On-the-go history: Sinn Fein, the IRA and the Troubles

Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of being a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ for his links to Martin McGuinness and supporting the cause of the political party Sinn Fein, the eventual reunification of Ireland. This saw the rise of the IRA and their exploits as a terrorist organisation, killing countless innocent civilians in the process. Corbyn has explicitly condemned the IRA and the killing of innocent civilians and his links are only to Sinn Fein, who differ from the IRA but how?

What is the history of the IRA and Sinn Fein? Are they one and the same or is it more complex than that? Martin McGuinness was a member of the Provisional IRA but left in 1974 and was a member of Sinn Fein, this highlights that they are separate from each other.

The foundations of Sinn Fein

Firstly, we draw to the foundation of Sinn Fein which occurred on November 28th1905. They began life as a nationalist pressure group and the name ‘Sinn Fein’ means ‘Us’ or ‘Ourselves Alone’, this was a statement to the public that the solution to Irelands predicament was in the hands of the people, not anybody else. They foundation consisted of two different groups by Arthur Griffith and Bulmer Hobson and a year later established the group Cumann na nGaedhael (Tribe of the Gaels), the principle ancestor to Sinn Fein.

Griffith firmly believed that the armed rebellions had failed and that a passive resistance was the best tactic, this would mean withdrawal from Westminster and establishing a national assembly in Ireland, refusing to pay British taxes, creation of independent Irish courts and Irish civil service, taking control of local authorities and boycotting British products. It attracted nationalists, pacifists and feminists and won fifteen seats in the Dublin local elections in 1908 but failed badly at North Leitrim parliamentary by-elections.

However, after the Easter Rising of 1916, which Griffith steered clear of, this lead to disapproval from the more hardliners such as Michael Collins. Griffith stepped aside and allowed Eamon de Valera to be elected as Sinn Fein president and at subsequent elections in 1918, they won 73 out of 105 seats in Westminster. From this they refused to take their seats and succeeded to form an Irish parliament in Dublin, the Dail Eireann, which declared Ireland an independent republic.

The formation of the IRA and evolution of Sinn Fein

Initially founded as a left-wing nationalist movement for Ireland, Sinn Fein established themselves firmly within Ireland. But new leadership of Sinn Fein in 1962 eventually saw the Garland Commission set up to look at the possibility of ending its absence from Westminster. This angered the traditional republican element within the party with some of the senior figures viewing this as treason against the Irish Republic and at the beginning of the 1970 the party split into two. This saw the IRA founded and their Provisional Army Council formed.

The motion of ending their absence in Westminster was put forward by both Sinn Fein and the IRA, both being rejected at their meetings, the former failing to acquire the two-thirds required. Sinn Fein delegates were informed that an IRA convention had been held and had regularised its structure. The opposing party became known as Official Sinn Fein, then Sinn Fein – Workers Party in 1977 and eventually The Workers Party in 1982. Following the establishment of the IRA, Sinn Fein became a protest movement after the introduction of internment. However, the party lacked a political philosophy that was distinct which was used by the IRA to announce republican policy that was in effect their own but Sinn Fein was given a voice during the IRA ceasefire of 1975.

The partition of Ireland and the Troubles

Resentment and conflict had been brewing in Ireland since the partition of Ireland in 1921, when the Act of 1920 was created to give two self-governing territories in Ireland but with both remaining in the UK. There were also provisions for co-operation between the two territories and the eventual reunification of Ireland. But following the War of Independence, the southern part of Ireland became independent. Since then the key aspirations for Irish nationalists have been for the reunification of Ireland whilst the unionists of Norther Ireland what to remain part of the UK.

This conflict of interest and the partition itself created the foundations for the later conflicts known as the Troubles, which began in 1968. Prior the violence there was a civil rights movement to end discrimination of Catholics who were mostly nationalists’ minority by the mostly protestant and unionist government and police. The conflict was primarily political, with the nationalists wanting reunification whilst the unionists wanted to remain as Northern Ireland and part of the UK.

Throughout the conflict the IRA inflicted serious attacks on the loyalists but the violence was escalated by the unionist/loyalists, after a protest campaign by republicans was met with violence by the loyalists. This led to British troops being deployed to initially support police and protect Catholic civilians. Approximately 3,500 people were killed in conflict, 52% of those being civilians the rest a mix of British security forces and parliamentary groups. It was in the 1980s that Sinn Fein led by Gerry Adams, sought to end the conflict and predicted it would be a long process. He held talks with John Hume, SDLP leader and secret talks with government officials.

Throughout Sinn Fein had been the protest and parliamentary group that led the talks for the end to the conflict, but it was the IRA wing who were inflicting vile attacks on British and loyalists, however, the British and the loyalists weren’t without fault. The event that is often credited for escalating the disaffection from Catholics and nationalists was Bloody Sunday.

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

After British troops were deployed and welcomed by Roman Catholics as a neutral force, they shot 28 unarmed civilians during a peaceful protest march against internment. Fourteen died with thirteen killed outright and another death of man four months later was attributed to his injuries. Many were shot trying to flee the soldiers and some were shot trying to help the wounded, some were injured by rubber bullets and batons, two were run down by army vehicles.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident an enquiry was set up and largely cleared the soldiers and British authorities of blame. Describing the shooting as “bordering on reckless” but accepted the claims they were shooting at gunmen and bomb throwers. The report being largely criticised as a whitewash. It was this event though that saw many Catholics switch from seeing the British army as protectors but as enemies, with young nationalists becoming attracted to violent republican groups. The Provisional IRA began to gather more support in the wake of newly radicalised, disaffected young people.

Throughout the conflict

British forces colluded with loyalists with the De Silva report finding that 85% of the intelligence used by loyalists came from the security forces. The locally recruited Ulster Defence Regiment by British troops was almost entirely Protestant and despite a vetting process, some loyalist militants could enlist and by 1990, 197 UDR members had been convicted of terror offences. During the 70s and 80s there were 15 individuals abducted by the republicans, who were to be known as The Disappeared, only 9 bodies have ever been recovered as of 2015.

British government security forces that included the Military Reaction Force (MRF) carried out what is described as ‘extrajudicial killings’ of unarmed civilians. Victims often being Catholics of suspected Catholic civilians that were unaffiliated with any paramilitaries. Bloody Sunday wasn’t the only incident in 1972, there were shootings in Andersonstown and Whiterock Road later that year of unarmed Catholic civilians. A member of the MRF stated in 1978 that they would often attempt false flag operations to provoke sectarian violence and a former member stating, “we were not there to act like an army unit, we were there to act like a terror group”.

Considerably more complex than media portrayal

Upon researching the IRA and Sinn Fein, there were many tangents and complexities to the situation and conflict of that period. The attacks and violence from both sides were abhorrent and those who continued even after the Good Friday Agreement aren’t representative of the likes of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness who were working with the UK government for a peace deal from the 80s, even before that Sinn Fein themselves were a peaceful protest group.

The actions of the IRA are and always will be universally condemned but actions from both loyalists and the British forces had a direct cause on the growth of the IRA in the early 70s. There is still significantly more to the history that stretches further back and gives more foundations as to why the IRA rose to significance, despite attempts by Sinn Fein to remain true to their foundations of a passive resistance and the eventual reunification of Ireland.

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One thought on “On-the-go history: Sinn Fein, the IRA and the Troubles

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