Sinn Fein has come a long way since the first ceasefire in 1994. Arguably it had also come a long way before agreeing to ceasefire at that time. Some would argue that the party has abandoned many of its core principles and policies in the past eighteen years, most notably its commitment to a united Ireland and its refusal to sit in and work a “partitionist” assembly at Stormont. Those who take such a view include those republicans who oppose this change in Sinn Fein’s position and those who approve of the party’s willingness to compromise in the interests of peace.
Sinn Fein emerged in the early 20th century in opposition to Home Rule, their separatist stance evident from their name: Sinn Fein means ‘ourselves alone.’ They made their first foray into politics after the Easter Rising of 1916. In the 1980s Sinn Fein realised that their voice could be heard politically in Northern Ireland and Gerry Adams was first elected in 1983. However, this entrance into politics has led many to accuse them of abandoning their traditional policies.
By the 1990s international developments caused Sinn Fein to abandon many of its traditional policies. Firstly, the collapse of communism and the USSR forced them to rethink how they branded themselves. SF had placed itself on the left of the political spectrum, identifying strongly with revolutionary Marxism and Leninism. When the very state that had epitomised this ideology collapsed it became harder for Sinn Fein to present themselves as a revolutionary party of the left, and therefore they abandoned many of their policies.
Secondly, the ending of Apartheid in South Africa is equally significant in causing Sinn Fein to abandon many of its traditional policies. SF had long sympathised with the Black population struggling against white supremacists and there had been frequent exchanges of persons and papers between them and the African National Congress. Yet by the 1990s this conflict had been solved by peaceful means through Nelson Mandela. This forced Sinn Fein to realise that their goals would have to be achieved by peaceful means and they abandoned many of their more extreme policies. Sinn Fein now strongly reject dissident terrorist attacks, calling them ‘traitors to Ireland.’ This has all led to the growth in middle class Nationalist support.
These factors help explain the willingness of Sinn Fein to reach the point in 1994 when the IRA declared a ceasefire, making it possible for them to enter talks on settlement. The end result of such talks – the signing of the GFA – was historic in many ways, especially because Sinn Fein were no longer seeking to ‘smash Stormont’ but were prepared to work within it. They had accepted the need for compromise and this angered many of their supporters who saw this as evidence that they had abandoned many of their traditional policies.
Once they agreed to the GFA, decommissioning became inevitable. This was an area of contention between SF and the DUP, because the DUP insisted on no ‘government before guns.’ The result was that Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams was walking a tightrope between appeasing the unionists and hardliners within the IRA ranks. Sinn Fein played the politics of negotiation to great effect, demanding that it would control decommissioning and not the British government or the unionist parties. Eventually decommissioning occurred, but it was not until 2005 that everything was fully destroyed. Naturally their hardline supporters were unhappy with this because it was yet another way that Sinn Fein abandoned their traditional policies.
Going into government caused other issues for Sinn Fein. For example, although they do not take their seats in Westminster, they currently have 4 MPs who still have Westminster offices and claim expenses. This association with the British government is a vast change from their traditional policy. Furthermore, another way in which they have seemed to abandon their traditional policies is by entering the Dail in the Republic of Ireland. This means that they have technically accepted the partition of Ireland. Sinn Fein had to vote to change their own written roles in order to enter the Stormont and the Dail. Following this vote, the breakaway factions of the IRA began to emerge because they opposed the rule change.
Finally, another way in which Sinn Fein have abandoned their traditional policies is their change in attitude towards policing. Nationalists refused to recognise the police force, so the government appointed an ex Conservative cabinet minister Lord Patton to write a report recommending changes. These included changing the name from the RUC to PSNI and implementing a 50-50 recruitment policy between Catholics and non-Catholics. The policing board did not include Sinn Fein at this point because they did not believe the changes went far enough. However, when the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2006 occurred one of the requirements was that SF took their seats on the policing board before going into government in 2007. This is further proof that they have abandoned their traditional policies.
