It is right and fitting that Fine Gael should mark the centenary of the founding of Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein because Fine Gael, of course, developed directly from the Cumann na nGaedheal party set up by those who supported Arthur Griffith's and Michael Collins's decision to sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty. That treaty is the foundation document of the Irish State which is now more that 80 years in existence. But if the Anglo-Irish Treaty is the foundation document of Irish independence, another remarkable document, this one written by Arthur Griffith himself, could be said to be the genesis of that independence. The document I am referring to had the title The Resurrection of Hungary, the document that led directly to the emergence on the Irish political scene, 100 years ago almost to the day, of Sinn Fein.
Griffith's extensive reading in 19th-century Hungarian history gave him a new perspective on Irish history. Practical minded in everything he did, he read history for its political lessons. He was struck by the parallel he saw between Hungary, a small country linked with the great Austrian empire, and Ireland, and believed that its history contained an important lesson for the Ireland of his own time.
At the October 1902 convention of Cumann na nGaedheal, a loose umbrella organisation that Griffith had caused to come into being two years before, one of the affiliated bodies, the Cork Celtic Literary Society, proposed a motion condemning the Irish Parliamentary Party for betraying the Irish republican tradition. Griffith, holding that what he called sovereign independence was a more suitable aim than a republic, proposed an amendment calling for an end to the useless, degrading and demoralising policy of Irish attendance at Westminster, and the substitution of the policy of the Hungarian deputies of 1861. He called on the IPP to refuse to attend Westminster or recognise its right to legislate for Ireland, and instead to remain at home to help in promoting Ireland's interests and to aid in guarding its national rights. This was the first public advocacy of what came to be known as the Hungarian policy and eventually the Sinn Fein policy.
He was asked by readers of his paper, the United Irishman, to outline the Hungarian policy in greater detail, and between 21 January and 2 July 1904, a series of articles appeared in the paper under the title The Resurrection of Hungary. Twenty-six of the articles dealt with the history of Hungary and the last drew the parallel between Hungary and Ireland. It noted how Henry Grattan and the Irish Volunteers had won an independent parliament for Ireland in 1782, and how the Renunciation Act of 1783 had declared that for all time Ireland could only be bound by laws enacted by the king and parliament of Ireland. Thus the Act of Union of 1800 was illegal and the 1782 constitution was as legal in 1904 as it had been in 1783.
Ireland's position in 1904 was exactly similar to that of Hungary in 1848 when Austria illegally suspended its constitution. The 1800 Act of Union was illegal and unconstitutional, Griffith argued. Attendance at Westminster did not render an illegal enactment legal, but was a temporary acceptance of it, misrepresenting the position of Ireland to the world and confusing the minds of its own people. Griffith recommended that the Irish MPs withdraw from Westminster and set up what he called a Council of 300 to lay down a national policy which would be implemented by the local-government bodies and obeyed voluntarily by the people.
Towards the end of the final article, Griffith expressed the belief that the continuance of the connection between Ireland and Britain in any form was not for Ireland's good, but he recognised what he called a large mass of Irish people who felt that provided each was independent of the other and equal in status, the rule of a common monarch was acceptable. A demand that England shall observe her own compact with the parliament of Ireland, and keep her own law, and obey her own constitution - all of which she has violated this 104 years past for the purpose of plundering this country - involved no abandonment of principle on the part of those who desire to see Ireland a sovereign independent state. No Irish nationalist could in principle accept less, he said, though he may seek more.
The Hungarian articles were published in pamphlet form in November 1904. The pamphlet, entitled The Resurrection of Hungary, sold 5,000 copies within 24 hours, a record in the Irish publishing trade that may still stand. In March 1905, the United Irishman claimed that more than 20,000 copies had been sold within three months of its publication. No political pamphlet before or since aroused the same amount of interest in Ireland. Professor Donal McCartney rightly described it as one of the seminal documents of modern Irish history.
Griffith received an extensive correspondence about his Hungarian articles pressing him to take on the role in Ireland that Francis Deak had played in Hungary. He responded to this request as follows:
Apart from all considerations of character and capability, the suggestion is impossible of being acted on for one simple reason. The Irish Deak must be like his Hungarian prototype - a man who can say, honestly, that he desires no more - while he refuses to accept less - than the acknowledgement of the constitutional rights of his country, that is, in Ireland's case, the restoration of the Constitution of 1782, and the consequent governing of this country in all its affairs, and the direction of its policy, internal and external, by the Irish people, but with the proviso that, as Swift phrased it, The people of England having obliged themselves to have the same monarch as ourselves, we oblige ourselves to have the same monarch with them. The Irish Deak must be a man who can accept an Ireland linked with England just so far as Hungary is linked with Austria as a final settlement.
