simply survive (Laffan 451).
The IRA also split after the war. The treaty was once more the issue at hand, and the anti-treaty side kept the name after the split in 1922. The next few decades were also mostly quiet for the IRA, until the second half of the 1950’s, which brought about many changes in the organization. One of these changes was the Border Campaign of 1956-62 (English, 73), which brought activity back to IRA. Another change was the increasing role of Marxism in the army. For a long time the IRA and to some extent Sinn Féin lacked a political theoretical base. In the early 1960’s a shift to the left was led by Roy Johnston, a member of both IRA and Sinn Féin. Johnston was the brain behind the National Liberation Strategy. This strategy called for catholic and protestant workers of Northern Ireland to fight under the same Republican banner, for a split within the workers’ ranks would only be good for capitalism. It also argued against the IRA to militarily defend one of the groups, which is one of the factors that would eventually lead to the 1969 split (Hanley and Millar).
In the mid-late 1950’s begins the connection between IRA and Sinn Féin that is studied by this essay. Although both organizations would suffer a split in 1969, the basis for the relationship started a decade earlier. It was in that period that the IRA decided to infiltrate and control Sinn Féin. This saw a growth of numbers in the party ranks, mostly by IRA members. The IRA gained control of the party by having Paddy McLogan, a long-time IRA commander, as the new leader of Sinn Féin (Laffan, 452). The party was a propaganda auxiliary of the IRA during the Border Campaign (Laffan, 452).
To say that 1969 was a major year for the Irish Nationalist struggle is an understatement. That was the year the Troubles started, with the Northern Ireland riots, and when the IRA split for the last time. Minor violence outbreaks were brewing earlier in the year. They were connected to the civil rights movement, which called for an end to the discrimination Catholics in Northern Ireland. In August, violence broke out throughout the country. The bigger riots were seen in Belfast, culminating in the death of 8 people, and the destruction of dozens of catholic families’ houses (Tonge, 39).
To this day the role of the IRA in the Riots is disputed. There seems to be an overall view that the IRA was poorly prepared to provide protection to the Catholic community and to republicans in general. Their supporters and part of their ranks blamed the IRA leadership for their unpreparedness (Report of Tribunal of Inquiry, no page), which eventually led to the split that took place in December of the same year.
The other factor that led to the split was abstentionism. Both IRA and Sinn Féin councils voted on the issue, but did not gain great majority (Laffan, 454). After that, the Provisional IRA stopped taking orders from Belfast. The same happened to Sinn Féin, which split between those who were to follow the official IRA, and those to follow the provisionals. After this point, the provisional Sinn Féin, which followed Provos, was a
completely different party. The only thing kept from the previous organization was its name (Laffan, 454).
Provos and the new Sinn Féin
The 1969 split generated two groups with different approaches. The Officials, also known as Red IRA, had their Leninist philosophy backed by heavy militarism. So much so that the excessive violence used by them between 1969 and 1972 put Sinn Féin’s political interests at risk (Patterson, 154). Provos had, at the time, a more lenient approach, which was not connected to communism. In 1972 the Officials saw much dissention within their membership, for big part did not want to keep the militarist streak going (Patterson, 158). It was at this point that Roy Johnston left the Red IRA for refusing to condone militarism, and joined the communist party. Soon the Officials would call for a ceasefire and stop its activities, at a time in which Provos was already the more supported organization, with the provisional Sinn Féin by its side.
The splits in 1969 and 1970 drew the PIRA and provisional Sinn Féin closer than ever before. They were both new organizations under a somewhat new leadership, but the IRA was clearly the leading figure at that point. The Provos council met before every Sinn Féin annual conference to direct future party activities (Laffen 456-6). The problem is that Sinn Féin was not very popular, and although nationalist talk did attract the Irish people, they were not ready to join the ranks and clearly support the cause (Bell, 49).
The 1970’s were the most violent period of the Troubles. After the Bloody Sunday incident of 1972, the Provisionals received a massive influx of new recruits. Because of that, Sinn Féin also saw a big growth in their ranks (Feeney 270-1). By 1973/4, Provos and the Provisional Sinn Féin were already regarded by the majority ofNorthern Irish people as the main body of the movement. To combat t hat, the opposing IRA and Sinn Féin made sure to be known as “the Officials”, but the strategy did not prove fruitful (Feeney, 252).
There was clearly much dissention among republicans in general over the means on how to lead the movement. Some believed violence was the only solution. Other saw that by 1972, after three years of intense conflict, nothing had really changed, and neither of the IRAs got their way. In this case, Sinn Féin was the connecting point for these people, as it gave them a political alternative to violence (Bell, 54).
By 1971, anti-imperialist talk was starting to take over the republican debate. Leaders of Provos and Sinn Féin were targeting Ireland as a whole, and supporting a unified country (Patterson, 155). Sinn Féin soon released its new policy, entitled Eire Nua, or New Ireland. Ó Brádaigh and Ó Conaill, the Dublin leadership of Sinn Féin, were the creators of the policy. It sought a federal all-Ireland republic (White). Although Eire Nua was proposed earlier in the decade, it still took a few years for it to gain the ideological and theoretical base needed to back it (Gallagher, 95).
