British alarm over rising Sinn Féin vote in 1988

Memo argued strategy of weaning SF from violence risked weakening SDLP

Bobby Sands: Northern Ireland Office memo said his 1981 byelection victory “demonstrated that it was possible to combine terrorism with elected politics”. Photograph: PA Wire

Bobby Sands: Northern Ireland Office memo said his 1981 byelection victory “demonstrated that it was possible to combine terrorism with elected politics”. Photograph: PA Wire

 
The challenge of how to deal with a strengthening Sinn Féin party with over 11 per cent of the vote preoccupied the Northern Ireland Office in 1988, according to declassified files released in Belfast.

In a memo circulated to officials dated January 26th, 1988, SL Rickard of the constitutional and political division of the NIO reviewed the historical development of Sinn Féin from 1905 through the Treaty split of 1922 to its fragmentation into Provisional and Official wings in 1970.

“Throughout the 1970s, Provisional Sinn Féin acted as a political surrogate for [the Provisional IRA],” he wrote.

“However, in 1981 Sands’ victory in the Fermanagh byelection demonstrated that it was possible to combine terrorism with elected politics and launched Sinn Féin’s bid for support at the ballot box.”

The dual strategy, he noted, had seen the party’s vote rise from 10.1 per cent in the 1982 Assembly elections to 13.4 per cent in the UK general election of 1983, falling back to 11.4 per cent in the 1987 NI local elections. He stressed the significant impact of anti-personation measures since 1985.

“This limited electoral success along with Adams’ election as MP [for West Belfast] in 1983 has helped to give Sinn Féin an aura of respectability outside NI,” he wrote. At the same time, the party’s 59 councillors had proved “a source of torment to Unionists”.

Abstentionism

Rickard argued that Sinn Féin’s dual policy of “the Armalite and the ballot-box” had not proven easy to sustain. Its performance in the Republic had been “disastrous”, while the party’s 1986 decision to abandon abstentionism from the Dáil had produced strains within the movement.

Nonetheless, the dual strategy had been sustained “because a significant portion of the electorate, notwithstanding Sinn Féin’s links with PIRA, are prepared to vote for Sinn Féin as the most promising vehicle for achieving a united Ireland” and because the IRA’s strategy focused increasingly upon attacks on the security forces rather than “civil targets which might alienate voters”.

In any policy change towards Sinn Féin, he stressed, the British government must bear in mind its “interest in fostering the SDLP as the party of constitutional Nationalism ... and that, indeed, was one of the objectives of the [Anglo Irish Agreement]”.

In his view, there were three possible approaches open to the British government.

The first involved proscription of Sinn Féin, but while this would please the unionists, “it might encourage political support for the Provisionals under other guises”.

Secondly, they could try to “wean Sinn Féin away from violence” or, perhaps more realistically, “to split the Provisionals into a mainstream non-violent party” and a physical force residue.

This strategy, he felt, risked weakening or replacing the SDLP and was probably too optimistic.

Finally, they could “mark out Sinn Féin as a party which supports violence”. This was essentially the government’s existing policy and the best option.