Extract from Presidential Address by Gerry Adams on the Issue of Abstentionism, Dublin, (1 November 1986)
[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
ABSTENTIONISM: [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Background] [Chronology] [Main_Items] [Assessment] [Legacy] [Sources]
Extract from Presidential Address by Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin, on the issue of abstentionism (Resolution 162), Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Dublin, (1 November 1986)
One of the most important debates so far in this phase of our struggle will take place tomorrow when the Ard-Fheis will address itself to the question of abstentionism. You will be asked to consider and support a motion from the Ard Chomhairle, and from cumainn and comhairli ceantair throughout Ireland, calling for a change in our abstentionist attitude to Leinster House.
Before addressing this issue directly, I would like to take this opportunity to address myself to the debate and to the mood and conditions in which I think it should be conducted. Of course, I cannot force these conditions upon anyone. When delegates address the Ard-Fheis they are free to do so in whatever way they choose, but I appeal to you all, regardless of what view you hold on this issue, to remember that we are comrades in struggle and should conduct ourselves accordingly.
We are a political organisation and political organisations must, by their very nature, discuss and debate issues which they consider pertinent. We cannot do so properly unless all sides of the argument are articulated, unless all sides are accorded equal respect and consideration and unless all are bound by the democratic wishes of their comrades. The Ard-Fheis is the supreme authority in Sinn Fein — not the Ard Chomhairle, not the Coiste Seasta, not the president. The assembled delegates of an Ard-Fheis are the authority. You are the leadership. And whatever you decide on this issue, as on any other issue, is binding on us all. None of us can predict or anticipate tomorrow’s vote; none of us, on our own, can decide which way this party is going to vote, but each of us can decide as individuals what we are going to do when the vote is counted. And we can make that decision today.
Tá fhios agam go bhfuil poblachtóiri anseo a chreideann go Iáidirr sa staonadh parlaiminte. Tuigim dona daoine sin. Ach, cuma cén dearcadh atá ag poblachtóir, níl sé de cheart ag duine ar bith seans a thabhairt dár naimhde a rá go bhfuil Sinn Féin ag ‘scoilt’. Tá dualgas orainn uilig seasamh le chéile. Tá an troid seo níos mó ná duine ar bith againn. Ní chaithfidh muid a bheith ag aontú fá gach . polasaí atá againn ach caithfidh muid uilig a bheith ag cur le chéile i gcónaí.
Many republicans have deep and justifiably strong feelings about abstentionism. I share and I understand those feelings. But none of us, regardless of the strength of our views, has the right to present the establishment and our opponents with the opportunity to project internationally the spectacle of yet another republican ‘split’. Indeed, we have a duty to deny them such an opportunity. This struggle is bigger than all of us and it demands of us, as a basic requirement of our involvement, that we develop the ability and maturity to agree to disagree, even on fundamentals, and to unite in the great struggle for the reconquest of our country.
Unity is strength. Not a conditional unity or a qualified unity but a total commitment to a unified acceptance of the democratic mandate of this Ard-Fheis.
I can understand that some comrades view a change of the abstentionist policy as a betrayal of republican principles. Some of you may feel that a republican organisation making such a change can no longer call itself ‘republican’. If there are delegates here who feel like this I would remind you that another republican organisation has already done what you fear we are going to do tomorrow. I would remind you that the Army Authority of Oglaigh na hEirean, the rank and file volunteers, assembled in the General Army Convention, has democratically made a judgement on this issue and that Oglaigh na hEireann has remained united in its determination to pursue the armed struggle and is united in its confidence in us and in our ability to pursue the political struggle.
There was no walk-out from the IRA by IRA Volunteers.
Garret FitzGerald’s spurious propaganda claims that Sinn Fein is ordered by the IRA to do its bidding is nonsense, as any informed observer of republican politics will testify. That may be the way the Fine Gael leadership conducts its business, or it may be a good description of Fine Gael as the Irish political wing of Margaret Thatcher’s British army, but as a description of how Sinn Féin conducts its business, it is rubbish.
