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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 - Legacy
On 2 November 1986, after at times a bitter debate, SF delegates voted by 429 to 161 to end the abstentionist policy towards Dáil Éireann. The immediate consequence of this was to see a further split in republican ranks with Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, a former president of SF (1970-83), leaving with a number of his supporters to form Republican Sinn Féin (RSF). RSF was to commit itself to maintaining its adherence to abstentionism and therefore was to claim that it was now the sole guardian of Irish republican ideology. As for SF the decision in 1986 to overturn abstentionism did not automatically lead to a political breakthrough in the Republic of Ireland. Instead it was not until the general election of June 1997 that it succeeded in having one of its candidates win a seat with Caiomhghin O’Caolain becoming the party’s first TD to enter Dáil Eireann. But this momentum has been maintained and built upon further as evident in the general election in May 2002, when SF succeeded in winning five seats in the Dáil.
As well the move by SF in 1986 to move away from abstentionism was also a clear indication of new thinking in terms of the need for Irish republicans to place a greater emphasis on politics. Furthermore it marked a growing belief that in order for SF to change the political landscape in Ireland and to pursue long-term republican objectives then greater pragmatism had to be shown. Out of this whole episode was to emerge a republican movement less dogmatic and more willing to adopt a more pragmatic approach. This was to be crucial in the developments that were to lead firstly to its involvement in the "Peace Process" of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then to its participation in the negotiations that were to produce the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. This was to culminate at a special SF ard fheis in May 1998 when delegates voted overwhelmingly to allow successful SF candidates to take up their seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly.