Sinn Féin (English: "We Ourselves", often mistranslated as "Ourselves Alone" ) is the name of an Irish political party founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith. Sinn Féin provided a focus for Irish Nationalism in its various forms. Consequently, it encompassed political philosophies from the left and right, Republican and Monarchist, theocrats and atheists. Its break-up during the Irish Civil War in 1922 has had a dramatic effect on politics in Ireland to this day.
The ideas that led to Sinn Féin were first propounded by the United Irishman newspaper and its editor, Arthur Griffith. An article by Griffith in that paper in March 1900 called for the creation of an association to bring together the disparate nationalist groups of the time, and as a result Cumann na nGaedheal was formed at the end of 1900. Griffith first put forward his proposal for the abstention of Irish members of parliament from the Westminster parliament at the 1902 Cumann na nGaedheal convention.
A second organisation, the National Council, was formed in 1903 by Maud Gonne and others, including Griffith, on the occasion of the visit of King Edward VII to Dublin. Its purpose was to lobby Dublin Corporation not to present an address to the king. The motion to present an address was duly defeated, but the National Council remained in existence as a pressure group with the aim of increasing nationalist representation on local councils.
In 1904, Griffith elaborated his policy in a series of articles in the United Irishman, which outlined how the policy of withdrawing from the imperial parliament and passive resistance had been successfully followed in Hungary, leading to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 and the creation of a dual monarchy, and proposed that Irish MPs should follow the same course. These were published later that year in a booklet entitled The Resurrection of Hungary. Also in 1904 a friend of Griffith's, Mary Ellen Butler, remarked in a conversation that his ideas were "the policy of Sinn Féin, in fact" and Griffith enthusiastically adopted the term. The phrase Sinn Féin ('ourselves' or 'we ourselves') had been in use since the 1880s as an expression of separatist thinking, and was used as a slogan by the Gaelic League in the 1890s.
The first annual convention of the National Council on 28 November 1905 was notable for two things: the decision, by a majority vote (with Griffith dissenting), to open branches and organise on a national basis; and the presentation by Griffith of his 'Hungarian' policy, which was now called the Sinn Féin policy. This meeting is usually taken as the date of the foundation of the Sinn Féin Party. In the meantime, however, a third organisation, the Dungannon Clubs, had been formed in Belfast by Bulmer Hobson, and it also considered itself to be part of 'the Sinn Féin movement'.
By 1907 there was pressure on the three organisations to unite, especially from America, where John Devoy offered funding, but only to a unified party. The pressure increased when C.J. Dolan, the Irish Parliamentary Party MP for Leitrim North, announced his intention to resign his seat and contest it on a Sinn Féin platform. In April 1907 Cumann na nGaedheal and the Dungannon Clubs merged as the 'Sinn Féin League'. Negotiations continued until August when, at the National Council annual convention, the League and the National Council merged on terms favourable to Grifith. The resulting party was named Sinn Féin, and its foundation was backdated to the National Council convention of November 1905.
In the North Leitrim by-election, held in 1908, Sinn Féin secured 27% of the vote. Thereafter, both support and membership fell. At the 1910 Ard Fheis (party conference) the attendance was poor and there was difficulty finding members willing to take seats on the executive. By 1915 it was, in the words of one of Griffith's colleagues, "on the rocks", so insolvent financially that it could not pay the rent on its party headquarters in Harcourt Street in Dublin.
Sinn Féin was not involved in the failed Easter Rising, despite being blamed by the British Government for it. The leaders of the Rising were looking for more than the Sinn Féin proposal of a separation stronger than Home Rule under a dual monarchy. Any group that disagreed with mainstream constitutional politics was branded 'Sinn Féin' by British commentators. The term 'Sinn Féin Rebellion' was also used by the mainstream Irish media, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) and even by a few of those involved in the Rising.
Later in 1916, surviving members of the Rising led by Éamon de Valera joined and took control of the party. De Valera replaced Griffith as president. The party nearly split between its monarchist and republican wings at its 1917 Ard Fheis (conference) until, in a compromise motion, it proposed the establishment of an independent republic, after which the people could decide whether they wanted a monarchy or republic, subject to the condition that if they chose a monarchy, no member of the British Royal Family could serve as monarch.
Sinn Féin's status was boosted in public opinion by the anger over Maxwell's execution of Rising leaders even though the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Irish Independent newspaper (the biggest selling daily newspaper in Ireland then and now) and many local authorities actually called for the mass execution of Rising leaders. However, this public sympathy did not give Sinn Féin decisive electoral advantage. It battled with the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond, later John Dillon, with each side winning by-elections. It was only after the World War I German Spring Offensive, when Britain threatened to impose conscription on Ireland to bring its decimated divisions up to strength, that the ensuing Conscription Crisis decisively swung support behind Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin won 73 of Ireland's 105 seats in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliament at the general election in December 1918, many uncontested. There were four reasons for this. Firstly, despite being the largest party in Ireland for forty years, the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had not fought a general election since 1910.
