Sinn Féin and the Past: A Party in Failure – by Dr Cillian McGrattan

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Although Sinn Féin are sometimes seen in media and academic circles as almost Stalinesque in their management of party politics and agenda setting, their most recent attempts at policy direction suggest a party in disarray.

This is no more in evidence than in the area of dealing with the past. (Of course, the ineptitude may be just what Sinn Féin wants its opponents to think to lull them into a false sense of security.)

It is true, as Henry McDonald has suggested, that the party has developed a commemoration programme that operates on an ‘industrial scale’. Although it lost some hardliners, it has also been relatively successful in managing long-term change processes involving acceptance of devolution and policing reform.

They have been relatively successful too in promoting the idea that the present dispensation is transitional – as opposed to the possibility that the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has actually solidified partition.


Sinn Féin’s Historic Ghosts

Yet the party was rather flatfooted in its response to the empirical and moral challenges posed by the memory of the Hunger Strikes. As regards the empirical questions: within the movement, spokespersons indulged in blatant emotionalism to keep the concerns of families in check, while in the press they obfuscated over the nature of their strategy in prolonging the strike.

As Rogelio Alonso points out in his incisive analysis of the Provisional republican movement, the moral question of whether Bobby Sands et al died for cross-border cooperation has never really been faced up to by Sinn Féin; it remains lurking like a traumatic memory or half-repressed guilt in their development of a narrative of peace.

The uncertainty over dealing with the past resurfaced over the appointment of Mary McArdle as special advisor to the Minister for Arts, Culture and Leisure. The legislation to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future has been rejected by Sinn Féin. For instance, it described the idea that ex-prisoners should show remorse for their actions as equivalent to demanding ‘sackcloth and ashes’ treatment.

The role of special advisors falls under notions of political patronage – they are not elected and not accountable, except to their ministers. It is therefore a deeply political role.

The dual strategy of claiming victimhood for terrorists while delegitimising an attempt to restore scrutiny to the democratic process is an attempt to forestall debate, to de-politicise. It is also craven and cynical – and that is exactly where the holes in Sinn Féin’s policy direction appear.



Sinn Féin and the Maze

The strategy is replicated in the party’s inevitable welcoming of the announcement to go forward with the establishment of a Conflict Resolution Centre on the site of the Maze. Seanna Walsh, for example, has deployed a rather ambiguous use of the word ‘sanitise’, in asking why anyone would want to airbrush the history of the site.

As Alex Kane has pointed out, this notion misses the point: politicisation has already occurred through the decision to spend taxpayers’ money.

Walsh believes the fact that stories need to be told justifies the project: ‘All sorts of interesting conversations began as a result of those cups of tea [in the gaol]. However, it would be surprising if these stories deviated far from the norm: 1. ‘Big Ian made me do it’; 2. ‘I wanted revenge because the “Brits” beat up my da/brother/me/ransacked our house/shot innocent people’.

The plea to education is as ridiculous as the narrative of prison to peace is inane: Are we supposed to educate our children that they shouldn’t shoot unarmed men at their breakfast in case they might go to gaol? The Maze does not contain universal stories of righteous opposition to oppression. It is not Robben Island and the IRA is not the ANC.

Peaceful, justifiable opposition to discrimination once did occur in Northern Ireland and the civil rights movement made serious advances towards equality; the terrorists’ campaigns stymied and killed those advances. The danger in airbrushing history and morality remains real and present, and is often cloaked in half-baked banalities about lesson-learning, lesson-sharing.


Narrating the Troubles

An alternative reading of the prison-to-peace narrative might conclude with the moral that peace is a privilege, not a right. In other words: terror pays, and it is only when terror is acquiesced that governance (of a sort) can begin.

The Maze then is less a lesson to share with the outside world, but becomes rather another stick to beat the citizens of Northern Ireland over the head with: ‘Don’t expect too much; don’t raise your hopes of anything but a divided society; peace necessitates ethical compromises’.

Republican stories of repression-response or loyalist ideas about elite manipulation of the working class are easy sells; they are much easier tales to tell and to hear than histories about mobilising against discrimination or testimonies of those left struggling with the trauma inflicted by terrorists.

In part, it is the inability to recognise this gap that causes so much offence. Finola Meredith writing in the Belfast Telegraph points out that there are ‘precedents’ for the Maze project.