The decisions of a General Army Convention are not binding on Sinn Fein Ard-Fheiseanna, but the logic of those who would consider withdrawing support from Sinn Fein if we change the abstentionist policy must be applied also to your attitude to the Army. And the logic which would dictate withdrawal of support from Sinn Fein if decisions go against you means that you have already decided to withdraw solidarity and support from the IRA and the armed struggle. It means that you have decided to stop supporting captured republicans incarcerated in British or Free State prisons or in prisons in Europe and the USA. I do not believe that any republican could take such a decision and then attend this Ard-Fheis.
For my part, I can tell you that, although I am supporting the Ard Chomhairle motion, if the vote goes against us I will be as much a part of this struggle after that vote as I am today before that vote, and I will continue to work for this organisation with total commitment and single-minded determination.
There is going to be no split in Sinn Fein on this or any other issue. Some comrades may decide to leave us. Perhaps they have already decided to do so. Some may have decided already if the vote goes against them that they will publicly walk out tomorrow. This is a wrong course of action for anyone to take. It means they want us to accept their vote but that they won’t accept ours. If this is so, it is something I deeply regret.
Have people walked in here just to walk out? Has anyone here booked an hotel? As well as telling the media they have a duty to tell us, if this is their intention. I have spoken privately to some of the main supporters of abstentionism from Leinster House and I am firmly convinced that anyone who leaves us over this issue will regret their decision in the years ahead.
To leave Sinn Fein is to leave the struggle.
This phase of the struggle is the greatest one republicans have ever been engaged in. We all have a part to play in it and those of us who remain committed to it will ensure, regardless of the dangers it holds for us, that this struggle is going to continue until Irish independence is won. That is no idle boast.
The spectre of a ‘split’ is being raised to panic and intimidate us. It is aimed at unnerving people who want to remove abstentionism but who don’t want the price for this to be a split. Talk or speculation about the split is aimed at making these people draw back.
This leadership is not going to be blackmailed by any such speculation. We have been elected by you to give leadership and will not be found lacking in the task of leading and uniting this party. It was never our intention to turn this debate into a leadership crisis. We intended, as we did with Eire Nua and with Federalism, to come to this Ard-Fheis and, if necessary, again and again to future Ard-Fheiseanna until we had persuaded you or you had persuaded us by the logic of comradely discussion. I heard, courtesy of the British media, that the resignation of this leadership was being sought if this vote went against them. I was surprised that this should come to us via the British media.
I suppose I should not have been surprised, there have been so many surprising, abusive, sad, untruthful and personalised things said on the British establishment media by those who should know better and who should know why they are being given a facility now that they were denied for so long.
This Ard-Fheis elects its leadership, not the owners of the Irish Times, Belfast News Letter, Irish Press, BBC1, BBC2, BBC3-RTE, or UTV.
If you wish to elect a new or a former leadership, as with every other issue, I will abide by your wishes.
I consider the Ard Chomhairle motion to be a most important one because of the clear direction it gives in relation to future strategy, but I consider it also as opening up, in a formal sense, the internal debate which commenced a few Ard-Fheiseanna ago.
While last year’s debate was also an important one, it was academic. Whether one holds abstentionism as a principle or a tactic cannot be changed by a vote, regardless of how large the majority. We do not seek to change the personal principles of any delegate here.
In the course of a debate, one may, of course, review, change or alter one’s opinions, but it is the quality of the debate and not the vote which has that effect. The question is wider than one of principle or tactic and it is not unique to Ireland nor post-partition Ireland.
It is a question of whether a struggle such as ours can be advanced by opening up another front in a parliament of the establishment which oppresses us and the interests we seek to represent. As such, this question of electoralism as a means of revolutionary struggle has affected all struggles in areas where parliaments with universal suffrage exist. As with all such questions, the answer lies in the people’s attitudes to those institutions.
