Remembering the Past
By Aengus Ó Snodaigh
The rebirth of Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin as we now it today, owes much to the important Ard Fheis held in Dublin's Mansion House on 25 October 1917. The basis for the socialist republican programme of later years was laid at that Ard Fheis, as were the main elements of today's Sinn Féín Constitution.
Many who were called Sinn Féiners in 1917 were not part of Sinn Féin but were in fact members of one of the many other nationalist or republican groups which were spreading across the country. Prior to the Rising, Arthur Griffith's Sinn Féin was floundering, but by mid-1917, with a huge influx of members, Sinn Féin clubs were appearing across the country. Such were their numbers that the affiliation fees allowed for the maintenance of a head office at 6 Harcourt Street in Dublin and for two paid organisers to take to the roads. In the main, the members ignored the original stated aim of Arthur Griffith of the re-establishment of King and Commons in Ireland. Similar to many others in Ireland at the time, they regarded themselves as republicans.
The Liberty Clubs suggested by Count Plunkett after his by-election victory earlier in the year were also expanding rapidly, often having clubs in the same town as a Sinn Féin club. They were at a disadvantage, not having the false reputation of having organised the 1916 Rising or having a central office. The Volunteers were also growing rapidly but were antagonistic to Arthur Griffith's Dual-Monarchy proposals
The fractious nature of republicanism was a cause of concern for many of the leaders of the various republican groups. A meeting of the Mansion House Committee (set up in April 1917 to pursue the unification of all republicans under the one banner) was held in early June 1917. Representatives of the Liberty Clubs and Sinn Féin, including Cathal Brugha, Thomas Dillon, Count Plunkett, Michael Collins, Arthur Griffith, Rory O'Connor and some others, were in attendance to attempt to prevent further fractures and to move towards unification. The meeting was held in Cathal Brugha's house in upper Rathmines and was hot and heavy.
It was suggested to Griffith that he hand over Sinn Féin to the Volunteers, but Griffith was having none of it: ``Sinn Féin will not give up its name. I was elected president by a convention of Sinn Féin and I can only give over the presidency to somebody elected by another convention.''
Nearing the end of the debate - the last tram would be passing soon - Thomas Dillon said that the alternatives open were to found a new organisation or take over Sinn Féin on conditions to which Arthur Griffith agreed. Dillon recalls Cathal Brugha asking, ``which do you think we should do?'' Dillon replied ``the obvious and simplest course''. Brugha then said ``that's what we'll do''. Griffith agreed to put the suggestion to the Sinn Féin National Council that half of them would stand aside to allow on six representatives from the Liberty Clubs and the Mansion House Committee. Thomas Dillon was to become joint honorary secretary, while the president and paid officials would remain until the next Sinn Féin convention. Sinn Féin agreed with the proposals shortly afterwards.
The friction within republicanism was still very close to the surface, however, and nearly boiled over during the Kilkenny by-election at the end of July, with one group proposing to stand Eoin Mac Néill, and another opposed to him because of his countermanding order on Easter Sunday 1916. Eventually, William Cosgrave, a longtime Sinn Féin member, a Volunteer officer and a recently released POW, was nominated. Cosgrave won the election with a two-to-one majority.
In August, preparations began for a Sinn Féin convention to be held in October. It was now called an Ard Fheis. Apart from electing a new officer board, the main focus of the Ard Fheis would be to pass a new constitution for the party. The move away from Arthur Griffith's Dual Monarchy towards republican principles was to cause much acrimonious debate between Griffith and Brugha especially. The debate focused on monarchism and republicanism. At one stage, the republicans walked out, with Eamonn de Valera succeeding in bringing them back and agreeing a compromise. This was that the aim of Sinn Féin would be to secure international recognition for Ireland as an independent republic and when that was achieved that the Irish people could decide for themselves which form of government they wished.
Arthur Griffith chaired the Ard Fheis when it gathered on 25 October and gave a report on the state of the organisation. There were 3,300 clubs representing more than 250,000 members. There were 1,700 delegates present from 1,000 clubs. Sinn Féin was also financially sound, with £1,272 to its credit.
He then gave a short history of Sinn Féin from the beginning and said that without the sacrifice of 1916, the organisation would not have been as strong as it was. Cathal Brugha then proposed the changes to the Sinn Féin Constitution, which were carried without discussion. The full text of the new Constitution is to be found at the back of Dorothy McArdle's The Irish Republic, reprinted recently by Wolfhound Press. Its preamble stated that Sinn Féin: shall in the name of the Sovereign Irish people:
``9a) Deny the right and oppose the will of the British Parliament and British Crown or any other foreign government to legislate for Ireland.
``(b) Make use of any and every means available to render impotent the power of England to hold Ireland in subjection by military force or otherwise.''
The next item on the Clár was the election, and both Arthur Griffith and Count Plunkett stood down in favour of Eamonn de Valera in the presidential race. The Dublin Castle authorities had considered suppressing the Ard Fheis, but allowed it to go ahead in the belief that with three candidates for the presidency the organisation would split.
Arthur Griffith and Father O'Flanagan were elected Vice-Presidents, W. T. Cosgrave and Laurence Ginnell were elected Honorary Treasurers, and Austin Stack and Darrell Figgis became Honorary Secretaries. A council of 24 was elected which bore very little resemblance to the old Sinn Féin. Countess Markievicz failed in her attempt to prevent Eoin Mac Néill from being elected - he in fact topped the poll. The members of the new council of Sinn Féin were: Eoin Mac Néill, Cathal Brugha, Michael Collins, Ernest Blythe, Richard Hayes, Fionán Lynch, Seán Milroy, Constance Markievicz, Count Plunkett, Piaras Beaslaí, Joseph McGuinness, Harry Boland, Kathleen Lynn, J. J. Walsh, Fr. Matt Ryan, Joseph McDonagh, Fr. Wall, Mrs Thomas Clarke, Diarmuid Lynch, David Kent, Dr. T. Dillon, Mrs Joseph Plunkett and Seán MacEntee.
In his acceptance speech, de Valera made it clear where he stood:
``We say it is necessary to be united under the flag under which we are going to fight for freedom - the flag of the Irish Republic. We have nailed that flag to the mast; we shall never lower it.''