From bullets to ballots - book traces the rise of modern Sinn Féin party

A new book traces the rise of modern Sinn Féin and how it moved from supporting armed Republicans in the North to constitutional politics. It has gained the biggest dividend from peace, as Ryle Dwyer discovers.

GARDA Commissioner Noreen O’Sullivan says some “who would have previously had paramilitary connections” are currently involved in criminal activity along the border. Gerry Adams insists, however, that the war is over.

Deglán de Bréadún’s Power Play is a timely and balanced assessment of the rise of Sinn Féin in its modern form. 

He contends the party had gone “from being the Provos’ brass band, to becoming a key player in mainstream politics, north and south.”

The author caught my eye when he subscribed to the sentiments of Daniel O’Connell, who said that freedom should be “attained not by the effusion of human blood but by the constitutional combination of good and wise men.”

My first introduction to Irish history in primary school was a Christian Brother who used to become quite emotional denouncing O’Connell for suggesting that it was not worth shedding blood for independence.

As the son of a father killed in war, I empathised with O’Connell. 

Even though I was not yet a teenager, I questioned that Christian Brother’s perverted concept of Christianity.

Various parties are currently exploiting the upcoming centenary of the 1916 Rebellion. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has accused Fine Gael of making “a deeply sinister attempt to misuse the respect which the Irish people have for 1916.” 

Gerry Adams, on the other hand, has accused M. Martin of ignoring “the reality that Volunteers in 1916 were responsible for killing women and children here in the streets of Dublin.”

Mr Adams would have us believe that 1916 and the troubles in the North from the 1960s to the 1990s were really part of the same struggle, and he accused Mr Martin of compartmentalising the struggle.

“He tried to sanitise one phase of the war and demonise and criminalise the other one,” Mr Adams contends.

In short, Mr Adams clearly feels that what happened in 1916 justified the recent Northern troubles. 

More people should really be questioning what actually happened in 1916. Too many politicians have been exploiting the events for their own political ends over the past century.

While Sinn Féin was supporting the armed struggle in the North, it got little support in the Republic. From 1960 to 1980 the party failed to elect anybody to Leinster House. 

Then in 1981 two hunger strike candidates were elected, but Sinn Féin failed to win any seat the following year, or in 1987, when it fielded 23 candidates. 

It also failed to win any seat in 1989, and 1992.

It was not until 1997 that it made the break through with the election of Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in Cavan-Monaghan, with an impressive 19.4% of the first preference votes.

Five years later, after the ratification of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin enjoyed a stunning showing in the general election of 2002. 

This was possibly a reflection of the role that Mr Adams and Sinn Féin played in the success of the Good Friday Agreement.

An Evening Herald poll in 2002 found that Mr Adams was the most popular leader of any party with 57% support. 

Sinn Féin emerged from the general election as the fourth most popular party with 6.5% of the vote, which was ahead of the Progressive Democrats and the Greens, even though each of those won more seats. 

The PDs won 10, while the Greens took six, and Sinn Féin got only five seats.

This was largely due to the vagaries of the transferable vote. Sinn Féin suffered, because it was still toxic in the eyes of voters who supported other parties. 

Too many of them were not prepared to give a second, third, or even fourth preference vote to Sinn Féin candidates.

Some suggest the leadership of Mr Adams is contaminated is the eyes of southern voters. Mr de Bréadún notes that the Sinn Féin leader is “a highly controversial figure”, and many think the party would do

better with a different leader, such as Mary Lou McDonald.

“There are few politicians from rival parties who impress TDs more than McDonald,” according to the author.

Mr Adams has been plagued by accusations about his past, and also by his own lack of credibility, especially over his denial about ever having been a member of the IRA.

Other matters have also been dragged in, such as the murder of Jean McConville, and the Maria Cahill affair. 

Issues that have been clearly exploited in an effort to discredit him.

If Mr Adams were as noxious as some critics like to paint him, how do they explain his vote in the 2011 general election, when he gained the third highest vote in the country? 

He got 15,072 first preference votes, which amounted to 21.7%.

His total vote was only short of Enda Kenny, who won 23.6% of the first preference votes in Mayo, and Shane Ross with 23% in Dublin South.

The Labour Party won a record 37 seats, with 19.4% of the overall vote in 2011, while Sinn Féin won 14 seats with 9.9%.

“This was Labour’s hour in the sun,” so with the Labour Party now tending to cannibalise itself and not even rating half as well in current polls, are disaffected Labour voters likely to shift Sinn Féin?

In nine public opinion polls conducted by four different companies from May to September 2015, Sinn Féin support rated from 19.1% to 21.5%. 

If the party got that kind of support in a general election, it could end up as the second largest party.

The major parties have ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin after the next general election, but people heard such promises before. 

The Progressive Democrats were essentially founded in 1985 to keep Charlie Haughey out of power, but the party came to his rescue and propped him up in power after the 1989 general election.

In 1992 the Labour Party was denouncing Fianna Fáil, but then it went into Government with Fianna Fáil after the general election. 

Both the PDs and the Green Party propped up Fianna Fáil in the naughties. Some of those now denouncing Sinn Féin could yet be jumping into the same political bed after the next general election, if the numbers are right.

There are, of course, many imponderables. Fianna Fáil was only around 17.5% in polls around the time of the last local elections, but its candidates got 25.3% in those elections, so it is wise to be cautious before making predictions on the basis of polls.

A week before the last Presidential election the independent Seán Gallagher, seemed to have the race sewn up, but he was undermined during the final week of campaigning, as Michael D Higgins eroded what seemed like an insurmountable lead.

Nobody is likely to think that Deaglán de Bréadún has gone soft on Sinn Féin, but he adopts a balanced approach. 

This book is a timely political warning that the electorate should be ready for just about anything during the coming campaign.

Power Play — The Rise of Modern Sinn Féin

Deaglán de Bréadún

Merrion Press, €17.99



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