Our experience has taught us that our struggle - and this affects every aspect of the struggle for national liberation - cannot be built merely on the republican perception of things. We have had to consistently pitch our struggle at the level of people’s understanding and we have had to develop it from this common denominator, taking into account, in an objective way, all the forces and factors involved.
It would be much easier, of course, if all the Irish people, or a large section of them, were born with our perception and our view of things, but this is not the case. If it was, there would be little need for a republican struggle. But there is such a need and if we want to win then there is a fundamental need to make it a people’s struggle. Of course, if we have no concept of winning we can remain as we are - a party apart from the people, proud of our past but with little involvement in the present and only dreams for the future.
If this is so, it is easy to ignore this problem or to let our own republican view of things blind us to realities. If nothing else, republicans must be realistic, especially about the people’s perception (as opposed to our perception) of things. In the 6 Counties, in regards to Stormont or Westminster, a sizeable section of nationalists and republicans feel no affinity with those institutions. In the 26 Counties, it is different. It is a massive mistake, to presume that our republican attitude to Leinster House is shared by any more than a very small section of our people, especially the citizens of this state, who might otherwise be open to our policies on all other issues. It must also be clear that the reconquest of Ireland, much less a British withdrawal, cannot be completed without the support of more of these people.
Of course we have a duty to point out to these people the short-comings and the history of the present system, and we have a duty to win them to our view, but we can only do so at their level of understanding and we can only proceed from the objective reality of their consciousness.
James Connolly dealt with this issue in 1897, in a criticism of abstentionism in the Shan Van Vocht. In an editorial, the Shan Van Vocht rejected Connolly’s views because an oath of allegiance was involved, but they also called for the question to be debated and they recorded their agreement with Connolly’s views on the labour and social questions. Earlier, the IRB had debated this issue and a section of them actually attempted to develop a ballot box and dynamite strategy. At this time, unlike 1916 or today, they failed to develop their phase of armed struggle.
I give these examples merely to show that the debate among revolutionaries about participation in parliaments predates partition. Partition has merely reinforced the problem and distorted it in much the same way as it has affected every other aspect of life on this island.
Connolly’s criticism of abstentionism in 1897 and his implicit approval of it in the 1916 Proclamation, which established a provisional government until "the establishment of a permanent national government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrage of all her men and women ", shows that republicans should not be dogmatic and inflexible on this question. Those who first articulated abstentionism could not foresee the political developments that were to take place, nor could they, or did they, lay down a course of action with a stipulation that it could never be changed.
Their political responses were defined by the political conditions that confronted them or that they were able to create. This applies to those living 70 or 80 or indeed 200 years ago. As the political conditions change so must republican strategy change. Therefore present political conditions continue to be the dominant factor in producing a republican response to those conditions. Our experience teaches us that, as a group, we are often successful when we have a flexible approach. We are at our weakest when we are forced into a static political position where the more powerful forces of imperialism can be employed to isolate us.
We should not reject participation out of hand, but we should always be aware that such rejection may become essential. It all depends on the objective reality and conditions of the time.
1918 was such a time. The strategy of 1918 was the correct one. It was a dual power situation. It was much more than merely refusing to attend any enemy parliament. It meant withholding our consent to be governed by the British when the people - not us, but the people - established an alternative to Dail Eireann. But even then republicans made a mistake. To a large degree many of those politicians who represented us in Dail Eireann were not republicans. They did not reflect the interests of the mass of people and they certainly did not represent the interests of the people doing the actual fighting. Thus a majority of them found it possible, if not easy, to accept the Treaty arrangement.
It was in their own class interests to do so. For this reason they implemented the Treaty with a terrible ferocity. And they defeated us. With animal savagery, great cruelty and brutality, they imposed the British partition of Ireland upon this nation and they established the Free State and, within a modernised neo-colonial arrangement, they continue to represent those interests which crucify the Irish people.
At that time, many republicans refused to co-operate in any way with the new Free State setup. At that time, unlike today, abstentionism meant the withholding of all consent to be governed by the new state. As in 1918, this meant much more than merely abstaining from taking their seats.
It meant refusing to co-operate in any way with the new state. It meant a refusal to recognise any aspect of the Free State, its courts (in both civil and political cases), its education system, its labour and agricultural schemes, limited though they were, or even its postal system, republicans refused even to pay for stamps and later some refused to use the new passports. But unlike 1918, no political alternative existed during the Treaty period and Liam Mellows’ Notes from Mountjoy, which pointed in a clear political direction, was never implemented. By the time the ‘soldiers of the rearguard’ dumped their weapons - not in surrender but in exhaustion and in weary anticipation of another round of hostilities - the offensive was with the Free State. Armed struggle had been the only manifestation of republican resistance. Once that armed struggle ceased, as it had to, there was no other form of organised resistance relevant to the needs of ordinary people.
In 1924, Sinn Fein fought its last meaningful election on an abstentionist policy in the Free State. Given the destabilising effect that abstentionism had on a young Free State, plus the widespread though mistaken belief that partition would not last, and coupled with the support that we continued to enjoy despite the vicious cruelty of the Civil War counter-revolution, it can be argued that abstentionism was the correct approach at that time. If so, the emergence of Fianna Fail, and its subsequent electoral successes with republican support, marked the end of abstentionism as a viable policy in this state. The coercive policies of the Fianna Fail leadership in government are a matter of historical record.
They are rarely heard of today outside of republican circles. An English hangman, patronage and the widespread and vicious repression of republicans was the order of the day. For many republicans this behaviour by the very people they supported in elections was a confirmation of their distrust of ‘politics and politicians’. They should have expected nothing else. Once again those who wrapped themselves in a republican mantle were not republicans. They accepted the reality of the new state and hijacked republican rhetoric for electoral purposes.
This period is significant not just because of the emergence of Fianna Fail but also, and more significantly, because Fianna Fall received support from many of those who remained committed to republican objectives.
The IRA leadership and a depleted Sinn Fern organisation remained on the high ground of abstentionism but yet, at the same time, they were prepared to give at least passive support to another party which was not only prepared to attend Leinster House but was committed to becoming part of the partitionist system. They failed to present the people with any realistic political alternative.
I have talked and listened to men and women who have fought for the Republic since 1914 to the present day. In the last 20 years, in all parts of this country, I have enjoyed the hospitality of republican households which sheltered the Countess Markievicz, James Connolly, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, George Plant, Frank Ryan, Charlie Kerins, Sean McCaughey, Tom Smith and many others.
I have spoken at monuments to the heroic victims of Free Stateism and knelt in prayer at lonely graves in Kerry and Donegal. I know many of those invincibles who spent years in Free State dungeons not just in the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s and 50s but in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Some of them are present here today.
I share their abhorrence of neo-colonialism and their detestation of those who govern this part of Ireland in the interests of imperialism. My family were opposed to the Treaty and the Partition Act. Like many Northern republicans, they suffered for their beliefs at that time, not only in the 6 Counties but in later years in the glasshouse of the Curragh Concentration Camp and other Free State prisons.
They witnessed the rise of Clann na Poblachta, which received republican support when many republicans again made the mistake of leaving the ‘politics’ to those outside our movement. Sometimes I ask myself if we will ever learn. The central issue is not abstentionism. It is merely a problematic, deeply-rooted and emotive symptom of the lack of republican politics and the failure of successive generations of republicans to grasp the centrality, the primacy and the fundamental need for republican politics. This truth must be grasped. It is a difficult one for many to accept given the conspiratorial and repressive nature of our past, our distrust for ‘politics and politicians’ and a belief that ‘politics’ is inherently corrupt. But once it is grasped then everything else follows logically, especially the need to develop our struggle at the level of people’s understandings.
Too often republicans have appeared dogmatic on the question of abstentionism and yet successive leaderships and generations of republicans have at least passively, and in many cases actively, supported other political organisations in election campaigns. This is certainly the case with Fianna Fail in the Free State general election of 1932, later with Clann na Poblachta, and in our own time with the late Frank Maguire, Frank McManus and Bernadette McAliskey and - although some of them will deny it now - it was also the case with Gerry Fitt, Paddy Devlin and Paddy Kennedy. They would not have been so successful on their entry into politics without republican support and in some of the above cases I was witness to, and in most cases opposed to, that support or at least to a ‘standing aside’ being agreed.
