The Strength of Sinn Féin

The Presidential Address delivered by the Rev. Michael O'Flanagan at the Annual Ard-Fheis of Sinn Féin, 14th October 1934.

In my address to-day I propose to review the history of this organization, with the object of throwing some light upon the measure of success and failure that has attended it up to the present. If the light I throw on it be not entirely satisfactory, I shall at least have directed the minds of others to a problem of vital importance. For if we are ever to make satisfactory progress we must be prepared to learn from the mistakes of the past.

It is easy to distinguish at least four distinct motives that brought members into this organization. The first was to found a political organization that would teach the Irish people the doctrines of Independent Irish Republicanism and to attempt to put them into operation. The second was to honor the men of Easter Week. The third was to end the futile policy of sending Irish Representatives to the English Parliament. And the fourth was to fight Partition.

The foundation of the organization was laid at a conference in the Mansion House in April, 1917. This conference was summoned by Count Plunkett after his election in North Roscommon a few weeks earlier.

The reason why it was Count Plunkett who summoned and presided over the conference was this. Count Plunkett was elected by the people of North Roscommon in order to voice at the Peace Conference the demand of Ireland for complete national independence, and also to honor the patriot martyrs of Easter Week.

Some of you may remember that it was contended that the Insurrection of Easter Week was a Rebellion. That is to say, it was a rebellion in the true sense of the word, a rebellion against Ireland itself. As the right of each nation to independence was a dominating cry all over the world at this time, the only defense that could have been made for the murder of so many brilliant Irishmen was the absurd one that they were rebels against Ireland, and that they were put to death in the name of and with the sanction of the people of Ireland.

The Strength of Sinn Féin

Some color was lent to this plea by the words of many of the leading people in Ireland, including, sad to relate, the mouth-piece of what had been up to then and still seemed to be, the largest Irish political organization.

To vindicate the honor of the people of Ireland, and to save them from the foul charges that were thus being leveled against them, it became necessary to make a direct appeal to them. An opportunity was afforded at a by-election which was to be held in North Roscommon in February 1917. Count Plunkett was selected as candidate because he was at the same time a man of outstanding honor, a man of the highest principle, a man of great reputation as a scholar, and, above all, the father of one of the men who signed the Proclamation of Easter Week and sealed their signature with their life blood. A vote for Count Plunkett was intended to be, and was indeed as explicitly as was feasible at the time, a vote for the Republic of Easter Week.

As Count Plunkett was at the time interned in England, there was no time or opportunity to have him issue a campaign address. Hence it was decided to write him a letter inviting him to stand. This letter was intended to take the place of a campaign address. In it the Count was invited to stand for North Roscommon, in order that the people of one district in Ireland might commence to give him a mandate, to demand in the name of the whole people of Ireland recognition of Ireland's right to complete national freedom at the Peace Conference.

The result of the election was a triumphant vindication of the Irish people. It silenced the charges that were being made against them that they did not appreciate the sacrifice of the heroic men who died for them. In so far as the voice of one constituency could be a test of the views of the people of Ireland as a whole, it proved that the people of Ireland were prepared to accept as their principles, the principles propounded in the Proclamation of the Republic of Ireland in the preceding Easter Week.

Accepting the verdict of North Roscommon as a mandate, Count Plunkett issued an address to the people of Ireland, and invited a Conference to meet with him in the Mansion House in April. Two proposals were put before the Conference, one by Count Plunkett and the other by Sean Milroy. Count Plunkett proposed that a new Irish Republican Organization. be formed, the branches of which were to be known as Liberty Clubs.

Sean Milroy, on the contrary, proposed that no new organization. be formed, but that the existing organizations, Republican and non-Republican alike, be federated under one supreme governing body. After full discussion the Milroy amendment was defeated and Count Plunkett's motion was carried by an overwhelming majority.

Count Plunkett's convention, April 1917.
Count Plunkett's convention, April 1917.

At this point the traditional Irish fear of a split seized the Conference, and for a short time it seemed probable that a section of the defeated minority might leave the hall. That would have been a misfortune according to the ideas that prevailed at the time. Therefore an arrangement was come to. A composite committee was formed to preserve the unity of the movement. And as usual, being a composite committee, the one thing that it did preserve was the division in the movement.

After the Conference, people in some parts of Ireland proceeded to organize Liberty Clubs, while in others they started branches of a non-Republican organization that had been founded years before, and which was known by the name of Sinn Féin. This organization has as its object the restoration of Ireland's independence as a kingdom, thereby constituting Ireland and Great Britain a a dual monarchy on a model similar to that of Hungary and Austria. That is why the old Sinn Féin policy is known as the Hungarian policy.

