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A History of Violence

How Sinn Féin fear-mongering gives cover to deadly Irish neoliberalism

On February 8, the established order in Ireland was dealt a death blow. Surpassing all expectations, even their own after underwhelming performances in recent local and European elections, left-nationalist party Sinn Féin won an unprecedented thirty-seven seats in the Irish general election, amassing a historic 24.5 percent of total votes. The combined vote share of dominant center-right parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, who have juggled power since the birth of the Irish Free State in 1922, slumped to an all-time low. A decidedly unlovely combination of a worsening housing crisis, record-breaking homelessness, a creaking national health service, and rising inequality—along with a more elemental desire for political change—brought many to vote for a party whose flagship policy was, in its own words, “the biggest public housing program in our history.” Unlike many other European countries brutalized by austerity and neoliberal policies, Irish voters scapegoated not refugees or immigrants, but the politicians and parties who presided over the cuts.

Smashing a political hegemony to smithereens was never going to happen without a meltdown, though, and the salvos published in the usual organs of right-mindedness have been relentless, both at home and abroad. From the very first day Sinn Féin began polling well in the run up to the election, the commentariat and political rivals have openly appealed to Irish people to put aside their economic concerns and consider the party’s associations with the Irish Republican Army, the alleged paramilitary puppeteers calling the shots in the background. In the imagination of squeamish Irish conservatives and liberals, Sinn Féin’s coalition—avowed republicans; young people politicized by unaffordable rents and recent referenda to legalize abortion and marriage equality; working class communities in cities and large towns fed up with increasingly precarious work and the rising costs of living; change-hungry, pension-wary people up to the age of fifty-five—are reduced to misguided, historically illiterate chumps, wooed by “impossible” radical proposals.

These are IRA apologists, not worldly, technically astute politicians, the party’s detractors say. This is despite the obvious fact that the Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty that signaled the end of decades of sectarian violence between Catholic republicans and Protestant loyalists, was negotiated on one side by suspected paramilitary leaders, including the late Martin McGuinness and the recently retired Gerry Adams, both Sinn Féin figureheads for decades. A generation-defining political success, the agreement was predicated on the idea that these same people would swap armed struggle for electoral politics in exchange for a genuine, non-violent route toward Irish reunification. Over two decades later, having achieved their best result in the twenty-six counties of Ireland, Sinn Féin is being admonished for participation in the democratic process.

What Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil failed to anticipate was the inversion of their own rhetoric: What about the people suffering, and dying, from your policies today?

Endlessly linking a party to its violent history is, in Ireland, a political attack in the guise of an unnecessary history class refresher lesson, and it cuts across party lines. One of Fine Gael’s founders, Eoin O’Duffy, was besotted with Mussolini and the Nazis; he led Ireland’s fascist “Blueshirts,” a nickname that still follows the party around in political discourse on the island. (O’Duffy also brought a brigade of arm-raising militia members to fight on Franco’s side in the Spanish Civil War.) Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil both boast violent pasts, the last vestiges of which are apparent in the fact that despite being ideologically inseparable today, they continue to harbor resentment toward each other for fighting on opposite sides during the Irish Civil War. Violence, even if not in recent memory, is hardwired into their political identities too.

Nobody—especially members and representatives of the party themselves—denies that Sinn Féin was the political arm of the Provisional IRA, who some studies say are responsible for the deaths of more than 1,700 people over twenty-five years of tit-for-tat guerrilla warfare, assassinations, and bombings. That admission hasn’t stopped a torrent of invective in broadsheets, tabloids, radio, and social media alleging that Sinn Féin remains beholden to faceless Republican extremists and ideologues—devious, greying IRA grandees shaping Sinn Féin policy from soundproofed log cabins in peat bogs. Naysayers insist that Sinn Féin has “glorified” or “whitewashed” its links to sectarian violence. You can see how these fear-mongering arguments are superficially compelling, but they fray with a modicum of close examination.