Berlin has a museum, she explains, on the grounds of the SS and Gestapo headquarters. But her parallel is arguably misleading, the Topography of Terror, as the museum is known, makes a particular effort to differentiate between victims and perpetrators – deliberately using those very straightforward terms.

The ways in which Sinn Féin have approached the Maze debate in Northern Ireland does little to convince that the Conflict Transformation Centre will contribute much to knowledge about either conflict or transformation.


Sinn Fein Chairman Declan Kearney

Sinn Fein Chairman Declan Kearney



Sinn Féin on the Past

As a party of government, Sinn Féin cannot plausibly continue to pursue ethnicised, particularistic agendas. Until now, its policy seems to be to ‘bank’ concessions in the debate over dealing with the past such as the Maze decision and move forward, drawing on their capital and returns to continually hollow-out the Northern state.

The cracks show when it speaks to different audiences – praising anti-Thatcher protests or ignoring dissident attacks one day while rolling out Martin McGuinness the next to issue strong condemnations. And the illogicality of its policy is gradually catching up with it as Adams’ recent interview on RTÉ revealed.

The cracks also show when the party speaks of reconciliation. Reconciliation as set out in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is ill-defined but nevertheless is substantially different from that inherent in Sinn Féin’s policy: where the former is inclusive and premised on the sacrifice of almost 4,000 lives, the later consists in survivors of the conflict reconciling themselves to a republican vision.

Sinn Féin’s reaching out to unionism strategy is a nonsense and the reheated Hume-isms of its Agreed-New-Ireland-Reconciliation strategy are in tatters. When Declan Kearney speaks of ‘generosity’, ‘acknowledgement’, ‘understanding’, his words do not ring true. Or rather, they only ring true in the glib sentimentality of a Seanna Walsh.

As a party of government Sinn Féin needs to address this deficit. Its myopia is offensive on many levels – I am emphatically not suggesting that Bloody Sunday was anything but an atrocity; rather, Sinn Féin’s return to it and other outrages renders them nothing more than totemic totems as somehow justifying the PIRA murder campaign needs to end for ethical reasons.

It should also end for political ones: Sinn Féin’s strategy is positively contributing to the undermining of democratic functionality and thus counterproductive to fostering peace.

The problem of course is that Sinn Féin needs to repaint the past to avoid facing up to the compromises it has made. Of course, to do so would be to admit that the IRA’s decision to take a war to the ‘Brits’ was profoundly misguided; to admit the political and strategic vacancy of the decision to continue that war after the fall of Stormont and during the Sunningdale Assembly; to admit the moral degeneracy of prolonging its campaign despite the rising death counts during the ‘70s and ‘80s.

In short, such a change in policy direction would be to admit republicans’ key and unjustifiable role in the perpetuation of murder and mayhem and the subsequent abandonment (except in rhetoric) by Sinn Féin of their vacuous, undemocratic and imperialising project.


Lost in a Maze

However, this can only go on for so long. Indulging the party may stave off the inevitable collapse but unless Sinn Féin begins to articulate a vision of politics based on social responsibility rather than craven self-interest, a vision of society based on pluralism, inclusion and accountability rather than universal blame and exculpation then it will continue to run into delusional dead-ends.

Despite the Orwellian-sounding Maze project, Northern Ireland has not yet entered a Bizarro world where language becomes strips of meaning and history can be rewritten to serve contemporary needs.

Sinn Féin’s credibility gap will continue to grow unless the party changes course – no amount of conflict transformation rhetoric or multi-million pound peace projects can plaster over the bloodied past.


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About Author

Dr. Cillian McGrattan lectures in Politics at Swansea University. He received his PhD from the University of Ulster. His books include Memory, Politics and Identity: Haunted by History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012);Everyday Life after the Irish Conflict: The Impact of Devolution and North-South Cooperation(Manchester University Press, 2012) (co-edited with Elizabeth Meehan); Northern Ireland, 1968-2008: The Politics of Entrenchment (Palgrave Macmillan 2012); and The Northern Ireland Conflict (Oneworld, 2010) (with Aaron Edwards).