When the IPP refused to be converted to the Hungarian policy, and no Irish Deak emerged, Griffith reluctantly accepted that he would have to launch the new policy himself, and he did so at the first annual convention of the National Council, a Dublin-based body formed by Griffith in 1903. The convention was held on 28 November 1905, the date usually taken to be the beginning of Sinn Fein. In a very detailed speech, he worked out how the policy could be adapted to Irish circumstances. This speech he published afterwards in pamphlet form with the title The Sinn Fein Policy.
No doubt he was relieved to find the Irish words Sinn Fein which not only sounded much more native than the Hungarian policy, but also summed up more appropriately his idea of national self-reliance. The Sinn Fein Policy was Griffith's political and economic programme for Ireland. A Council of 300, composed of Irish MPs and members of local-government bodies, would oversee the carrying out of this programme which involved such areas as the nationalisation of Irish education, the protection of Irish industries, the setting up of an Irish mercantile marine and consular service, the establishment of a national civil service and law courts, the formation of an Irish stock exchange and banking system, and the implementation of a widespread programme of afforestation.
There were now three organisations in existence with more or less the same policy and with overlapping membership: Cumann na nGaedheal and the National Council, and, in the north east, the Dungannon Clubs, which were founded by Bulmer Hobson and Dennis McCullough. Over the next two to three years, these three bodies merged to form the Sinn Fein organisation.
The discussions that preceded the amalgamation of the three organisations into Sinn Fein show that the process of reaching agreement was by no means a smooth one. Griffith had significant differences with the Dungannon Clubs, and especially with Hobson and P.S. O'Hegarty. The main theme of the debate was dual monarchy versus a republic. Forms of government as such held little interest for Griffith. In response to a discussion that went on in the correspondence columns of his newspaper during 1907 about the best form of government for an independent Ireland, he wrote:
The Sinn Fein platform is, and is intended to be, broad enough to hold all Irishmen who believe in Irish independence, whether they be republicans or whether they be not. Republicanism as republicanism has no necessary connection with Irish nationalism, but numbers of Irishmen over the last 116 years have regarded it as the best form for an independent Irish government. What the form of an Irish national government should be is an interesting but not a material question. It is the thing itself, regardless of its form, that Ireland wants.
Griffith wanted to get the largest possible number of Irish people behind his policy and he believed that the dual-monarchy concept was the most likely way of achieving this. He was willing to forgo his separatism in the interests of unity and the widest possible appeal. P.S. O'Hegarty later reported Griffith as saying to him: I am a separatist. The Irish people are not separatists. I do not think that they can be united behind a separatist policy. But I do think that it is possible to unite them on this policy.
The constitution of Sinn Fein was quite explicit about the 1783 Renunciation Act:
no voluntary agreement would be entered into with England until the British government recognised the compact made between the parliaments of Ireland and Britain, and which stated that the only authority competent to make laws binding on the people of Ireland was the parliament of Ireland - a right which was acknowledged by Great Britain to be established and not questioned at any future time.
That constitution was a compromise. It declared that the object of Sinn Fein was to re-establish the independence of Ireland (it was not stated what form that independence was to take). It also declared that Ireland was a distinct nation, that no agreement would be made with England until she recognised the 1783 Renunciation Act, and that Ireland would use any powers she had to achieve independence (obviously not ruling out physical force). This compromise has rightly been seen by historians as containing an ambiguity which was ominous for the future.
The years between 1905 and 1909 were the high point for Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein. As 1909 came to an end, prospects for Home Rule were looking considerably brighter. Griffith declared Sinn Fein's willingness to stand aside and allow the IPP a clear run in order to secure the best possible measure for Ireland.
When the IPP again held the balance of power in Westminster after the 1910 elections, and were in a position to force the Liberals to introduce a Home Rule measure, Griffith frankly recognised that whatever support had been slowly coming Sinn Fein's way was now returning to the party. In such circumstances he passed what he called a self-denying ordinance on himself and his movement in order to give John Redmond a fair chance to achieve the best possible measure of freedom he could by his own methods.
But he warned that if the IPP were to fail, Sinn Fein must be ready to form the rallying centre of a disappointed nation. Sinn Fein wanted Home Rule as much as anyone else in Ireland, Griffith stated, not as the ultimate answer to Irish demands, but because it could be used to Ireland's advantage.
His attitude to the third Home Rule Bill could be described as vigilant watchfulness. Redmond called a great meeting in Dublin for the end of March 1912 to demonstrate the Irish demand for self-government, and all important representative people in Ireland were invited to come and speak at it. Griffith and Sinn Fein were included but turned down the invitation, explaining that their attitude was wait and see. When the details of the bill were published, Griffith wrote in the Irish Review in May 1912: If this be liberty, the lexicographers have deceived us.