The conjuring of the IRA reached an apex of ridiculousness late last month with the disastrous political intervention of Ireland’s Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, a former Deputy Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) whose father was killed by the Provisional IRA. Citing a 2015 report commissioned by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland and produced by the PSNI and MI5, Harris asserted that Sinn Féin was still controlled by the Provisional Army Council, the executive body of the Provisional IRA. But contrary to his interpretation, the report’s findings were clear. Even if the Army Council still exists—and British intelligence agencies’ reports should always be read skeptically—the authors concluded that its “overarching strategy” is now “wholly political,” recalibrated toward “achieving a united Ireland by political means.” The IRA that fought against British forces and killed civilians during the Troubles, the report determined, is now “well beyond recall.”

Since all parties fell short of the eighty-seat majority required to enter government as the main party, and broad coalitions seem improbable, political deadlock has resulted. Unless Fianna Fáil agree to a coalition with Sinn Féin, or come to some kind of arrangement with Fine Gael—in what might transpire to be electoral self-immolation for both parties—a fresh general election is likely. Just a few weeks ago, a series of public meetings called by Sinn Féin—conventionally drab, town hall-style events intended to drum up greater support for their already-popular policies as government formation talks stalled—were met with confected outrage, as though they were the 2020s equivalent to the Nuremberg rallies. “I think these rallies are designed to be the next stage of Sinn Féin’s campaign of intimidation and bullying,” lamented Ireland’s outgoing taoiseach (i.e., head of state), the perma-smirking Thatcherite Leo Varadkar. One notable precursor to the current avalanche of Sinn Féin alarmism came in late 2018, when Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty lambasted Varadkar for failing to tackle the scourge of financial institution-hired enforcers brutally evicting people from their homes. Frothing with disdain for the party, Varadkar told the Sinn Féin lawmaker from Donegal in his trademark haughty style that “it doesn’t take very long for your balaclava to slip.”

Sinn Féin’s opponents guessed that a repudiation of the party as terrorist-sympathizers would resonate with voters, much in the same way such arguments were weaponized against Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom. But this strategy proved unsuccessful during the Irish election campaign, and the sustained chorus of shrill voices shows no signs of dimming Sinn Féin’s momentum post-election. In fact, a recent poll has shown that, despite the attacks, Sinn Féin are actually gaining more support, capitalizing on burgeoning anti-establishment sentiment. Most voters see the deluge of condemnations for what they are: political grandstanding borne out of nervousness, fearfulness, and desperation. What Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil failed to anticipate was the inversion of their own rhetoric: What about the people suffering, and dying, from your policies today?

Without legitimizing many hundreds of needless deaths that occurred during a grinding war, such a question points to another kind of violence—the slow, invisible, structural violence that is encased in the language of political necessity and pragmatism and coded into wanton austerity programs, Ireland’s inhumane system for processing asylum seekers, vicious deportations, health service rules and regulations, and policing. The human cost of these long-term trends is barely reported on by mainstream media outlets. Slow-motion tragedies which unravel over decades and lifetimes are no match for digestible stories with individual human actors.

The partial privatization of Ireland’s national health service, the refusal to embark on a serious public housing-building program, and the selling-off of distressed mortgages to vulture funds are some of the many neoliberal Irish policies that assert themselves violently, whether by stripping the less well-off of equal access to life-saving services, squeezing low-wage workers out of the rental market until they’re homeless, physically removing families struggling to pay off mortgages from their homes, or deporting children born in Ireland to countries they’ve never set foot in. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil’s technocratic, incremental solutions to these myriad crises are like tending to a tsunami flood with a roll of tissue paper.

People are literally dying from treatable conditions as they await hospital beds. After successive Irish governments flaccidly accepted Troika-imposed austerity cuts following the property bubble burst and attendant recession of 2008, life expectancy growth slowed down in some demographic categories and was accompanied by a spike in suicide rates. Most alarming of all are the deaths that ought to be headline-flashing news and the subject of intense debate: Dublin Region Homeless Executive in January estimated that 222 homeless people had died in the country over the previous four years. Blips, aberrations, one-off tragedies, these stories float in and out of national consciousness like reports from distant war zones. How, in one of the richest little countries in the world, can more than two hundred deaths be justified in a country of just under five million people? We ask Sinn Féin to grovel for their past, but not the parties who show no contrition for shaping present-day policy that can be fatal for people already on the margins of Irish society. Like sectarian murders, these crimes often go unpunished, underwritten, missing—normally cloaked in the emotionless language of national statistics.

