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'Going Slightly Constitutional', in, 'The Long War: The IRA & Sinn Féin', by Brendan O'Brien (1999)

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Text: Brendan O'Brien ... Page Compiled: Brendan Lynn

The following chapter has been contributed by the author Brendan O'Brien with the permission of the publisher, The O'Brien Press Ltd. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
front cover - The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Fein This chapter is from the book:

by Brendan O'Brien
Published by The O'Brien Press, 1999
ISBN 0-86278-606-1 Paperback 445pp

Back cover photographs: Pacemaker, RTE; front cover photographs: Pacemaker,

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This chapter is copyright Brendan O'Brien (1999) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of The O'Brien Press and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of The O'Brien Press. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

back cover - The Long War: The IRA and Sinn Fein






CHAPTER 1 – The Unfinished Business   19

CHAPTER 2 – In the Heartlands I – Belfast   30

CHAPTER 3 – In the Heartlands II – Derry, Fermanagh, South Armagh   51

CHAPTER 4 – British and Proud of It   81


CHAPTER 5 – The Coming of the Northerners   103

CHAPTER 6 – Going Slightly Constitutional   118

CHAPTER 7 – The Libyan Connection   133

CHAPTER 8 – Sickening the British   154


CHAPTER 9 – Ballot and the Ballot Box   195

CHAPTER 10 – A Door is Opened   209

CHAPTER 11 – Moving into Dialogue   224

CHAPTER 12 – Constitutional Stalemate   240

CHAPTER 13 – Towards the Endgame   263

CHAPTER 14 – Their Hand is Forced   286

CHAPTER 15 – The Long Stages of Peace   325

CHAPTER 16 – ‘Back to Porridge’: The Cessation Collapses   346

CHAPTER 17 – Return to Peace: The Good Friday Agreement   365


NOTES   396


1Extracts from the Green Book, IRA Training Manual
2 IRA General Army Orders
3 Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland, Sinn Féin document
4 Irish Government document presented at 1992 political talks
5 British Government statement at Strand Two talks, 1992
6 Proposals for a Settlement – a republican document, 1993
7 Joint Declaration, 1993
8 Letter from IRA Army Council to the Irish Government via Intermediaries, April 1993
9 Hume – Adams Document or ‘Irish Peace Initiative, 1992/3
10 The Belfast Agreement, 10 April 1998 (Good Friday) – Extracts


INDEX   431

Note: The book contains maps and diagrams of arms and explosive finds south of the Border, based on previously unpublished data. There are also lists and diagrams showing the numbers of security force, civilian and IRA deaths and the results of elections involving Sinn Féin.



THE SHIFT OF ATTENTION towards engagement in politics south of the Border was no easy matter for the new northern leadership. It involved major changes in attitude, both to political involvement and to military activity. A whole new way of thinking had to evolve within the Republican Movement, and this caused many painful problems for the membership. In the context of the ‘theology’ of the IRA and their own sense of moral justification, it would be difficult to bring about the dropping of abstentionism. Also, to convince volunteers that the military effort was not being pushed into second place or being abandoned would be a major task. To develop both strands of policy, the political and the military, was the challenge facing the Adams leadership.


The Republican Movement was by 1983 developing a sophisticated strategy for long-term survival. The thinking of the leadership was that, whatever else, the movement had to remain strong enough to become part of the ultimate political solution when the time came. They wanted to ensure that, in the event of a settlement good enough to bring about an end to the IRA campaign, the Republican Movement would not remain on the outside, marginalised, unable to reap the political rewards of their long struggle. To the new pragmatic northern leadership that meant getting into elections, maximising their political support North and South, to arrive, finally, at the negotiating ‘table’ with the strongest possible mandate. But this in itself was a significant admission, indicating that the IRA on their own were not able to beat the British out of Ireland. It was a view not shared by many hard-line militarists or old-style Republicans.

Most significantly, a move to become a serious participant in politics south of the Border would mean tackling the hugely divisive question of abstention: the IRA’s and Sinn Féin’s constitutional bans on taking seats in Dáil Eireann. This was the very issue which split both the IRA and Sinn Féin in 1969-70, a split which led to killing feuds between the two factions for a number of years afterwards. More than anything, that cardinal republican sin was not to be repeated. Gerry Adams and the new pragmatists would work to ensure that there would be no new splits, most particularly within the army.