He published two pamphlets, The Finance of the Home Rule Bill and The Home Rule Bill Examined. He secured 15,000 signatures demanding that the new Irish parliament should have the right to collect Irish taxes and keep them for use in Ireland. These signatures he sent in a petition to Redmond but received no reply. However, by January 1914, he felt that the most would have to be made of the measure of freedom the bill gave and that it could be gradually extended.
Padraig Pearse's criticism of Griffith in An Barr Buadh in 1912 reveals the problems Griffith faced trying to hold Sinn Fein together during the 1910-12 period with the prospect of Home Rule on the horizon. The physical-force men had little faith in either the IPP or the British government and what they regarded as empty promises. They found Griffith's wait-and-see attitude intolerable.
Griffith's practical politics lagged behind his capacity as a man of ideas. His power lay in his pen. Through his papers and the Sinn Fein movement he inspired many younger Irishmen, but he failed to persuade those of them who revived the physical-force movement of the value of constitutional methods and a gradual disciplined advance to Irish freedom.
This is an aspect of the first Sinn Fein party that deserves particular attention, this devotion Griffith had to non-violent means of action and the value of passive resistance. When one thinks of a policy of non-violent action to achieve political ends in the 20th century, one thinks immediately of its foremost advocate, Mahatma Gandhi.
Griffith was very aware of the Indian nationalist movement of his time and kept in touch with several Indian journals which were similar to his own. He considered the Swadeshi movement in India, which, among other things, rejected British-made goods, as exactly like Sinn Fein. Indian writers, equally interested in the efforts for Irish independence, had praise for their Irish counterparts. Griffith's pamphlets were published in a number of Indian languages.
The young Jawaharlal Nehru, who became the first prime minister of an independent India, and who visited Dublin in 1907 during his holidays from Cambridge University, wrote to his father that Sinn Fein was akin to the advanced section of the Indian Congress Party. Griffith was especially impressed by the views of the Bengal leader, Bipin Chandra Pal, a forerunner of Gandhi, who urged Indians not to hate the British but to develop an attitude of what he called benevolent indifference to them. And Gandhi himself, though he wished the Irish struggle for independence had not ended in violence, paid tribute to Griffith, the architect of non-cooperation with the English in Ireland, in his own preparation of India's plan for non-cooperation.
P.S. O'Hegarty, looking back about 10 years later on pre-1916 Sinn Fein, stated: Although Griffith, and indeed all of us, wrote bitterly and scathingly about England and the Irish Parliamentary Party, we had no hatred for either.
Robert Lynd, the Belfast-born Quaker who afterwards became a famous essayist, represented the closest Sinn Fein came to doctrinaire non-violence. He argued that non-violent methods, as well as preserving the unity of the country, would make it much more difficult for the British, who could easily put down a violent rising with superior force, but who would inevitably fail when brought face to face with an Irish character stronger than British guns.
So, what were some of the major achievements of pre-1916 Sinn Fein, i.e., of Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein? One was that it never compromised the basic aspiration that independence must be won in Ireland and not bargained for at Westminster. The early movement survived to provide a basis for the national Sinn Fein organisation of the 1917-22 period. Without that basis, the independence movement after 1917 might well have degenerated into mere anarchy.
Another important achievement of Griffith's Sinn Fein was that it provided a medium for the exchange of nationalist views and thus provided a mine of ideas which could be drawn upon constantly in the troubled years after 1916. For the first time, separatists were able to discuss their views in public and the diversity of those views showed Sinn Fein comparing well with earlier nationalist movements.
The technique of non-violence resistance was a third major achievement of early Sinn Fein. This was not merely an unfulfilled theory of Arthur Griffith's but a concept that appealed to thoughtful minds. As I've already said, Robert Lynd was its most articulate advocate, while Griffith himself devised the practical programme to put it into action.
He was practical in everything he did, a very good example of which are the four Irish Year Books or Leabhair na hÉireann that he edited and published from 1908 to 1911. In this venture, Griffith projected his vision for the Irish people. He communicated with men and women of all classes, creeds and parties in Ireland, and invited them to give their contributions based on their skills and experiences. In doing so, he argued that Irish patriotism was not the monopoly of any party or class and that unionist and anti-unionist, Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Methodist and Quaker, the northern manufacturer and the southern agriculturist, the man of leisure and the man of toil - are all here offering the result of their study or their experience to help their country.
A fourth major achievement of Griffith's Sinn Fein was that the intensity and vigour of its propaganda helped to revolutionise a significant minority of young men who were thereby imbued with a passionate desire for political freedom. In the words of Richard Davis, Many inferiority complexes, fostered by Ireland's long dependency and frustration, were burnt out by Griffith's flaming invective. I don't think that even his harshest critic would deny Griffith's effectiveness as a propagandist and a whole nationalist generation was indebted to his intellect.
