10 January 2002 Edition

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"We will make an impact as never before" - Ferris

Feargal O'Hanlon Memorial Lecture - 'The Electoral History of Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties'

Sinn Féin Kerry County Councillor and Dáil candidate Martin Ferris has said that "the story of the 2002 general election will be the success of Sinn Féin". He was delivering the Annual Feargal O'Hanlon Memorial Lecture in Monaghan town last Sunday.
This was the 20th Annual Lecture in honour of IRA Volunteer Feargal O'Hanlon of Monaghan town, who died with IRA Volunteer Sean Sabhat of Limerick at Brookeborough, Co. Fermanagh in 1957. Councillor Ferris was welcomed to Monaghan by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD. A vote of thanks was proposed by Councillor Pádraigín Uí Mhurchadha, sister of Feargal O'Hanlon.

There was a capacity attendance and a lively question and answer session afterwards. We carry below an edited version of Martin Ferris's address.

"Feargal's memory and the memory of all those who died for Irish freedom lives on in the commitment of the republicans of 2002 to achieve the Republic for which they gave their lives. We remain totally committed to the ending of British rule in the Six Counties and the unity of our country and our people.

I believe that the year 2002 will be remembered as the year Sinn Féin made a major impact in the general election in this state and sent a strong team to Leinster House. We are determined by our work in the weeks and months ahead to make this a reality. The focus of this lecture, therefore, is the Electoral History of Sinn Féin in the 26 Counties - a history whose latest chapter is being written as we speak.

In the 1927 general election, Sinn Féin, after the departure of Fianna Fáil, won five seats in Leinster House, which it lost in 1932. Thereafter, the party went into the electoral wilderness. While Sinn Féin maintained a presence in local government, the party did not return to the general election contest for another 30 years.

This brings us to the general election of 1957. Sinn Féin had been reorganised in the early 1950s and for the first time in decades adopted a policy of electoral intervention in the 26 Counties. The March 1957 election result was a shock to the establishment. Four Sinn Féin TDs were elected. County Monaghan was at that time a separate constituency, a three-seater. The late Éineachán Ó hAnnluain, brother of Feargal, was elected for Sinn Féin. The people of South Kerry elected the late John Joe Rice. Ruairi Ó Brádaigh won a seat in Longford/Westmeath and the late John Joe McGirl won for Sinn Féin in Sligo-Leitrim.

The 1957 election marked a very significant electoral intervention by Sinn Féin - but it was an intervention and not the start of an electoral strategy. The republican focus was on the Border Campaign, on opposition to internment North and South, which was introduced at that time, and on support for the prisoners. There was no long-term strategy to build republican electoral strength. With the Border campaign coming to an end and republican morale at a low ebb, none of the four Sinn Féin seats were retained in the general election of 1961.

It was a full 20 years before republicans made another significant intervention in elections in the 26 Counties. While republicans maintained a presence on local authorities, it was only in June 1981 that the electorate was offered the opportunity once again to vote for them at parliamentary level.

The 26-County general election of June 1981 followed the election of Bobby Sands in the Fermanagh/South Tyrone by-election and his subsequent death on hunger strike. Charles Haughey was then in power, having become leader of Fianna Fáil and Taoiseach in 1979. His various efforts to defuse the H-Block crisis fell short of supporting the five demands of the prisoners and he failed to confront Thatcher. He feared that his first electoral test as Fianna Fáil leader would be marred by the crisis and he was correct.

The National H-Block-Armagh Committee stood nine republican prisoner candidates. Here in Counties Monaghan and Cavan, the people elected hunger striker Kieran Doherty as their TD while in neighbouring County Louth H-Block prisoner Paddy Agnew was elected. Joe McDonnell came within 300 votes of election in Sligo-Leitrim. Across the nine constituencies contested, some 40,000 people gave their vote to the republican prisoners.

