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Abstentionism: Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 1-2 November 1986
- Chronology of Main Events

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Text: Martin Melaugh
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Abstentionism: Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, 1-2 November 1986 - A Chronology of Main Events


Chronology of Main Events


Sunday 28 December 1969
Split in the IRA
There was a split in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). [The breakaway group became known as the Provisional IRA and the remaining group became known as the Official IRA. The split in the IRA became public knowledge on 11 January 1970.]


Sunday 11 January 1970
Sinn Féin Split
Sinn Féin (SF) held an Ard Fheis (party conference) in Dublin at which the party split between those who were in favour of ending the policy of abstentionism - of not taking any seats won in the parliaments of Dublin, Belfast, and London - and those where against. A majority of delegates (although not the two-thirds required under the party's rules to change policy) were in favour of ending the abstentionist policy. Those opposed to the move, 257 supporters of the 'Provisional Army Council', walked out of the meeting thus leaving the organisation and established offices in Kevin Street, Dublin. This new grouping became know as 'Provisional Sinn Féin' (PSF). The majority who remained behind continued to occupy the offices in Gardiner Place, Dublin, and were known as 'Official Sinn Féin' (OSF). [This split mirrored the split that had occurred on 28 December 1969 when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) broke up into the Provisional IRA (PIRA) and Official IRA (OIRA).]


Thursday 9 April 1981
Bobby Sands Elected to Westminster
In the Fermanagh / South Tyrone by-election Bobby Sands, then on hunger strike in the Maze Prison, was elected (following the final count on 11 April 1981) as Member of Parliament for the constituency. The turnout for the contest was 86.9 per cent and Sands obtained 30,492 votes and Harry West, the Unionist candidate, obtained 29,046 votes. [The election had been followed by media organisations around the world and the outcome gave added impetus to the hunger strike campaign. The British government declared that the election would not change its position in regard to special category status. On 12 June 1981 the government published proposals to change the Representation of the People Act making it impossible for prisoners to stand as candidates for election to parliament.]

Tuesday 5 May 1981
Bobby Sands Died
After 66 days on hunger strike Bobby Sands (26), then a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and a Member of Parliament (MP), died in the Maze Prison.

Thursday 7 May 1981
Funeral of Bobby Sands
An estimated 100,000 people attended the funeral of Bobby Sands in Belfast. [The size of the crowd reflected the impact the hunger strike was having on the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland.]

Wednesday 20 May 1981
District Council Elections
Local government elections were held in Northern Ireland against the backdrop of the continuing hunger strike. In the increased tension in the region, 'moderate' parties all suffered a decline in support. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) achieved 26.6 per cent of the vote compared to the 26.5 per cent recorded by the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) obtained 17.5 per cent of the first preference votes compared to 20.6 per cent in 1977.

Friday 29 May 1981
The names of four prisoners on hunger strike together with five other Republican prisoners, were put forward as candidates in the forthcoming general election in the Republic of Ireland.

Thursday 11 June 1981
A general election was held in the Republic of Ireland. [When counting was completed a minority government was formed between a coalition of Fine Gael (FG) and Labour. On 30 June 1981 Garret FitzGerald replaced Charles Haughey as Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister). Two H-Block prisoners were elected to the Dáil.]

Friday 12 June 1981
The British government published proposals to change the 'Representation of the People Act' making it impossible for prisoners to stand as candidates for election to parliament.

Thursday 20 August 1981
Tenth Hunger Striker Died
Michael Devine (27) died after 60 days on hunger strike. Devine had been a member of the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). The family of Patrick McGeown, who had been on hunger strike for 42 days, agreed to medical intervention to save his life.
A by-election was held in Fermanagh / South Tyrone to elect a Member of Parliament (MP) to Westminster to the seat that became vacant on the death of Bobby Sands. Owen Carron, who had been Sands' campaign manager, was proposed by Sinn Féin (SF). Carron won the by-election with an increased number of votes over the total achieved by Sands. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) had again decided not to contest the election.

Sunday 23 August 1981
Having won the Fermanagh / South Tyrone seat for the second time Sinn Féin (SF) announced that in future it would contest all Northern Ireland elections.

