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Political Parties: Strengthening their Identity, Adapting their Image
“National” Parties: From the Margins to the Mainstream

Sinn Féin’s Tortuous Road to Power

La longue marche du Sinn Féin jusqu’au pouvoir
Agnès Maillot

Résumés

Le Sinn Féin, autrefois réprouvé par la classe politique nord-irlandaise, fait désormais partie de la coalition gouvernementale aux côtés de son rival, le Democratic Unionist Party. Pour en arriver là, il a subi des transformations fondamentales, abandonnant un principe profondément ancré dans la pensée républicaine, celui de l’abstentionnisme, et mettant fin au lien entre l’action militaire et l’action politique. Le parti a affiché, tout au long du processus de paix, un enthousiasme pour des politiques de gauche et pour les institutions créées par l’Accord du Vendredi Saint, dont il était l’un des signataires en 1998. Ce processus ne s’est pas fait sans heurts, puisqu’il a mis en lumière les difficultés et contradictions auxquelles faisait face le parti, comme l’a démontré la longue controverse autour du désarmement de l’IRA. Mais si le Sinn Féin a su adapter ses stratégies et son discours à une situation en évolution constante, devenant la première force nationaliste, il lui reste des défis importants à surmonter, notamment celui de transcender les divisions communautaires qui continuent à caractériser la vie politique et sociale nord-irlandaise.

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  • 1 “McGuinness condemns ‘enemies of peace’”, RTÉ News, 4 April 2011 : <http://www.rte.ie/news/20 (...)
  • 2 This is the phrase that was used by Séan Lemass, second-in-command of the newly formed (...)

1“My message is very, very simple : those who are perpetrating these acts, those who are killing our people, need to be apprehended.”1 Such statements were routine in the daily newspapers throughout the conflict, emanating from political or church leaders, government officials and other public figures condemning the attacks of the IRA. But in this case, it was Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive, senior leader of Sinn Féin, allegedly former leader, or member, of the IRA, who was strongly denouncing those responsible for the killing of a PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) officer in March 2011. The wheels have turned ; those who once did their utmost to condone, if not justify, acts of violence perpetrated against members of the security forces are now eager to be amongst the first, and most forceful, to condemn these acts. Sinn Féin sits in a government that officially acknowledges the existence of partition. It shares power with those who were, not so long ago, its most ardent and vicious opponents – the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). It takes decisions that would have been frowned upon by its own supporters. Sinn Féin has now become more than a “slightly constitutional party”.2 It is the second largest party in Northern Ireland, and the first in the nationalist camp. It holds three out of the ten ministerial positions and has been in power with the DUP since 2007. It also has fourteen elected representatives in the Dáil (Assembly of the Republic) where it is the fourth largest party. For an organisation which was shunned by all a mere fifteen years ago, that for decades advocated armed struggle to ensure the withdrawal of the British from Northern Ireland and to reunify the island, who sought to revolutionise Irish political life, this is a leap of gigantic proportions. The background to this process, what made this possible, and what challenges lay ahead for Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland will be discussed throughout this paper. We will first analyse how Sinn Féin went from being the political wing of the IRA to a full, engaged and active political party. This was mainly achieved with the elaboration of a left-wing discourse, combined with an overhaul of the party’s image. We will then see how, with the advent of the peace process, it successfully sidelined the IRA until the paramilitary organisation eventually died out. Lastly, we will study its record in the power-sharing executive and see how its evolution could be seen as emblematic of the whole peace process.

Rethinking the strategies

  • 3 The seven-member Army Council was the decision-making body of the IRA.
  • 4 The Republican movement split in 1969-1970 was largely the result of fundamental disagreeme (...)

2When Provisional Sinn Féin was formed in 1970, its main raison d’être was simple : to support the IRA, whatever it took. Propaganda, campaigning, canvassing, all the means at the disposal of this modest political organisation were put to the service of the cause that they shared with the IRA : the reunification of Ireland by armed means if necessary. Sinn Féin pursued a tactic that had many times been put to the test : it operated in the shadow of the gunmen, its subservience to the Army Council3 never being discussed. This arrangement was probably the strongest safeguard against internal dissent and eventual splits. Indeed, through the years, any proposed structural change which involved questioning the primacy of the IRA had often, if not always, brought disruption and ended in the division of the organisation. So many times had the Republican movement been through internal rifts and conflicts that when the Provisionals were born, out of the traumatising split of the late 1960s4 no one dared, for the two decades to come, question the delicate balance of power that held politics and militarism together.

  • 5 Abstentionism was originally suggested by the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, who in (...)
  • 6 Ten Republican prisoners died during the episode which lasted from March to October 1981. I (...)
  • 7 It was Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin Head of Publicity in the early 1980s, who coined t (...)
  • 8 The following table illustrates the rise in the Sinn Féin vote in the Westminster G (...)

3For a decade, Sinn Féin contented itself with playing a secondary role, identifying with every move that the IRA made, clinging to their age-old principles, the most notable one being their refusal to sit in what they considered foreign-led parliaments, therefore adhering to a strict abstentionist policy.5 It took the shock-wave of the hunger strikes6 to move Sinn Féin away from this political stance and to start considering entering the realm of active politics. This was done carefully, first of all by adopting the strategy of the “armalite and the ballot box”,7 consisting in pursuing a double strategy : on the one side, the armed campaign, and on the other, electoral involvement. It paid off to an extent, as the party managed to steadily increase its share of the vote from 1982 onwards, notwithstanding some drawbacks.8

  • 9 The SDLP was formed in 1970 in the midst of the civil rights movement, seeking to reunify I (...)

4Sinn Féin therefore set out in the 1980s to gain the respect and trust of the people whom it sought to represent at local and national levels : the working-class, from which most of its representatives came, and the disenfranchised, those who did not feel represented by the leadership of the SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party).9 Its objective, which was finally achieved in 2007, was to replace the SDLP as the main representative of nationalists. It used a rhetoric which blended a left-wing and nationalist discourse – appealing to the working-classes and the “men of no property” – with expressions such as “community work”, “local democracy” and “people empowerment” becoming commonplace in the discourse, while the objective of the reunification of Ireland remained its top priority. It put forward candidates with whom the electorate they were seeking to conquer could identify : men and women who had played an active role in the conflict, either through their involvement in the IRA (a number of Sinn Féin candidates were former prisoners) or through their work within the community. As The Irish Times put it, commenting on a by-election in March 1983 :

  • 10 “Test for Sinn Féin’s Electoral Strategy”, The Irish Times, 22 March 1983.

The differences between the Sinn Féin candidate and his campaign and the SDLP’s campaign are an almost exact repeat of the differences which came to light during last October’s Assembly election : young versus middle-age, working-class versus middle-class and enthusiasm versus weariness.10

  • 11 Sinn Féin, Assembly Election Manifesto, Belfast, 1982. Sinn Féin’s position was shared by 7 (...)

5Its leaders were young, enthusiastic, and committed. They were no longer associated with the traditional, Catholic, middle-aged leadership of the South ; they were those who “got the job done”. Their stance on abstentionism, which remained unchanged for the Northern Irish institutions and for Westminster, appealed to those who still believed in the illegitimacy of the State and saw any solution internal to Northern Ireland as doomed to failure, calling the 1982 Assembly “the most dangerous threat yet to the political well-being of the nationalist people”.11

  • 12 In the Republic of Ireland, Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act (1960) came into effect in 1 (...)
  • 13 This is a word that was frequent in Sinn Féin parlance until the end of last century, and i (...)

6That strategy went hand-in-hand with an overhaul of their own image. Sinn Féin had always shown great aptitude at putting forward their message. The censorship imposed by both States,12 together with their conviction that their voices were ignored or distorted by the “establishment”13 media, led them to build up an extensive network of publications and to professionalise their own public relations department. According to a media consultant in 1998, this gave them :

  • 14 Interview with author, 1998.

[…] a clear sense of self-belief, they know exactly where they’re going, they’re clear on who their audiences are, which gives them an edge over other political parties. Sinn Féin are confident about their mission, and this is a key skill in terms of communication.14

  • 15 For a detailed study of Sinn Féin’s media strategy throughout the peace process, see Graham (...)
  • 16 Dawn Doyle, SF Press officer, interview with author, Dublin, 2004.

