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Speech by Martin McGuiness on the issue of abstentionism (Resolution 162), Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Dublin, (2 November 1986)

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Speech by Martin McGuiness, then Vice-President of Sinn Féin, on the issue of abstentionism (Resolution 162), Sinn Féin Ard Fheis, Dublin, (2 November 1986)


"I can give a commitment on behalf of the leadership that we have absolutely no intention of going to Westminster or Stormont. As regards to my contributions in the run up to today’s debate, I have steadfastly refused to become involved in a public slanging match with those who oppose this motion, but issues have been raised by some of the defenders of abstentionism that need to be confronted and challenged. They argue that some TDs entering Leinster House will make it impossible to conduct armed struggle against British rule in the 6 counties. They tell you that it is inevitable certainty that the war against British rule will be run down. These suggestions deliberately infer that the present leadership of Sinn Fein and the leadership of the Irish Republican Army are intent on edging the republican movement on to a constitutional path. To bolster their arguments, they draw a comparison between a pre-1970s leadership of the republican movement which had surrendered before the war began, and the present leadership of this movement.

Shame — Shame — Shame.

Successful electoral strategy in the 6 counties is testament enough of that government’s inability to overcome the resistance of a new generation of IRA freedom fighters supported on equal terms by articulate and committed Sinn Fein freedom fighters. It will be a sad day for this movement that the record of the present generation of republican soldiers and Sinn Fein activists needed to be defended on this platform. Sadly the inference that the removal of abstentionism would lead to the demise of military opposition to British Rule has indeed called into question the commitment of the IRA to pursue the struggle to a successful conclusion.

I reject any such suggestion and I reject the notion that entering Leinster House would mean an end to Sinn Fein’s unapologetic support for the right of Irish people to oppose in arms the British forces of occupation. That, my friends, is a principle which a minority in this hall might doubt but which I believe all our opponents clearly understand. Our position is clear and it will never, never, never change. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved.

But we are not at war with the government of the 26 Counties — the reality of this fact must be recognised by us all. And, in accepting this reality, we must also accept that after 65 years of republican struggle, republican agitation, republican sacrifice, and republican rhetoric we have failed to convince a majority in the 26 counties that the republican movement has any relevance to them. By ignoring reality we remain alone and isolated on the high altar of abstentionism, divorced from the people of the 26 counties and easily dealt with by those who wish to defeat us. Such a situation cannot be allowed to continue and this leadership is charged with the responsibility to make our struggle more and more relevant to Irish people.

In a Sunday Tribune article last Sunday we were told that we endanger the purity of republicanism because we attract quantity rather than quality. This is a calculated insult to Irish people which ignores a very important fact the struggle against the British could not have been carried out as successfully as it has been without an adequate supply of both quantity and quality.

It is a fact that IRA volunteers, some very young and some with only a limited knowledge of republicanism have given their lives and liberty for the struggle. They were committed to Irish freedom and fought and died in this cause — are they to be regarded as inferior and less important than those who regard themselves as republican elitists?

We are told, among other things, that we are counter-revolutionaries and that if we lose this vote we will be discredited. It’s sad and surprising that this could have been said by a republican. The British government have a different opinion of us, however. They fear this movement, they fear this leadership. They have every right to fear us because, in or out of Leinster House, we led the most dangerous and committed revolutionary force in Ireland for 65 years.

This Ard Fheis and you, the delegates, deserve to know the whole story of this debate. In fact, what you’re witnessing here is not a debate over one issue, but two — abstentionism and the leadership of the republican struggle. The two issues should not be confused and those who are considering leaving along with members of the former leadership should consider carefully what I am about to say. The reality is that the former leadership of this movement has never been able to come to terms with this leadership’s criticism of the disgraceful attitude adopted by them during the disastrous 18 months ceasefire in the mid-1970s. Instead of accepting the validity of our case, as others who have remained have done, they chose to withhold their wholehearted support from the leadership which replaced them.

Some of the former leadership have already gone. They were not squeezed out, they left us. Some stayed and will stay after this debate. If those who remain leave this movement today it will not be just because of the abstentionist vote.

Finally, those opposed to this issue know there isn’t going to be any split in Sinn Fein, they also know that the ranks of the IRA contain a minority of volunteers who, while opposed to the removal of abstentionism from Leinster House, have committed themselves to stand shoulder to shoulder in unity with their comrades. They will not split, they will not walk away from the armed struggle. They are the real revolutionaries. If you allow yourself to be led out of this hall today, the only place you’re going - is home. You will be walking away from the struggle. Don’t go my friends. We will lead you to the republic."


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