IRA objectives had always been to force Britain to withdraw from Ireland and to follow this up with a tidal wave of popular support North and South, enough to sweep away the existing parliaments and replace them with one Dáil for a 32-County Socialist Republic. This prospect had been receding in the early 1980s - not so a decade before. The early 1970s were like nothing that had gone before. Nothing could match the intensity and ferocity of the IRA’s 1970s campaign, particularly in Belfast. In 1972 alone the IRA killed about 100 British soldiers, wounded another 500 and carried out about 1,300 explosions. That was also the year when more than 90 IRA activists were killed, by far their worst year of the conflict. There had been no ‘long war’ strategy then. Instead, the thinking was that the war would be short and successful. Chief of Staff Séan MacStiofáin decided that they would ‘escalate, escalate and escalate’ until the British agreed to go.1 As the leadership saw it, the British were wilting, withdrawal of the British Army looked close, the ‘Republic’ was on its way.

The IRA were encouraged in this interpretation of events when, in July 1972, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland William Whitelaw secretly met their leadership in London. The talks came to nothing because IRA demands were too high and because the accompanying fragile truce broke down in contentious circumstances. Nonetheless, the event convinced the Republican Movement that the Irish Republican Army would be the body to negotiate Britain’s final departure from Ireland.2 They saw this coming about by military means, without getting involved in politics and compromise. In IRA parlance, there was no compromise on British withdrawal.

The Republican Movement’s political wing had made its position clear from the start too. In January 1970, within days of the split in the movement, the new Caretaker Executive of Provisional Sinn Féin issued a statement entitled ‘Where Sinn Féin Stands’. It laid out the fundamental position on the ‘Recognition of Parliaments’. Since its foundation in 1905, the statement said, ‘Sinn Féin has refused to recognise the two partition parliaments at Stormont and Leinster House ... Sinn Féin’s alternative to those British institutions of government was the all-Ireland Republican Dáil which it assembled in January 1919. It remains the task of Sinn Féin today to lead the Irish people away from British Six-County and 26-County parliaments and towards the re-assembly of the 32-County Dáil which will then legislate for and rule all Ireland.’3 There was no room in all of this for taking seats in Leinster House.

As for Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Republican Army, its Constitution (Section 1) expressly laid down the law on this point:

Participation in Leinster House, Stormont or Westminster is strictly forbidden and in any other subservient parliament, if any. Any Volunteer who, by a resolution, proposes entry into Leinster House, Stormont or Westminster automatically dismisses himself from membership of Óglaigh na hÉireann.’4

Right into the 1980s, IRA volunteers being ‘green booked’ were instructed that their war was morally justified on the grounds that the Army was the ‘direct representative’ of the first Dáil of 1919. ‘The Irish Republican Army, its leadership, is the lawful government of the Irish Republic,’ it stated. ‘All other parliaments or assemblies claiming the right to speak for and to pass laws on behalf of the Irish people are illegal assemblies, puppet governments of a foreign power, and willing tools of an occupying force. Volunteers must firmly believe without doubt and without reservation that, as members of the Irish Republican Army, all orders issued by the Army Authority, and all actions directed by the Army Authority are the legal orders and the lawful actions of the Government of the Irish Republic'.5

The entire moral justification for all the killings and maimings rested on the notion that the Army was the legitimate authority for the whole Irish nation. How could that be squared with taking seats in Leinster House, the illegal, puppet assembly? The answer was not to be found in a re-definition of Republican theology, though that was part of it. When the time came to make the change in 1986, under the new leadership, the contradictions would be squared by escalating the war. This was a pragmatic solution, which would convince wavering volunteers that the army was not going soft. Senior northern figures like Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Danny Morrison were confident that most of the men with guns were primarily concerned with the ‘war zone’, the here and now, getting the Brits out, not with ancient history and the politics of the South.


The move to change course on abstention came after a number of successful experiments with politics in the early 1980s. In retrospect, the long war strategy and electoral politics may appear to be natural partners, but elections cost money and, for that reason alone, there was considerable resistance within the IRA to diverting cash away from military needs. And cash was tight. The bulk of their finance came from bank and post office robberies North and South. RUC sources reckoned the IRA netted about £700,000 in the North from such activities during 1982 and 1983. In the Republic they went for a limited number of big robberies, to avoid shoot-outs with the Garda Task Force. IRA General Army Order No. 8 forbade military action ‘against 26-County forces under any circumstances whatsoever’, but this Order was ignored in confrontations with the Gardai during robberies and kidnappings. The search for finance led the Army Council to undertake a spate of high-profile kidnappings of supermarket executives Galen Weston, Ben Dunne and Don Tidey, and of a horse, Shergar, owned by the Aga Khan. Unconfirmed reports say these operations may have eventually yielded up to £1.5 million. But the Weston attempt ended in shoot-out, arrest and imprisonment. The Don Tidey affair ended in a major confrontation with the Republic’s security forces and the deaths of an Irish Army soldier and a Garda recruit on 16 December 1983. Next day, on 17 December, a horrendous IRA bomb at Harrod’s store in London exploded in the midst of Christmas shopping, killing eight people and injuring 80.

