Over the Christmas holidays I read The Long Game: Inside Sinn Fein, by the former Irish Examiner journalist Aoife Moore. I was looking forward to reading this book enormously, since good books on this “strange, secretive party that stands on the brink of taking power” are few and far between. I thought that somebody like Moore, from a working class nationalist background in Derry, whose family had been “touched by British state violence” (her uncle was killed on Bloody Sunday), and Irish Journalist of the Year in 2021, might be the writer to shine a light on its hidden workings and inner secrets.
I was a little disappointed. This is a book of occasional insights rather than major revelations. As a former journalist in Northern Ireland, I found I was familiar with much of the book’s earlier section, running up to Mary Lou McDonald’s emergence as the party’s vice-president, chosen on Gerry Adams’ orders, in 2009. Sinn Fein’s famous deep distrust of the media, and its press office dubbing her “the poisonous snake”, did not help. She does not, for example, throw any new light on how Sinn Fein went from failure in the European and local elections of May 2019 to success in the Dail election nine months later.
But there are interesting things here that we should take note of as Sinn Fein appear to be getting closer and closer to power. The first is Mary Lou McDonald’s judgement of people. I’m sure the party is desperately hoping that voters have short memories when they go to the polls later this year or early in 2025, and that they will have forgotten her misjudgement of Jonathan Dowdall: Sinn Fein Dublin city councillor (briefly), accessory to murder as a close associate of the Hutch criminal gang, kidnapper, torturer and ‘supergrass’. When Dowdall resigned after only four months as a city councillor (and before his criminal involvement was known), McDonald issued a statement in which she praised him as a hard worker and “a very popular and respected member of the community.”
Moore quotes one local Sinn Fein cumann member in McDonald’s home area of Cabra saying she “seriously lacks judgement. She’s not learned from this entire shambles at all. She surrounds herself with people who are subpar. In a constituency like this…that’s a foolish game. Look at Gerry Adams – he had serious heads around him. Mary Lou hasn’t a clue.”
I have doubted McDonald’s judgement for over 20 years. It started in September 2003, when she spoke at a commemoration ceremony for the IRA leader and Nazi collaborator Sean Russell at his statue in Fairview (probably the only public memorial to such a collaborator in Western Europe). Fintan O’Toole wrote in the Irish Times: “The bizarre Sean Russell event was presumably a kind of trial – McDonald’s chance to prove that that there was no aspect of the IRA’s history that she would ever disown, even if it involved the Nazis.”1
The big question many voters have – and particularly older voters who remember the Northern ‘troubles’ – will be: what, if any, is the continuing overlap between Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA? Moore writes at several points about “the grey haired men at the back of the room” at Northern party meetings – former IRA members – who were there in the post-1998 years of electoral politics, but does not make clear whether they are still in attendance. She quotes a close aide of Martin McGuinness saying: “Them people don’t just fucking evaporate. They end up in party positions…I remember decisions being made and being told about decisions – even from a local perspective – that there was no conversation on. It was clearly an army thing. You were told and never questioned it.”
I imagine McDonald will have done her best to make sure that such ‘grey haired men’ have disappeared south of the border. Moore says the influence of former senior IRA figures “has gradually diminished over time, but remains significant.” ‘We don’t sit around talking about politics or legislation”, one senior IRA figure told her, “but we’re consulted and kept in the know for certain things around political strategy.”
The party is famous for its rigid, ‘top down’ – almost Leninist – control of local councillors, activists and members. One woman Ard Comhairle member is quoted as saying: “There is a lot of discipline, you don’t speak out of turn in public.” Moore writes: “Sinn Fein is particularly bad at weeding out local issues and bullying early on. The party’s intensely hierarchical structure makes it hard to complain if the ones you wish to complain about reside higher on the totem pole.” She then outlines a sizeable list of bullying issues, suspensions, expulsions and resignations in Cork, Kildare, Cavan, Westmeath, Wicklow, Galway, and Dublin. Noeleen Reilly from Ballymun, a poll-topper for Dublin City Council in 2014, resigned from the party four years later, alleging “physical assaults, verbal abuse, total isolation, smear campaigns.”