7Its PR team put together a strategy which meant that all representatives spoke as one. Although this has been sneered at by some commentators, who argue that it leads to a somewhat contrite discourse in which everyone sings from the same tune, it helped considerably, giving some coherence to their message.15 Therefore, according to Dawn Doyle, Sinn Féin press officer, the publicity officers in Dublin and Belfast worked carefully on the wording of all statements and what came across was a series of sound bites that could be confidently repeated by the different spokespersons, wherever they were. Their message sounded articulate, it resonated with the electorate, delivering what journalists were seeking, and fast.16

  • 17 On 8 November 1987, eleven people were killed by an IRA bomb while attending a Remembrance (...)

8That strategy, nevertheless, had its limits. There were only so many working-class votes that the party could garner, and its continued links to the IRA were becoming an obstacle in expanding its vote. The line between militarism and politics, which had been for years so carefully blurred by the strategists of the movement, became increasingly more difficult to cross. Operations such as Enniskillen17 were nothing short of a disaster for the public image of the movement, as they made all the political discourse of the leaders seem futile compared to the havoc and suffering that the IRA was still capable of inflicting.

9However, some leaders within Northern Ireland were obviously trying to explore new avenues in order to break the cycle of violence. One such man was John Hume, leader of the SDLP who, at great risk for himself and his party, undertook to talk to the president of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, at a time when not only the latter was banned on all TV stations, but when he could not even travel abroad and was ostracised by most political leaders. It is difficult to assert when and how the peace process started. It would seem, however, that the Adams-Hume talks were essential in getting an agreement on a fundamental principle : consensus. Whatever settlement would have to be accepted by the majority of the population of Northern Ireland, as both leaders recognised in their joint statement : “such a new agreement is only achievable and viable if it can earn and enjoy the allegiance of the different traditions on this island, by accommodating diversity and providing for national reconciliation”.18 Nothing could be imposed, and this would be the founding stone of any settlement that would be agreed in negotiations.

10Sinn Féin stressed that their involvement in the peace process was genuine and sought to convince the rest of the political world that it was not only to be trusted as a potential negotiator, but that its participation was key to any lasting settlement. In order to reinforce this, the language of Republicanism was subtly altered to include new words and expressions which gradually would become the trademark of Sinn Féin parlance :

  • 19 Peter Shirlow & Mark McGovern, “Language, Discourse and Dialogue: Sinn Féin and the Irish (...)

It was precisely to escape from the ghettoisation, both physical and political, imposed upon ‘republican’ communities that the word ‘peace’, along with ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’ were taken up and expounded in a deliberate policy by Sinn Féin from the late-1980s onward to repossess certain discourses which had become synonymous with the British State. It reflected a change in direction on the part of the movement in that the aim was no longer simply to hold on to the support of those within, to maintain the hegemony of Sinn Féin in the areas where they held sway, but to expand beyond, to combat containment by establishing links with groups and other bodies of opinion.19

  • 20 This expression has been frequently used since the late 1990s to signify the profound chang (...)
  • 21 Quoted in Graham Spencer, “The Impact of Television News on the Northern Ireland Peace Nego (...)

11Sinn Féin’s discourse gradually took ownership of the peace process, placing itself centre-stage, seeking to alter the manner in which the party had been perceived up to then. Tradition and militarism were replaced by pragmatism and politics, trading along the way the “armalite” for “Armani suits”.20 As pointed out by a Deputy Editor for Ulster Television (UTV), “Sinn Féin are excellent media performers and have managed to turn around negative images of themselves quite well. They have positioned themselves as lead players in the peace process and as a driving force.”21

  • 22 The complete text of the Downing Street Declaration is available at <http://cain.ulst.ac.uk (...)
  • 23 <http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/ira31894.htm> (retrieved on 12 March 2012).
  • 24 Frank Millar, “Major Insists IRA must clarify issue of permanence”, The Irish Times, 1 Sept (...)
  • 25 Tony Blair appointed Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam to the post of Secretary of State for Nor (...)
  • 26 Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations, Belfast: HMSO, 10 April 1998, available (...)

12With the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the inevitable outcome of all political efforts would be the end of the IRA. Whether the leaders of the movement were aware of the fact that they would have, sooner or later, to silence the guns, they worked hard at both assuaging the fears of those who mistrusted them and reassure those who saw the IRA as a legitimate political force using legitimate means to an end. The ceasefire declared in 1994 established a restless peace, one where trust was undoubtedly lacking on all sides, as the British and Unionists were clearly uneasy at the absence of the word “permanent” in the ceasefire declaration. Indeed, whereas the 1993 Downing Street Declaration explicitly talked of the necessity of a “permanent end to the use of, or support for, paramilitary violence”,22 the IRA statement fell short of using that very word, announcing instead a “complete cessation of military operations”.23 John Major explained that although he was “not hung up on the particular words which republicans might use to confirm their permanent intent”, he insisted on “the unambiguous statement that violence is over for good”, and concluded : “That isn’t the case in the present statement.”24 Sinn Féin, for its part, argued that it had delivered on its side of the bargain and accused its opponents of constantly shifting the goalposts. Tony Blair’s Labour landslide in May 1997 made it possible to overcome the impasse that the situation had reached, the new Secretary of State25 promising Sinn Féin a place at the negotiation table if it could guarantee the end of all IRA military activity. Some Unionists accepted, albeit begrudgingly, to take part in the all-party talks that resulted in the signing of the historic Good Friday Agreement in April 1998.26 All parties (with the notable exception of the DUP who had refused to partake in what it saw as a flawed process) agreed on a framework to stabilise the situation, with the creation of new institutions (such as a local assembly which was to have devolved powers and be governed by a power-sharing executive), and some concessions to all sides, such as the early release within two years of all political prisoners whose organisations were on ceasefire, the reform of the police force, the start of a reconciliation process, and, most importantly, the decommissioning of all weapons held by paramilitary organisations.

Internal contradictions : the peace process, Sinn Féin and the IRA

  • 27 For a detailed analysis of the role of decommissioning within the overall formation (...)

13From the onset of the peace process until 2005, the issue of the decommissioning of weapons held by paramilitary organisations was the main item on the political agenda of all parties and governments, and was seen as a prerequisite to the continuation of the peace process. It was responsible for the delay in the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive,27 which should have followed the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but was postponed until an arrangement was finally reached in 2001, although this situation was to be short-lived. It was seen as the major fault-line between Republicans, on the one hand, and the rest of the political spectrum, from moderate nationalists to radical unionists through to the British and Irish governments, on the other. Sinn Féin’s bona fide was to be seen in its commitment to the achievement of decommissioning.

  • 28 Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, section 7-1.

14In order to oversee the destruction of all paramilitary weapons, the British and Irish governments had established in 1997 an International Independent Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), chaired by a retired Army General from Canada, John de Chastelain, and whose brief was to “facilitate the decommissioning of firearms, ammunition and explosives”.28 All parties with actual or alleged links with paramilitary groups were asked to cooperate in this process. So as to reinforce this, the Good Friday Agreement, to which Sinn Féin was a signatory, instructed all parties to :

  • 29 Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations, op. cit., 22.

[…] continue to work constructively and in good faith with the Independent Commission, and to use any influence they may have, to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years following endorsement in referendums, North and South, on the Agreement and in the context of the implementation of the overall settlement.29

  • 30 Christopher P. Cunningham, “Northern Ireland and the ‘War on Terror’ : Political Perception (...)
  • 31 IRA Statement on Decommissioning, 30 April 1998. All IRA statements are available o (...)
  • 32 This phrase was used for the first time by Taoiseach John Costello in 1949, in the aftermat (...)
  • 33 This process was gradual, the British withdrawing troops and dismantling installati (...)
  • 34 Rosie Cowan, “No guns – no government, Trimble tells IRA”, The Independent on Sunda (...)
  • 35 Ian Paisley Jr., Northern Ireland Forum Debates, 4 July 1997.
  • 36 Northern Ireland Assembly Debates, “Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Priva (...)
  • 37 A poll carried out a week before the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in Nor (...)