This campaign had a negative effect, particularly on public opinion in the Republic, and seriously derailed the move into electoral politics early in 1984. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness went back onto the Army Council to steady things, and, in an unusual move, the Army Council co-opted the former Editor of An Phoblacht, Mick Timothy, to handle publicity in a politically sensitive manner. As a result of this hiatus, reshuffles of personnel took place within the higher ranks of the movement. Some people were sidelined, including Kevin Mallon, who fell from grace. Mallon would later greatly diminish his involvement with the movement over the abstention issue. In the early 1980s also, there was a serious shortage of effective modem weapons capable of escalating the conflict - an essential element in the new strategy. The IRA had no M16 heavy-calibre machine-guns, few RPG rockets. Their vital US arms networks, which supplied up to 80 percent of IRA guns, had been largely infiltrated and broken up by the FBI. This was a double blow to IRA operations because about three-quarters of the cash raised in America stayed in that country to buy weapons. So the breaking of arms networks, and of illegal companies set up to launder money, and the seizure of weapons also meant serious loss of finance.


In addition to all this, a shift to electoral politics would alter the balance within the Republican Movement between the IRA and Sinn Féin, giving Sinn Féin a more equal role. This was bound to cause tension with the militarists. Many resisted the move, both at command level and at street level. Historically the IRA had been totally dominant. The local OC handled virtually all matters in his area and expected his writ to run. The Army Council met annually prior to the Sinn Féin annual conference and effectively directed its political junior partner. The IRA ‘Staff Report’ of 1977, reorganising the army into cell structures, had instructed that Sinn Féin come under army direction at all times.6

But by the early 1980s numbers in the movement had swelled considerably, particularly by the recruitment of ex-prisoners who had become highly politicised while in prison. Also, the politicisation of local communities and of women was a factor pushing things forward. Gradually the ‘Falls Road Think Tank’ developed: Gerry Adams, Danny Morrison, Richard McCauley, Joe Austin, Tom Hartley, Alex Maskey - all from Belfast, Martin McGuinness from Deny, Paddy Doherty from Carrigart, County Donegal, Vincent Conlon from Monaghan. These were among the key people engaged in working out a way to broaden their support base while at the same time retaining the ‘revolutionary’ nature of the movement and avoiding the slide into ‘constitutionalism’. Soon, according to Adams, Sinn Féin was ‘on a par’ with the IRA, while still recognising the army as the supreme authority.7Adams stated that in practice this meant that ‘Sinn Féin people could work away without going to the IRA for say-so'.8 On the other hand, there were many dual IRA/Sinn Féin members and any Sinn Féin councillor who repudiated the armed struggle would have to resign. So a complex balance of relationships was developing. The days of the Republican Movement as a purely physical force movement were over. But, think tanks apart, the most powerful cause of change was unexpected and unplanned.


In 1981 the tide of fortune suddenly turned for the Republican Movement. On 1 March a hunger strike by IRA prisoner Bobby Sands had started in the Maze prison, near Belfast. It came on the heels of an earlier short-lived hunger strike and a three-year ‘dirty protest’ by up to 300 republican prisoners seeking political or special-category status. Then, out of the blue on 5 March, the nationalist MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone, Frank Maguire, died. On 9 April, after 40 days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands ran for the vacant Westminster seat. He did so with the very reluctant support of the Republican Movement’s leadership, who feared humiliation and setback. But Bobby Sands had a monumentally important victory in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. It won the Republican Movement worldwide support and cash not gained since the early 1970s. This was followed in June 1981 by the election to the Dublin parliament of two other protesters, Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew, also on hunger strike in the H-Block sections of the Maze prison. Doherty, a native of Andersonstown in West Belfast, won in Cavan/Monaghan with 15 percent of the first-preference vote. Agnew, from Dundalk in County Louth, won in his home constituency with 18 percent first-preferences (under the Republic’s multi-seat proportional representation electoral system).