Some republicans believe that politics is the property of the establishment, that so-called ‘constitutionalism’ and politics are the same thing and thus that politics are inherently corrupt and corrupting. The logic of this is that de Valera was okay until he went into Leinster House, or that the opportunism of the Clann na Poblachta leadership only occurred after their entry into the Free State parliament. If we still believe that, then we don’t know our own history and we have little concept of the class nature of this struggle.
The great and most recent example of the corrupting nature of ‘politics’ which is often quoted by some of our membership is the Sticks. Indeed, in the past few weeks some republicans who should know better have actually referred to some people on this platform as Stickies. Oh ye of little faith! Of course, it is easy to hurl abuse - sticks and stone may break our bones - it makes headlines in the media but it also makes this problem more difficult to resolve. To compare us with the Stickies is an obscenity. To talk of ‘only the personalities being changed’ and of ‘some people believing that the British can be talked out of Ireland’ is contemptible.
It is a sign of the maturity of this leadership that we have refrained from publicly answering these remarks and it is a sign of our comradeship that we forgive those who made such remarks.
For anyone who has eyes to see, it is clear that the Sticky leadership had abandoned armed struggle as a form of resistance to British rule as part of their historic new departure into British and Free State constitutionality. Any vestige of armed struggle that continued after this decision was localised and mainly on the initiative of elements which later formed the now almost defunct INLA.
For our part, this leadership has been actively involved in the longest phase ever of resistance to the British presence. Our record speaks for itself. We have led from the front and from within the occupied area. We have learned that to be victorious a struggle for freedom must be a struggle of the people. We have said many times that even the most successful armed struggle in the 6 Counties - and the struggle there is not merely an armed one - cannot achieve the Republic. The aspiration for the Republic has never been defeated, not even when the republican forces were defeated and the legitimate government of the Republic was overthrown. It is not vested merely in governmental structures. It is not vested merely in proclamations or in parliaments of the past. It cannot be voted, negotiated or coerced away.
Even if the Ireland of today was only created yesterday, even if our colonial history only started yesterday, the right to the Republic exists today in the right of the Irish nation to sovereignty, independence and national self-determination. It is up to us to make that Republic a reality.
We must develop a 32-County-wide political struggle. This is the most important task facing us at present. While consolidating our base in the 6 Counties, we must develop a popular struggle here in the 26 Counties to complement the struggle in the 6-County area. Of necessity this means, in order to advance at the level of people’s consciousness, the removal of abstentionism in regard to Leinster House. You may not do this tomorrow but one thing is certain: as Sinn Fein continues to develop its understanding of the needs of this struggle, you are going to do it, sooner rather than later and your leadership is going to be back here year after year until it has convinced you of this necessity.
We all must share the daunting and massive task of interpreting and applying republicanism to changing and changed political conditions. Our failure to do this is one of the tragic failures of the past. The fundamental tenets of republicanism remain valid and are, of course, absolutely central to the resolution of our current national difficulties.
But no generation of republicans could or should ever merely absorb the teachings of previous generations. Those who were successful in the past in advancing the republican cause, even by one inch, updated and modernised the teaching and experiences of their predecessors. This is what Lalor did, what Pearse did, what Connolly did - and it is what we have to do also.
We have to develop a coherent social and political philosophy which provides a rationale for consistent political as well as armed action. Such a process is one of continual reinterpretation and refinement in response to constantly changing social and political reality.
Mar a deirtear i nGaeilge ‘An té nach bhfuil láidir ní foláir a bheith glic’.
