Posted By: June 26, 2014

Newton Emerson. Irish News ( Belfast). Thursday, June 26,2014. 


IF YOU wanted to be cheeky, you could say Sinn Féin has always been a monarchist party. The original Sinn Féin, founded by Arthur Griffith in 1905, sought an independent kingdom of Ireland under a shared crown with Britain. After the Easter Rising the party divided on the issue, with one faction advocating monarchy and the other a republic. A compromise was reached in 1917 when Sinn Féin, now led by Eamon de Valera, agreed to fight for independence then put the monarchy question to the people afterwards, on condition that any monarch not be from the House of Windsor, which would have meant creating an Irish royal family. None of this was as eccentric as it is often portrayed today. Griffith modelled his proposal on the ‘dual monarchy’ of Austria and Hungary, established in 1867 to reform the Austrian empire and until World War I considered a great success. Hungary appeared to have gained all the benefits of independence without any of the destabilising effects of breaking up a multi-ethnic union. The parallel with Ireland was obvious and, in fact, had already been made throughout the 1870s by Liberal leader William Gladstone. However, this was forgotten amid the debate on home rule, much as the idea of Scottish independence under the crown would be forgotten if David Cameron had kept ‘devo max’ on this September’s ballot. When Griffith resurrected the dual-monarchy idea 30 years later it would still have been seen as modernising, even by people who saw Griffith as dangerous. Europe’s constitutional monarchies were the marvel of their age, looked upon to drive and protect political progress. Even European war did not immediately destroy this conviction, which is how Sinn Féin went into the critical 1918 election with the incredible and at least half-believed position that Ireland might anoint a royal line. De Valera never had the slightest intent or belief this would happen and declared himself president of a 32-county republic in 1921. However, until the end of his life he seemed to prefer monarchy to the 26-country republic. De Valera fought a civil war over the wording of the oath in the Anglo-Irish Treaty but he did not object to the oath’s mention of the British king. As head of government in the 1930s, when he had the power to amend the Irish constitution at will, de Valera removed the oath but did not break the Free State’s link to the crown. When Fine Gael finally declared a republic in 1949, de Valera objected and tried to reapply for Commonwealth membership as soon as he was back in office. The reason he gave was the unfinished business of partition but he never made this explicitly ideological, implying he saw monarchy as an olive branch to unionists, perhaps with a continuing role in a united Ireland. Present-day Sinn Féin claims direct descent from the party of Arthur Griffith, which de Valera left in 1926, taking most of its voters with him. So ambiguity about the crown runs deep through what Sinn Fein claims as its lineage. In Irish terms, republicanism and monarchism have not always been contradictions in terms, as Sinn Féin could be rediscovering. In 2011, one year before Martin McGuinness first met the queen, Gerry Adams addressed his party’s ‘Uniting Ireland Conference’ in Dublin by calling for “discussion with unionists about what they mean by Britishness and how a new Ireland, whether or not it is a Republic, can accommodate this.” It was a remarkable thing for the self-proclaimed leader of Irish republicanism to say, even allowing for his weird attempts at whimsy. Has Griffith bequeathed Sinn Féin something after all? In modern terms, dual monarchy equates to Commonwealth membership with the British monarch as Irish head of state. This is the only thing Adams can have meant by asking whether a new Ireland would be a republic. Even rejoining the Commonwealth as a republic is considered a fringe idea in the south, while ditching the presidency is unthinkable. But like the Austro-Hungarian empire, a new Ireland might benefit – at least for a while – from a more apolitical figure at the top than an elected head of state can ever be. Spain made a similar decision when it emerged from dictatorship in the 1970s and could shortly decide that its monarchy’s job is done. Sinn Féin may feel unable to say where its royal rapprochement is heading but has it really taken this much time and care over the optics of a handshake?