The immediate significance of these two victories in the South was that they denied power to the outgoing Fianna Fáil government of Charles Haughey. To Gerry Adams and the northern radicals this opened up major possibilities south of the Border. A couple of years later, before the change on abstention, Adams was to admit to viewing the prospect of holding the balance of power in Leinster House as a ‘tempting option’.9 He saw what the hunger strike victors, just two of them, did to Haughey. But that success was short-lived. Paddy Agnew and Kieran Doherty could not take their seats in the Dáil. They continued with the prison protest. Doherty died on hunger strike less than six weeks later. Their election campaign had been for symbolic propaganda purposes, designed to force the Irish Government to back the demands of the hunger strikers. But what if a tiny number of Sinn Féin TDs did take their seats in a finely balanced Dáil? The result could be cataclysmic, embarrassing the Irish Government at home and abroad, forcing the Republican Movement’s demands onto the South’s agenda, further legitimising the armed struggle in the North. Hardly surprising then that Gerry Adams found it a tempting option.

The unplanned by-product of the hunger strikes was an almost volcanic upsurge in popular support for the Republican Movement. It relaunched them militarily and politically, for at least another decade. In the four or five years before, following the long demoralising truce of 1975, the IRA had almost broken apart. Now expectations were raised to new heights. In all, ten men died in the test of will with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Gerry Adams’s response to the hunger strikes was not one of dewy-eyed sentimentality. His interpretation of Mrs Thatcher’s willingness to face-down the hunger strikers, against the tide of international opinion, particularly in America, told him that Britain intended to stay in Ireland.10 It was a significant interpretation in that it reinforced the traditional IRA view that Britain had interests in Ireland and that only force would move her. But Adams also came to accept that no matter what the IRA and Sinn Féin did in the North, they alone could not bring about a British withdrawal. Hence he looked to electoral success in the Republic as a means of forcing a broad, concerted nationalist agenda against partition. He assumed, wrongly, that it would be possible to weld together broad working-class socialist support in the South with armed struggle in the North. And in the early eighties there was evidence North and South to suggest that this was indeed possible and that the Republican Movement was on the way to becoming a major player in Irish politics.

The hunger strike itself was to end in some uncertainty through pressure from the families and relatives. Family grief remained a bitter-sweet legacy for many years and illustrates the depth of feeling of the time. Even in 1993 Mrs Eileen McDonnell, mother of hunger striker Joe McDonnell, spoke with tears welling up, saying: ‘I think I’d have talked him out of it. I wish I had. I’m telling the truth.’ Her son, Joe, was the fifth hunger striker to die, after 61 days, on 8 July 1981. ‘I’m only beginning to come around now,’ she said, sitting in a public-authority house in upper Andersonstown, west Belfast. ‘They achieved a lot - the prisons, now they’re like hotels.’ Joe McDonnell had also run as a hunger strike candidate in the Republic’s general election of 1981. He failed to get elected, though winning a sizeable 11.8 percent of the vote in the four-seater Sligo/Leitrim constituency, further evidence of political potential south of the Border. The McDonnells are an ordinary working-class family with little republican background. ‘My mother was a republican. I was a coward. I’m not politically minded. I just would’ve loved to have my son today. When the war came they went out and did what was needed'.11 Mrs McDonnell said that during the hunger strikes the rosary was held at the corner of every Street and every district held a novena. It was a highly charged mix of republicanism, Catholicism and condensed human suffering which reached an intensity in certain areas of the North, enough to sustain a new political direction for the Republican Movement.

In Northern Ireland the Bobby Sands election to Westminster was followed by others, suggesting that a huge political momentum was under way. Sands died on 5 May 1981, after 66 days without food. His election agent and member of Sinn Féin Owen Carron ran in the by-election under the banner: ‘anti-H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner’, and astonished the sternest critics of politics within the Republican Movement. Carron won the seat with an even larger vote than Bobby Sands. In October the following year Sinn Féin came out from the cold and contested their first Stormont election to what became a short-lived, new assembly for Northern Ireland, the ‘rolling devolution’ Assembly. Even though Sinn Fern stood on an abstentionist ticket, their involvement marked another change of course.

When elections to the earlier Northern Ireland-wide body, the Constitutional Convention, were being held in 1975, Sinn Féin had refused to enter on the grounds that ‘the proposed Convention contradicts the basic right of the Irish people, as a unit, to govern themselves…The proposed Six-County Constitutional Convention is another irrelevancy and is regarded by Sinn Féin as an effort to reconstruct British rule in Ireland. Republicans will not assist Britain in doing this'.12 But the 1970s were another period of false dawns when, during the nine-month-long truce of 1975, secret talks with British senior civil servants led the Republican Movement to believe that Britain was in the business of negotiating a withdrawal. Even then the leadership was concerned that they might win the war and lose the peace: the ever-present IRA dilemma about getting involved in politics. Writing about this during the 1975 truce, Sean O Brádaigh pointed to the political weakness of the Republican Movement. ‘Parallel to the military struggle in the North since 1970 we have built a political organisation in Sinn Féin. In its policies and programmes Sinn Féin has matched the military struggle. But it has not matched it in political organisation and work. In the present truce situation this weakness is apparent. Because our roots among the people depend too much on the struggle to get the English out they will not survive a declaration of intent to withdraw from Ireland. Others are poised to take over when that time comes…’.13

