Most of the leading figures of the United Irishmen were Presbyterian’s and Protestants and a key part of their programme was unity between Irish people of all religions in the cause of liberty. Their rebellion in 1798 was ruthlessly suppressed, but their ideas continued to inspire Irish nationalists for over a century and a half. The separatist strand of Irish nationalism waxed and waned in the 19th Century, enjoying it’s biggest popular following in the Fenian movement in Ireland and the United States in the late 1850s and 1860s, but by the end of the century, the organised demand for complete separation was almost non-existent.
The name Sinn Féin (We Ourselves) first emerged in the early 1900s. It was a federation of nationalist clubs and eventually, all nationalists to the left of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster came to be popularly known as Sinn Féiners. The press of the time called the 1916 Rising the “Sinn Féin Rebellion”. The Sinn Féin party, reorganised in 1917, was based on the demand for an Irish Republic. It won the 1918 general election overwhelmingly and set up Dáil Eireann (Assembly of Ireland). Following three years of guerrilla war, led by the underground republican government, the party split in 1922 on the issue of the Treaty which partitioned Ireland. Throughout the 1920s, following a devastating Civil War, Sinn Féin continued as the republican party. The departure of its leader Éamonn de Valera to form Fianna Fail in 1926 meant that it was to remain as a small abstentionist party for the next two decades. It’s fortunes ebbed and flowed in the late 1950s and early 1960s with the IRA’s border campaign, during which it enjoyed some electoral success.
In the 1960s, Sinn Féin adopted a more radical stance on social and economic affairs and campaigned politically to gain support on issues other than partition. But differing approaches to the Civil Rights Movement and to the outbreak of the present conflict in the Six Counties led to another split. One section of Sinn Féin was in the process of abandoning the republican demand for complete British withdrawal from Ireland and went on to become the Workers Party and eventually Democratic Left.
The Sinn Féin which emerged in 1970 – popularly known at the time as ‘Provisional’ Sinn Féin – was to evolve through the ’70s and ‘ 80s to the party we know today. It was to the forefront of the resistance of the nationalist people in the Six
It was only in the early 1980s that the challenge of Sinn Féin as a serious political force and central element in the republican struggle was first fully felt. The re-evaluation of strategy and reorganisation which resulted from the mass campaign in support of republican prisoners in the H-Blocks and Armagh before and during the 1981 Hunger Strike (when ten prisoners died) set Sinn Féin on its course for the 1980s.
Sinn Féin’s involvement in the attempts to build a peace process has its origins in the mid 1980s. It was then that Sinn Féin sought to engage in dialogue with as wide a spectrum of opinion as possible for the purposes of achieving a just and lasting peace in Ireland. These engagements initially began with the SDLP through its then-leader John Hume. They went on to include the British government through secret negotiations with Sinn Féin Martin McGuinness from 1991 – 1993, the Irish government and Irish America. It was through the engagements with the SDLP, the Dublin government and Irish America that the Irish Peace Initiative emerged.
On August 31, 1994 the Irish Republican Army took the courageous and unprecedented step of calling a “complete cessation of military operations”. This provided a window of opportunity through which we could all attempt to forge a new future based on justice and peace.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and St. Andrew’s Agreement in 2006, led to the establishment of the Asembly and Executive in the six counties, of which Sinn Féin is the largest nationalist party.
Despite the efforts of our opponents, over the past two decades Sinn Féin has become a formidable electoral force both North and South. We have contested elections in all but two of the last 21 years, which is a unique record for any political party. With over 200 Sinn Féin elected representatives across the island, Sinn Féin is now the largest Nationalist party in the six counties and with 17 members of the Oireachtas, is also making significant advances in the 26 counties. Ongoing campaigns and the expansion of Sinn Féin reaffirms that there is a growing section of the population who are demanding and want to work for freedom, real democracy and social justice.