Sinn Fein votes to abandon abstentionism and fight for seats in the Dail - archive, 1986

In November 1986, Sinn Fein voted to overturn the longstanding policy of abstaining from the Irish parliament

Sinn Fein votes to fight for seats in the Dail: IRA political wing to take seats in Irish parliament

by David Hearst
3 November 1986

The republican movement voted in Dublin last night to take up seats in the Dail, the Irish parliament, overturning the central tenet of republican faith for 65 years.

The move is certain to embarrass coalition and opposition parties in the south in the run-up to the general election.

Last night the Irish premier, Dr Garret FitzGerald, called on all Irish ‘democratic parties’ to unite to ensure no Sinn Fein representative is elected to the Dail.

After a highly charged five-hour debate in which the leaders of the Provisional Sinn Fein were accused by the abstentionists of collaborating with a parliament they were dedicated to overthrowing, the party’s executive succeeded by a margin of nine delegate votes in getting the two-thirds majority needed to change the party’s constitution. The vote was carried by 429 to 161.

But the long-awaited walkout of delegates under the leadership of Ruairi O’Bradaigh, the former president of the Provisional Sinn Fein, involved fewer than 30 delegates.

Most heeded the public call for unity expressed by Mr Gerry Adams, the party’s president, and author of the new strategy, who made a point of shaking Mr O’Bradaighs hand before he addressed the meeting. In an emotional appeal Mr Adams said that a split would only help the movement’s enemies: ‘There must be no blood feud. ‘

Mr Martin McGuinness, a leading member of Sinn Fein in Londonderry, who is regarded as being close to the leadership of the Provisional IRA, told delegates that when the IRA met to discuss the issue in special convention a month ago a minority disagreed with the decision but pledged that they would not form a breakaway group.

Later last night Mr O’Bradaigh and Mr Daithi O’Connell announced that they were setting up a new party, which they called Republican Sinn Fein. At a meeting at an hotel outside Dublin attended by over 130 members O’Connell said the new party was dedicated to establishing a ‘democratic socialist republic. ‘

Earlier he had warned the delegates that once they entered Leinster House, the seat of the Dail, they would have to abide by its rules. ‘In God’s name, don’t let it come about that Haughey, FitzGerald, Spring and those in London and Belfast can say, ‘It took 65 years but they have come at last. ‘

Sinn Fein could expect from its current lack of support in the south to secure only one or two seats in the Dail.

In a debate which often invoked the memory of members of the IRA killed in action the leaders of the party argued that they were not compromising their commitment to what they called ‘the armed struggle’. It was necessary to build a political base in the south and abstentionists were only increasing their isolation from ordinary people who accepted the Dail as their government.

Giving one of the most assured performances of his political career, Mr Adams said in his presidential address that generations of Republicans had made the mistake of leaving politics to those outside the movement: ‘The only feasible way to break out from our isolation, to make political gains and win support for our policies is by approaching people at the level they understood. ‘

Abstentionists had argued that if the party entered the Dail they would be tainted and the movement would be slowly reformed. As one delegate put it: ‘When you lie down with the dog, you get up with the fleas. ‘

In a sustained attempt to remind the abstentionists, who were mainly from Dublin, that the leaders had the support of the Provisional IRA, one speaker after another said that the policy did not mean abandoning their commitment to rid the six counties of British rule.

Mr Pat Doherty, a leading member of the party’s ruling body, the Ard Chomhairle, said that the leaders had not fallen out of the sky but had picked up the pieces of their split with the Official Republicans in 1969. ‘There are no long rifles in this leadership,’ a reference to those supporters in Dublin who are accused by the north of supporting the IRA only by proxy.

Mr John Joe McGirl, vice-president of the Sinn Fein and one of the IRA’s old guard, said their hands had been tied in elections by the handicap of abstentionism.

If they succeeded in getting seats in the Dail and building a political base in the south they would have succeeded where others had failed and hand down their struggle to younger generations.

The vote was regarded last night in Dublin as a personal affirmation of the leadership of Mr Adams

by Joe Joyce

The volatility of public opinion in the Irish Republic is shown by an opinion poll today, which points towards a hung Dail if a general election were held now.

The poll shows a slump in support for the main opposition party, Fianna Fail, from 51 per cent to 46 per cent of those questioned by the Market Research Bureau of Ireland. Dr Garret FitzGerald’s Fine Gael party has increased its standing from 25 per cent in June to 29 per cent now.

The poll, published by the Irish Times, was carried out last week but could have been only partly influenced by Colonel Gadafy’s declaration of support for the opposition leader, Mr Charles Haughey.

Click to read.

Editorial: Sinn Fein in the hot seats

3 November 1986

Sinn Fein’s decision to end its abstentionist policy in the Irish Dail, a policy as old as the Republic, is a victory for Mr Gerry Adams and the younger spirits against the old guard, mainly in the South and mainly outside Dublin. It marks the biggest change in republican strategy since the split between the Provisional and Official IRA in 1970. The established parties will need time to come to terms with the decision, but it is bound to affect the conduct even of the next general election. Sinn Fein, under PR, may win a seat or two then, though they will be lucky to do so, but now that there is a serious candidate for deep green republicans to vote for the contest in the border areas between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail will be all the keener. Every vote taken from Fianna Fail is liable to upset the balance, even under PR, in favour of Fine Gael.

In advocating this shift Mr Adams, backed by the IRA’s army council, said Sinn Fein had failed in the South. The Irish parliament, he said, was not seen as illegitimate by voters simply because it did not represent all 32 counties. The Workers’ Party, which traces its descent to the old Official IRA, is doing progressively better at the polls and Mr Adams envies its success. But it has also transformed itself entirely from the political wing of a terrorist organisation into a pacific and non-sectarian socialist party. Sinn Fein, it was clear from the speeches at the annual conference in Dublin, has no stated intention of following that route. It is as fully committed to the Armalite as to the ballot box, and indeed the obvious likelihood is that in the near future the military campaign will be intensified, simply to reassure the old-timers that their cause is not forgotten. The twin-track policy already appeals to Sinn Fein members who have taken council seats in the North and conduct business there. Sinn Fein may have no hope of joining a government in the South but PR could eventually give it an influential position in a hung Dail.

Inside the republican movement, as the vote showed, the abstentionists are still a substantial force. They may toe the new line, disappear through attrition, or form another break-away. In the short run every violent inducement will be offered in the North for them to remain. But it is among the established parties that the strategists will be busy analysing what Sinn Fein’s emergence from the chrysalis means for them. For example Mr Charles Haughey has recently strengthened Fianna Fail’s opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That puts him on the side of Sinn Fein in the North and in opposition to the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which was his partner in the New Ireland Forum. Yet in Counties Monaghan and Cavan, for example, it is Sinn Fein which is liable to steal his votes. The advent of the Progressive Democrats under Mr Des O’Malley has already upset the Republic’s electoral calculations, most especially those of Fine Gael. Sinn Fein is now a further complication. But what if Sinn Fein comes eventually to find the twin tacks of its policy incompatible? That was what the Officials found. Faced with the choice they opted for the ballot box and discarded the gun. If that were at the back of Mr Adams’s mind the vote would be even more significant. Events will tell, but so far there is no reason to believe they will fall out that way.

The GuardianTramp

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