15This obviously put Sinn Féin in a delicate position, as it did have alleged links with paramilitaries, namely the IRA. Yet at the same time, it felt it had to ensure that no decision taken as part of the peace process would split its ranks, as the lessons of history had shown how dangerous it was to seem to undermine the armed dimension of the strategy. “Moderate republicans could not press for action too hastily lest its support base break apart. Indeed, according to one figure at the heart of the peace process, the most constant fear of Sinn Féin leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness was of a split in the republican movement.”30 A few days after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, in an official statement, the IRA unambiguously stated : “Let us make it clear that there will be no decommissioning by the IRA. This issue, as with any other matter affecting the IRA, its functions and objectives, is a matter only for the IRA, to be decided upon and pronounced upon by us.”31 The main reason for justifying a decision that seemed to be in breach of the agreement was two-fold. Destroying the arsenal that the IRA possessed was unprecedented in Republican history, as weapons had been, in the past, dumped at worst, hidden in wait for better days at best ; and the IRA claimed that it had entered into the peace process as an “undefeated army” and had no intention of changing that perception. Moreover, Sinn Féin argued in favour of “taking the gun out of Irish politics”,32 as Adams repeated on several occasions, which could only go hand-in-hand, in their view, with the “demilitarisation” of Northern Ireland, in other words, the withdrawal of British military personnel and installations.33 On the other hand, the position of the Ulster Unionists was as clear-cut. In making its stance “No guns, no government”,34 party leader David Trimble argued that the IRA retaining its weapons could be used as an undemocratic bargaining tool by Sinn Féin. But there was also a more moral argument. In the eyes of a sizeable section of the Unionist political community, the IRA and Republicanism were to blame for the Troubles : “Our whole community, indeed our whole country, has been the victim of the IRA for 30 years”, stated Ian Paisley Jr. of the Democratic Unionist Party in 1997.35 Twelve years later, Ulster Unionist MLA Basil McCrea made a similar assessment, albeit in more subtle terms : “Those who argue that the source of the Troubles was a socio-economic or housing problem miss the point that the terrorist activity that we experienced over the past 40 years was not about social deprivation but about a political aim for a united Ireland […].”36 For that same reason, the clause of the Good Friday Agreement granting all prisoners whose organisation was on ceasefire an early release was unacceptable to a large section of the Unionist community.37 Therefore, sitting in government with those it saw as a mere extension of the IRA was unacceptable to most Unionist politicians. It took political courage from David Trimble to decide to go ahead with the power-sharing executive, agreeing in 2000 to form a government that would include Sinn Féin ministers although he had only had a verbal commitment from Sinn Féin on decommissioning with no weapons having been actually destroyed.

  • 38 The British started to apply pressure on all paramilitary organisations, but particularly o (...)
  • 39 Christopher P. Cunningham, “Northern Ireland and the ‘War on Terror’ : Political Pe (...)
  • 40 The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) were, at the turn of the ce (...)

16Decommissioning proved to be a slow, protracted and tortuous process which took almost a decade to complete.38 Initially the IRA refused to cooperate with the IICD, but this position became untenable after the events of 9/11, which forced both Sinn Féin and the IRA “to adjust to a political climate less sympathetic to organisations associated with terrorism”.39 This, combined with the arrest of three men in Columbia on charges of training and advising the FARC,40 forced the party leaders to modify their stance, announcing in October 2001 the first act of decommissioning.

17The disarmament of the IRA had therefore begun, but the pace at which it took place seemed too slow to Unionists, who felt that Sinn Féin was not being genuine in its commitment to peace. Interestingly, however, it was a succession of events that were not connected to the peace process itself but had disastrous consequences for Sinn Féin that led to the final act of decommissioning and the exiting of the IRA from history.

  • 41 Mark Brennock, “Is the Party Over ?”, The Irish Times, 19 February 2005.
  • 42 The then Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, voiced his concern to the US Embassy in Dubli (...)

18If the theory according to which Sinn Féin is capable of turning damaging events into opportunities was ever put to the test, it was by the events of December 2004 and January 2005, when the party faced a crisis of seemingly insurmountable proportions, which led one political analyst to ask the question : “Is the party over ?”41 This was triggered by two events. The first was the Northern Ireland bank raid, the biggest in the history of the province, which the IRA was strongly suspected of having organised with the full knowledge of the leadership of Sinn Féin.42 But this was almost overshadowed by a second event : the assassination of a Belfast man, Robert McCartney, on a January evening, as he was drinking in a pub and got involved in a brawl with a group of men. McCartney and a friend were dragged to a dark alleyway where they were savagely beaten. When the police finally arrived, McCartney was dead and his friend was fighting for his life. No one reported the incident, the scene was subsequently totally cleared of any forensic evidence, and no one dared to testify. It soon emerged that those responsible for the attack were members of the IRA. This clearly signified that the IRA, whatever its statements on peace and decommissioning, still felt it had the right to inflict punishment within its own community, and clearly expected full impunity.

  • 43 The establishment of the IMC was decided at the talks in St Andrews in April 2003, which le (...)

19Both events proved to the leadership of Sinn Féin, and to the rest of the political actors, what some had been saying for years : the peace process, and Sinn Féin’s role in it, was untenable as long as the IRA continued to exist. The fact that no military campaign had been mounted and no attacks carried out in a number of years by no means indicated that the IRA was dormant. Reports of activity within organised crime, as well as evidence of vigilantism within the community had been handed to the British and Irish authorities on a regular basis by the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), set up in 2004 by the British and Irish governments to look into the activities of paramilitary organisations.43 Every single one of these reports presented Sinn Féin with a challenge, as while they could try to argue that the two organisations were separate and that Sinn Féin was not responsible for the actions of the IRA, it was becoming increasingly clear that the IRA was a liability for Sinn Féin, a burden which prevented it from fully playing the political role that it had fought so hard to obtain. Gerry Adams therefore pleaded with the IRA to take what he termed “courageous initiatives” in 2005 when he stated :

  • 44 Gerry Adams, “An Address to the IRA”, Sinn Féin press release, 6 April 2005, available on t (...)

In the past I have defended the right of the IRA to engage in armed struggle. I did so because there was no alternative for those who would not bend the knee, or turn a blind eye to oppression, or for those who wanted a national republic.
Now there is an alternative
I have clearly set out my view of what that alternative is. The way forward is by building political support for republican and democratic objectives across Ireland and by winning support for these goals internationally.44

  • 45 From the start of the conflict, the IRA intervened within the community to exact justice o (...)
  • 46 The PSNI has been publishing yearly statistics on “paramilitary-style attacks”, which inclu (...)
  • 47 Independent Monitoring Commission, Eighth Report, January 2006, 6.
  • 48 Independent Monitoring Commission, Ninth Report, 8 March 2006.
  • 49 Independent Monitoring Commission, Twenty-Fifth and Final report of the Independent (...)

20The destruction of the IRA’s arsenal and the declaration that the war was over in July 2005 were still not enough to reassure those who saw the Republicans as a constant threat to security. If indeed the threat was no longer that of terrorism, the IRA was still engaged in criminal activity. Through the years, the organisation had been accused of crimes such as extortion, money laundering and smuggling, together with the so-called “punishment beatings”45 which were still being carried out in 2006.46 However, the pace at which this situation was resolved was quite extraordinary. In January of that year, the IMC was still adamant that the IRA was involved in criminal activity, cautioning that, although the prospect of a return to terrorist activities was practically non-existent, “in such a transition the situation to avoid is one where terrorism is left behind but a culture of unlawful authority remains”.47 The following IMC report48 noted that the IRA had instructed their members to offer their services to Sinn Féin, and the Commission gave a clean bill of health to the IRA, and the final report in 2011 concluded that “one striking feature of the changes we have described has been how PIRA, however slowly, transformed itself under firm leadership and has gone out of business as a paramilitary group”.49

  • 50 Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, A New Beginning : Policing in (...)
  • 51 This recruitment policy has been met with success. If the 50 % ratio of Catholics had not b (...)
  • 52 Mark Hennessy, Gerry Moriarty, & Dan Keenan, “Sinn Féin endorses PSNI by overwhelming major (...)