What did Sinn Fein, the Sinn Fein that he brought into being, mean to Griffith himself? The following, from an address he gave in 1910, contains the answer, I think:
In all the political movements that succeeded the Union in Ireland, no institutional rallying centre for the nation was found, and so defeat always meant rout. Ireland found temporary substitutes in great men - having no institutional centre to form round, she formed round an O'Connell or a Parnell, and her safety depended on the man being impervious to the terrorism and cajolery of her enemies, and superior to the jealousies and follies of her friends.
Against an institution, such intrigues and such follies have less power of destruction, and the conclusion that the study of Irish affairs forces on me is that we cannot successfully defend ourselves until we find and form within ourselves a central point from which we may advance, beyond which, if repulsed, we cannot be driven back. It is obvious that such a centre cannot be a party one - it must be national or it will be ineffective. It must be the centre of minimum agreement.
This passage contains what one of Griffith's early biographers, Padraic Colum, described as his master idea - a consensus via a minimum of agreement, operating through a collective body, and not dependent on an individual who must have within himself the possibility of downfall.
That institutional centre, which Griffith at first hoped Sinn Fein would provide, became the Dáil Éireann that was first set up in January 1919. It was why what was the essence of his Sinn Fein programme was withdrawal from Westminster and the setting up in Ireland of an Irish parliament.
The massive structure of the IPP, which had dominated Irish nationalist politics for almost the previous half century, crumbled to dust at the 1918 general election and Sinn Fein took its place and constructed a flawed but enduring edifice. It may be the case that the building would have been stronger had it included rather than rejected some of Griffith's most important proposals. Perhaps Michael Davitt had been right when he said at the beginning of the Sinn Fein movement that it asked too much of human nature. If so, as Richard Davis has pointed out, Griffith was in good company.
Mahatma Gandhi made even greater claims on the integrity of the average Indian and, like Arthur Griffith, he unfortunately lived to see his beloved homeland partitioned with bloodshed. Even if Gandhi's non-violent approach delayed Indian independence for a generation, he would have considered the time well spent if it had helped to improve the character of the Indian people. So would Arthur Griffith in the case of Ireland and the Irish people.
I want to refer finally to some comparisons between Griffith's Sinn Fein and the Repeal and Home Rule movements, the two great 19th-century expressions of pacific, constitutional politics in Ireland. Griffith's movement was similar to them up to a point, with dual monarchy playing the role which Repeal and Home Rule had played.
As the great historian Oliver MacDonagh pointed out, Sinn Fein went further in two vital ways. Firstly, Irish self-government was not going to wait for a British-Irish agreement but was to be put into action, in as many practical ways as possible, but not through the use of force; at the same time, this would weaken British morale and make them more susceptible to withdrawal from Ireland. Secondly, because Sinn Fein was a loose movement rather than a tightly run party, a variety of tactics could be employed, and concern was as much about what would happen within Ireland as externally.
There were many useful ambiguities in Sinn Fein. Its immediate programme of passive resistance to British rule could have equal appeal to parliamentarians, who had lost faith in action through Westminster after a decade of Conservative rule and IPP disunity, and to IRB men who saw no hope of a successful physical-force campaign against British rule in the near future. The means which Griffith suggested passive resistance could adopt had a potentially wide appeal.
Withdrawal from Westminster and the establishment of a parliament in Ireland could be interpreted as an ultra-typical constitutional gesture or as one that was a departure from constitutionalism. Not even going that far, but simply using local-government bodies to lay the bases for native self-government, and undertaking campaigns to promote Irish-made goods, could be represented as either stages on the road to severing the connection with England, or else giving simple expression to a practical patriotism which even public-spirited unionists could support. Thus Sinn Fein was all-embracing in its political usefulness.
Griffith's nationalism was as fierce as any Fenian's, but he opposed violent revolution as both hopeless and wasteful. He advocated: (a) withdrawal from Westminster and the establishment of a native parliament; (b) the assumption by this body of such executive powers as were possible so that eventually British administration would decay and collapse through lack of use; (c) mass popular action through civil disobedience and passive resistance, and voluntary support for the native parliament in order to cripple the foreign administration. In these ways, Sinn Fein anticipated and inspired some of the characteristic devices of anti-colonialism in the middle decades of the 20th century.
I will conclude with the words of Richard Davis, whose book Arthur Griffith and Non-Violent Sinn Fein, published just over 30 years ago, I can strongly commend. This is what Dr Davis had to say: Griffith's original programme, though open to objection in detail, was at least a serious attempt to achieve Irish independence without partition and without bloodshed. It might have succeeded.
Further Information See: