A Memory From The 1986 Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis

Every dog has its day, goes the old saw. I see that Malachi O’Doherty has become the go to guy about all things Provo in the wake of his biography of Gerry Adams (which I must admit I have only leafed through, mostly the index pages which often tell you all you need to know).

He has a piece in the Belfast Telegraph this week about Gerry Adams denying that bullying exists in Sinn Fein, which is odd – the denial I mean – since bullying, i.e. the use or threat of physical violence has always been the Provos’ stock-in-trade.

Anyway it was this paragraph which really caught my eye:

Sinn Fein was for decades an adjunct of the IRA. This was illustrated clearly on several occasions. In 1985, when Gerry Adams urged the ard fheis to vote in favour of the party fighting elections in the Republic, he told delegates that they had little choice, for the IRA had already met and made its own decision to support the move. And they didn’t want to be disloyal, did they?

Actually the ard-fheis which dropped abstentionism in the South happened in 1986 not 1985, November 1st if my memory is right. And the path to taking seats in Dail Eireann was a much more complicated and protracted process than Malachi makes it out; likewise the role played by the IRA was not as straightforward as his reporting of Adams’ speech suggests.

The renunciation of abstentionism happened in a series of carefully choreographed stages overseen by Adams’ closest adviser, Ted Howell that lasted four years or more. It was done carefully and slowly because it was a very dangerous exercise for the Adams’ camp, leaving them open to charges of treachery and heresy.

It began at the 1983 ard-fheis, just two years after Sinn Fein had embraced electoralism, when an important ideological embargo of sorts was broken. A motion was passed allowing discussion of the issue, hitherto forbidden territory. But then nothing happened for two years, allowing the grassroots to get used to the idea and for discrete lobbying to take place.

In 1985 a motion to allow Sinn Fein TD’s to take seats in Dail Eireann was proposed from the floor but defeated. The leadership did not back it and Adams did not speak. But you can be sure that his and their hands were at work in the background.

The 1985 motion was a toe in the water, so to speak, which enabled Adams and  Howell to measure, identify and gauge the opposition to a move they clearly supported, and to plan accordingly.

By the following autumn they were ready to move. Fake Sinn Fein cumainn, under IRA control, had been created in sufficient numbers to swamp the O Bradaigh-ite opposition at a special ard-fheis called to debate the issue. A militant speech from Martin McGuinness settled the matter, since in the view of most activists he would never sell out, no matter the doubts they might harbour about the Big Lad.

By the early evening of November 1st, 1986, militant republican abstentionism, a key aspect of the rejection of the 1921 partitionist settlement in Ireland was a thing of the past, and a way opened towards taking the Provo grassroots into the peace process.

A critical element in the story was the disposition of the IRA. Whichever way the army voted, so would Sinn Fein.

In the autumn of 1986 I had left The Irish Times in circumstances which still leave a bad taste in the mouth. But I hadn’t quit journalism; far from it.

The weekend before the special Sinn Fein ard-fheis I had spent in Donegal with my family and there I met up with an old republican contact cum friend who told me that a special IRA Army Convention had been held recently and had endorsed the dropping of abstentionism. That was a big story and not a whiff of it had leaked – so far.

At this point a bit of background is necessary. During the 1981 hunger strikes I had fallen out badly with the Sinn Fein publicity machine. I had come to believe that it was not to be trusted, that it had traded in half-truths and outright lies sufficiently often during the protest that it was impossible to distinguish fabrications from honesty. I am not saying they lied all the time, just often enough to make me wary.

In the face of my reservations, Danny Morrison had assured me that he would not misinform or lie to me and then immediately did (over the ending of the hunger strike). Ever since I had tried to be as circumspect in my dealings with him and his team as it was possible to be. Morrison later apologised for misleading me and assured me it would not happen again; but I was on guard.

But what to do about this story? It was a big one, for sure. There had not been an IRA convention since the foundation of the Provos in the winter of 1969. And this one was truly historic, since the convention had now accepted a doctrine – they had called it a heresy seventeen years earlier – whose rejection had contributed to the Provos’ formation.

I thought I really needed to have high level confirmation of this story and so I picked up the phone, rang Sinn Fein and said I had an urgent matter to discuss with Gerry Adams and could he possibly meet me?

An hour later I was driving over to west Belfast, to the Sinn Fein advice centre in Beechmount Avenue. I met Adams in his office, just the two of us, and told him the reason for my trip. He didn’t answer but immediately rose from his chair and stalked out of the room.

An hour later, back home, my fax machine began to buzz and whir. It was a press release from Sinn Fein announcing that a special IRA Convention held recently had endorsed the removal of abstentionism from Sinn Fein’s political theology.

I have no idea how or when the Provo leadership would have announced this but for my intervention. Perhaps a masked man would have delivered the news to delegates during a closed session of the special ard-fheis. Maybe Adams would have announced it in his speech; or better still Martin McGuinness. Whatever, I had thrown their plans into disarray.

And the moral of the story? If you believe your sources and they have proved trustworthy in the past then go for it. Go higher for confirmation and you’ll likely be screwed. Suffice it to say that I never made the same mistake again.

9 responses to “A Memory From The 1986 Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis

  1. Pingback: A Memory From The 1986 Sinn Fein Ard-Fheis – seachranaidhe1

  2. “… the ard-fheis which dropped abstentionism in the South happened in 1986 not 1985, November 1st if my memory is right. And the path to taking seats in Dail Eireann was a much more complicated and protracted process than Malachi makes it out; likewise the role played by the IRA was not as straightforward as his reporting of Adams’ speech suggests.”

    That is the main problem I had with his book. All too often, he simplifies events in order to paint them as a kind of “naive vs manipulators” narrative. For example, he uses this angle when talking about the early battles with the British Army. What he doesn’t inform the reader is that the Army were under the control of the Stormont government, who wanted the IRA crushed, and undoubtedly suspected the overall Catholic population as being equal participants. So this overarching force (Stormont) were putting pressure on an army that did not know the area and were building relations with the ordinary Catholic population, only to have to use excessive force, which was then used by the Provos as proof that the British Army were there to suppress them.

  3. Don’t be daft. The BA were not under the control of Stormont, they had their own agenda. Usually aligned with the civil power they supported, but they called the shots rather than some Unionist politician.

    • excuse me, but what on earth has that comment got to do with the posting i made? i don’t think i even mentioned the british army. and anyway you are wrong. until direct rule the military was under the control of the unionist govt, and that caused enormous stresses and strains, not least about internment, but i expect you are not interested since it gets in the way of your simplistic analysis…….

  4. @Ed – any plans to write memoirs about your career as a journalist?

  5. To Ed; nothing to do with your article (which I enjoyed), but a reply to your first commenter, Christopher Owens

    • feel free but you didn’t write anything….

      • Not wanting to be catty, Ed, but that comment I wrote was in response to (Christopher Owens), inasmuch as – “What he doesn’t inform the reader is that the Army were under the control of the Stormont government, who wanted the IRA crushed, and undoubtedly suspected the overall Catholic population as being equal participants. So this overarching force (Stormont) were putting pressure on an army that did not know the area and were building relations with the ordinary Catholic population, only to have to use excessive force, . . . ” – has a meaning, and my response was to that meaning.
        Or are you addressing some issue of lèse-majesté , where you are the writer?

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