Saturday 3 October 1981
Republican Hunger Strike Ended
Those Republican prisoners who had been still refusing food decided to end their hunger strike. At this stage in the protest six prisoners were on hunger strike: Hugh Carville - 34 days; James Devine - 13 days; Gerard Hodgkins - 20 days; Jackie McMullan - 48 days; John Pickering - 27 days; and Pat Sheehan - 55 days. [The prisoners took their decision when it became clear that each of their families would ask for medical intervention to save their lives. Even though the hunger strike was called off it was announced on 4 October 1981 that the 'blanket protest' was set to continue. On 6 October 1981 James Prior, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced a series of measures which went a long way to meeting many aspects of the prisoners' five demands. By 25 October the 'blanket protest' was all but over.]
[The hunger strike of 1981 had very important and far-reaching consequences for Northern Ireland and proved to be one of the key turning points of 'the Troubles'. In addition to the 10 Republican prisoners who had died inside the Maze Prison there had been an upsurge in violence outside the prison with 62 people dying as a result. The Republican movement had achieved a huge propaganda victory over the British government and had obtained a lot of international sympathy. Active and tacit support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) increased in Nationalist areas. Political support for Sinn Féin (SF) was demonstrated in the two by-elections and eventually led to the emergence of SF as a significant political force in Northern Ireland. The British government's fear that SF would overtake the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the main representative of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland was a key reason for the government signing the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) on 15 November 1985.]

Saturday 31 October 1981 (or 1 November 1981 ?)
Sinn Féin (SF) held its Ard Fheis (annual conference) in Dublin, Republic of Ireland. Danny Morrison, then editor of 'An Phoblacht', gave a speech in which he addressed the issue of the party taking part in future elections: "Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in one hand and the Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?" [This statement was subsequently often quoted as: 'the Armalite in one hand and the Ballot box in the other'. As part of this strategy a number of motions were adopted which made clear that SF would adopt a much more positive approach to contesting all types of elections in both parts of Ireland. In the future, for instance, it would contest local government elections in Northern Ireland and if successful take up any seats won (this had always been the policy in the Republic of Ireland). In addition the SF Ard Comhairle (ruling executive) would now have the authority to decide whether the party would contest, in accordance with its traditional abstentionist policy, elections to the Westminster parliament, Dáil Éireann, or any parliamentary body in Northern Ireland.]


Wednesday 27 January 1982
The coalition government of Fine Gael (FG) and the Irish Labour Party in the Republic of Ireland collapsed when independent Teachta Dála (TDs; members of Irish Parliament) voted against proposed tax increases on items such as petrol, alcohol, and tobacco.

Thursday 18 February 1982
There was a General Election in the Republic of Ireland. [When the count of the votes was completed the ruling coalition government of Fine Gael (FG) and Irish Labour Party lost the election and a minority Fianna Fáil (FF) government was returned. Charles Haughey became the Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister). Sinn Féin (SF) had seven candidates in the election but none were returned.]

Monday 5 April 1982
White Paper Published
The British government published its White Paper, 'Northern Ireland: A Framework for Devolution' (Cmnd 8541). The paper set out proposals for the establishment of an elected 78 member Assembly at Stormont. The Assembly would then be asked to reach agreement on how any powers devolved to it from Westminster would be administered. The proposals indicated that it would need the agreement of 70 per cent of Assembly members before powers would be devolved. It was also envisaged that power would be passed to particular Northern Ireland Departments one at a time; because of this the scheme became known as 'rolling devolution'. [The ideas contained in the White Paper had been discussed for some time prior to its publication and most of the political parties had expressed opposition to it.]

Wednesday 14 July 1982
James Prior, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced that elections to the new Assembly at Stormont would be held on 20 October 1982.

Friday 23 July 1982
The 'Northern Ireland Act 1982', which established the rules for the proposed Assembly, became law.

Wednesday 25 August 1982
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) announced that it would contest the forthcoming Northern Ireland Assembly elections but those elected would not take their seats. [Following this decision Sinn Féin (SF) confirmed that it would oppose the SDLP in a number of constituencies. SF made clear that its preference would have been to support a complete boycott of the poll by all shades of northern nationalism, however it stated that under no circumstances would any of its successful candidates sit in the new assembly. Instead the party’s decision to take part in the poll was "... to give the nationalist electorate (in Northern Ireland) an opportunity to reject the uncontested monopoly in leadership which the SDLP has had ...". In the end SF decided to field 12 candidates in 6 of the 12 Northern Ireland constituencies.]

Wednesday 20 October 1982
Assembly Elections
Elections to the new 78 seat Northern Ireland Assembly took place across Northern Ireland. This was the first election in Northern Ireland since the beginning of 'the Troubles' to be contested by Sinn Féin (SF) which won 10.1 per cent of the first preference votes and secured 5 of the seats. The Social Democratic and Labour Party's (SDLP) performance was relatively poor and it obtained 18.8 per cent of the vote and 14 seats. Both the SDLP and SF had adopted a policy of abstentionism and therefore refused to take their seats. The largest vote went to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP); 29.7 per cent and 26 seats. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) obtained 23.0 per cent and 21 seats. The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) obtained 9.3 per cent of the vote, which was less than SF, but got 10 seats, double that of SF. [The emergence of SF as a political force in Northern Ireland was to cause almost panic in British establishment circles. Many commentators speculated that SF would replace the SDLP as the main voice of Nationalists in Northern Ireland. It was to counter the rise of SF that the British government went on to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement on 15 November 1985.]


Friday 11 March 1983
The Irish government announced that it was establishing a forum which became known as the New Ireland Forum. The Forum was proposed by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). [Many commentators considered the Forum to be a response to the perceived threat that was presented by Sinn Féin (SF) to the electoral position of the SDLP as the main Nationalist party in Northern Ireland. All the constitutional Nationalist parties in Ireland, with the exception of SF, were invited to attend the Forum. The first meeting of the Forum took place on 30 May 1983 and the final report was published on 2 May 1984.]
James Prior, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the British government would not co-operate with the inquiry on the conflict that had been set up by the Political Committee of the European Parliament.

Tuesday 22 March 1983
In a district council by-election in Omagh, County Tyrone, a Sinn Féin (SF) candidate won the seat. [This was the first local government election contested by SF during the current conflict.]

Monday 30 May 1983
First Meeting of New Ireland Forum
The first meeting of the New Ireland Forum took place in Dublin Castle, Republic of Ireland. Sinn Féin (SF) was excluded because the renunciation of violence was made an essential prerequisite to joining the Forum. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI) all refused to attend. The Forum consisted of eight members of Fine Gael (FG), nine members of Fianna Fáil (FF), five members of Irish Labour, and five members of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

Thursday 9 June 1983
General Election in UK
In the United Kingdom (UK) General Election the Conservative Party was returned to power with an increased majority. In Northern Ireland the election was contested across the new 17 constituencies. [When the counting was completed the major news story was the election of Gerry Adams, then Vice-President of Sinn Féin (SF), in the West Belfast constituency where he beat the sitting Member of Parliament (MP) Gerry Fitt and Joe Hendron of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) won 11 seats (with 34% of the vote), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) 3 seats (20.6%), Ulster Popular Unionist Party (UPUP) 1 seat, Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) 1 seat (17.9%), and SF 1 seat (13.4%). Unionist candidates therefore took 15 of the 17 seats. Many commentators again speculated on the possibility of SF replacing the SDLP as the main voice of Nationalism in Northern Ireland.]

Friday 10 June 1983
Following the election of Gerry Adams, then Vice-President of Sinn Féin (SF), as Member of Parliament (MP) for West Belfast, William Whitelaw, then British Home Secretary, lifted the ban on him entering Britain.

Sunday 13 November 1982
Gerry Adams, then Member of Parliament (MP) for West Belfast, was elected President of Sinn Féin (SF) and the party's annual Ard Fheis. [Adams replaced Ruairí Ó Brádaigh as President in a development that demonstrated the movement in political power from Republicans based in the south of Ireland to those in Northern Ireland.]


Saturday 2 November 1985
Loyalists began a campaign to establish 'Ulster Clubs' in each District Council area in Northern Ireland. To begin the campaign there was a march through Belfast by an estimated 5,000 members of the United Ulster Loyalist Front (UULF). The main aim of the organisation was to oppose any forthcoming Anglo-Irish agreement.
Sinn Féin began a two day Ard Fheis (annual conference) during which a debate was held on a motion that the party’s "... policy on abstentionism be viewed as a tactic and not as a principle". [In essence this proposed that SF should in the future consider taking up, if successful, any seats won by the party in the Dail, the parliament of the Republic of Ireland. After a vote however the motion was defeated by 187 votes to 161. The issue was debated again at the Ard Fheis held on 1-2 November 1986.]


Thursday 16 October 1986
An article in the republican newspaper An Phoblacht / Republican News confirmed that sometime in the previous weeks the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) had held a meeting of the General Army Convention, the organisation’s supreme decision-making body. This was the first gathering of the General Army Convention that had taken place in 16 years. The meeting was held in secret and debated those aspects of the PIRA’s constitution that dealt with its opposition to the taking of seats in Dáil Éireann - its policy on abstentionsim. Motions were accepted (by the necessary two-thirds majority) allowing members of the PIRA to discuss and debate the taking of parliamentary seats, and the removal of the ban on members of the PIRA from supporting any successful republican candidate who took their seat in Dáil Éireann.

Sunday 2 November 1986
SF End Abstentionism / Split in SF
During the second day of the Sinn Féin (SF) Ard Fheis in Dublin, a majority of delegates voted to end the party's policy of abstentionism - that of refusing to take seats in Dáil Éireann. The change in policy led to a split in SF and Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, a former President of SF, Dáithí Ó Conaill, a former vice-President of SF, and approximately 100 people staged a walk-out. [Ó Brádaigh and Ó Conaill went on to establish a new organisation called Republican Sinn Féin (RSF).]


Friday 6 June 1997
General Election in Republic of Ireland
There was a general election in the Republic of Ireland. [When the count was finished the ruling coalition government of Fine Gael, Labour, and Democratic Left, obtained 77 seats but was defeated by a coalition of Fianna Fáil, Progressive Democrats, and a number of independents, who obtained 81 seats. Sinn Féin (SF) won its first seat in the Daíl since its decision in 1986 to end its policy of abstentionism and Caiomhghin O’Caolain became the party’s first TD to take his seat. The incoming government was led by Bertie Ahern who became the new Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister). On 26 June 1997 Ahern finished appointment of his cabinet.]


Friday 10 April 1998
Good Friday Agreement
After almost 30 years of violence and two years of intensive talks the Northern Ireland Peace Process reached a climax at 5.36pm when George Mitchell, then Chairman of the multi-party talks at Stormont, finally made the historic statement: "I am pleased to announce that the two governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland have reached agreement".
The Agreement exceeded Mitchell’s deadline by almost 18 hours, and it was clear that there were elements of the Agreement which did not suit each of the signatories. The main points of the Agreement were: a Northern Ireland Assembly with 108 seats, elected by proportional representation; a 12 member Executive committee of ministers to be elected by the Assembly; the setting up of a North-South Ministerial Council within one year by the Assembly; the council being accountable to Assembly and Daíl; amendments to Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, to establish the principle of consent, and the repeal of the (British) Government of Ireland Act; a Council of the Isles with members drawn from assemblies in England, Scotland, Wales, Belfast and Dublin.
Later it was learnt that Bill Clinton, then President of the United States of America (USA), had made, and received, a number of telephone calls to party leaders in an effort to encourage them to reach a settlement.
Ian Paisley, then leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), was heckled by some Loyalists as he addressed the media at Stormont. The DUP and the United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP), in addition to some leading members of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) led the opposition to the Agreement.

Sunday 12 April 1998
At a series of Sinn Féin (SF) rallies in Ireland to commemorate the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, speeches were delivered which appeared to give the Good Friday Agreement a cautious welcome. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) issued a statement which said that it would judge the Agreement "against its potential to deliver a just and durable peace in our country". Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) called for a 'no' vote in the planned referendums on the Agreement.

Saturday 18 April 1998
The Ulster Unionist Council (UUC), the policy making body of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), gave the Good Friday Agreement a significant boost when delegates backed if by 540 to 210 (72 per cent). While this was a major boost to David Trimble, then leader of the UUP, six out of the 10 UUP Members of Parliament (MPs) opposed the Agreement.
Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin (SF), addressed the SF Ard Fheis in Dublin. During his address he informed delegates of the news of the UUP vote on the Agreement and said "Well done, David"; there was a round of applause from the delegates at the news. [Trimble later said this support by SF was a "poisoned chalice".] Later in his speech to delegates on the Agreement, and the negotiations that had preceded it, Adams gave a cautious response. In particular, he noted the concerns of many republicans with certain aspects of the Agreement such as the proposed new Northern Ireland Assembly. Adams recognised that Irish republicans still had "... an emotional ... political as well as constitutional block to participation in a Stormont parliament". At the same time however Adams went onto point out that if SF did not fully participate then the opportunity "... we have to make and implement policy on an all Ireland basis ... could be allocated to other parties". [In the end no definitive response on the Agreement was reached and it was agreed to reconvene the Ard Fheis on 10 May 1998 to deal with the issue.]

