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.
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.
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.
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.