But let’s take their word for it: Sinn Féin’s critics are galled at all forms of violence, morally repulsed by the indiscriminate loss of life. Are they willing, then, to part with a few tears and column inches for those who die in wait of crucial medical treatment? For suicides—in opportunity-scarce rural towns and villages left to rot; in dehumanizing, overcrowded asylum seeker centers—that are inextricably linked to an under-resourced health care system? In the same way that climate change’s existential hugeness is difficult for our primate brains to comprehend, structural violence can be difficult to distill into soundbites. But the wholesale refusal by anyone to the right of dyed-in-the-wool socialists to meaningfully engage with the reality of state-sanctioned violence is unacceptable.

What is the premature death of a dispossessed person under the current conditions if not foul play?

For those on the conservative-liberal continuum, premature deaths, forced deportations, and rampant evictions are largely viewed as unpreventable accidents or systemic glitches—outliers that require cosmetic mending, usually through industry-approved reform. They never consider that this death and displacement are the result of a fatal flaw in our politics, largely because it’s the poorest who are suffering, not those with, or those connected to people who wield, political capital. The idea of government inaction doubling as a death sentence is so unfathomably alien to some people, it’s practically science fiction. In fact, austerity is still heralded by many of its cheerleaders and executioners in Ireland as having been a “political necessity,” despite no less than the International Monetary Fund saying differently. Accountability-averse politicians like Brendan Howlin, the outgoing leader of the supposedly center-left Irish Labour Party founded by revolutionary socialist James Connolly, said as recently as last year that cuts implemented during his party’s coalition with Fine Gael between 2011 and 2016—which included slashing child benefit and rent allowances—were “awful,” conspicuously avoiding ownership of the brutal measures. “We made very difficult decisions to save a country from economic collapse,” he told RTÉ, channeling a baleful, swivel-eyed Tory MP more than his own party’s spiritual grandfather.

On January 14, less than five weeks prior to police chief Drew Harris’s artfully ill-advised stumble into political punditry, a homeless man sleeping inside his tent in Dublin was seriously injured by an industrial vehicle as part of a canal “clean-up” by the local council. I do not recall a Harris-type interjection percolating through Irish airwaves when this happened. Nor when, in 2019, a fifteen-year-old girl in dire need of mental health treatment died by suicide after being forced to wait three months for an assessment. When homeless people turn up dead in Irish parks, “suspicious” circumstances and “foul play” are ruled out, and their deaths are passed off indifferently as “personal tragedies.” But what is the premature death of a dispossessed person under the current conditions if not foul play? As long as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in power, no cross-governmental body report will ever be written, and no mainstream historical accounts will ever record, the hundreds of homeless who have died on Irish streets, and the thousands of others who have fallen between administrative cracks. Establishment politicians the world over insist on a civility that they fail on a very basic level to offer their citizens.

Whether recalibrating the language of violence is possible is nearly beside the point. It’s not a radical demand to imagine an Ireland with well-resourced mental health services, affordable housing, higher minimum wages, better workers’ rights, and a humane immigration and asylum seeker system. Each and every time a politician or commentator casually invokes the memory of IRA-associated atrocities, crassly instrumentalizing even tragedies that remain unsolved, I think of the man whose makeshift, plastic home, holding his body and only earthly belongings, was ripped from the ground in broad daylight. When I read the fleeting news stories about homeless deaths caused, presumably, by starvation, hypothermia, sickness, or overdose, I despair at the trivial daily headlines dictated by hearsay that clog Irish political media’s arteries every other hour. At the behest of their IRA masters, Sinn Féin might have the opportunity to . . . fulfill campaign promises to create a more equitable Ireland. But if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil enter a nightmarish grand coalition to prevent the ascendant Sinn Féin from entering government, their own backstage ventriloquists—landlords, international tax evaders, property developers, tech companies, big pharma, the avatars of international and domestic capital generally—should not be granted the luxury of balaclavas.