All Volumes (2001-2008)


Volume VI, 2007

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Sinn Fein originally came into political prominence in Northern Ireland as the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), yet in the last decade Sinn Fein has become recognized as a legitimate political party. As Sinn Fein joined the mainstream political process, however, the Unionists, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and even Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern questioned its continued affiliation with the IRA and demanded the IRA and Republicans resort to entirely peaceful, democratic means to their political ends. In July 2005, the IRA acceded to this demand, “formally order[ing] an end to the armed campaign” and instructing all Volunteers to use “exclusively peaceful means” (“IRA Statement,” 2005). In August, the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning verified that the IRA had put all weapons beyond use.

Given its origins, can Sinn Fein remain a viable political party without an active IRA supporting it? Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams has insisted that “There would be no peace process if it were not for the IRA” (Adams as cited in Maillot, 2005, p.85). Yet, it is also Adams who pressured the IRA to pursue peaceful, political means. We argue that, in fact, Sinn Fein has grown beyond it origins and can function as a viable political party without the support of an active IRA. This case study uses a three-part analysis to make this argument. First, following an exploration of the reasons Northern Ireland Republicans resorted to violence, we assert that many of these reasons no longer hold true and, thus, there is no reason for terrorism or an active IRA. Second, we examine the shifts in Sinn Fein’s core beliefs and political priorities. Finally, we consider the attitudes of Catholics in Northern Ireland toward IRA decommissioning and disbandment. All three point to changed circumstances in the Catholic community in Northern Ireland that imbue Sinn Fein with political legitimacy among Republicans and Nationalists despite – or perhaps because of – the recently inactive IRA.