When Sinn Féin finally took the political plunge into the deep end of politics in the North six years later the catalyst was the hunger strikes. There was no clear working out of the built-in contradictions between an IRA offensive against the institutions of the state and the need to develop a mandate by way of elections to those same institutions. The traditional republican method was the abstentionist ticket - get elected but don’t take your seat. When Sinn Féin did that in the North’s 1982 Assembly elections the results were stunning. They got 64,191 votes. The main comparison was made with the constitutional nationalist party, the SDLP, which had been fighting elections since 1973. The SDLP total was 118,891, a drop of around 40,000 on previous Assembly-type elections. Eight months later, in the June 1983 Westminster election, came Gerry Adams’s victory in West Belfast. It was a world-beater, winning the IRA and the Republican Movement renewed respectability around the globe. This time the gap had narrowed significantly: in total, Sinn Féin got 102,601 votes and the SDLP, 137,012. This was the stuff of political earthquakes. The Republican Movement had finally demonstrated that it could fight an armed struggle and win elections at the same time. Most importantly they could prove beyond doubt that they had a mandate. The cumulative results shocked the British and Irish governments and were to be the principal impetus spurring both governments to conclude the Anglo-Irish Agreement in November 1985.

Whatever the internal misgivings about involvement in politics, the IRA were able to exploit Sinn Féin’s new-found electoral support. The IRA knew that a principal objective of the British and Irish governments was to isolate them from their support base and defeat them. This objective was made virtually impossible so long as the Republican Movement could show it had a mandate, that it was representative of the people. By the early 1980s IRA volunteers were being trained in guerrilla tactics, designed to subvert this attempt at isolation. They were instructed that ‘the enemy’, the British Government, had both short-term objectives and long-term objectives. The long-term objective was said to be to preserve ‘the present political, social and economic status quo regardless of whether that status quo is maintained in a partitioned Ireland, a unitary Ireland or in any form of federal, or confederated Ireland. His [the British Government’s] short-term objective, his stumbling block, is the Republican Movement which must be defeated politically and militarily’.14

To prevent this defeat the IRA must avoid isolation from ‘those who supply the dumps, billets, etc, who passively condone our activities by their silence. Such an isolation would if successful achieve his short-term objective of defeating the Republican Movement.’ Volunteers were told that if in an area there was nothing but an IRA unit, ‘no Sinn Féin Cumann, no Green Cross Committee, no local involvement’, then, no matter how successful that unit had been, they ended up in gaol ‘leaving no structures behind: no potential for resistance, recruits, education or general enhancing of support’.15In electoral terms, whatever the motives of those voting, the more votes cast for Sinn Féin the more protection the IRA had against isolation and defeat. As the Green Book put it: ‘Our task is not only to kill as many enemy personnel as possible or to cause as much economic damage as possible but of equal importance to create support which will carry us not only through a war of liberation which could last another decade but which will support us past the "Brits Out" stage to the ultimate aim of a Democratic Socialist Republic'.16 In that context, the policy of not taking seats in Dáil Eireann appeared to the northern pragmatists to be more of an obstacle than a help on the path towards the ‘ultimate aim’. It was also evident that in moving towards politics Sinn Féin was not separating itself from the IRA. Rather the IRA was being politicised - volunteers were being trained as socialist political soldiers. The military and political efforts were being fused together, even though the balance between them was shifting towards the political.

Flushed with his success as West Belfast’s new abstentionist MP, Gerry Adams claimed that the Republican Movement had ‘now established a sort of Republican veto.’17 This veto was to be enlarged into a critical mass of support, North and South, welding together armed struggle and an expanded electoral base. Adams went on the say that Sinn Féin’s longer-term objectives (beyond 1985) were to become ‘the majority nationalist party’ in the North and to make ‘considerable inroads in the 26 counties’.18

Most observers will recall the ringing, confident tones of Sinn Féin Director of Publicity Danny Morrison at the 1981 Ard Fheis. ‘Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in this hand we take power in Ireland?’ It was a handy phrase, designed in most part to reassure the troops that the move into electoral politics in the North would not be at the expense of the armed struggle.

