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Newton Emerson: Feature of northern nationalists is rejection of 'violent struggle' during Troubles

From 1969 to 1981, there is no ballot box proof of nationalist sympathy for violence

Sinn Féin has entered the debate begun by commentator Joe Brolly and former MP Bernadette McAliskey on southern attitudes to northern nationalists during the Troubles.

On Tuesday, the party’s Donegal TD and Dáil whip, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, tweeted: “The political leaders in this State lined their parliament in Dublin with paintings and statues of the men and women of violent struggle but when the nationalists, who they abandoned, stood up to their oppressors in the North, they were to be demonised and criminalised. #NoMore.”

There is a debate to be had on differing views of violence by all sides throughout Irish history, although that is not the point Brolly and McAliskey wanted to make. However, the defining feature of northern nationalists in modern history is that they rejected “violent struggle”, in overwhelming numbers, throughout the entire duration of the Troubles.

The old Nationalist Party was swept away practically overnight in 1970 by the SDLP, with its avowedly peaceful platform of civil rights

From 1969 to 1981, there is effectively no evidence from the ballot box of nationalist sympathy for violence – only the reverse.


The old Nationalist Party was swept away practically overnight in 1970 by the SDLP, with its avowedly peaceful platform of civil rights. The SDLP took nine in 10 nationalist votes for the remainder of the decade. The other 10th went almost entirely to Official Sinn Féin, running first as Republican Clubs and later to become the Workers Party. It only secured that success after its 1972 ceasefire, meaning even the “IRA” vote was a rejection of violence.

McAliskey won her Mid Ulster seat in 1969 for "Unity", a coalition of the Nationalist Party and independent republicans and socialists. She lost the seat in 1974, the year she helped found the Irish Republican Socialist Party. The only other Unity MP lost his seat that same year.

Philosophy of abstentionism

Sinn Féin did not put its support to the test. It was banned from contesting elections until 1975, although it could have run under another name, like Official Sinn Féin. Then it banned itself for a further six years under its philosophy of abstentionism.

Republicans might argue this left the SDLP free to pick up almost all nationalist votes, and the community was naturally going to rally behind its dominant party.

While there must be some truth in that, it does not begin to account for the scale and persistence of support for the SDLP through years of anarchy and unionist provocation. It was the second-largest party in Northern Ireland by 1973, securing a quarter of the vote in the first "peace process" leading to the 1974 Sunningdale Agreement. When that was wrecked by unionists and the IRA, with appalling violence, the SDLP's vote rose again for another attempt at a settlement in the 1975 Constitutional Convention election.

Sinn Féin's political breakthrough came with the 1981 byelection in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, won by Bobby Sands. Yet that was not quite the victory often portrayed. Sands won because over 3,000 people, equivalent to all the SDLP voters in the constituency, spoiled their ballots. Nationalists wanting to protest at the plight of a hunger striker also wanted to make clear they did not support the IRA, so they "abstained in person", as Fermanagh's preceding MP, Independent republican Frank Maguire, would have put it.

Election of Sands

The election of Sands enabled the Sinn Féin leadership to end abstentionism. In the 1981 council elections the party won 10 per cent of the vote and it remained at 10-13 per cent for the rest of the Troubles, about half the support of the SDLP.

It took the 1994 IRA ceasefire for Sinn Féin’s vote to escape from this rut – but the SDLP’s vote grew faster, in recognition of John Hume’s efforts, culminating in the 1998 assembly election, when the SDLP became the largest party in Northern Ireland by first-preferences.

The experience of the vast majority during the Troubles was of a society almost bizarrely inclined towards normality

Unionists like to say they never voted for paramilitary-linked parties in any significant numbers, although as a people aligned to the State their context is very different. Unionists were responsible for much of the violent public disorder of the period: it could be said nationalists never took to the gun and unionists took to the streets, but even at the height of mass loyalist rallies and unionist “strikes” only a minority were involved.

The experience of the vast majority during the Troubles – or their “lived experience” as it is now sententiously termed – was of a society almost bizarrely inclined towards normality, with an agreed sense of right and wrong that was never lost, even as terrible wrongs were perpetrated.

Everyone should welcome this historical truth, especially those who want a united Ireland. The momentous change of unification looks far less daunting when northern society is recognised as having sustained its innate decency and presumption of peace through the decades-long trauma of the Troubles.

But that is not a convenient fact if your first priority is justifying IRA violence. No good future can be built on such a grotesque distortion of the past.