  1. This is a piece below that I wrote in response to McGrattan and Braniff’s intervention re SPAD – it addresses some of the spoken and unspoken assumptions in his article above (McGrattan/Braniff in Bold)

    I have just read your recent intervention in relation to the Special Advisors’ bill. Your shameless piece powerfully underlines Noam Chomsky’s dictum that the fundamental function of western academia is to provide an ideological service to power.

    That’s look at some of your points.

    A rather dispiriting answer might be that the Sinn Féin appointment of the ex-prisoner Mary McArdle as a ministerial special advisor has come to epitomise the Northern Irish experience of peace: the vast majority of people who did not engage in violence are now being asked to sacrifice ethical and democratic standards of responsibility and accountability in the name of progress.

    Okay, so those historical groups responsible and complicit for centuries of; state terror, repression, subjugation, famine,penal laws, the Orange state, sectarian supremacy, discrimination, collusion etc are leading the ethical side of the debate. How ironic.

    Another thing that dare not pass the servile mind is that the establishment of any system of ethical standards must consider a much wider context than the actions of the relatively powerless individuals in ‘illegal’ political organisations who pulled the trigger and planted the bombs.

    Ethical and moral standards? Now that is a new concept for the British state – but do not take an Irishman’s word for it, ask the millions from countless countries throughout the world invisible in your one-way moral mirror.

    The Special Advisors Bill, which the SDLP are currently refusing to support,
    represented, in our opinion, a positive step towards saying that certain acts
    were morally wrong and ending violence should not be rewarded

    Morally wrong?
    An honest moral assessment of what went on in the North must take into consideration disparities in power and resources, and the existence of injustice. Such an approach of course is fraught with danger. It may include entertaining unpalatable views, one such
    may be that those who bear the greatest responsibility for conflict are those who authored the circumstances – the impeccable and respectable men in suits, the
    powerful who did not get their hands dirty or end up in the wrong side of the ‘law.’ In relation to the North, the British state and Unionism often did not need to resort to violence; they could simply make use of the levers of power at their disposal to ensure their way prevailed.

    While we are at it – perhaps you could send me a link to your efforts to hold ‘big terrorists’ such as American Presidents or British Prime Ministers to account. If you are holding toy soldier ‘terrorists’ in Ireland to your elevated moral standards I assume you
    are doing everything humanly possible to ensure Bush and Blair are brought before an international court to be tried for what judges at Nuremburg described as the ‘supreme international crime’ – the unprovoked attack on a sovereign country.

    Political advisors are neither elected nor publically accountable; their closeness to agenda setting and legislation remains largely out of sight

    I cannot wait to read your thoughts on the influence that corporations exert on the agenda and legislation.

    It represents a piece of positive discrimination: it states that victims’ rights and needs should take precedence over those of their perpetrators

    So you obviously know who the victims and perpetrators are/were? Do the perpetrators include the shadowy forces in the ‘security services’ and British intelligence that trained and directed Loyalist killer gangs? Do they include those in position of power I previously mentioned?

    Fifteen years on from the 1998 Agreement our legislators remain focused on
    rehabilitation and amnesty rather than reparation and reconciliation. We contend that that is only true if we equate peace to amnesia and if we equate justice to amnesty.

    Rehabilitation? So those pesky natives who hit back at their oppressors
    (a bit like ‘Muslim extremists’ today) are in need of being fixed or cured?

    As the eyes of the world start to shift towards Northern Ireland with the imminent arrival of the G8 leaders

    Now there are is a hell of a lot to say about those rapists and looters of the planet. But that would never do to say

  2. Seamus Clarke on

    The claims that Sinn Féin is running into “delusional dead ends” to the ones about the party ” praising anti-Thatcher protests” (when?) or “ignoring dissident attacks” (when?) are as equally bizarre as they are untrue.

    Did the author really mean to publish this article only a week after a Sinn Féin councillor received a death threat from so called dissidents after criticising their actions in his community, and only a day after Sinn Féin organised a rally to tell those so called dissidents their actions are not wanted? If the author wants to go to these areas to see Sinn Féin leading the criticism of these attacks, I’m sure it can be arranged for him to leave his ivory tower and see this for himself.