The election of two prisoners helped to deprive Fianna Fáil of office and there followed a short-lived Fine Gael/Labour Coalition.

We have been recalling the 1981 Hunger Strike during the past 20th anniversary year and all have recognised what a watershed in our history it was. New forms of struggle were opened up during the campaign in support of the political prisoners. For the first time in this phase of the struggle the republican leadership seriously addressed the need for an electoral strategy, as distinct from occasional interventions at times of crisis.

The experience of the H-Block/Armagh Movement and the Hunger Strikes changed all that radically. But there was still a very long way to go.

The Fine Gael/Labour Coalition collapsed in January 1982 and called a general election. Sinn Féin contested seven constituencies but retained only half of the vote achieved by the prisoners the previous year. The candidate in Cavan/Monaghan on that occasion was Seamus McElwain, then a remand prisoner and later to die in action as a member of Óglaigh na hÉireann. The other prisoner candidate was Joe O'Connell in Clare, one of the Balcombe Street Four, then serving a life sentence in an English prison, and since released as part of the peace process.

It was a bad election for Sinn Féin. The state of underdevelopment and poor organisation and finances of Sinn Féin was such that when a second general election was called in 1982, the party was not in a position to contest any constituency. There began a period of intense debate on the way forward and of hard work to build up the organisation.

While the abstentionist attitude to Leinster House was deeply rooted in republican history, it had been undermined by the harsh reality of contesting elections in the 26 Counties on an abstentionist basis.

Once republicans began to develop an electoral strategy, it was inevitable that the abstentionist policy would be set aside. In hindsight, it is easy to say that this policy should have been ended much earlier. But we must take into account the experience of the 1969 split and the years of crisis in the Six Counties when the nationalist people were under siege and when a rejuvenated IRA confronted the British forces in a way not seen since the Tan War. Republicans in the 26 Counties had fulfilled a role which was essentially supportive of their brothers and sisters across the Border. The need for republican political struggle in this state was neglected.

It was only from the mid-1980s onwards that a real Sinn Féin electoral strategy was developed for the 26 Counties. The party contested the Dublin Central by-election with Christy Burke in November 1983. He doubled the Sinn Féin percentage from 1982 and won a higher first preference vote than the Labour candidate. From that election onwards, Sinn Féin participated in all electoral contests in the 26 Counties - European Parliament, local government and Leinster House.

On the whole, successes were limited to a few areas of strength such as here in County Monaghan, where seats were won on Monaghan County Council by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and Pat Treanor in 1985. But for the first time the party was in for the long haul in electoral terms - building on the foundations of local organisation and community involvement.

In the '80s and early '90s, Sinn Féin fought elections with two major disadvantages. First there was the legacy of previous non-participation as we tried to challenge a system which had been dominated by the three larger parties for decades. Secondly, and more importantly, was the censorship imposed by Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. Our candidates and elected representatives were barred from television and radio in this jurisdiction by order of successive governments. The effect was two-fold. The people were denied the truth about the conflict in the Six Counties and they were denied the Sinn Féin viewpoint on the national question and all other issues.

The politicians of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and the Progressive Democrats often lecture us about our democratic credentials but none of them should ever be allowed to forget that all their parties served in governments which imposed blatant political censorship. Section 31 censorship stifled debate, spread misinformation and ultimately helped to prolong the conflict.

This was a time when republicans were regarded by the political and media establishment as non-people. Indeed, the physical danger to Sinn Féin representatives was not confined to the Occupied North and, in the context of our electoral history in the 26 Counties, we remember especially Donegal County Councillor Eddie Fullerton, who was murdered in his home by pro-British forces during the 1991 local government election campaign.

The campaign against Section 31 finally bore fruit in 1994 when the odious ban was lifted. The peace process began later that year and Sinn Féin was well placed for the growing electoral successes on both sides of the Border which we have seen since then. We must never forget those who helped to lay the foundations for Sinn Féin successes here in the 26 Counties in the very difficult years of censorship, Special Branch harassment and attempted isolation of republicans.

