Irish Republicans trace their political origins to the movement of the United Irishmen in the 1790's whose leading figures were Presbyterians and Protestants. Inspired by the French Revolution they believed that equality and prosperity for the Irish people could only be guaranteed by breaking the link with Britain. They strove for unity between Irish people of all religions in the cause of liberty. While the rebellion against the British in 1798 was brutally suppressed their ideals continued to inspire Irish nationalism and republicans for over a century and a half.
In the 19th century the separatist strand of Irish nationalism fluctuated and reached its peak with the Fenian movement in Ireland and the United States in the 1850's and 1860's. By the end of the century; however, the organized demand for complete separation was almost nonexistent.
The name Sinn Fein first emerged in the early 1900's. It began with a federation of nationalist clubs and eventually all nationalists to the left of the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminister came to be popularly termed Sinn Feiners. The press of the time in fact called the Easter Rising of 1916 against the British the Sinn Fein Rebellion.
The British reacted to the Easter Rising with mass arrests and executions against republican leaders. In turn, this enraged the Irish people and aroused their nationalist sentiment. In the 1918 general election, the last time the democratic will of the Irish people was expressed as a nationalist unit, Sinn Fein's demand for an Irish Republic was overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate. Dail Eireann (Assembly of Ireland) was established.
Following three years of guerrilla war against the British, led by the underground republican government, the party split in 1922 on the issue of the Treaty when the British premier, Lloyd George, threatened to unleash a ``terrible war'' against the Irish people if it refused to agree to the country being partitioned.
Throughout the 1920's, following a devastating Civil War between those for and those against the terms of the Treaty, Sinn Fein continued as the republican party - opposed to the Treaty. The leader of Sinn Fein, Eamon deValera, left the party in 1926 to form Fianna Fail. This dictated the role of an abstentionist party for Sinn Fein over the next two decades.
The party's fortune ebbed and flowed in the 1950's and early 1960's with the Irish Republican Army's border campaign, during which Sinn Fein enjoyed some electoral success.
In the 1960's, Sinn Fein adopted a radical stance on social and economic affairs and campaigned politically to gain support on issues other than partition. Unfortunately, differing approaches on the Civil Rights Movement and the recurring outbreaks of violence in the six counties led to another split in the party. The splintering party abandoned the republican demand for complete British withdrawal. The Democratic Left and the Workers Party are their direct contemporary political descendants.
The new Sinn Fein which emerged in the 1970's became popularly known at the time as ``Provisional Sinn Fein.'' This new movement during the 70's and 80's gave birth to the party we know today. Sinn Fein moved to the forefront of nationalist resistance as they watched their non-violent demand for civil rights met with brutal state violence authorized by the Unionist government and carried out by the sectarian police force, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) and its auxiliary force, the B Specials.
In the 1970's, Sinn Fein again took on the role of a leading advocate of a British withdrawal and brought its demand for a 32 county united Ireland to the streets.
It wasn't until the massive campaign on the streets in support of republican prisoners in the H-blocks and Armagh, both before and during the 1981 hunger strike (that claimed the life of Bobby Sands and nine of his comrades) that effectively propelled Sinn Fein into the vibrant political party it represents today. Sinn Fein's electoral intervention dismissed the myth that the republican movement had no political base. That myth was further dismantled with the consistent electoral successes in the years since.