21But Sinn Féin still had one major step to take before it could become fully acceptable as a coalition partner in any government : it had to formally recognise the legitimacy of the new police force, by accepting to take part in its structures. Indeed, the campaign launched by Robert McCartney’s sisters and partner raised yet another embarrassing issue that Sinn Féin had managed to sideline until then : that of the role of the security forces in Northern Ireland. Since the creation of the Northern State, the police force (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and the army battalion (Ulster Special Constabulary or “B Specials”, replaced in 1970 by the Ulster Defence Regiment) had clearly been identified with the Unionist community (both forces were overwhelmingly Protestant, as the proportion of Catholics who joined the forces never reached 10 % during the conflict). This situation was utterly modified by the Patten Report50 which, as part of the Good Friday Agreement, set out to recommend ways in which to introduce major reforms in policing practices. What came out of this process was a new police force, the PSNI, which aimed at reaching a 50-50 representation of Catholics and Protestants, and which was to be supervised by a policing board on which elected representatives would sit. Sinn Féin had shown great caution in its response to these reforms, arguing that a change of name did not mean a change of institution and that Nationalists needed more time before they accepted the new force. They were increasingly at odds with their own communities, as the figures showed that Catholics were indeed joining the PSNI.51 Nevertheless, as long as the IRA was in existence, it was next to impossible for Sinn Féin to advocate sitting on the local policing boards, let alone join its ranks. However, at a special Ard Fheis (Annual General Meeting) of Sinn Féin in January 2007, in one of the “most important debates in the history of republicanism and of [the] country”,52 according to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin delegates allowed their party to take part in the structures of the police. Interestingly, the same argument used against participating in the PSNI – the collusion between the Special Branch and loyalist paramilitaries – was used to convince Republicans of the need to take ownership of their police force, in order to be able to scrutinise and monitor it.

Sinn Féin in power

22The sidelining first, and then the disbanding, of the IRA cleared the way for Sinn Féin to impose itself as a political force to be reckoned with in Northern Ireland. Indeed, since 2007, it has been the second largest political party in Northern Ireland, and the first one in the nationalist camp. It shares power with the Democratic Unionist Party, itself newly promoted to first party within the Unionist camp, having superseded the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). This is to be situated in a context where voting is still very much done according to religious affiliations which determine the identity of one or the other community :

  • 53 Jocelyn Evans, & Jonathan Tonge, “Social Class and Party Choice in Northern Ireland’s Ethn (...)

Internal realignment within blocs has occurred amid continued ethnic voting solidarity. Political organisations which have refused to accept this reality and actively sought support across the communal divide have either perished amid polarisation, as the fates of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and Women’s Coalition testify, or continue with only very modest levels of support, as the performances of the cross-community Alliance Party indicate.53

  • 54 Timothy J. White, “Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland”, Peace Review, vol. 19, n°3 (...)

23This is perhaps one of the major flaws of the Good Friday Agreement, as it renders the sectarian divisions between the two communities in some way official and therefore difficult to bridge, providing no benefit or incentive for politicians to seek to transcend it54 A team of researchers therefore noted in 2007 that :

  • 55 Roger MacGinty, Orla T. Muldoon & Neil Ferguson, “No War, No Peace : Northern Ireland after (...)

Of considerable concern [also] is that the Agreement bolsters continuing allegiance to traditional single identities since it legitimises, via the power-sharing arrangement, Catholic nationalism and Protestant unionism. Indeed evidence of this legitimization of political and religious divisions can be seen in the increasingly polarized voting patterns obtained in post-Agreement elections.55

  • 56 Neil Jarman, “Security and Segregation : Interface Barriers in Belfast”, Shared Spa (...)
  • 57 For a discussion on the effects of segregation in an urban context, see Frederick Boal, “Fr (...)

24This leads to a dual political system, one where the parties’ interest is not to fight for the common good but for the specific interests of their communities. Obviously, there are many crossovers between the communities in terms of social, economic and cultural needs, but again, the perception on the ground largely remains that segregation, sometimes by physical boundaries, is still necessary. One of the most visible manifestations of this is the increase in the number of so-called peace lines and walls being erected in the major cities of Northern Ireland in order to separate the two communities. According to research conducted by Neil Jarman in 2008, to the 41 walls which existed in Belfast in 2005, has to be added a number of barriers : fences, gates, which gave a total of 82 “security” barriers in Belfast alone.56 This has an obvious cost for society, as some services are duplicated, others are non-existent (such as post offices or shops) in some communities and therefore not available unless people decide to cross the line that will take them to the other side.57

  • 58 The DUP had previously pledged never to have anything to do with Sinn Féin, which is viewed (...)
  • 59 Both Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have been accused by the media and politicians alike (...)
  • 60 The distribution of ministerial portfolios is done through the complex D’Hondt syst (...)

25However, the fact that the two main parties in power since 2007 are yesterday’s enemies is quite remarkable in itself, and shows how far the peace process has gone in the normalisation of Northern Irish politics.58 2007 witnessed the historic sight of Martin McGuinness, Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator, allegedly former chief-of-staff of the IRA,59 and Ian Paisley, Sinn Féin’s staunchest enemy, shaking hands and sharing a joke in front of the cameras. The event went down in history with a picture of the two men beaming, which won them the nickname “the Chuckle Brothers”. Paisley became First Minister, McGuinness Deputy First Minister. Of the ten ministerial portfolios, three each were held by the DUP and Sinn Féin60 and two each by the SDLP and the UUP.

  • 61 Rick Wilford, “Northern Ireland : The Politics of Constraint”, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. (...)
  • 62 Vanessa Houlder, “Tax reform ‘would boost N. Ireland growth’”, The Financial Times, (...)
  • 63 The overall UK rate, at 26 %, is expected to fall by 50 % by 2015, whereas the rate in the (...)

26It would seem that some insuperable differences still get in the way of ordinary politics and bread-and-butter issues, even in areas of general consensus. In some researchers’ view, the work carried out by the coalition government is therefore quite bleak. “There are very palpable tensions within the Executive which, among other things, have led to a dearth of policy initiatives and something of a legislative famine for much of the period since 2007.”61 Nevertheless, there are some instances of cooperation and agreement between the two sides. One good illustration of this phenomenon is the debate surrounding the lowering of the corporation tax. This financial matter is still dealt with in London by the British Treasury, but both Stormont (Northern Ireland parliament) and the Northern Ireland Executive are strongly lobbying to have that power devolved to them. According to Secretary of State Owen Paterson, this would be “the economic equivalent of the peace process”.62 The main reason for campaigning in favour of lowering the corporation tax is obviously that it would bring some important benefits to the Province, and it would soften the competition with the Republic.63 This raises a number of questions, such as the way in which Northern Ireland would have to compensate the UK government by a corresponding cut in the amount of money it receives each year for spending.

  • 64 Following his retirement in 2008, Ian Paisley was replaced as First Minister by Peter Robin (...)
  • 65 “McLaughlin concern at DUP confused thinking on corporation tax”, Sinn Féin Press Release, (...)
  • 66 Sinn Féin, “Assembly Election 2011 : Job Creation Strategy”, 3 : <http://www.sinnfein.ie/fi (...)

27While Sinn Féin and the DUP are in broad agreement on the need to lower the tax, the figures quoted by both parties differ. Whereas the DUP’s First Minister64 initially advocated a tax rate of 10 %, Sinn Féin seeks “corporation tax parity with the rest of the island”,65 that is, 12.5 %, and in its 2011 Assembly manifesto, while not directly mentioning the corporation tax, it talked of the need to “harmonise all-Ireland taxation and regulation policies”.66 This disagreement encapsulates the dichotomous agendas of the two parties. The long-term goal of the parties – reunification on the one hand and the preservation of the Union on the other – are indeed still very important driving forces behind political decisions. So while Robinson is looking to make Northern Ireland a competitive and self-sufficient economy, Sinn Féin is mindful of the economic welfare of the southern neighbour, but also, seeks to use the harmonisation of taxes, as one further argument in favour of reunification.

  • 67 Henry McDonald & Owen Bowcott, “Northern Ireland Parties Reach Devolution Agreemen (...)

