Early Sinn Féin —the anti-corruption party

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2013), Volume 21

Above: Having begun as a somewhat shapeless cultural movement, Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin first crystallised into an elected party in Dublin City Hall. (wikimedia)

Above: Having begun as a somewhat shapeless cultural movement, Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin first crystallised into an elected party in Dublin City Hall. (wikimedia)

A century ago Sinn Féin played a key role in tackling shady dealing on Dublin Corporation. Indeed, the recent Mahon tribunal of inquiry into planning matters and payments in the 1990s is part of a long history of anti-corruption activity in Dublin, writes Ciarán Wallace.

In the opening years of the twentieth century Dublin Corporation was dominated by the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP). Despite the best efforts of the few unionist and independent members, patronage and insider dealing were established practice on the municipal council. Reform had seemed likely after the radical Local Government Act of 1898 more than tripled the size of the electorate, allowing workers and women a voice in municipal elections. Workers’ representatives won ten council seats, but the IPP soon absorbed these amateur activists into the broad Home Rule front. As ever, it was a case of ‘Labour must wait’, while allegations of corruption and inefficiency went unheeded.

Anti-corruption parties worldwide

City Haul [sic]! ‘Wanted—a clean sweep’. The Leprachaun—‘I think Miss Dublin, before we get the “Ould House” in College Green to do the business of the country in, it would be no harm to let the neighbours see we are able to make a success of this one first. So hurry up, and don’t stop until every vestige of that rubbish has disappeared.’ (Leprachaun Cartoon Monthly, May 1905)

City Haul [sic]! ‘Wanted—a clean sweep’. The Leprachaun—‘I think Miss Dublin, before we get the “Ould House” in College Green to do the business of the country in, it would be no harm to let the neighbours see we are able to make a success of this one first. So hurry up, and don’t stop until every vestige of that rubbish has disappeared.’ (Leprachaun Cartoon Monthly, May 1905)

Of course, Dublin was not the only city to have such a bad reputation. Municipal councils across the English-speaking world expanded their responsibilities to include almost everything encountered once you stepped out your front door. The city supplied water, generated electricity and maintained the sewers, councils set the speed limits for trams, inspected the quality of food and drink, enforced school attendance, paid for hospital beds, administered unemployment relief and the old age pension. They built ‘houses for the working classes’ and ran the local cemeteries. This comprehensive and intimate relationship was bound to lead to dissatisfied voter-ratepayers (your vote came as part of your domestic charge in those days) demanding better services, greater efficiency, lower taxes and more open urban government.

Urban reform parties and anti-corruption movements sprang up from Boston to Birmingham. These alliances of shopkeepers, trade unionists and suburban residents campaigned against the self-serving establishment parties in their city halls. Anti-corruption candidates attracted enthusiastic press coverage and, when elected, they targeted dishonesty in the planning system, the allocation of contracts, council recruitment practices and the granting of drinks licences. Occasionally the reformers managed to seize control of a key committee, or even the mayoralty itself, but generally their caustic presence in the council chamber was enough to put the majority on their guard. In the 1860s Birmingham’s evangelical reformers produced the ideal model of urban government, while in Leeds Liberals and Tories abandoned their Tweedledum and Tweedledee antics and competed to deliver real civic improvements.

Griffith’s Sinn Féin a classic urban reform party

‘Fleecing the ratepayer’. (Leprachaun Cartoon Monthly, July 1905)

‘Fleecing the ratepayer’. (Leprachaun Cartoon Monthly, July 1905)

Slightly later than in the US or Britain, Dublin’s reformist party emerged in 1905. Behind the Irish-Ireland agenda, Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin was a classic urban reform party. Having begun as a somewhat shapeless cultural movement, it first crystallised into an elected party in Dublin City Hall. Its councillors reflected the typical profile of anti-corruption and reform parties elsewhere. They were younger than their IPP colleagues, and far younger than the average unionist councillor. Sinn Féin candidates were educated white-collar workers; their team did not include any publicans, builders or developers—a remarkable fact in a council dominated by these occupations. Internationally, a slightly puritanical streak was a common feature among reformers. The desire to remove the influence of the drinks trade from city politics united urban reformers and temperance activists. Like the unionists before them, however, Sinn Féin made little headway with the temperance agenda.

From an initial team of five councillors the party’s numbers increased to eleven in 1910. This was not enough to threaten the IPP’s 45 members, but gradually the reformers began to call the city’s ‘permanent party of government’ to account. Perhaps surprisingly, Sinn Féin made strategic alliances with the unionists, who consistently held around eight or nine seats, and with the small band of new radical labour representatives. With careful timing and public opinion behind them, this motley group of reformers could block a corrupt deal or embarrass the IPP into changing its ways.

Unstable alliance
In other cities the reform movement grew as the benefits of efficient government and the rooting out of corruption improved the lives of the citizens. Such results were impossible in Dublin, where the movement relied on such an unstable three-way alliance. Sinn Féin and Labour might have a shared outlook on many issues, but when the new kids on the council block began denouncing Crown policy, and even opposed a vote of condolence on the death of Edward VII, it was obvious that an alliance that included the unionists could never survive. These deeper political divisions undermined the reform coalition just as the prospect of Home Rule gave the IPP an electoral bounce. Dublin’s brief tide of reform ebbed and the IPP continued to preside over a decayed and slum-infested city with its usual combination of self-assurance, patronage and turning a blind eye.
It would be almost two decades (and a revolution and civil war) later before Dublin’s government structures were radically reformed. The Free State government, under the leadership of former Sinn Féin councillor W.T. Cosgrave, ordered the suspension of the Corporation in 1924. Three commissioners ran the city’s administration until the Greater Dublin Act of 1929 reinstated an elected council to govern the city and its annexed neighbours of Rathmines and Pembroke (modern-day Donnybrook and Ballsbridge).

Cries that the country has sunk to a new moral low are wide of the mark. Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin, the ideological ancestor of many parties in Irish political life, first won electoral support on an urban reform platform. It challenged the moral decay within the hugely popular IPP. The IPP had, in turn, emerged from the city’s rising Catholic middle-class reformers, who ousted a corrupt Protestant oligarchy in the 1840s. An essential part of the brief reformist alliance between 1905 and 1910 were the unionists, descendants of those same oligarchs. Leaving aside the fact that the concepts of corruption and political probity evolve over time, the cycle of birth, success and corruption (and rebirth?) seems to be part of the political process. HI

Ciarán Wallace is a Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow, funded by the IRCHSS.

Further reading
M.E. Daly, Dublin, the deposed capital: a social and economic history 1860–1914 (Dublin, 2012).
R.P. Davis, Arthur Griffith and non-violent Sinn Féin (Tralee, 1974).

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