Sinn Féin went into the 1997 general election with renewed confidence and the election of Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin as TD for Cavan/Monaghan represented a truly historic turning point, inspiring republicans throughout the country. Our vote increased significantly everywhere and the pattern continued into the local elections in 1999. The expansion of Sinn Féin representation throughout this State was very significant. At last we had built a 32-County organisation.

Sinn Féin now confidently faces into one of the most crucial electoral contests in our history. Our preparation for the 2002 general election did not begin today or yesterday. It began the day after the 1997 election and our workers in every constituency have been busy ever since. Our task in the weeks and months ahead is to reap what we have sown - to ensure that the support won by the hard work of the past five years is mobilised on polling day.

I believe that the story of the 2002 general election, as it was in the 1999 local elections, will be the success of Sinn Féin. I confidently predict that our sole TD, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, will be re-elected here in Cavan/Monaghan. That will be an historic achievement because not since the 1920s has Sinn Féin retained a Leinster House seat. But we will do more - we will send a strong contingent of Sinn Féin TDs to Leinster House and we will make an impact on the political scene as never before. I look forward to taking my place on that team.

In an interview in the Sunday Business Post the Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil Bertie Ahern stated that it "would not be tenable for Sinn Féin to participate in a sovereign Irish government" and he referred to the "continued existence of an illegal private army associated with a political party". The Taoiseach appeared to rule out negotiations with Sinn Féin about the formation of a government after the general election.

I would remind the Taoiseach that Sinn Féin does not have a private army. What we do have is an electoral mandate, a mandate that will be increased after the general election. I think the electorate should be told plainly by the Taoiseach that he regards votes cast for Sinn Féin as less valid than those cast for other parties, and TDs elected for Sinn Féin as less qualified to represent the people. Because if no party emerges with a clear majority then all parties whose numbers in Leinster House make them relevant must be considered in the negotiations to form a government.

Given the history of Fianna Fáil, which was first elected to government in 1932 and again in 1933 with the active support of the IRA, it is strange to hear the Taoiseach speak in this way. How come it is 'tenable' for Sinn Féin to participate in government in the Six Counties and in the All-Ireland Ministerial Council side by side with the Taoiseach's Cabinet colleagues? Is it because the Taoiseach regards the IRA as legitimate in that jurisdiction but not in this?

The Taoiseach does not really believe that it would be untenable for Sinn Féin to participate in government in this State. His statement is merely another instalment in the negative campaigning by the establishment parties as they attempt to frighten voters from supporting Sinn Féin. We have seen this campaign building up over recent months. The O'Reilly newspapers have been to the fore in the effort and we can be certain that it will escalate as polling day draws near.

The Taoiseach need not be too concerned on Sinn Féin's behalf, as we are not holding our breath in anticipation of entering government with Fianna Fáil. Yes, we want to be in government, but the government we are aiming for is a national government in a 32-County parliament with a Sinn Féin majority. That is our ultimate aim and though it may seem distant now, we need only look at the rapid changes which occurred in recent years to realise that it is no pipe dream.

Sinn Féin is the only party in a position to challenge the stale, corrupt and careerist establishment that has dominated politics in the 26 Counties for so long. The gross inequalities and inefficiencies in our health service, despite unprecedented economic prosperity, provide just one indication of the failure of successive governments to serve the people. Sinn Féin is building the radical alternative and pointing the way forward to an all-Ireland democracy, an Ireland of equals.

Many of our political opponents and political commentators speak of the efficiency of the Sinn Féin 'electoral machine'. But the progress we have made and will continue to make is not due to a machine but to people - dedicated people who share a deep commitment to our republican beliefs. With that commitment we will go forward to increased electoral strength and, ultimately, to the Republic for which Feargal O'Hanlon and his comrades lived, worked and died.

An Phoblacht
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Dublin 1