28One area which was potentially contentious but where agreement between all parties was reached was that of the devolution of justice and policing. Responsibility for these lay with Stormont until 1972, when direct rule was introduced and such powers were transferred to Westminster. However, the Good Friday Agreement included not only an overhaul of the policing and justice system but a clause to the effect that responsibility for these areas would be devolved to Northern Ireland. Obviously, as long as Sinn Féin did not recognise the police force, this process could not possibly be envisaged. The issue featured on the top of the agenda of the newly elected Assembly in 2007, but disagreement between the two main parties in Stormont created a stalemate that crippled the Executive and Assembly for almost six months.67 The crisis was finally resolved when both parties reached a compromise in November 2008, settling a time frame for this to happen. In March 2010, the Assembly finally voted, by 88 in favour to 17 against, to support the transfer of powers in April 2010. In practice, this means the creation of a new post in the Executive, the Minister for Justice, who will be proposed by the First and Deputy First Ministers and whose appointment will be put to the vote of the Assembly.

  • 68 Laura McAtackney, “The Negotiation of Identities at Shared Sites : Long Kesh/Maze P (...)
  • 69 This Panel, constituted in 2000, was formed of representatives from the four main political (...)
  • 70 Maze/Long Kesh Masterplan and Implementation Strategy, Office of the First Minister (...)

29There are also contentious issues that are still rooted in the conflict and that still linger over the political debates. One is the future of the Maze, or H-Blocks, which was closed down in 2000. This prison, once the most modern high-security detention facility in Western Europe, housed thousands of prisoners from all paramilitary organisations, and its name became famous with the episode of the prison protests and the subsequent hunger strikes between 1976 and 1981. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the prison closed down in September 2000, the remaining paramilitary prisoners being transferred to Maghaberry prison in County Derry. This 360-acre site has enormous potential for development, but the question of what to do with it divided the parties. This prison played a fundamental role in the constitution of paramilitary identities, be they loyalist or republican.68 For Sinn Féin, this was the heart of one of their most crucial and most symbolic fights. This is where most men who were members of the leadership and the party until recently had spent some time ; this is where iconic figures such as Bobby Sands had died after having fasted for 65 days. Not to acknowledge this dimension when deciding what to do with the prison was therefore unthinkable. Obviously, the Unionists made the opposite argument, seeing it as morally and politically wrong to dedicate a “shrine to the IRA” while they consider them, simply, terrorists. Exchanges on this issue were heated, and a Maze Consultation Panel69 was constituted at the start of the century, which launched a wide public consultation in late 2003 to gather ideas and opinions on how to redevelop the site. The report published in 200670 recommended that a stadium be built on the site, while one of the wings and the hospital which are classified buildings would not be touched. While the stadium project was abandoned in July 2010, a project including the building of a peace-building and conflict resolution facility, to be housed in the historic part of the building, was accepted by both Sinn Féin and the DUP, as well as plans to establish a Maze Development corporation.

Conclusion : future prospects

  • 71 The DUP vote slightly decreased, going from 30.1 % to 30 %, but increased its numbe (...)
  • 72 James Tilley & Geoffrey Evans, “Political Generations in Northern Ireland”, European Journa (...)
  • 73 Idem.
  • 74 Ibid., 585.

30The 2011 Assembly election showed continued support for the parties in power.71 But what do these results say about the manner in which Northern Ireland has evolved politically, since the start of the Peace Process ? According to Tilley and Evans, “it has been argued that the old class-based left-right divide within the unionist and nationalist blocs has been replaced by competition along the ethno-national dimension”.72 But this study also shows how the peace process has, obviously, affected voting patterns, as the post-conflict generation seems more willing to trust those deemed as “extremists” by the mainstream politicians, as 73 % of Catholics under 24 voted Sinn Féin in the 2007 Assembly election and 75 % of Protestants of that age group gave their vote to the DUP.73 It would therefore seem that those who grew up in a relatively peaceful environment have more trust than their elders in those who, for years, were considered part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution. This has two major implications, according to the authors of this research. On the one hand, both parties have had to come into the mainstream in order to make their views heard and to convince a large part of the electorate. On the other hand, “as older generations are replaced by newer, less moderate cohorts, it gives little electoral incentive for the DUP and Sinn Féin to adopt more centrist policies such that in the future we should see continuing polarisation”.74

  • 75 See for instance Paul Mitchell, Brendan O’Leary & Geoffrey Evans, “Northern Ireland : Flank (...)

31But it can equally be argued that it is precisely because Sinn Féin and the DUP have opted for a more moderate approach to the political situation that their electoral share has increased. Therefore, the analysis of many commentators who dubbed this electoral result a victory of the extremes in 200775 would seem somewhat hasty, as far as Sinn Féin is concerned in any case, as the party that overtook the SDLP in 2007 has little in common with the party which dominated Republican politics during the 1980s and through to the early 21st century. It might be suggested therefore that the peace process has not so much polarised the political debate as blurred the margins between what was once seen as extremism and what is now mainstream politics.

  • 76 All Sinn Féin candidates are profiled on the party’s website, at the following address : <h (...)

32An important feature of Sinn Féin’s success in the nationalist camp is that the party has been very keen on presenting itself as the one that gets the job done. The profile of Sinn Féin candidates to the 2011 Assembly elections shows a good blend of younger, newer generation candidates running alongside more experienced and more senior ones. Former prisoner Jennifer McCann therefore embodies continuity whereas Mary Kate Quinn, described as “one of a new generation of Sinn Féin representatives”76 was 23 at the time of the election (she was the youngest Assembly candidate). This young candidate also embodies Sinn Féin’s commitment to multiculturalism, as she is of Asian origin. Although this is never stressed in her profile, the fact that Sinn Féin is capable of attracting candidates from ethnic communities show how far it has gone in modernising its image and politics. The party that was once mostly identified with traditional nationalism is now keen to be identified with the new multicultural country that Ireland has become on both sides of the border.

  • 77 Gerry Adams resigned his Westminster seat, or at least tried to, in January  2011, in order (...)
  • 78 Jonathan Tonge & Jocelyn Evans, “Northern Ireland : Unionism Loses More Leaders”, Parliamen (...)

33However, the image of a young, dynamic party that Sinn Féin has so skilfully developed and put across over the years might have to be reconsidered. Its leadership, once among the youngest of the country, is now getting on in years. Party leader Gerry Adams could even be considered a veteran at this stage, his elders such as Paisley (who led his party till the age of 80) and Hume (who was party leader for over 30 years) being now retired. This makes him the longest-serving party president in Ireland, something of a record if one considers the longevity of previous Sinn Féin presidents (only Ruairí Ó Brádaigh managed to retain the post for more than 10 years previous to Adams). The fact that the electorate continues to trust him with their votes,77 in spite of a scandal over allegations that he had failed to disclose information on the sexually abusive relationship of his brother with his own daughter, made his seat in West Belfast “the safest seat in the UK”78 until recently. But the question of the possible succession of what was once seen as the “Northern Command” of the party will have to be raised in the not too distant future.

34Sinn Féin has undoubtedly succeeded in securing the allegiance of the nationalist working class in Northern Ireland. McAllister’s study in 2004 showed that Sinn Féin supporters were :

  • 79 Ian McAllister, “‘The Armalite and the Ballot Box’ : Sinn Fein’s Electoral Strategy in Nort (...)

[…] concentrated among the youngest voters ; and there is a significant correlation with the lack of tertiary qualifications. In addition, Sinn Féin supporters are less likely to be found among non-manual workers. There is, then, strong support for the hypothesis that Sinn Féin has indeed mobilized citizens who might in other circumstances decide to abstain from voting.79

35A study of the voting patterns for the 2010 Westminster elections by ethnic bloc shows little change in the traditional Catholic/Protestant choices.80 But so far, Sinn Féin has failed to reach out to unionists and is limited to a vote within its own community. Another issue that the party is facing is that of voter turnout, which seems to be waning, partly because, according to a BBC commentator, “the Stormont system, which creates a coalition between all the major parties, makes it virtually impossible for voters to eject a government and install an opposition”.81 To make things worse, according to Tonge and Evans, “the party’s almost mystical powers of voter mobilization has begun to wane. Although there is still evidence that Sinn Féin does well in constituencies with high turnout, that relationship has weakened as turnout has declined.”82 Sinn Féin’s strength in the 1980s was its capacity to attract first-time voters. If it cannot sustain that momentum, where does the party go from there ? Has it reached a ceiling and if so, is the development of the party in the Republic the answer ?

