BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — The decision of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, to abandon its 65-year-old policy of abstensionism from the Irish Parliament is potentially one of the most important political developments in the history of the state.
So long as it refused to accept seats won in elections to the Dail, it was doomed to a minor role in the political affairs of the nation, as even the IRA's most fervent supporters shy away from electing members who will not represent them. But now that a party which is dedicated to violence as much as to politics has decided to recognize the legitimacy of the 26-county Republic of Ireland--without the six counties of Northern Ireland--the political ballgame has changed.
If it can win seats, it is free to conduct its campaign for the unification of Ireland by political means, while giving "unambiguous support"--in the words of the Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams of Belfast--to the armed struggle in Northern Ireland. The Irish Parliament, and government, for the first time will have to cope with a revolutionary party that sees the violence in the north as the first phase in a military campaign to turn the island into a socialist republic.
There is no certainty that it can win seats, since even at the height of pro-IRA feeling during the Maze Prison hunger strike in 1981, only two out of nine candidates were successful. But even the thought of it has put the fear of God, as they say here, into constitutional politicians of all descriptions.
The primary impact would be felt in the republic, but it would also have a destabilizing effect in the north of the island, where Protestant hostility to the one-year-old Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving the republic's government a role in Northern Ireland, has already frozen the political process. Protestant politicians are talking openly about the need to mobilize a "loyalist" army, separate from the British-run security forces, to defend the province against enforced Irish unity.
There is no precedent, north or south, for a party that fights elections "with a ballot box in one hand and an Armalite in the other," in the memorable phrase of Sinn Fein spokesman Danny Morrison. How will such a group function in a recognized Parliament? Sinn Fein has adhered rigidly to abstensionism from the parliaments of the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic since 1921. Until the 1981 hunger strike, it urged supporters in Northern Ireland to burn voting cards. In 1979, IRA machine gunners opened fire on a Belfast polling station.
But the successes of the 1981 hunger strike elections, in Northern Ireland and the republic, forced a change of heart. The northerners who now rule Sinn Fein persuaded the party to fight every election in Northern Ireland, as well as local elections in the republic.
According to the Sinn Fein constitution, the partition of Ireland was an illegal act, and therefore none of the current institutions has any validity. But the results of the northern elections--where Sinn Fein regularly wins 40% of the nationalist vote--were encouraging enough to convince a majority in the IRA and Sinn Fein that it was time to rethink.
The vote against abstention was passed by a narrow two-thirds majority at the annual conference, but only about 30 delegates out of 600 left to form the rival Republican Sinn Fein Party, repeating the walkout in 1970 when the Provisional Sinn Fein were the abstensionists. This time, however, the leadership took the precaution of winning the endorsement of the IRA Army Council which controls Sinn Fein; the knowledge that the military wing is behind the new move will discourage further defections. Speakers made it clear that the military campaign will continue and there was even an assurance that any Dail salaries would go into central funds--adding to the government's embarrassment, as an indirect contributor to terrorist fronts.
Sinn Fein will probably concentrate on constituencies just south of the border with Northern Ireland, where anti-British feeling is highest, but they would be relying on the support of old-style Republicans who find it difficult to accept the new policy.
Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald immediately called on all constitutional parties to unite to defeat Sinn Fein whenever the election. But his chief rival, Charles Haughey of the Populist Fianna Fail Party, rejected his appeal as "immature."
Sinn Fein's entry will cost Fianna Fail some vital votes in hard-line Republican areas, and Haughey has already attempted to minimize the danger by adopting a similarly uncompromising stance. In a recent speech he attacked the Anglo-Irish Agreement as offering nothing to nationalists and promised to renegotiate it.
Haughey is still the hot favorite to succeed FitzGerald, blamed for the country's economic failures, but new polls indicate that he may have slipped from 51% to 46% since June and may need votes from independents and other parties.