The failure to do this in the last 60 years has prevented Sinn Fern from assuming a position of leadership in this state from which people could be organised and their political and national consciousness raised. Many republicans wandered, many still do, in the political wilderness, isolated from the daily life and concerns of the people and unable to challenge or offer a viable alternative to the partitionist regimes in Ireland. This in turn has weakened the appeal and credibility of this struggle and limited our ability to think or act outside, and thus complementary to, the armed struggle, and it prevented us from mobilising the broad masses of our people, not least in regards to the armed struggle.
We have at all times been more committed to rebellion than to revolution. The cement which held us together was physical force and since 1918 until recent times, physical force was applied in isolation, unsupported by organised political sentiment in the country. I have spoken and written on this theme many times and I have preached the gospel of republican politics - the need for republican politics, that is the need for republican involvement with people – up and down this island.
Over the last few years I have, like many of you, given serious consideration to the question of abstentionism and of what part it plays in our struggle. I have considered all the alternatives, in great depth including a dual power situation which is neither feasible nor practical in this state at the present time. I have considered the strategy of taking seats only when we have a majority in Leinster House. This is advanced by some comrades and is, among other things, an admission by them that only mathematics and not principle is involved. But it is also as impractical as the dual power theory.
The only feasible way to break out of our isolation, to make political gains, to win support for our policies, to develop our organisation and our struggle is by approaching people at the level they understand. This is the sad and unfortunate reality of the dilemma facing us. It cannot be dodged by highly moral rhetoric. It is an issue which we must face up to. This means Sinn Fein getting among people in the basic ways which the people accept. This means new approaches and difficult - and perhaps risky - political positions have to be faced up to by us.
It will mean the difference between another glorious defeat or the development of strategies which can succeed.
The removal of abstentionism will not provide a 'magic wand' solution to all our problems. Indeed, in this state it merely clears the decks and it makes the burden of struggle heavier upon all of us.
We have to cease being spectators of a struggle in the 6 Counties and become pioneers of republicanism in the 26 Counties, putting our policies before the people, confident of the logic of the alternative which Irish republicanism offers.
I say this means risky political positions. This should not be under estimated.
The removal of abstentionism allied to implementation of the of the necessities I have touched on here, and detailed in other addresses, will initiate an increase in our party membership and could change the political complexion of this party. It is important therefore that those who wish to change abstentionism now recommit themselves to this struggle and that those who are opposed to change stay with us also.
We need to keep our republican gut. While developing the struggle in the 26 Counties we must never lose sight of our national objectives. We must change our strategies but must never let this change our objectives or our aims. We are a republican party committed to this struggle for national self-determination, committed to the overthrow of British rule in Ireland and to the end of partition and committee to bringing about the political and economic changes necessary for the wellbeing and security of this nation.
In other words, we are committed to the reconquest of Ireland by the Irish people. This means the expulsion of imperialism in all its forms, political, economic, military, social and cultural. It means the establishment of a real Irish republic and the organisation of the economy so that all its resources are under Irish control and organised to bring maximum benefit to the people in a 32-County state in which Irish culture and national identity is strong and confident.
There has been much talk and speculation about how many seat Sinn Fein will win if we contest the Free State election on an attendance ticket. We should not seek to see such a contest merely in terms of winning seats.
If we do contest on an attendance ticket the election after the next one will be the first serious test of our ability to win major support. Al this time, our entry in a serious way into electoral politics in this state should be seen in terms of broad political gains as opposed to immediate gains in terms of a seat or seats. Our underdevelopment, the denial to us of access to the media and our inconsistency in regard to elections in the past (between 1961 and 1982 we took no part in parliamentary elections here) are all factors which mitigate against us and which must be overcome by patient planning and involvement in the sometimes mundane work which will, in time, see gains for us in terms of seats.
What will make an organisation like ours revolutionary is not whether it is committed to any particular means of achieving revolution - such as street agitation, electoralism or physical force - but whether all the means it uses - political work, publicity, mass education, electoralism and armed struggle (which should play no part in the struggle in this state) or projects of economic, social or cultural resistance are conductive to achieving the revolutionary reconquest of Ireland.
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
Last modified :