But it was wrong to interpret Morrison’s clarion call as a call to arms south of the Border. Morrison was one of the thrusting northerners who comprised the emerging ‘radical tendency’19 at the head of the Republican Movement. They were interested in radicalising the movement with a view to achieving the Socialist Republic. In a series of published ‘Republican lectures’, Sinn Féin made the position crystal clear:

Both the IRA and Sinn Féin play different but convergent roles in the war of national liberation. The Irish Republican Army wages an armed campaign in the occupied six counties while its elements in the 26 counties play a supportive role. Sinn Féin maintains the propaganda war and is the public and political voice of the Movement…The Movement must have a vital mass organisation of the Irish people on its side with which to confront reactionary elements in the country who will attempt to stop us advancing beyond a British withdrawal situation and on to the socialist republic. Such a mass organisation will not be built purely by calling on the Irish people to support the IRA. The exploited masses must be made to identify with the national liberation struggle because they see a successful conclusion of the war as being essential for their own social and economic liberation.20

The lecture concluded:

The successful establishment of a mass Economic Resistance Movement will give us the weapon we need to attain complete victory and gives us the base on which to proceed to the consolidation of the 32-county socialist republic.

‘Complete victory’ involved winning mass support south of the Border. Inevitably the sacred cow of principled abstention was threatened. Adams and other pragmatists saw little point in seeking mass electoral support in the Republic if they were going to lead it no further than the outside gates of Dáil Eireann. In the years leading up to the dropping of abstention, Adams always denied he was pursuing such a major shift. It would leave him open to the fatal charge of being a closet ‘Stickie’. The wounds of the split in the 1970s, leading to the formation of Official Sinn Féin, were only partly healed by the early 1980s and suspicions ran deep. Adams was careful not to appear to lead the change on abstention. But at the same time he encouraged the prospect of change. His was not the language of the traditionalists like O Brádaigh. After his West Belfast triumph of 1983 Adams told an interviewer: ‘Republicans have to come up with a strategy which accepts the fact that most of the people of the 26 counties accept the Free State institution as legitimate'.21 He argued that entering Dáil Eireann would not constitute ‘recognition’, it would merely be part of an ‘electoral strategy'.22 This simple pragmatism was heady stuff given that the purity of the position on Dáil Eireann was the very essence of the republican birthright.


But Adams, McGuinness, Kevin McKenna (Chief of Staff) and others would be greatly assisted by a significant, and secret, turn of events. Enormous shipments of arms and cash from Libya had come in during 1985. More was due in 1986. This would provide the IRA with an arsenal like they had never had before, enough to escalate the action significantly and shorten the war. Victory would be in sight. All of this could merely be suggested and hinted at during 1985 and 1986 when the leadership was canvassing for the constitutional change on abstention. Secrecy had to be maintained - the supplier of the bounty, Colonel Ghadaffi, had insisted that none of the equipment be used until all the shipments were in. For the IRA, the arrangement meant planning an arms deal (five major shipments) bigger than any previous one, building a network of underground bunkers and outwitting the Irish, British and international intelligence systems. The reward would be breathtaking: about 240 tons of weapons and explosives, including surface-to-air missiles; heavy-calibre machine-guns capable of smashing through reinforced concrete walls from two miles out; rocket-propelled grenades; ten tons of Semtex explosives for more powerful and more varied bombs; 2,000 AK47 rifles and about 2,000,000 rounds of ammunition. In the end, the IRA successfully brought in about half this quantity via the Wicklow coast (in June 1985, September or October 1985, July 1986 and September 1986) before the final and biggest shipment, being carried on board the Eksund, was caught off the French coast in October 1987. Ghadaffi also gave the IRA about £2 million in two payments.

Knowledge of the arms shipments meant that the leadership held the trump cards in the task of persuading volunteers to go with the change on abstention. The leadership could promise with some certainty that the armed struggle would not be scaled down. There was unconfirmed talk that certain selected volunteers were trained in the new arms, part of the tactics of persuasion. For the leadership it was vital that the Army be brought along more or less en bloc. A split in the Army was to be avoided at all costs. The memories of the 1969-70 split and its consequent assassination feuds were fresh enough and warning enough. Those that did oppose the leadership, like Ivor Bell, former Chief of Staff (who ironically had set up the Libyan arms links back in 1981) were expelled. Bell’s demise was due to more than his opposition to the move on abstention. He was a hard militarist who opposed the use of cash for politics and resented moves to strengthen Adams’s hold on the organisation. Bell emerged as the head of a group, which included senior figures like Danny McCann. In the end, a court martial held in June 1985 in his absence dismissed Bell from the IRA. The others were either dismissed too or had resigned. (McCann, an important intelligence operative, later re-joined and was killed by the SAS [Special Air Services] in Gibraltar in 1988.) This episode was a signal success for the Adams camp. Forty-eight-year-old Ivor Bell had for years been a close comrade of Gerry Adams and possessed a substantial active record and reputation within the IRA. He had been OC Belfast, OC Northern Command, Adjutant General, a member of the Army Council, Chief of Staff and Director of Operations. Yet Bell was unable to gather enough numbers to force the issue. Being a potential threat from the outside, Bell was warned against forming any rival military group. He heeded the warning but remained a focus for discontent in Belfast.

