New Successes and Setbacks for Sinn Féin

Gerry Adams Sinn Fein Cuba
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams at a ceremony dedicating newly rennovated schools in Havana Cuba, Dec. 18, 2002. The visit sparked controversy in the United States (Photo: AFP).

For 30 years, many regarded Sinn Féin as no more than a propaganda machine for the terrorist campaign waged by its armed wing, the Irish Republican Army, against British rule in Northern Ireland. But the past three years have seen Sinn Féin edge into mainstream politics. The party is a major player in the precarious Northern Ireland peace process—in place since 1998—and is responsible for the ongoing IRA ceasefire. While Sinn Féin (Gaelic for "Ourselves Alone") has committed itself to achieving a united Ireland through political means, two events last month serve to illustrate the ambiguities of a party wedded to the painful past of Northern Ireland, yet committed to a future that is free of the violent past.

The first was party president Gerry Adams' visit to Cuba. The second event—announced while Adams, 53, was in Cuba—was the decision by the British government to grant parliamentary privileges to Sinn Féin's four members of parliament, without requiring them take an oath of allegiance to the "Queen, her heirs, and successors."

Ostensibly, the trip to Cuba was to unveil a plaque commemorating the 10 Irish republican prisoners, seven of whom seven were members of the IRA, who died in the 1981 hunger strike in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison. The hunger strike was started to highlight the prisoners' demands to be treated as political prisoners, not criminals (most of the demands were met, though not until the hunger strikes were called off). At the time of the hunger strikes, Cuba's President Fidel Castro was vocal in his support of the prisoners, and at the opening of the 63rd Inter-Parliamentary Union held in Havana in 1981, said, "Irish patriots are writing one of the most heroic chapters in human history. They have earned the respect and admiration of the world, and likewise they deserve its support. Ten of them have already died in the most moving gesture of sacrifice, selflessness, and courage one could ever imagine," (the British delegation walked out of the conference as Castro was speaking).

So while some saw the trip as simply the unveiling of a memorial to the hunger strikers, and Adams' attendance a gesture of gratitude for Castro's support, others saw it as just another one of the tactics that Adams must employ to keep his rank-and-file in the IRA happy: " Sinn Féin and the IRA went through The Troubles (the period between 1968-98 when more than 3,000 people were killed, about 1,800 by the IRA) regarding themselves as part of an international revolutionary fraternity.... The Cuban visit can be seen as reassurance to those party activists who are unhappy that Sinn Féin might be shedding its one-time radicalism, and going too far to maintain relations with the United States," wrote David McKittrick in Dublin's centrist Irish Independent (Dec. 19).

"The timing could not have been worse," said Ronan Fanning in the same paper (Dec. 23). "The Bush family is the most pro-British dynasty to govern the United States since the Second World War. The Bushs are also the most anti-Castro political family ever to sit in the White House."

The trip to Cuba, and subsequent meeting with Fidel Castro, caused chagrin among Sinn Féin's supporters in the United States, who saw the visit to a country on the U.S. Deptartment of State's list of countries that sponsor terrorism as a kick in the teeth after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The U.S. Department of State was also furious, according to press reports. The Department of State has granted visas to convicted IRA members—Adams included—since 1996, and has allowed Sinn Féin to open an office—used mostly for fundraising and lobbying efforts—in Washington.

Officials at the State Department were already seething over the three suspected IRA members arrested in Colombia in August 2001 and charged with colluding with armed guerillas there. The three say they were in Colombia to observe peace efforts. Adams initially distanced himself from them, but later admitted that one had been the Sinn Féin representative in Cuba who helped organize his visit.

London's conservative The Times (Dec. 14)—a paper that has been strongly critical of Sinn Féin over the years—opined, "The arrest of the Sinn Féin representative to Cuba, Niall Connolly, in Colombia on the charge of assisting a notorious local terrorist outfit was embarrassing enough. The fact that it was followed by the attacks of Sept. 11 has compounded a, perhaps belated, sense of outrage at Sinn Féin inside America." Last year the party raised more than US$1 million from corporate Irish-American backers, according to London's liberal The Observer.