On the other hand, Sinn Fein itself would reject the claim that it has abandoned its core principles. It would assert that it as committed as ever to the achievement of a united Ireland and the creation of an all-Ireland state that would replace the institutions at Stormont. Its party policies emphatically state that they are an Irish republican party who seek the end of British Rule in Northern Ireland. They argue that entering Stormont was a pragmatic approach that will ultimately achieve a united Ireland faster than violence would. They will attempt to persuade unionists that they will be better off in a united Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s continued commitment to harmonising with the Republic of Ireland is demonstrated by their support of the North/South Council. During GFA negotiations Nationalists and Republicans demanded a role for the Republic of Ireland in Northern Ireland’s affairs. The North South Ministerial Council was set up to deal with issues that could be tackled much better by cross border cooperation. This has led to a changed relationship between North and South and has produced some valuable results. For example, instead of wasting money and creating confusion by promoting Ireland and Northern Ireland separately it was decided to try and promote Ireland internationally by ‘Tourism Ireland.’ The Erne/Shannon boating link has been highly successful in this regard. Sinn Fein are always pushing for more cross border bodies or development of existing bodies, proving that they haven’t abandoned their traditional policies.
Another way in which Sinn Fein has stayed true to its original policies is how they successfully negotiated the release of all paramilitary prisoners after the GFA. Since 1969 over 10,000 Irish republicans have been imprisoned. Sinn Fein believers that because the war is over, then they do not need to be in jail. They are also against prosecuting people wanted for terrorist crimes that occurred before the ceasefire, a matter of contention between them and the DUP.
Moreover, after the GFA Sinn Fein proved that it was still committed to the needs of the nationalist community when the SF Minister for Health, Bairbe De Bruin, had to decide where to build a new multi-million pound maternity unit. Her committee recommended that it be built at Belfast City Hospital, which is in a more unionist part of Belfast, but she refused and instead built it at the Royal Victoria Hospital in West Belfast, an area predominately republican and Sinn Fein supporting.
The Party would also reject any suggestion that it has compromised on its other principles of human rights, equality and the recognition of nationalist culture and traditions. Sinn Fein has been on the front line in the fight for gay marriage in Northern Ireland. They are against the gay blood donation ban and are in favour of gay adoption. Sinn Fein created a motion calling for same sex marriage in 2015 which achieved an assembly majority. A DUP backed petition of concern was used to reject the motion. As for abortion, they are in support of it in certain circumstances, such as fatal foetal abnormality. Their fight for human rights means they have not abandoned their traditional policies.
Sinn Fein has also stayed true to its socialist routes by rejecting attempts to bring Tory austerity into Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Act 2015 introduces a range of changes to the benefits system. It was initially introduced in 2012 and took years of debate, including Sinn Fein attempting to use a Petition of Concern. Eventually the bill had to be forced through by Westminster and was part of the Fresh Start Agreement. Even though they were unsuccessful, the fact that Sinn Fein tried to prevent this is proof that they haven’t abandoned their traditional policies.
Another area in which Sinn Fein has not abandoned its traditional policies is on the issue of education. Under the Good Friday Agreement the minister had final say, so then Education Minister Martin McGuiness decided to end the 11+ and the Secretary of State passed it under direct rule after 2002 suspension. The St Andrew’s Agreement allows for grammar schools to use their own tests until an agreement has been reached, but after more than a decade no agreement is forthcoming. Sinn Fein opposes academic selection because it disadvantages lesser able pupils. Instead they push for a system where schools are all-ability comprehensives, with greater support for schools in disadvantaged areas.
To conclude, although Sinn Fein has had to change some of its more extreme policies, they claim that their aim of a united Ireland has never changed and that they are simply adapting to the general forces of modernity. Issues such as regeneration of the Maze, a potential Irish language act and greater cross-border cooperation can be achieved much better by pragmatic politics. Violence in the current climate will not achieve SF’s ultimate goal.