Fanatical enough to make Granny proud: As Sinn Fein prepares for its weekend conference, Ruth Dudley Edwards looks at its historical mandate

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UNTIL my octogenarian Grandmother Edwards died in the Republic of Ireland in the mid-Fifties, she still stomped off to the ballot box to vote for Sinn Fein; if it had no candidate, she wrote its name across her ballot paper. As far as my grandmother was concerned, there had been no legitimate government of Ireland since 1922. She was with the die-hards, the purists, the IRA and even - while they were around - Mussolini and Hitler.

Like the present-day Sinn Fein/IRA, what drove her was her visceral hatred of the British - an interesting trait in the wife of an English Quaker. As I listen to Messrs Adams and company, I am reminded of her infuriating circular arguments, conspiracy theories and - above all - her unquestioning belief in the divine right of fanatical republicans to murder their way into a united Ireland.

Like all fascists, my grandmother simply refused to accept inconvenient facts. She used, for instance, to declaim stoutly that concentration camps were an invention of the British propaganda machine. And it was pointless to talk about electoral mandates: democracy was acceptable only when the people voted your way. If they did not vote your way, it was because they had been misled by the enemy - or, as Adams puts it, by 'disinformation and propaganda'.

In some respects an intelligent woman, she was adept at producing the spurious justifications for terrorism that are still alive and well. Today she would greatly enjoy arguments about how many Provos can dance on the point of an Armalite.

Since we are about to receive a barrage of self-justification from the self-styled peace- makers at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis this weekend, we might consider what mandate they have to speak for anyone.

Well, it is not democratic. Sinn Fein picks up around 10 per cent of the votes in Northern Ireland and 2 per cent in the South. And as Adams himself frequently points out, a vote for Sinn Fein is not a vote for the IRA. So electorally, Sinn Fein is entitled to speak for a tiny minority: the IRA has no mandate at all.

Sinn Fein claims a historical mandate, because in 1918 it won 73 out of 105 seats in Ireland and set up an independent national assembly, Dail Eireann, which in January 1919 declared a republic: a guerrilla war against Britain began on the same day. Since this was legally the last all-Ireland election, it is alleged to give them moral legitimacy. A slight flaw in this argument is that they won only 46 per cent of the popular vote.

Now to theology. In 1920, in the face of bloody-minded unionists in the North-east and bloody-minded nationalists in the South, Lloyd George brought in the Government of Ireland Act, which instituted two separate parliaments. In the elections that followed, in May 1921, Sinn Fein was returned unopposed in the South, won some seats in the North and formed the second Dail, which it claimed represented the whole of Ireland.

In December, a Dail delegation signed a treaty with Lloyd George setting up the Irish Free State, which the Dail narrowly approved. In the ensuing election, the pro-treaty side won a decisive victory. True to republican tradition, the minority resorted to arms; my grandmother approved.

The civil war prevented the members of the second Dail from - as intended - meeting after the election to hand over formally to their successors; this made it possible for the madder elements to denounce all successive Dails as illegitimate. Like the IRA, Sinn Fein refused to recognise the Free State, but in 1926 Eamonn de Valera took most of its members, set up the Fianna Fail party and entered the Dail. What was left of Sinn Fein was henceforward nothing more than a joke - except to fruitcakes such as my grandmother.

In 1938 the anti-constitutional survivors of the second Dail delegated their executive powers to the IRA, which had been keeping its hand in with a bit of raiding here and a few murders there. Shortly afterwards it was virtually finished off by its old comrade, de Valera, then Taoiseach, who interned 500, imprisoned 600, executed six and allowed three to die on hunger strike.

The remains of the IRA gradually became mainly left-wing and pacifist, but in mid-1969, when Protestant mobs drove 3,000 Catholics out of their homes, the IRA split and Provisional Sinn Fein/IRA was founded to defend the community. Soon the British army, sent in to protect the Catholics and welcomed by them, became the prime target of the Provos, who recognised neither the Dail nor Westminster and stuck themselves right back in the old time-warp.

The Provos received recognition from the last survivor of the Second Dail, Tom Maguire, as the legitimate successor of the 1938 body. He rescinded this in 1986, when he was 94, because Sinn Fein announced that it would allow successful candidates to take their seats in the Dail. So theologically, the Sinn Fein/IRA is no longer legitimate; that distinction lies with its splinter group, Republican Sinn Fein, to whom Maguire passed the mantle; it has a membership of roughly five septuagenarians and a cat.

The Sinn Fein/IRA case for having a spiritual mandate is rather better. In 1916 a tiny group launched a rebellion without popular support; the Irish people were furious at the ensuing deaths (300) and injuries (2,000) to uninvolved civilians. However, British short- sightedness in executing 16 of the rebels and making martyrs of them gave retrospective legitimisation.

The rebel leader, Patrick Pearse, had constructed a brilliant case for a long revolutionary apostolic succession; this made it possible for would-be revolutionaries henceforward to do what they liked, as long as they did it in the name of their predecessors.

'We have no misgivings, no self- questionings . . .' he wrote just before the uprising. 'We go on in the calm certitude of having done the clear, clean, sheer thing. We have the strength and peace of mind of those who never compromise.'

'It seems reasonable,' wrote the political scientist Tom Garvin, 'to admit the claim of the Provisional IRA . . . as the true descendant of the unreconstructed Irish republican tradition . . . they have a legitimacy of sorts . . . in politics you do not have to be illegitimate to be a bastard.'

Adams these days uses a slightly different argument. 'Our party's position,' he explained in a recent interview, 'is that Irish citizens, in our view, have the right to exercise armed resistance to counter British armed occupation of a part of our country.' It does not matter that the vast majority of the people, North and South, do not think the British are occupiers and wish them to remain for the foreseeable future; divine right applies.

My granny would be proud of him.

Matthew Symonds is unwell.