By Jack Holland
Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s recent remarks that the IRA and Sinn Fein are two different organizations brought a smile to many faces in Ireland and elsewhere. Subsequently, drenched in a storm of disbelief, he tried to explain what he meant by talking about them as separate wings of the one republican movement.
The relationship between the "military" and political aspects of the republican movement has, of course, always been a contentious issue, compelling some to indulge in Jesuitical arguments, and even schizophrenic behavior.
I was reminded of a story that a high-ranking member of the Irish Republican Socialist Party told me many years ago about the position he found himself in as chairman of the party, which was formed from a split in the old Official IRA. The IRSP was impoverished right from the start, and was always in need of money. At meetings, members would berate him for not pressing "Group B" — i.e. the Irish National Liberation Army, the armed wing — to carry out more "fund-raising" activities, i.e. robberies. He would sit down and write a memo to the INLA’s director of operations, i.e. himself, demanding to know why he was not bringing in the loot.
"I began to suffer from something of split personality," he remarked ruefully.
Alas, that split has always been in the nature of Irish republicanism. Because of its traditional commitment to armed force it has needed to maintain an illegal organization alongside the legitimate political party. For what good is having a commitment to armed force if you do not possess the means of putting it into action? But what is the point of armed action if you don’t have a political organization capable of exploiting it? The problem for Irish republicanism has been balancing the two.
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Sinn Fein and the IRA have not always been related. Sinn Fein was founded in 1905 as a monarchist party, advocating an independent Ireland but under the British crown. The IRA only pledged allegiance to it in August 1919, as the governing party of the second Dail. Then, supposedly, the IRA came under party control as the army of the fledgling Irish Republic. But the relationship between the two was from the very start an uneasy one.
In 1917, one Sinn Fein member had written that "some of the Oglaigh [Volunteers] think Sinn Fein is too tame, too moderate." Michael Collins warned that "the Volunteers did not want politicians interfering with their military matters." In the 1918 Sinn Fein convention a mass influx into the party of IRA volunteers was organized so that, according to Liam De Roiste, "mainly IRA officers were sent as delegates." However, this attempt by the military wing to completely dominate the political party did not entirely succeed, as Sinn Fein candidates with no IRA background could still get picked to run for office.
The historian Peter Hart writes that in the 1919-21 period "one of the worst things one Volunteer activist could say about another was that he was really only ‘the Sinn Fein type.’ " Suspicion between the party and the army came to a head in 1924 as the party president Eamon De Valera, tried to maneuver Sinn Fein into the post-treaty Dail. The IRA separated itself from Sinn Fein and resumed its pre-1919 status. In 1926, Sinn Fein was more or less obliterated as De Valera resigned as party president and set up a new party, Fianna Fail, which absorbed most of its activists. Though both wings of the republican movement went their separate ways, they went in the same general direction — which was down. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, Sinn Fein was almost extinct and the IRA barely alive. The question of their relationship was very much an academic matter, secondary to whether either would continue to exist.
A revival followed in 1955, as partition was made at least a rhetorical issue by the Irish government. Sinn Fein won the mid-Ulster seat at Westminster, and in 1956 a restructured IRA launched Operation Harvest, a campaign against Northern Ireland that ended in ignominious defeat five years later.
The relationship between Sinn Fein and the IRA came up for review again in the mid-1960s. The IRA’s dismissive attitude about being "only a Sinn Fein type" persisted in the republican movement for a remarkably long time. Billy McKee, founding member of the Provisional IRA and former commanding officer of the Belfast brigade, once described Sinn Fein as a "bloody anchor around our necks." He told me how in 1969 he was infuriated to learn that the IRA was putting money into the Sinn Fein paper, The United Irishman, instead of keeping it for buying weapons.
Indeed, the relationship between the two was at the center of the crisis that gripped the republican movement in the late 1960s. Some left-wing reformers wanted the political party to control the army, following a kind of Bolshevik model. Traditionalists like McKee resisted, seeing this as a way of rendering the IRA impotent. When the republican movement split in 1969, the Provisionals took with them those elements most suspicious of "politics." This helped frustrate the development of Provisional Sinn Fein until 1977, when the young Northerners who had come of age in the civil rights days gained influence in the IRA at leadership level. Another restructuring of the republican movement began, an important feature of which was the new role accorded to Sinn Fein. An IRA staff report which was seized by the Irish police in late 1977 outlined the new plans for the political party. It said: "Sinn Fein should come under army organizers at all levels" and "should be directed to infiltrate other organizations to win support for and sympathy to the movement." This was, in effect, the Bolshevik model in reverse, with the armed group running the party.
This domination proved crucial in the years of electoral success after the 1981 hunger strikes. It ensured that the IRA and Sinn Fein were more or less in lockstep when the party wanted to make such changes as the ending of the policy of abstentionism, enabling party delegates to take their seats first in the Dail and then in the Stormont assembly. Without it, the republican movement could not have been brought to the threshold of government.
There has been some fragmentation over the years, but if the movement has stayed together, it is largely thanks to the IRA-Sinn Fein relationship, though at times it might be inconvenient for certain people to acknowledge it.