I often wonder if Sinn Fein, sprung from the IRA and still unapologetic defenders of its 30-year campaign of violence, share the values of most Irish people. To judge from the behaviour of Gerry Adams, still a heroic figure to most party members (and, astonishingly, to many otherwise non-political younger people), truth-telling is not one of them. One former IRA man and lifelong Sinn Fein member told Moore that “when he is confronted with any uncomfortable truth, his first instinct is to lie to everybody. That’s part and parcel of politics, but this guy has no qualms at all. And this guy has no conscience about stuff, he’s not troubled by anything.” One Sinn Fein staffer told her: “The thing about Gerry is, he could look his dearest friend in the eye and lie.”
I would say Adams’ whole life, based on his repeated assertion that he was never a member of the IRA, has been a lie. My former colleague, former Irish Times Northern editor Ed Moloney, put that untruth to bed comprehensively in his magisterial 2002 study, A Secret History of the IRA. Moore says he joined D-Company of the Belfast Brigade as an 18-year-old in 1969; it was to become “the most ferocious in the city.” Brendan Hughes, the senior IRA man who who was centrally involved in planning the July 1972 bombings in Belfast that we call Bloody Friday (in which nine people were killed and 130 injured), said before he died in 2008: “Gerry was always the O/C. Even if he was not the O/C in name, Gerry was the man who made the decisions.”
Support for the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’ remains mandatory for Sinn Fein members. One senior staff member told Moore: “I remember asking during the meeting if there was a place for people in Sinn Fein who don’t support the armed struggle. Should we not have a situation where young people who join Sinn Fein feel free to say that what happened to Jean McConville was diabolical?…They all just looked at me.”
One of the most revealing and disturbing stories in the book is of a former IRA man and active Sinn Fein member who wanted to apologise in person to the widow of a police officer he had murdered. He initially approached Sinn Fein about this. After consultations with senior party figures, the answer came back: No, not allowed. A senior party member told Moore that the former IRA volunteer may have carried out such a killing, but “it’s not your memory to know, irrespective of how this affects people. The movement has made a decision – there’ll be a story told around this. And it’s not your story.” This man eventually contacted and arranged to meet the widow through a former senior police officer.
I am now resigned to the likelihood that Sinn Fein, formerly the party of the IRA – which between 1971 and 1997 killed nearly five times more people than the British Army, the RUC and the Ulster Defence Regiment combined – is almost certainly going to be a part (and probably the leading part) of the next Irish government. As somebody over 65, I am now a member of the only age group which opinion polls in the Republic show will not vote for Sinn Fein. As somebody who lived and worked as a journalist and campaign organiser in Belfast during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the atrocities committed by the ‘Provos’ are still a vivid memory.
I simply do not trust this militaristic, ultra-nationalist party to lead us towards some peaceful, harmonious solution to the age-old problem of a divided Ireland. They are the last people on earth able to persuade the unionists to move towards some kind of Irish unity (if they can ever be persuaded). Most unionists see them as unrepentant apologists for the terrorist organisation which murdered their policemen and women, their family members, friends and neighbours. On a lesser note, Moore also details their dubious (if not corrupt) practices while in the Northern Ireland Assembly: referring important ministerial decisions back to shadowy ‘advisors’ in Andersonstown; paying MLAs’ salaries into party-controlled accounts (in order to pay the MLAs a much lower average industrial wage) and claiming MLAs’ expenses with forged signatures.
At the end of his life Brendan Hughes deeply regretted his actions throughout the IRA campaign. “Not one death was worth it,” he says. John Hume used to say the same thing. Do we believe Hughes and Hume or the Sinn Fein leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, who says there was “no alternative” to the IRA’s campaign of violence? I know whom I believe.
1 ’The enigma of Mary Lou McDonald’, 15 February 2020
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.