The propagation by a member of the Committee of an organization. entirely in conflict with the mandate given to the Committee, soon created a situation that could not be allowed to continue. Two weekly meetings of the Committee were allowed to pass without any attempt to deal with the problem thus created. At the third meeting, however, the problem was put before the committee in clear and definite terms by a man whose name will go down into history as one of the most illustrious Irishmen of our generation, Cathal Brugha.

At the fourth meeting the Committee were presented with certain terms on which the old Sinn Féin organization would agree to go out of existence and turn over its branches to the new organization. These terms were to apply only to the provisional period, that is to say, they were subject to repeal at the first National Convention. By these terms, the provisional organization was asked: -

(1) To accept the name of Sinn Féin.

(2) To accept for the provisional period the constitution of Sinn Féin.

(3) To accept at its Chairman the Chairman of Sinn Féin.

(4) To co-opt on the provisional committee six members from the outgoing organization.

(5) To take over the Office at 6 Harcourt Street, and all the other assets of the old organization, and to accept responsibility for its liabilities.

It was a big price to pay. Too big, as subsequent events have proved. It was paid in order to retain the support of Arthur Griffith and his supporters, and in order to secure the assistance of the weekly newspaper of which he was editor. Yet these conditions were unanimously accepted, with one answering condition imposed by the provisional committee itself. This was, that the Liberty Clubs should also be asked to nominate six members for co-option on the enlarged committee. In this way was preserved the balance on the provisional committee.

A similar arrangement was made soon afterwards with the Nation League, an organization. that had been formed a short time previously to oppose Partition. The Nation League did not even regard abstention from the British Parliament as a matter of principle. To accept six nominees from the Nation League might have given the non-Republican element of the Committee a decisive majority.

Before the Nation League was taken over, however, the prisoners of Easter Week were released. It was agreed that six of the prisoners be co-opted so as to balance the six from the Nation League. This completed the Provisional Standing Committee.

This Provisional Standing Committee guided the organization during its initial stages, and prepared for the first National Convention, which was held on the 25th and 26th of October, 1917. It was this provisional body that first drafted the constitution of Sinn Féin. The Constitution drafted by this provisional body was an agreed Republican Constitution.

Election poster, Cavan by-election, 1918.
Election poster, Cavan by-election, 1918.

Let us look at this Committee a little more closely. It was a dual body from the start. It was built upon compromise from the start. It began with two members. Arthur Griffith was one; I was the other. We were appointed by the Conference to bring about unity between the two sections of the Conference, the majority section that voted for Count Plunkett's Republican proposal and the minority section that voted for Sean Milroy's non-Republican amendment.

Arthur Griffith and I agreed to ask the Convention to appoint six others to act with us on a provisional committee. He selected three and I selected three. He selected Sean Milroy, Alderman Tom Kelly and Stephen O'Meara; I selected Count Plunkett, Cathal Brugha, and Dr. Tom Dillon. Then, without consulting me, Arthur Griffith, on the plea that Labor should also be represented, added William O'Brien. I then suggested Countess Plunkett as a representative of the women.

People wonder how it was that the new Sinn Féin organization split in two, four years later. The split was there from the start. The so-called treaty was only the wedge that burst the two sections asunder. An organization. is very much like a material structure.

If a serious mistake is made in the design of a house or a ship or a bridge, disaster will follow in due course. It is the same with an organization. None of us understood that at the time, or at least if anyone did, nothing was said about it. Let us hope that it will be understood in the future.

How acute that split was will be understood by anyone who reads the pages of "Nationality" for the year 1917. "Nationality" published in full the invitation to Count Plunkett to stand for North Roscommon. "Nationality" was loud in its jubilation at the result of the election. Before the Plunkett Conference was held, "Nationality" did all in its power to make it the great historic gathering which it undoubtedly was.

But after it was over its importance got little recognition in the pages of "Nationality." Anyone who depends on "Nationality" for the history of the next few months will know next to nothing of how a new Republican organization. came into existence. He will not know the history of the absorption of the old Sinn Féin, of the Liberty Clubs and the Nation League, or how the released prisoners came to be represented on the provisional committee.

He will be left under the impression that the old Sinn Féin suddenly grew into a great National organization. Indeed, the ordinary daily press of Dublin supplies the material for a truer history of what happened than the paper that was supposed to have become the mouthpiece of the organization.

My object in dwelling so long upon this matter is to drive home a lesson that is needed at present and will be needed in the future. It is that the most important task of any organization is to preserve the purity of its principles. No member should ever be elected to a representative place in an organization, except one whose adherence to the fundamental principles of the organization, is wholehearted, clear-sighted, single-minded, and ripe in years.