    The author then tries to paint the Republican POWs who were imprisoned as nothing more than thugs who were motivated by hatred for Unionism and the British state. How did he come to this conclusion? More guess work. The assertion that there are no comparision between the IRA and the ANC was enjoyable, I assume the author does not read the An Phoblacht? (

    As I write this there is an invite from Sinn Féin to a conference they have organised sitting next to me. They have invited hundreds of Loyalists, Unionists as well as members of the Protestant churches. This is leadership in action. This is the sort of stuff that will lay solid foundations for a shared future. Of course the author did not mention this, it simply doesn’t fit with his blatant anti-Sinn Féin agenda.

    Now I remember why I was so happy when my module under the author of this piece in Jordanstown ended. Thank you.

  3. gweedo prophet on

    Hard to take this piece seriously when a basic premise is that everything would have been rosy if those pesky republicans didn’t kill off the Civil Rights movement. Presumably in his haste to castigate people like Martin Mc Guinness for daring to remember Bloody Sunday, the author forgot about the civil rights marchers being beaten off the streets or murdered.

    I did chuckle however at the Dr’s attempt to prove his theory by citing events – which, as noted below, didn’t happen. There is no blind eye turned by SF to dissident violence and SF condemned the glorification of Thatcher’s death. Oh dear….

    The author seems appalled at the audacity of a political party daring to attempt to convince others of the merits of its ideals. And apparently is deaf to the repeated statements by republicans that they were not the only victims of the conflict and they were responsible for inflicting terrible pain on others.

    Talk about a credibility gap….

    • footballcliches on

      I’d have to agree with you both guys. Let us remember who brought Sunningdale down cos it wasn’t the IRA. Let us also remember which organisations actually started violence in the 60s and a very prescient point made about the disparities in power available to the actors, but then again, it would mean a more balanced appraisal by the author and not being selective in the facts (and non facts in relation to dissidents, honestly, I laughed at that one) used.

      • Cillian McGrattan on

        Dear both: I feel you should be pulled up on a couple of points: Firstly, you are taking my argument out of context – I clearly state that SF are not just ignoring but also speak out against the dissidents. I recognise that SF are under pressure from dissidents but they tolerate them to an extent and to an extent the toleration suits SF’s purposes. Were they to sincerely disavow the dissidents then that would require a more robust and transparent strategy that at the minute is lacking – and is indicative of my general argument that SF are in disarray.

        Secondly, I strongly dispute that I am being selective in the facts – I remain unconvinced about the ‘merits of [SF’s] ideals’ if that means accepting a nationalistic campaign of assassination and intimidation. I agree with ‘footballcliches’ regarding power disparities but PIRA violence formed the backdrop to Sunningdale and the negotiations that preceded it. ‘gweedo prophet’ – the civil rights movement had achieved most of their goals by 1972; I address the repugnancy of marshalling Bloody Sunday to justify republican violence in my text.

        Cillian McGrattan

        • Dr McGrattan, Your historical memory is tendentious and your commentary is in the tired tradition of Provo bashing. The civil rights movement was shot off the streets, while unionists suffered split after split toward the right in being forced to accept minimal reforms until, that is, the June 1970 Westminster election when the British conservatives handed back security policy. Local and British security services became increasingly implicated in fomenting sectarian killings. This had the direct aim of drawing the IRA into a sectarian war, which in turn made made it more difficult for the IRA to win and gave ammunition to short sighted academic commentators. It also gave impetus to the violent conflict since the nationalist population, which sustained the IRA, were determined not to be beaten again.

          When you state, ‘I address the repugnancy of marshalling Bloody Sunday to justify republican violence in my text’, your provo-centred approach shines through. The objective way to understand the violent reaction to Bloody Sunday is explain its inevitability. The IRA were an expression of nationalist resistance, not its cause.

          The basis of the 1998 agreement is that is is a compromise and a way of stabilising the dysfunctional state of Northern Ireland until that halfway state house withers and dies. That is not inevitable and the decision on political advisers was a setback. It reinserts the cancer of criminality into the prisoner issue that Bobby Sands and the 9 other dead hungers strikers decisively struck out in 1981. If it remains after legal challenge it will have long term repercussions, not least of which will be a form of majority sectarian rule making a comeback (due to SDLP abstention). The emergence also of PSNI timidity over loyalist flag protests, that will become timidity towards sectarian orange marches, will lead eventually to a crisis of nationalist confidence. Very little of this will make its appearance in southern media. Instead twittering of the type excelled in here will pad out excuses for commentary on the north.

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