However the likelihood of US$10,000-per-plate fundraisers for Sinn Féin in New York appears to be on the wane. The heightened sensibility within the United States since Sept. 11 regarding groups with terrorist connections is one factor. Moreover, links to the Marxist Colombian terrorist outfit, the FARC, who are said to finance their operations through the drugs trade, is another. On top of this, a visit to one of the last bastions of communism—highlighting Sinn Féin's Marxist political agenda (a 32-county Socialist Republic in Ireland has always been Sinn Fein's goal)—are compounding reasons for the anticipated decline in U.S- based support for Sinn Féin: "The two words drugs and Marxism have done more damage to Sinn Féin [in the United States] than the attack on the World Trade Center," said New York-based Irish Times reporter, Conor O' Cleary, in a recent interview with the BBC.

It is ironic, then, that the British government will become the party's single largest contributor. The decision to extend party privileges to Sinn Féin means up to an additional £500,000 for them a year. Since 1981, Sinn Féin has run in elections in Northern Ireland for election to the British Parliament—hunger striker Bobby Sands was the first Sinn Féin member elected to parliament (he died days after winning)—but when elected, Sinn Féin members refuse to take their seats in the House of Commons, as this would amount to recognizing British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.

While Sinn Féin members will still refuse to serve in the British parliament, they will have an office at Westminster and access to its research facilities. They will not be required to swear the oath of allegiance.

London's liberal Guardian wrote on Dec 14: "Four of Sinn Féin's candidates were elected to the British parliament in the June 2001 election. They represent their constituents as other MPs do. They belong to a party with more MPs than several others at Westminster. Last but not least, Sinn Fein is no longer the political wing of an active terrorist movement." Each MP will receive over £100,000 for the upkeep of an office, hiring of staff, and travel and accommodation expenses. But they will not receive an MP's salary because they do not take part in Commons sessions.

Sinn Féin is unique in that it fields candidates in both the Irish Republic (which constitutes the greater part of Ireland—26 of the 32 counties, all overwhelmingly Catholic—that gained independence in 1922) and the United Kingdom (the official name for the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).

As well as running candidates in the United Kingdom and Irish parliamentary elections, Sinn Féin also has members elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly—the power-sharing body of nationalists (most Catholics are nationalists and are the minority in Northern Ireland) and unionists (most Protestants are unionist—they wish to retain the union with the U.K.—and are the majority of Northern Ireland's 1.7 million people). The Assembly was formed after the Belfast Agreement, sometimes known as the Good Friday Peace Accord, signed in April 1998, and entrusted with running the affairs of Northern Ireland.

In the June 2001 elections for the Assembly, Sinn Féin overtook former Nobel Prize-winner John Hume's moderate nationalist party, the Social Democratic Labor Party (SDLP), as the leading nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin has one member elected to the 166-member Irish parliament and about 20 members elected to local councils in the Irish Republic. It is expected to increase their representation after elections are held later this year.

While the Cuban adventure and the granting of parliamentary privileges dominated press coverage of Sinn Féin at the end of last year, it was a monumental year in the peace process, capped by the October disarmament of the IRA, "…a move which …signaled in a convincing way that it wasn't just this campaign against Britain that had ended but the ancient war itself. They [Sinn Féin] have burned all the important ideological bridges behind them. 2001 was the year which saw the last bridge topple into the water and that is why it will always be regarded as an historic one. In this way Gerry Adams and his colleagues have done something that neither de Velara nor Collins [previous republican leaders] could do or dared do," wrote Ed Moloney in Dublin's liberal Sunday Tribune (Dec. 30).

Though unionists remain the majority in Northern Ireland, former British Secretary to Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson said, in widely reported comments from a recent interview, that Ireland may be united in Gerry Adams' lifetime.