Similarly, Ruairi Ó Brádaigh was warned not to establish a rival IRA when he and Daithi O’Connell set up a rival political organisation, Republican Sinn Féin, following the eventual Ard Fheis vote on abstention in November 1986. In addition, Ó Brádaigh believed that certain IRA quartermasters in charge of arms dumps were gradually eased out, ‘paralleled’, as the Libyan arms were brought in. This was to safeguard against possible defections and consequent loss of security when the vote to drop the abstention policy was eventually taken by the Army Convention in September of 1986. The Army vote was about 75 percent for the change, 25 percent against. On 2 November 1986, the Sinn Féin resolution went through by 429 votes to 161. Only a small number of Sinn Féiners walked out with Ruairi Ó Brádaigh and Daithi O' Connell when the constitutional change was passed.

Despite their success in getting the necessary two-thirds majority in 1986 for the change on abstention, the IRA leadership paid a heavy price. Their earlier attempt at winning the vote had failed when the Army Convention convened in Meath under the cover of an Irish language conference. South Armagh and Dundalk brigades split down the middle and Mid-Ulster and Kerry were opposed. The Convention was re-convened in Dublin and the required majority attained. But the quid pro quo was: (1) key positions on the Army Council were to be filled by hard-liners committed to a continued, escalating armed struggle; (2) local units were to be given more freedom of action, ‘local commander prerogative’; (3) Martin McGuinness was to hold a pivotal role on Northern Command, as well as on the Army Council. Two hard-line militarists, Anto Murray and Danny McCann, who had been among those expelled for challenging the leadership, were re-admitted and returned to active service in Belfast. Kevin Hannaway, a cousin of Gerry Adams, became Adjutant General, number two to Martin McGuinness. In the immediate succeeding years, this deal on abstention led to a less tightly controlled Army, with more loose cannons, an Army less capable of cohesive action in the messy business of arriving at a political compromise. At the time, however, the military and political future looked promising.

The Libyan arms were arriving and being stored in Southern Command area - Limerick and other Munster locations were the principal areas for receipt and storage of arms. Sophisticated underground bunkers were also being built in Ballinalee, County Longford, Gort, County Galway, and elsewhere. Northern Command issued orders for the preparation of bunkers to receive equipment. Garda intelligence was segmented and failed to put two and two together. In Northern Ireland RUC informants were reporting talk among the IRA units of a coming major escalation and of ‘victory ‘86’.

Ruairi Ó Brádaigh was convinced that, whatever the show of strength in the months and years after the dropping of abstention, Adams was preparing the way for an ‘internal solution’, that is, a settlement within the confines of British jurisdiction over the North. He felt that entering Dáil Eireann was tantamount to recognising the Treaty, Border et al. This was precisely the charge levelled against the Official IRA/Sinn Féin at the time of the split sixteen years earlier.23Ó Brádaigh could point to the proof. The Officials, later the Workers’ Party, did ‘go constitutional’. They fully recognised the Dáil and argued for an internal solution on the basis of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Ó Brádaigh’s group, the breakaway Republican Sinn Féin, set up a 32-county organisation, but without an army*, and claimed to inherit the mantle of the first Dáil. Republican Sinn Féin was, in effect, a leadership-in-waiting should the IRA or key elements of it split off from Sinn Féin. It is believed that Republican Sinn Féin had waiting a potential chief of staff of a new army, a man from Tyrone, living in north County Dublin, a former member of the Provisionals’ Army Council. Ó Brádaigh was determined not to put the head down and disappear, as others had done. As late as April 1993, following the North’s local elections, where Sinn Féin made some gains, Ó Brádaigh would issue a thinly disguised public warning. He said the small increase in Sinn Féin’s ‘oath-bound’ candidates should not be regarded by Adams as a mandate ‘to renege on the Republican demand for a British withdrawal from Ireland'.24

This was no glib remark born of envy. Ó Brádaigh was echoing a nervousness that remained within the Republican Movement and was restating his own long-held suspicion. Ó Brádaigh had predicted a possible three-way split in the future between the ‘reformists’ who would enter the Dáil, the hardened militarists, fighting on, and the traditional republicans, like himself.25 This, he said, would permit the British and Irish governments to pursue a policy of isolating and defeating the militarists.