36Whether Sinn Féin knew where they were heading and deliberately designed a strategy to achieve the present outcomes, or whether they simply chose to go along with the peace process, with the certainty that there would be some positive outcomes for them but with no clear idea of what they would be, is open for debate. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief-of-staff from 1995 to 2007, believes Sinn Féin’s strategy was dictated by events rather than the opposite, but according to his analysis, the onus of finding the way forward was always on the British :

  • 83 Graham Spencer, “Managing a Peace Process: An Interview with Jonathan Powell”, Irish Politi (...)

It was a very difficult thing to lead the movement from its original aims to where it needed to end up, where there was a settlement to be had. They couldn’t set out a detailed route map to where they wanted to be because they would have lost their membership if they had done so. It was important for them not to have that kind of strategy. The problem was though that we would get to the end of a particular piece of work where they would work out a specific tactic with a very short term goal, such as with decommissioning or the Irish language, and then you would get to the end of that particular piece of road and they’d be out of ideas and it would then be thrown back on us to have ideas.83

37Sinn Féin, however, would undoubtedly disagree with that analysis. For them, the long-term objective remains unchanged : the reunification of Ireland, if possible by the year 2016, which would mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising and would therefore acquire a symbolic and historic significance. They have always kept their eyes on the prize, the goalposts have never changed, and if they have had to meander along the way, they remain true to their original aspiration of a united Ireland.

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Bibliographie

DIXON, P., The Northern Ireland Peace Process, London : Routledge, 2006, 240 p.

EVANS, J. & TONGE, J., “Social Class and Party Choice in Northern Ireland’s Ethnic Blocs”, West European Politics, vol. 32, n°5, 2009, 1012-1030.

FEENEY, B., Sinn Féin : A Hundred Turbulent Years, Dublin : O’Brien Press, 2002, 463 p.

GORDON, D., The Fall of the House of Paisley, Dublin : Gill and Macmillan, 2010, 267 p.

MacGINTY, R., Muldoon, O. & Ferguson, N., “No War, No Peace : Northern Ireland after the Agreement”, Political Psychology, vol. 28, n°1, 2007, 1-11.

MAILLOT, A., New Sinn Féin : Republicanism in the Twenty-First Century, London : Routledge, 2005, 212 p.

McALLISTER, I., “‘The Armalite and the Ballot Box’ : Sinn Fein’s Electoral Strategy in Northern Ireland”, Electoral Studies, vol. 23, n°1, 2004, 123-142.

MURRAY, G. & TONGE, J., Sinn Féin and the SDLP: From Alienation to Participation, Dublin : O’Brien Press, 2005, 295 p.

Ó BROIN, E., Sinn Fein and the Politics of Left Republicanism, London : Pluto, 2009, 343 p.

POWELL, J., Great Hatred, Little Room : Making Peace in Northern Ireland, London : Bodley Head, 2008, 338 p.

SHIRLOW, P. & McGOVERN, M, “Language, Discourse and Dialogue : Sinn Féin and the Irish Peace Process”, Political Geography, vol. 17, n°2, 1998, 171-186.

TILLEY, J. & EVANS, G., “Political Generations in Northern Ireland”, European Journal of Political Research, vol. 50, n°50, 2011, 583-608.

TONGE, J & EVANS, J., “Northern Ireland : Unionism Loses More Leaders”, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 63, n°4, 2010, 742-759.

WHITE, T.-J., “Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland”, Peace Review, vol. 19, n°3, Jul-Sep. 2007, 445-451.

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Notes

1 “McGuinness condemns ‘enemies of peace’”, RTÉ News, 4 April 2011 : <http://www.rte.ie/news/2011/0404/kerrr.html> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

2 This is the phrase that was used by Séan Lemass, second-in-command of the newly formed Fianna Fáil party, in 1929, after it broke away from Sinn Féin three years previously on the question of whether to declare an oath to the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, and to the King of England.

3 The seven-member Army Council was the decision-making body of the IRA.

4 The Republican movement split in 1969-1970 was largely the result of fundamental disagreements within its ranks on the role that Sinn Féin and the IRA should play in the Civil Rights Movement. The leadership, which would subsequently be called the Officials, used a Marxist discourse rooted in the class analysis, whereby the priority was given to the unification of the working classes. Anything that could contribute to its continued division – and the armed campaigns of the IRA were identified as a major factor—had to be sidelined. Therefore, Official Sinn Féin advocated reforming the system in the short term and the dropping of abstentionism. The Provisionals, as the dissidents called themselves, accused the leadership of betraying age-old principles, and suspected the leaders, mainly based in the South, of having lost touch with the realities of Northern Ireland. The split that ensued was amongst the most bitter of Republican history, as it left two factions – the Officials and the Provisionals – competing for the same loyalties within the same communities. After some feuding in the early 1970s and some internal dissentions, the Official IRA called an indefinite ceasefire in 1972.

5 Abstentionism was originally suggested by the founder of Sinn Féin, Arthur Griffith, who in 1902 published a pamphlet in which he analysed the tactic used by the Hungarian nationalists to unravel the connection of their country with Austria. Using the electoral strategy to return their own candidates, they set up their own parliament, therefore sending a clear message to the Empire that the legitimacy of the nationalist aspiration was profound. Griffith sought to use the same tactic in Ireland, encouraging elected representatives not to sit in Westminster but instead to form their own assembly. This eventually happened in 1918 when a majority of Sinn Féin representatives were elected and formed their own parliament, Dáil Éireann, thus setting in motion what would become the war of independence.

6 Ten Republican prisoners died during the episode which lasted from March to October 1981. In April, Bobby Sands had been elected MP to Westminster, which greatly enhanced his national and international profile and that of his struggle, although this failed to save his life. The lessons that Republicans learned from this episode were many, one of which was the necessity to get involved in electoral policy if they wanted to progress on the political front.

7 It was Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin Head of Publicity in the early 1980s, who coined this phrase at his party’s annual congress in 1981, whereby he advocated a strategy where armed actions and electoral campaigns would go hand in hand.

8 The following table illustrates the rise in the Sinn Féin vote in the Westminster General Elections :

198319871992199720012005201013.4 %11.4 %10.0 %16.1 %21.7 %24.3 %26.9 %

9 The SDLP was formed in 1970 in the midst of the civil rights movement, seeking to reunify Ireland by peaceful means. It was led by Gerry Fitt until 1979 when he resigned and was replaced by John Hume. The SDLP was one of the strongest critics of the IRA, and was the dominating political force among the nationalist community until 2007. In 1998, John Hume was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with David Trimble for his enormous contribution to the peace process.

10 “Test for Sinn Féin’s Electoral Strategy”, The Irish Times, 22 March 1983.

11 Sinn Féin, Assembly Election Manifesto, Belfast, 1982. Sinn Féin’s position was shared by 73 % of its supporters who, according to a subsequent opinion poll, stated they did not want the Assembly’s survival: “North’s Poll shows sharply divided views on Forum”, The Irish Times, 17 December 1983.

12 In the Republic of Ireland, Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act (1960) came into effect in 1971. It prevented spokespersons for the IRA or Sinn Féin to be interviewed on TV or radio stations. The British introduced a broadcasting ban in October 1988, which targeted a total of eleven organisations. This meant that the British media could no longer interview Sinn Féin leaders, and had to use actors to dub their voices if they appeared on any news programmes.

13 This is a word that was frequent in Sinn Féin parlance until the end of last century, and is still to be found in the columns of their newspaper An Phoblacht. It designates all those who, in the party’s view, are in a position of power, be it the media, the authorities, the political parties, etc. There is a distinct class-based connotation in that word, as it is often used in opposition to the working-class which Sinn Féin claims to represent.

14 Interview with author, 1998.

15 For a detailed study of Sinn Féin’s media strategy throughout the peace process, see Graham Spencer, “Sinn Fein and the Media in Northern Ireland : The New Terrain of Policy Articulation”, Irish Political Studies, vol. 21, n°3, 2005, 355-382.