The national spirit of the great mass of the Irish people is sound and genuine. The Irish people have always responded to the call of Irish nationhood, whenever they saw any reasonable prospect of success. The Irish people are not infallible. The Irish people, that is to say, the majority of the Irish people, are quite capable of being led astray. They are quite capable of making mistakes.

But the mistakes which the people make do not as a rule originate with the people. The political mistakes that have been made in Ireland during the last dozen years did not begin amongst the people. They began among the leaders of the people. The worst of them did not come from outside the ranks of Sinn Féin. They came from within the ranks of Sinn Féin. For some years past the Sinn Féin organization has lost the confidence of the great mass of the Irish people.

Our task now is, not in the first instance to regain that confidence, but rather, to mould our organization that when the confidence of the people, spontaneously comes back, there will be no danger of its being abused as it was in the past.

>Members of the Sinn Féin executive: Fr. O'Flanagan, Arthur Griffith, Laurence O'Neill and Dr. Cosgrave, Count Plunkett and Eamon de Valera meet with the Irish-American delegation – Edward Dunne, Michael F. Ryan and Frank P. Walshe, returning from the Paris Peace Conference on April 17, 1919.
Members of the Sinn Féin executive – Fr. O'Flanagan, Arthur Griffith, Laurence O'Neill and Dr. Cosgrave, Count Plunkett and Eamon de Valera meet with the Irish-American delegation – Edward Dunne, Michael F. Ryan and Frank P. Walshe, returning from the Paris Peace Conference on April 17, 1919.

The duality that was put into the provisional committee at the conference in April, 1917, was inevitably repeated and emphasized at the first National Convention in October of the same year.

The two vice-presidents elected were the two men of opposite views who formed the nucleus of the provisional committee. The two secretaries elected were Austin Stack and Darell Figgis. The two treasurers were Laurence Ginnell and William Cosgrave. The highest votes for membership of the standing committee were given to John MacNeill and Cathal Brugha.

When the so-called treaty came, one of the original vice-presidents of the organization became its foremost champion. The other remained on the side of the Republic. One of the secretaries became an eloquent spokesman of the Free State cause, the other fought against it to his last breath.

One of the treasurers became for many years the leader of the Free State majority party. The other died in harness in the ranks of the Republic. Of the two who came first in the list for the Standing Committee, the name of one will go down into Irish history as the outstanding hero martyr of the Republican cause; that of the other as the leading intellectual champion of the policy of compromise. We only had one president. The president found it impossible to divide himself in two.

First Dail, April 1919.

So much for the first split in Sinn Féin, the split of 1922. Now for the second split - the split of 1926. As we have seen, the first split was built into the organization from the very first day of its existence. The second split was introduced two months later, when the prisoners were co-opted onto the Provisional Standing Committee.

The prisoners were co-opted because they were heroes. The Irish people love a hero. They are given to hero worship. Some people think hero worship is a weakness. Other people think that hero worship prevails in every other country as well as in Ireland.

But whatever hero worship may be, a strength or a weakness, the Provisional Standing Committee decided to take full advantage of it when the released prisoners were co-opted on the Standing Committee. Thus it came about that three distinct elements went into the construction of the first regular governing body of Sinn Féin. They might be compared to the side walls and roof of a house. Unfortunately the sides fell apart and the roof landed in the middle.

The ideas of government that have come down to the people of Ireland from past generations are derived from two sources. One is monarchial, the other republican. The ancient Irish were governed by kings. But they were elected kings. Yet they were not chosen from the entire population. They were chosen from amongst the near relatives by blood of the kings they were to succeed.

Here you had a mixture of monarchism and republicanism In the English form of government, as it was introduced into Ireland, there was nothing republican. When a king died, his successor was one person already defined by the accident of birth, and the reins of government passed into his hands automatically. The English King was supposed to come from above. The Irish people never at any time accepted English rule.

Therefore the mind of Ireland was never harmonized with the theory of pure monarchy. The spirit of republicanism was always present amongst the Irish people. But it was only in the time of Wolf Tone that the theory of pure republicanism was first clearly and boldly enunciated in Ireland.

We are disciples of Tone. It is our business to teach the people of Ireland the principles of pure republicanism until all traces of the spirit of monarchism is eliminated from the country. In a monarchy the people are called subjects. The king is over all. The others are divided into higher and lower.

The lower look up to the higher, and the higher sometimes graciously condescend to look down with favor upon the lower. The height is determined by the favor of the monarch In a kingdom, therefore, or even in a country in which the mind of the people is in a muddle between monarchism and republicanism, favor is all important.

Even at elections, candidates go around from man to man and ask for votes as a personal favor They sometimes have the hardihood to suggest that when elected they will repay. This is a form of bribery. It is the most destructive form of bribery. It produces that most pernicious form of individual, the man of influence.