Wednesday 6 May 1998
The Sinn Féin (SF) leadership confirmed its support for the Good Friday Agreement, recommending that members in both the North and the South should vote 'Yes' in the forthcoming referendum. It had been reported that the Irish Republican Army (IRA) had taken the decision to drop the ban on members of the Republican movement taking part in an assembly at Stormont. Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, and John Major, a former British Prime Minister, travelled to Northern Ireland to lend their support to the campaign for a 'Yes' vote in the referendum. Blair welcomed the news that SF had decided to support the Agreement. A majority of councillors in Ballymena District Council voted to support the Agreement. [Ballymena has been viewed as a stronghold of Paisleyism and some people had expected that the vote would go against the Agreement.]

Sunday 10 May 1998
SF End Abstentions

At the party’s Ard Fheis in Dublin, Sinn Fein (SF) members voted to change their constitution to allow candidates to take their places in the proposed new Northern Ireland Assembly. Out of the 350 delegates present and eligible to vote, 331 voted in favour of a motion drafted by the Ard Comhairle (the ruling executive of SF) which would allow successful SF candidates to take up their seats in the new Northern Ireland Assembly. The party was addressed by Gerry Adams, then President of SF. [The removal of the policy of ‘abstentionism’ was a historical move which ended 77 years of refusing to participate in institutions of government in Northern Ireland.] A number of Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoners were released from jails in the Republic of Ireland to attend the Ard Fheis. However, the scene of celebration that greeted the appearance of members of the 'Balcombe Street Siege gang' resulted in controversy and criticism from a wide circle of opinion.
It was reported in the Sunday Tribune (a Republic of Ireland newspaper) that the membership of the "real" Irish Republican Army (rIRA) had grown to around 150 members. It was also claimed that the dissident group was being led by the former Quartermaster General of the IRA.

Thursday 25 June 1998
Northern Ireland Assembly Election
An election was held across Northern Ireland to chose representatives for the new Northern Ireland Assembly. The election was contested in the 18 parliamentary constituencies with six people being returned from each of the constituencies making a total of 108 members for the new Assembly. [When the votes were counted the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) marginally beat the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) in the number of first preference votes, but the UUP gained 4 more seats that the SDLP (28 seats as opposed to 24). The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) obtained 20 seats and Sinn Féin (SF) returned 18 candidates.]

Wednesday 1 July 1998
First Meeting of 'Shadow' Assembly
'First Minister Designate' and 'Deputy First Minister Designate' Elected

All the political parties who had won seats during the Northern Ireland Assembly election took their places in the new Assembly chamber at Stormont. The Assembly met in 'shadow' form as powers had not yet been devolved. Those present included the parties, and candidates, who had opposed the Good Friday Agreement. [The event was televised live in Northern Ireland and many people found it almost surreal to see Ian Paisley, then leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), sitting in the same debating chamber as Gerry Adams, then President of Sinn Féin (SF).]
During the first session on the new Northern Ireland Assembly David Trimble, then leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), was elected 'First Minister Designate' of the new Assembly. Seamus Mallon, then deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), was elected 'Deputy First Minister Designate'.
John Alderdice, formerly the leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (APNI), was appointed as the ‘Presiding Officer Designate' (the Speaker) of the new Assembly.

Monday 29 November 1999
Northern Ireland Executive Appointed
There was a meeting of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Seamus Mallon, then deputy leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), was reinstated as Deputy First Minister Designate. The d'Hondt procedure for the appointment of ministers in a power-sharing Executive was triggered and 10 ministers appointed. This was the first time in 25 years that Northern Ireland had a power-sharing Executive. Under the d’Hondt procedure Sinn Féin (SF) were entitled to two seats on the Executive and the party nominate Martin McGuinness, as Minister of Education, and Bairbre de Brún, as Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Both become the first republicans to take up ministerial positions in Northern Ireland.


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