The story of how Sinn Féin left the path of violence and entered mainstream politics is well-known, but what about those who never accepted the compromises? One such group is Republican Sinn Féin, which split off in 1986 rather than recognise the Dáil as the legitimate parliament of Ireland. The party is on the margins of Irish politics and holds the distinction of being the only party in the 26 counties that opposed the Good Friday Agreement.
Yet it is not completely without support and does have one elected representative. Tomás Ó Curraoin was first elected to Galway County Council in 2009 and re-elected in 2014 and 2019, representing the district of Connemara South. He’s an old-fashioned man who admits “I don’t have a computer; I can’t work it and I haven’t a clue even about turning it on.” He left school at 13 and spent 17 years in England working as a manual labourer.
The “other Sinn Fein”, as he calls them, are “paid by the enemy” for taking their seats in Stormont. This is what he sees as the difference between the two parties: “we’d be the traditional crowd, we never changed.” He invites me to contact the headquarters of the party for more material but warns me not to confuse Republican Sinn Féin’s office on Parnell Street with Provisional Sinn Féin’s office on Parnell Square.
The defining principle of Republican Sinn Féin is their opposition to TDs taking their seats in the Dáil. “Leinster House, I call it the Divil’s House, because anybody who ever went into it, they change you.” The only parliament he will recognise is one for all 32 counties of Ireland, anything less is a betrayal and he even wonders if contesting council elections is too far. But there is a degree of pragmatism as he acknowledges there has to be some kind of government running the country and he pays his taxes.
He opposes the Good Friday Agreement because “there was no day or date given for a British withdrawal from Ireland.” He will not accept any agreement that doesn’t result in a British withdrawal, even if a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in Britain. The Unionists don’t come into the calculation, the British are the cause of all the North’s troubles, so if they left, so would the trouble.
Every question gets a long rambling answer touching nearly every part of Irish history. My question on Dáil funding for the council begins a discussion of 1798, the Norman invasion in 1169, the Hunger Strikes, the Sinn Féin split of 1969 and the Civil War. I struggle to keep up with the historical jumping, he starts a sentence in one century and finishes it in another. If Doctor Who was made by a Republican, this is what it would look like.
But he grows quiet when I ask about the alleged links between his party and the Continuity IRA. “I don’t know and if I did, if I ever knew anything about the IRA, I wouldn’t say anyway.” He avoids condemning the armed struggle, instead uses vague terms. “It’s the right of the Irish people to fight for their country in a controlled and disciplined manner. It’s their constitutional right to get the English out of Ireland.” He speaks of the violence as if it is forced upon people. “Nobody wants the loss of life, no one, unless you’re a pure lunatic, wants the loss of life, but unfortunately that’s the way it is, while they’re here, there will be people that will rise up against them.”
There is a timeless nature to his worldview, as he says: “That’s where I am, that’s where I’ve been and that’s where I’ll be”. He has one simple explanation that guides his ideology, “No matter what we say or do, you can blame nobody except the British crown for the troubles here in Ireland.” The one issue he returns to again and again is the Civil War. It’s as though he feels this is where Irish history took a wrong turn and we’ve been struggling ever since to come back from it.
Despite his radical views and exclusion from the mainstream of Irish politics, there’s no bitterness or anger. Not once in the interview does he criticise another person, only institutions. Surprisingly, he says he hates to see people on the council arguing, when they should be instead working for the people who elected them. He speaks of working with anyone on the council regardless of their party and boasts of how he worked with a Fine Gael councillor to get a footpath built in Carraroe. “There’s great people belongs to those parties on the ground, but the system itself is rotten.”
Even when talking about England, he makes it clear he has no problem with the people. “The ordinary English people I met, you could not meet better. The finest class of people, brilliant. But unfortunately, the poor divils were brainwashed by the royalty.”
He complains his party suffers police harassment especially at their rallies and events. “When I go to commemorations, there’s 2 or 3 carloads of Special Branch at it. What are they doing there?” Yet even still he respects the police and acknowledges they are just doing their job. “But the ordinary lads in the uniform, they do a fine job, I like them people, them lads are sound.”
Although he does recognise the state, he refuses to ask permission from the “Free State” or the “RUC” to march or sell newspapers. “Am I going to ask the RUC for permission from the British government for permission to march in my own country? No. I’m asking the enemy for permission.”
Only once does he discuss an issue outside of Republicanism. “I don’t agree with the European Union either, I’m totally against it because we lost everything. We lost all our seas, they made our farms unviable, they’ve done everything wrong.” According to him, the only people to benefit from EU membership are large farmers and super trawlers but the small farmers and fishermen on the west coast suffered.
Republican Sinn Féin describes itself as a socialist party but he doesn’t have strong feelings on the issue. The only issue is unification, everything else is irrelevant. “If the British left Ireland, that’s all I would concern myself with, that’s the biggest stone on my rosary beads.”
Despite his radical politics, his work on the council is similar to most other councillors. He is active in the local community and was a founding member of the local Barna/Furbo hurling club. His main priorities are the roads and sewage, and he considers his biggest achievement to be re-tarring the roads in his area. He acknowledges he wins elections based on his personality and local work, not support for his party: “it is a personal vote, it’s not a Republican vote”.