The ceasefire of 1975 was the first time in which Sinn Féin had more exposition and a bigger role to play within the Republican struggle of the Troubles. The party gained significant importance in the community by setting up incident centers around Northern Ireland, so to communicate of any possible confrontation with the British officials (Taylor, 184). In addition to that, since the party was the organization that was currently representing the Republican struggle, the 1975 party’s Ard Fheis (high assembly), their annual conference, was used to call for a Republican policy which was actually IRA’s policy: British army should leave Northern Ireland, or the fighting would continue further (Feeney, 272). The ceasefire broke down in 1976 (Taylor, 156).
Although not officially, the leaderships of the IRA and Sinn Féin were at times in talks about a merger of the two organizations. In 1977, Seamus Towney, IRA’s chief of staff, was arrested in the possession of documents that detailed a possible merger and called for the party to come under the army at all levels by being radicalized and re-educated (Laffen 456-7). The merger ended up not occurring, but it opened ways for the start of the politicization of the struggle.
The late 1970’s were passing by, and the IRA was no closer to its objective of Irish unification. Republicans started to wonder whether bringing a stronger political facet to the organizations would not be beneficial. This process was accelerated with the 1981 hunger strikes (Laffen 457). The hunger strikes were at the end of five years-long protest against the British Government’s decision of abolishing the Special Category Status of political prisoners. This meant that paramilitary prisoners, mainly IRA activists, were to be treated as regular criminals rather than political ones (Malaugh, no page). During the strike, Bobby Sands, an imprisoned IRA member and hunger-striker was elected Member of Parliament. Sans ended up dying on strike, and for the first time, IRA was not connected only to murder, but also to martyrdom (Laffen 457). Over 100,000 people showed up to his funeral, in a matter of great national sympathy (English, 220). Sands’ seat was held, and the republicans gained two seats to the Dáil (Laffen, 457). From this moment on, republicans started to direct resources to electoral politics (O’Brien, 127), and contest all elections (Feeney 290).
The new strength of politics in the movement put the IRA and Sinn Féin on equal footing in the Republican struggle. A document released in the early 1980’s by the Sinn Féin Education Department states that “both the I.R.A. and Sinn Fein play different but convergent roles in the war of national liberation. The Irish Republican Army wages an armed campaign (…) (while) Sinn Féin maintains the propaganda war and is the public and political voice of the movement.” This translates the feelings of the leaders of both party and army after the success of the 1981 Hunger Strikes. The convergent importance of both military and political approaches was also famously mentioned by Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin’s publicity director, when he said the the 1981 Ard Fheis: “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 view became known as the Armalite and ballot box strategy, which shows the shift in activist republicanism from strictly military to equally political. 1983 saw the rise of Gerry Adams to the leadership of Sinn Féin, which started a period of growth in the importance given to electoral politics in the republican struggle and discussions over the abstentionist policy. Other than making gains in the Belfast City Council, Sinn Féin also elected Adams to Westminster with the party receiving over 100,000 votes (Murray and Tonge, 153). In that year’s Ard FheiI, the party voted positively on removing the ban on discussing abstentionism (Feeney 326). In 1985 a motion to end the policy failed, but in 1986, after the IRA had shown its support on lifting the ban, a new motion passed. This shows how important IRA’s input was to Sinn Féin.
The party was still careful on not generating a new split among its own ranks and IRA’s (Feeney, 331).
The late 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s were slow for the IRA. The peace process was talking over the national scene, and Sinn Féin’s new no-abstentionist policy was giving it more support around the country. In 1994 IRA called for a ceasefire, which was supposed to be held if Sinn Féin gained access to the peace negotiations (Tonge, 168). By this point, peace talks had fully taken over the lead from armed struggle, and Sinn Féin was trying to present itself as a regular party. Now that the party looked less like a front for the IRA, support in Northern Ireland doubled (Laffen, 460).
IRA’s ceasefire was called off in 1996 when the British Government did not allow Sinn Féin into the negotiations on the basis that the IRA had not yet surrendered its weapons. A quick wave of violence followed, with the Manchester and Dockland bombings. Soon Tony Blair’s Labour government allowed Sinn Féin into the negotiations on the sole basis of a ceasefire (Murray and Tonge, 193-4), which was called again in early 1997.
The Good Friday Agreement, which devolved partial governmental autonomy to Northern Ireland, was reached in April 1998. The ceasefire called by the IRA in 1997 still stands today, and Sinn Féin’s political influence grew enormously ever since. As of 2010, Sinn Féin is the second largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the second in Northern Ireland in number of seats in the British Parliament.
The thirty years of Troubles that culminated in the Belfast Agreement saw a very interesting partnership between the Provisional Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin. The partnership started before 1969-70, with the organizations’ predecessors, but became clear and ideologically proximate after the splits. Although Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin’s leader, claims that the connection between the two organizations was very small, and that he was never part of the Army, history tells a different story.
This remarkable relationship provided two fronts for the Irish Republican Struggle. In one hand the armed front, and on the other the political. These two separate but convergent fronts played different roles at different times in the Troubles. In the first 15 years the IRA was the leading organization, backed by many with its armed approach to republicanism. The latter 15 years saw a shift in the power structure, led mostly by the lack of advances made by the IRA. This shift saw the political side taking over the relationship, increasing its support base, and ending in the peace talks.
This paper traced the timeline of the evolution of the partnership between the IRA and Sinn Féin. The proximity between the two allows for the argument that instead of being two separate organizations, they were simply part of a two-tiered approach to Irish Republicanism, as two branches of the same structure walking hand in hand over time, complementing one another and achieving partial success in the end.