16 Dawn Doyle, SF Press officer, interview with author, Dublin, 2004.

17 On 8 November 1987, eleven people were killed by an IRA bomb while attending a Remembrance Day ceremony. The IRA tried to explain that the security forces had not evacuated the site quickly enough after having been warned, but the event, known as “Poppy Day Massacre”, generated a wave of condemnations, including from some members of the movement. Sinn Féin subsequently lost four of its eight local seats in 1989. On the tenth anniversary of the event, Gerry Adams apologised, saying on the BBC : “I am deeply sorry about what happened in Enniskillen.” (<http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/25480.stm>, retrieved on 5 September 2011).

18 John Hume/Gerry Adams Statement, 23 April 1993, available at <http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/15217> (retrieved on 12 March 2012).

19 Peter Shirlow & Mark McGovern, “Language, Discourse and Dialogue: Sinn Féin and the Irish Peace Process”, Political Geography, vol. 17, N°2, 1998, 182.

20 This expression has been frequently used since the late 1990s to signify the profound changes that Sinn Féin had undergone over the decade. See for instance Rosie Cowan, “New Sinn Féin: from Armalite to Armani”, The Guardian, 20 November 2003 (<http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2003/nov/20/uk.northernireland>), or Harry McGee, “More Armani than Armalite as Ferris Turns on the Charm”, The Irish Times, 5 May 2009 (<http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2009/0526/1224247403843.html>).

21 Quoted in Graham Spencer, “The Impact of Television News on the Northern Ireland Peace Negotiations”, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 26, n°5, 2004, 612.

22 The complete text of the Downing Street Declaration is available at <http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/dsd151293.htm> (retrieved on 12 March 2012).

23 <http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/ira31894.htm> (retrieved on 12 March 2012).

24 Frank Millar, “Major Insists IRA must clarify issue of permanence”, The Irish Times, 1 September 1994.

25 Tony Blair appointed Marjorie (Mo) Mowlam to the post of Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She immediately indicated that if the IRA restored the ceasefire that it had broken in February 1996 by planting a bomb in the Canary Wharf area of London, killing two people, Sinn Féin would be included in the negotiations. The IRA therefore ended its operations on 20 July 1997. It never broke it again, although the organisation was suspected of carrying out attacks on individuals.

26 Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations, Belfast: HMSO, 10 April 1998, available at : <http://www.nio.gov.uk/agreement.pdf> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

27 For a detailed analysis of the role of decommissioning within the overall formation of the Northern Ireland Executive, see Jonathan Tonge, “The Formation of the Northern Ireland Executive”, Irish Political Studies, vol. 15, n°1, 2000, 153-161.

28 Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Act 1997, section 7-1.

29 Agreement reached in the multi-party negotiations, op. cit., 22.

30 Christopher P. Cunningham, “Northern Ireland and the ‘War on Terror’ : Political Perceptions”, Irish Political Studies, vol. 24, n°3, 2009, 289.

31 IRA Statement on Decommissioning, 30 April 1998. All IRA statements are available on the Sinn Féin website at : <http://www.sinnfein.ie/ira-statements >.

32 This phrase was used for the first time by Taoiseach John Costello in 1949, in the aftermath of the official proclamation of the Irish Republic. It has been used on many occasions, and by various politicians throughout the Peace Process, such as Taoiseach Albert Reynolds after the Downing Street Declaration (See The Irish Times, 16 Dec. 1993). It became one of the hallmarks of Sinn Féin’s rhetoric. A search on the Irish Times archives returned 33 hits for that particular phrase when linked with Adams for the period 1994-2010.

33 This process was gradual, the British withdrawing troops and dismantling installations over the years. The military operation in Northern Ireland came to an end on 27 July 2007. At the height of the Troubles, the total number of troops stationed in the province reached 27,000. Nowadays, there is a garrison of 5,000 troops who no longer patrol the streets but remain in the region for training and possible foreign assignments.

34 Rosie Cowan, “No guns – no government, Trimble tells IRA”, The Independent on Sunday, 26 November 1999 : <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/no-guns--no-government-trimble-tells-ira-739880.html > (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

35 Ian Paisley Jr., Northern Ireland Forum Debates, 4 July 1997.

36 Northern Ireland Assembly Debates, “Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Private Member’s Bill”, 3 November 2009. <http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ni/?id=2009-11-03.6.1&s=bill+of+rights+2009-11-02..2009-11-05+section%3Ani+speaker%3A13907+speaker%3A13908+speaker%3A10679#g6.89 > (retrieved in March 2012).

37 A poll carried out a week before the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland showed that the main reason quoted by those who intended to vote “no” was the early release of prisoners (45 %), much ahead of the beginning of a move towards a United Ireland, which was only quoted by 18 % of voters as their main reason for voting “no”. Deaglan de Breadun, “Unionist support for Agreement drops sharply”, The Irish Times, 15 May 1998.

38 The British started to apply pressure on all paramilitary organisations, but particularly on the IRA, to decommission their weapons as early as 1995. The final act of decommissioning from the IRA took place in 2005. Over the following years, the paramilitary organisations gradually winded down their operations: the UVF and Red Hand Commando (RHC) announced the end of their campaign in May 2007, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) in November that year ; the LVF announced it was standing down in October 2005 ; between June 2009 and February 2010 the UVF/RHC, some elements of the UDA, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and the Official IRA all decommissioned their weapons, but the loyalist paramilitary organisations took longer to decommission, as they only started this process in June 2009.

39 Christopher P. Cunningham, “Northern Ireland and the ‘War on Terror’ : Political Perceptions”, op. cit., 285.

40 The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) were, at the turn of the century, among the top terrorist organisations listed by the American State Department, being part of the “List of Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (as of October 5, 2001). Interestingly, the IRA was not listed.

41 Mark Brennock, “Is the Party Over ?”, The Irish Times, 19 February 2005.

42 The then Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, voiced his concern to the US Embassy in Dublin about the fact that both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, as members of the IRA, had previous knowledge of the robbery. This came out into the open with the publication of US cables by Wikileaks in December 2010. See : Nicholas Watt, “WikiLeaks cables : Sinn Féin leaders ‘were aware of’ Northern Bank heist plans”, The Guardian, 12 December 2010 : <http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/dec/12/wikileaks-sinn-fein-northern-bank> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

43 The establishment of the IMC was decided at the talks in St Andrews in April 2003, which led to the joined Declaration of April 2003 and the subsequent International Agreement in November 2003. It was formally brought into force in January 2004.

44 Gerry Adams, “An Address to the IRA”, Sinn Féin press release, 6 April 2005, available on the Sinn Féin website (retrieved on 12 March 2012).

45 From the start of the conflict, the IRA intervened within the community to exact justice onto those who had broken the law in one way or another. The type of punishments varied according to the gravity of the crime. Petty crime, drug dealing, domestic violence, or any other crime termed “anti-social behaviour” were punished by beating, exiling, and sometimes “kneecapping” (shooting in the kneecap), which became the trademark of the IRA. Crimes considered more serious, such as informing, were sometimes punished by death. Obviously, the IRA had no mandate of any kind to carry out such activities, but in order to impose itself as the self-proclaimed vigilantes of its community, it relied both on the suspicion that nationalists felt towards the security forces, and on its powers of intimidation.

46 The PSNI has been publishing yearly statistics on “paramilitary-style attacks”, which include beatings and shootings, since 1973. These peaked at 326 in 1996 and although they have considerably declined since 2006, they still numbered 54 in 2010. PSNI, Casualties as a Result of Paramilitary-Style Attacks 1973-31 July 2010 : <http://www.psni.police.uk/>.

47 Independent Monitoring Commission, Eighth Report, January 2006, 6.

48 Independent Monitoring Commission, Ninth Report, 8 March 2006.

49 Independent Monitoring Commission, Twenty-Fifth and Final report of the Independent Monitoring Commission, 2004-2011 : Changes, Impact and Lessons, March 2011, 14. These reports were published, on average, quarterly, until December 2010, when the Irish and British Governments announced the end of the Commission.