Adams and the new leadership were acutely aware of such dangers and internal forebodings. Their ability to steer through the change on abstention while keeping the movement more or less intact constituted a major success. In particular, it signalled that Gerry Adams was a leader of significant political ability. Nonetheless, the course ahead charted by Adams turned out to be more treacherous than expected.

At the 1986 Ard Fheis, while arguing to change the party’s constitutional ban on entering Dáil Éireann, Adams said it would be two general elections before the new policy bore fruit in the Republic: ‘... the first serious test of our ability to win major support'.26 He was to be greatly disappointed. The second Dáil election came in June 1989. It was fought on issues such as high unemployment, health cuts and public-sector cuts, readymade for Sinn Féin’s working-class socialist platform. Yet the overall Sinn Féin vote was a derisory 1.2 percent, even lower than the 1.9 percent gained in the February 1987 election. By the time of the third general election, in November 1992, Sinn Féin found itself more or less electorally irrelevant in the Republic. In 1992 the vote for change went to the Labour Party on an up-dated, market-orientated, quasi-socialist programme. By then a public debate was opening up within Sinn Féin, albeit triggered by a minority voice, asking if the real problem was the armed struggle.

But for people like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness the shedding of abstention had freed the Republican Movement from the shackles of historical republican theology. It allowed them to pursue their goal of ‘national independence and a social revolution in all Ireland'.27 They would do this by a unique combination of armed struggle, electoral strategy and, for the first time, a radical tendency in control of the movement. The northerners had triumphed.



* The following text is from Chapter 16 p352:

Then on 6 January 1996 the Continuity Army Council (CAC) revealed its existence, putting on record how it had come to be formed nine years previously following the split over abstention. The CAC claimed to offer ‘continuity’ of authority over the IRA leadership, hence its title. It said the IRA Executive of 1986 had voted by a majority against the change on abstention but was unconstitutionally over-ruled at a subsequent General Army Convention. The claim was that the Executive majority then re-constituted itself as the legitimate Executive, and, holding authority over the Irish Republican Army, formed the Continuity Army Council.10 The CAC, clearly aligned with Republican Sinn Féin, warned that ‘action will be taken in the future at an appropriate time’.

10. Saoirse, published by Republican Sinn Féin, February 1996 (see also Saoirse, September 1996)



1. Séan Mac Stiofáin, former IRA Chief of Staff, interview by author, County Meath, 1984

2. Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, former President of Sinn Féin, interview by author, Roscommon, 1984

3. ‘Where Sinn Féin Stands’, statement issued by Caretaker Executive of Provisional Sinn Féin, 17January 1970

4. Constitution of Oglaigh na hEireann (IRA)

5. IRA Green Book, p.5

6. IRA Staff Report (seized by Gardaf on arrest of Séamus Twomey, IRA Chief of Staff, in Dublin, December 1977)

7. Gerry Adams, interview by author, Belfast, 1984

8. Ibid

9. Ibid

10. Ibid

11. Mrs Eileen McDonnell, interview by author, Andersonstown, Belfast, 1993

12. Sinn Féin Press Release, 25 March, 1975

13. Sean Ó Brádaigh, ‘Sinn Féin For A New Ireland’, 1975

14. IRA Green Book, p.36

15. Ibid, p.41

16. Ibid. p.40

17. Magill, Dublin, July 1983

18. Ibid

19. Gerry Adams, interview by author, Belfast, 1984; and Gerry Adams, The Politics Of Irish Freedom, Brandon Books, Kerry, 1986, p.160

20. Sinn Féin Republican Lecture Series, No.7, ‘Economic Resistance’, undated (early 1980s)

21. Magill, Dublin, 1983

22. Gerry Adams, interview by author, Belfast, 1984

23. Where Sinn Féin Stands, 17 January 1970

24. Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, President of Republican Sinn Féin, statement, Dublin, 21 April 1993

25. Ruairi Ó Brádaigh, interview by author, Roscommon, 1984

26. Gerry Adams, Presidential Address to Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Mansion House, Dublin, 2November 1986

27. Gerry Adams, The Politics Of Irish Freedom, p.167


CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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