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Abstentionism: Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 1-2 November 1986
Text: Brendan Lynn
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Abstentionism: Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 1-2 November 1986 - Assessment
By the early 1980s elements within the republican movement and in particular those associated with Gerry Adams, then vice-president of Sinn Féin (SF) (1978-83) and later president (1983-present), had come to the conclusion that in order for its ultimate objectives to be achieved then there had to be a greater emphasis on political activity. Within Northern Ireland, on the back of the republican huger strikes of 1980-81, a successful electoral strategy had been achieved without any SF representative having to take their seat in any parliamentary body. But in the Republic of Ireland it proved more difficult for SF to achieve similar results. Instead it appeared as if Irish republicans would remain on the political fringe instead of having an impact on events as they were now able to do in Northern Ireland.
For Adams and his associates the explanation for this failure in the Republic of Ireland was the fact that abstentionism had now become a hindrance to Irish republicanism. Strict adherence to it had simply allowed the situation to develop where their movement had become isolated from the bulk of the electorate who fully recognised Dáil Éireann as the legitimate authority in the twenty-six counties. As a result SF was isolated and viewed as irrelevant by the vast majority of the population who instead voted for parties who would attend the Irish parliament in order to seek to secure the political agenda of their own constituents. Thus the conclusion was reached that without SF playing a full part in politics in the Republic of Ireland, including taking any seats won in Dáil Éireann, it would never be strong enough to build the support it needed to achieve the ultimate objective of removing the British presence in Ireland.
The difficulty that had to be faced however was the fact that abstentionism was still judged by some as one of the fundamental principles of Irish republicanism and therefore could not be changed or altered. This meant that those who advocated new thinking on the issue, such as Adams, had to proceed slowly and cautiously. At the same time they continued to put forward their view that new thinking on the abstentionist issue was needed in order for SF to become a major political force. The determination to press ahead resulted on occasions in setbacks, most notably at the SF ard fheis in November 1985, when a proposal to remove abstentionism was defeated by the delegates, but from this defeat came the incentive to be better prepared for the next occasion. This was to come a year later at the 1986 SF ard fheis where the issue was again down for debate.