Secondly, in many parts of Ireland the IPP's organisation had decayed and was no longer capable of mounting an electoral challenge. Thirdly, other seats were uncontested because of mass support, with other parties deciding that there was no point in challenging Sinn Féin given it was certain to win. Fourthly, contemporary documents also suggest a degree of intimidation of opponents. (Piaras Béaslaí recorded one example in a by-election in Longford in 1917 where a Sinn Féin activist put a gun against the head of a Returning Officer and forced him to announce the election of the Sinn Féin candidate even though the IPP candidate had more votes. Potential candidates who were thought of as serious challengers to Sinn Féin candidates were warned against seeking election in some Ulster constituencies and in Munster, though in Cork all the All-for-Ireland Party MPs stood down in favour of Sinn Féin candidates.)
In Ulster, Unionists won twenty-two (22) seats, Sinn Féin twenty-six (26) and the Irish Parliamentary Party won six (6) (where they were not opposeed by Sinn Féin). In the thirty-two counties of Ireland, twenty-four (24) returned only Sinn Féin candidates. In the nine counties of Ulster, the Unionists polled a majority in only four.
Because twenty-five seats were uncontested under dubious circumstances, it has been difficult to determine what the actual support for the party was in the country. Various accounts range from 45% to 80%. Academic analysts at the Northern Ireland demographic institute (ARK) estimate a figure of 53%.
Another estimate suggests Sinn Féin had the support of approximately 65% of the electorate (unionists accounting for approximately 20-25% and other nationalists for the remainder). Lastly, emigration was difficult during the war, which meant that tens of thousands of young people were in Ireland who would not have been there under normal circumstances.
On 21 January 1919, twenty-seven Sinn Féin MPs assembled in Dublin's Mansion House and proclaimed themselves the parliament of Ireland, the First Dáil Éireann. They elected an Aireacht (ministry) headed by a Príomh Aire (prime minister). Though the state was declared to be a republic, no provision was made for a head of state. This was rectified in August 1921 when the Príomh Aire (also known as President of Dáil Éireann) was upgraded to President of the Republic, a full head of state.
In the 1920 city council elections, Sinn Féin gained control of ten of the twelve city councils in Ireland. Only Belfast and Derry remained under Unionist and IPP (respectively) control. In the local elections of the same year, Sinn Féin won control of all the county councils except Antrim, Down, Londonderry and Armagh.
Following the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations between representatives of the British Government and de Valera's republican government in December 1921 and the narrow approval of the Treaty by Dáil Éireann, a state called the Irish Free State was established. Northern Ireland (a six county region set up under the British Government of Ireland Act 1920) opted out, as the Treaty allowed.
The reasons for the split were various, though partition was not one of them – the IRA did not split in the new Northern Ireland and pro- and anti-treaty republicans there looked to IRA Chief of Staff (and pro-treaty) Michael Collins for leadership (and weapons). The principal reason for the split is usually described as the question of the Oath of Allegiance to the Irish Free State, which members of the new Dáil would be required to take. The Treaty explicitly provided that the Free State would be a Dominion of the British Empire, the Oath also included a statement of fidelity to the King: many republicans found that unacceptable. The pro-treaty forces argued that the treaty gave "freedom to achieve freedom".
In the elections of June 1922 in the southern twenty-six counties, de Valera and the anti-treaty Sinn Féin secured 35% of the popular vote. The anti-treaty element of the IRA had formed another Executive that did not consider itself subordinate to the new parliament, while the pro-Treaty element formed the nucleus of the new National Army with the existing IRA Executive becoming its GHQ.
A short, bitter Irish Civil War (June 1922 – April 1923) erupted between the supporters of the Treaty and its opponents. De Valera resigned as President of the Republic and sided with the anti-treatyites. The victorious pro-treaty parties, who amounted to a majority of Sinn Féin TDs and a majority of the voting electorate, became the government and Dáil of the Irish Free State. The pro-treaty Sinn Féin TDs changed the name of the party to Cumann na nGaedhael and were led by Michael Collins.
After the Civil War, the anti-Treaty IRA stood down ("dumped arms"). In the 1923 general election, Cumann na nGaedhael won 41% of the popular vote and 63 seats; the Anti-Treaty faction (standing as "Republican" and led by Éamonn de Valera) secured 29% of the vote and 44 seats – but applied their abstention policy to the new Dáil Éireann.