The most prominent republican party in Ireland marched in a St. Patrick’s Day parade in New York City behind a banner reading “England Get Out of Ireland.”
In other news, the sky is blue, water is wet, and the Pope is Catholic.
The harshness of the criticism was surprising, even by Sinn Féin standards.
Unionists led the charge, but it was not confined to their quarters. Irish Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Foreign Minister Simon Coveney tweeted, “This is NOT leadership – it’s offensive, divisive and an embarrassment – grow up, this is NOT #ireland in 2019! we are better than this!”
Alliance Party councilor Nuala McAllister called “anti-English, anti-British sentiment … just as repulsive as anti-Irish, anti-immigrant prejudiced views.”
For Sinn Féin's critics, symbols and statements that revisit questions of national sovereignty have no place inside a modern Ireland—especially when those symbols evoke grim memories from the not-so-distant past. The criticism is understandable, but a closer look at the circumstances surrounding this episode provides useful context.
In essence, “England Get Out of Ireland” is just the unrefined version of “a new, agreed, and united Ireland”—both foresee a future in which Northern Ireland is no longer a part of the United Kingdom.
This has formed the core of Sinn Féin’s political program since its foundation in 1905, and despite adopting the twenty-first-century language of nonviolence, inclusion, and reconciliation, it has remained at least nominally committed to that ideal.
Indeed, the republican side of the peace itself was secured on the assertion that Sinn Féin’s commitment to Irish sovereignty would not change, only the means it used to pursue it would.
But even if one disregards Sinn Féin’s ideological position, there are practical considerations at play, too. The party still depends on a huge degree of its support on what is still an overly nationalistic Irish America.
According to former Friends of Sinn Féin USA President Larry Downes, Irish-American funding supports, among other things, lobbying efforts in Washington DC which have helped earn party leaders a guaranteed annual audience with senior American officials, including the president—an arrangement not even afforded most foreign governments, let alone sub-national parties.
Republican movements have leaned on Irish America for support since the latter coalesced in the 1840s. During much of the nineteenth century, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) struggled to wield any meaningful degree of influence on the island. But its larger, better-funded, and better-organized counterpart in the United States covered the difference, providing critical life support in its infancy that allowed it to launch itself into the national spotlight at the end of the century.
The balance of power had reverted firmly towards Ireland by the time the War of Independence broke out, but the government of the First Dáil still considered Irish-American support crucial enough to send its President and most recognizable figure—Éamon de Valera—on an eighteen-month fundraising tour of the United States to whip up support for the revolution.
Although Irish-American funding probably only had a marginal impact on the war, it did help to internationalize the Irish case, placing external pressure on the British government and galvanizing other revolutionaries across the Empire.
Those networks were revitalized and sustained throughout the modern Troubles, and while Irish America ultimately provided one of the pressure points that pushed Sinn Féin into the peace process, the vitality of this relationship has long been buttressed by the fact that Irish-Americans—being thousands of miles away from Ireland and far outside the danger zone—have long been enthusiastic supporters of violent insurrection.
For that reason, messages like “England Get Out of Ireland”—which are almost comically anachronistic in Ireland—resonate with the Irish-American audience who still hold dear the romantic vision of the Irish rebel fighting bravely against British tyranny.
It all makes plain the internal complexities of the modern republican movement. The end of the conflict freed Sinn Féin to extend its reach beyond its working-class bases in Belfast and Derry, accelerating a then-decade-old process of diversification.
This current version of the movement is the outcome, and the challenge facing the republican leadership now is how to reconcile stark differences between young, old, northerner, southerner, constitutionalist, militant, conservative, and liberal. The recent episode in New York City serves as a reminder that the transatlantic axis is still a key part of that network.
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