The man of influence is able to get votes for his friend, and then he is able to go to his friend and get jobs for his supporters. Woe betide the people who are governed by such a system. It rots the very heart and soul of public administration. It reduces the public life of a country to a quaking bog.

A Republic is ruled entirely by considerations of duty. It is a duty to vote for the best man. It is a duty, not to him, but to the public whom he serves. A candidate is under no obligation to those who vote for him, except the obligation of honest service he owes the entire population. Those who have the appointment to public office confer no favor on those whom they appoint.

Where the spirit of pure republicanism prevails, there is nothing to sap the independence or integrity of a single individual. In a republic the man who gives money for work is in no way superior to the man who gives work for money. The idea that because a man gives work for money, he has therefore necessarily lost anything of his independence or integrity is an idea that can only originate in a mind still confused by the muddle of monarchism.

In a republic therefore there is no room for influence. There is no use for it in a republican organization. The fact that we allow it into this Republican organization is accountable for most of our reverses. In our desire to gain to our side the influence of a newspaper, we laid the foundation of the first split. In taking advantage of the influence of hero worship, we made possible the second split.

By allowing itself to be diverted from the straight road of republicanism by an all-powerful influence, Sinn Féin saddled itself with some of the responsibility for splitting Ireland itself into two sections. This mistake was made in the midst of the most victorious period of our entire existence, at the general election of 1918.

In the midst of the election campaign a section of the standing committee met and hurriedly made a bargain dividing eight seats in the North of Ireland with the semi-defunct Home Rule party. So that while Sinn Féin was Republican all over the rest of Ireland, it was in that most vital part of the country a mere section of a confused alliance utterly at variance with sound principle and hopelessly shortsighted as a mere matter of tactics.

Is it any wonder that since then there are a lot of people in Ireland who are not quite satisfied as to the consistency of our Republican principles. Here again Sinn Féin was tempted by influence to depart from the road of principle.

The next mistake to which I shall refer was made not by Sinn Féin itself, but by Dail Eireann, which was the child of Sinn Féin. In selecting delegates to negotiate in London, Dail Eireann did indeed save itself from making the worst mistake it could possibly have made. It did not send its President. But it made the next worst.

It sent the two men who next to the President enjoyed the greatest personal popularity in Ireland. The two men, therefore, who next to the President had the greatest influence. This influence came from two entirely different sources. The influence of one arose from years of brilliant work in a non-Republican cause. The influence of the other from his reputation as a fighting man.

Men less prominent, less sure of their following, would never have dared sign an agreement without the explicit sanction of the body they represented. If they had signed against their instructions it would have been an easy matter to repudiate them. But the task of repudiating two men who had such a large personal following proved to be one of practically insuperable difficulty.

One of the most difficult problems we have tried to solve during the past year is that of establishing harmonious relations between ourselves and certain other patriotic organizations of a non-political character. These efforts have hitherto been unsuccessful.

A clearer understanding of the nature of our organization as a Republican political body, will I believe lead to a satisfactory solution of that problem. Sinn Féin is the political arm of the Government of the Republic. Each arm of the Republican government should be free. Free from any direct bond that would tie it to the other arm, but equally united to the common body of the Republic.

Members of those other organizations are of course free to become members of Sinn Féin But when they join Sinn Féin the position they occupy in the other organization should not be allowed to influence their standing in Sinn Féin.

A man may have outstanding merit in a military organization without thereby being fitted for leadership in a political organization. This principle was violated when the Prisoners were co-opted on the provisional Standing Committee in June, 1917.

Sinn Féin has not really split. What has happened is that those sections of its governing body that were intruded into it in violation of the principles of democratic organization have fallen away. And the rank and file of Sinn Féin, that is to say, the great mass of the Irish people, puzzled and confused, by the confusion at the top, have gone into panic. For nothing short of panic can explain the antics of so many different sections of our population to-day.

The immediate task that lies before us is to clarify our minds on the essential principles of pure republicanism, to apply them with unswerving consistency in the daily activities of our organization, to show how their general application would solve the pressing problems of the whole people of Ireland, and to work out in detail a plan of government, that will make the enlightened public opinion of Ireland the dominant and controlling influence, in all the secular affairs of the Irish people.

That the Standing Committee during the last year has not been unmindful of this task will, I think, become evident to you in the course of this Convention. You will do your part if to-day you give us the benefit of your mature judgment on the problems that come up for settlement, and if you elect an executive as good, and if possible, better than the executive of the past twelve months.

By the time the task I have suggested to you is completed, indeed, long before it is completed, I am satisfied that the great mass of the Irish people will have renewed their allegiance to the Republic of Ireland.