‘To leave Sinn Féin is to leave the IRA,’ Adams told ardfheis

State papers 1986: Delegates voted to end policy of abstentionism, leading to walk-out by dissidents

The stage-management skills of Gerry Adams were remarked on in a Department of Foreign Affairs assessment of Sinn Féin's decision to end the policy of abstentionism in 1986.

The document also pointed out how Adams and Martin McGuinness had emphasised that Sinn Féin and the IRA were inextricably linked. The decision to end the policy of abstentionism from the Dáil and Northern Assembly was taken at an ardfheis which took place in Dublin’s Mansion House over the weekend of October 31st to November 2nd, 1986.

The document, which was based on media reports and “observations from other sources” estimated there was attendance of 630 delegates, with 429 of them voting to end abstentionism and 161 against, only 10 votes more than the two-thirds majority required.

A dissident group, led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill, walked out of the meeting and announced the establishment of Republican Sinn Féin. A number of leading dissidents are named in the report.


It pointed out how Adams managed at the beginning of the ardfheis to convey an impression of magnanimity by shaking hands with Ó Brádaigh. This “went down well with the delegates but was undoubtedly calculated to belittle his opponents and minimise the significance of their defections”.

In his presidential address, Adams noted that a recent IRA army convention had decided in favour of ending abstentionism and there had been no walkouts on the issue by the IRA.

He warned delegates that if they withdrew their support from Sinn Féin because a decision went against them they would also be withdrawing their support from the IRA.

“To leave Sinn Féin is to leave the IRA,” Adams is quoted as saying.

The document says another key speaker on the anti-abstentionist side was McGuinness, who made the same point.

“The IRA freedom fighters and the Sinn Féin freedom fighters are one and the same thing,” said McGuinness, who added the armed struggle would continue “until the last soldier has left our soil”.

Revolutionary force

He went on to say the IRA under its then leadership was “the most dangerous and committed revolutionary force in the world and will remain so in or out of Leinster House”.

In his address, Adams attacked the Anglo-Irish Agreement and claimed that internment North and South and the proscription of Sinn Féin were on the cards. He also warned Fianna Fáil leader Charles Haughey that no Irish person had the authority to negotiate or renegotiate a treaty with the British government while the latter claimed jurisdiction over any part of Ireland.

In the lead-up to the Sinn Féin ardfheis, senior foreign affairs official Michael Lillis reported on British perceptions of Sinn Féin arising from conversations at the Maryfield secretariat.

The British felt Sinn Féin had been surprised by the fact that the two governments had been able to finalise the Anglo-Irish Agreement as well as the substance of that agreement.

“Their view is that it is not possible to distinguish between Sinn Féin political strategy on the one hand and the campaign of violence on the other,” wrote Lillis. “We argued forcibly that there has been a change in the situation in the past five years; that short-term political opportunities and problems now matter significantly to the leadership of both the IRA and Sinn Féin and that the IRA, by becoming deeply involved in the politics of nationalist alienation, have put themselves into a position where they have no option but to respond politically.

“We suggested that this was different from the concerns of the republican ‘warriors’ who previously ran the movement from the South and whose concern was exclusively with the single objective, however long-term, of forcing the British to withdraw,” said Lillis.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times