50 Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, A New Beginning : Policing in Northern Ireland, September 1999, 128 p. The full text of this report is available at : <http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/issues/police/patten/patten99.pdf> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

51 This recruitment policy has been met with success. If the 50 % ratio of Catholics had not been reached in 2011, considerable progress has been made. The number of Catholic officers has risen from 8 % in 2001 to 30 % ten years later. The figures are available on the PSNI website, at <http://www.psni.police.uk/index/updates/updates_statistics/updates_workforce_composition_figures.htm> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

52 Mark Hennessy, Gerry Moriarty, & Dan Keenan, “Sinn Féin endorses PSNI by overwhelming majority”, The Irish Times, 29 January 2007.

53 Jocelyn Evans, & Jonathan Tonge, “Social Class and Party Choice in Northern Ireland’s Ethnic Blocs”, West European Politics, vol. 32, n 5, 2009, 1020.

54 Timothy J. White, “Civil Society and Peace in Northern Ireland”, Peace Review, vol. 19, n°3, Jul-Sep 2007, 448.

55 Roger MacGinty, Orla T. Muldoon & Neil Ferguson, “No War, No Peace : Northern Ireland after the Agreement”, Political Psychology, vol. 28, n°1, 2007, 8.

56 Neil Jarman, “Security and Segregation : Interface Barriers in Belfast”, Shared Space, n°6, Belfast : Community Relations Council, June 2008, 23.

57 For a discussion on the effects of segregation in an urban context, see Frederick Boal, “From Undivided Cities to Undivided Cities : Assimilation to Ethnic Cleansing”, Housing Studies, vol. 14, n 5, 1999, 585-600.

58 The DUP had previously pledged never to have anything to do with Sinn Féin, which is viewed by them as a mere extension of the IRA. They therefore instructed their spokespersons and leaders not to speak directly with members of Sinn Féin, and not even to look at them in the eyes when interviewed on the same panel.

59 Both Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams have been accused by the media and politicians alike to have been in command of the IRA at some stage of their political career, which spans, for both men, over forty years. However, these allegations have never been proven and neither has ever been formally convicted of having been in such a position. The Irish Minister of Justice went as far as to state that both men had not only been chiefs-of-staff in the late 1970s- early 1980s, but had since been part of the seven-member Army Council. Both men have systematically denied such claims, McGuinness only admitted, in the Saville inquiry that was investigating the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, that he was the IRA’s second in command in Derry at the time of the events. Both men deny any involvement with the IRA, although some journalists, such as Ed Moloney, author of a book on the IRA, have indicated that Adams was in charge between 1977 and 1978, and following his arrest, that McGuinness took over until 1982. Ed Moloney, A Secret Story of the IRA, London : Penguin, 2003.

60 The distribution of ministerial portfolios is done through the complex D’Hondt system, which means that parties choose, in turn, the ministries they wish to hold. The party with most votes gets first choice, and so on, and at the end of the first round, the process starts again. Sinn Féin had Education, Regional Development, and Agriculture and Rural Development in 2007. The only change in 2011 was from Regional Development to Culture, Arts and Leisure.

61 Rick Wilford, “Northern Ireland : The Politics of Constraint”, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 63, n°1, Jan. 2010, 147.

62 Vanessa Houlder, “Tax reform ‘would boost N. Ireland growth’”, The Financial Times, 21 August 2011 : <http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/4aea71b8-c981-11e0-9eb8-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz1VrVZevQo> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

63 The overall UK rate, at 26 %, is expected to fall by 50 % by 2015, whereas the rate in the Irish Republic is 12.5 %. This debate came at a time when France and Germany were lobbying within the EU to put an end to the Irish exception and to harmonise all corporation taxes by 2013.

64 Following his retirement in 2008, Ian Paisley was replaced as First Minister by Peter Robinson. However, he had to step down for six weeks following a scandal involving his wife.

65 “McLaughlin concern at DUP confused thinking on corporation tax”, Sinn Féin Press Release, 11 May 2010.

66 Sinn Féin, “Assembly Election 2011 : Job Creation Strategy”, 3 : <http://www.sinnfein.ie/files/Job_Creation_2011.pdf> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

67 Henry McDonald & Owen Bowcott, “Northern Ireland Parties Reach Devolution Agreement”, The Guardian, 18 November 2008.

68 Laura McAtackney, “The Negotiation of Identities at Shared Sites : Long Kesh/Maze Prison Site, Northern Ireland”, paper presented at the Unesco University and Heritage Forum, Newcastle, July 2006, available online at : <http://ucdie.academia.edu/LauraMcAtackney/Papers/446717/The_Negotiation_of_Identity_at_Shared_Sites_Long_Kesh_Maze_Prison_Site_Northern_Ireland> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

69 This Panel, constituted in 2000, was formed of representatives from the four main political parties as well as from the key governmental departments. Its purpose was to invite proposals for developing the 360-acre former prison and Long Kesh security site. See “Public views sought over Maze”, BBC online, 5 December, 2003 : <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/3291931.stm> (retrieved on 12 March 2012).

70 Maze/Long Kesh Masterplan and Implementation Strategy, Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, May 2006 : <http://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/masterplansummary.pdf>.

71 The DUP vote slightly decreased, going from 30.1 % to 30 %, but increased its number of seats from 36 to 38. Sinn Féin’s share of the vote went up from 26.2 % to 26.9 %, gaining one seat with a total of 29. For full results see : <http://www.ark.ac.uk/elections/> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

72 James Tilley & Geoffrey Evans, “Political Generations in Northern Ireland”, European Journal of Political Research, vol. 50, n°50, 2011, 584.

73 Idem.

74 Ibid., 585.

75 See for instance Paul Mitchell, Brendan O’Leary & Geoffrey Evans, “Northern Ireland : Flanking Extremists Bite the Moderates and Emerge in their Clothes”, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 54, n°4, 2001, 725-742.

76 All Sinn Féin candidates are profiled on the party’s website, at the following address : <http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/20484>.

77 Gerry Adams resigned his Westminster seat, or at least tried to, in January  2011, in order to contest the general elections in the Republic of Ireland in March 2011. This is technically not possible, as the reasons for a resignation are particularly strict. According to The Guardian: “under parliamentary rules dating back to 1624, an MP who wishes to quit has to apply for one of a number of obscure, paid crown posts : Crown Steward and Bailiff of the three Chiltern Hundreds of Stoke, Desborough and Burnham or Steward of the Manor of Northstead.” Owen Bowcott, “Gerry Adams ‘not allowed’ to quit as MP”, The Guardian, 25 January 2011 : <http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/jan/25/gerry-adams-mp-parliament-rules> (retrieved on 5 September 2011). Gerry Adams was elected all the same to the Dáil for the Louth constituency, with a comfortable majority, as he topped the poll in his constituency.

78 Jonathan Tonge & Jocelyn Evans, “Northern Ireland : Unionism Loses More Leaders”, Parliamentary Affairs, vol. 63, n°4, 2010, 746.

79 Ian McAllister, “‘The Armalite and the Ballot Box’ : Sinn Fein’s Electoral Strategy in Northern Ireland’, Electoral Studies, vol. 23, n°1, 2004, 136.

80 For a detailed table of voting patterns according to ethnic blocs, see Jonathan Tonge & Jocelyn Evans, “Northern Ireland: Unionism Loses More Leaders”, op. cit., 749.

81 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-13283126> (retrieved on 5 September 2011).

82 Jonathan Tonge & Jocelyn Evans, “Northern Ireland : Unionism Loses More Leaders”, op. cit., 751.

83 Graham Spencer, “Managing a Peace Process: An Interview with Jonathan Powell”, Irish Political Studies, vol. 25, n°3, 2010, 446.

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Agnès Maillot, « Sinn Féin’s Tortuous Road to Power », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. XII-n°8 | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2014, consulté le 28 avril 2017. URL : http://lisa.revues.org/7024 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.7024

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Agnès Maillot

Université de Dublin, Irlande. Agnès Maillot is a lecturer in Dublin City University. She specialises in Northern Ireland and more specifically the Republican movement, and has published many books and articles, among which L’IRA (Presses Universitaires de Caen, 2001) and New Sinn Féin (Routledge, 2005). She is currently working on a project on the history of Sinn Féin from 1926 to 1970, which will be published by Manchester University Press.

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