Tammany Hall-style

Also in the Irish Times, Ed Moloney charts 25 years of The Process™ for Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA, beginning with an event in South Armagh which sent the Belfast-based Redemptorist priest Fr Alec Reid “hotfoot to the door of the Provisional movement’s de facto leader, Gerry Adams”[subs req]. The path he traces goes through two managed, and pivotal, Ard Fheis decisions, in 1986 and 1998. Newshound, helpfully, also has the full articleFrom the Irish Times[subs req]

It has been a long and twisting journey between that tragic event in south Armagh and the gathering of Sinn Féin members at the RDS tomorrow, but with the benefit of hindsight a number of conclusions can be drawn from that trek about the way the Provisional movement under the Adams leadership conducted and conducts its business.

One is that virtually every policy initiative and stratagem, both military and political, proposed by that leadership and adopted by both wings of the movement since the early 1980s was conceived and implemented in order to ensure that, eventually, tomorrow’s meeting could happen.

Another is that it has always been much easier to manoeuvre, cajole and otherwise propel the IRA down the desired road than Sinn Féin. The IRA during the period of the peace process was much smaller than Sinn Féin, never more than 400 to 500 members, all of them known to the leadership, many promoted by it and their status and wellbeing dependent upon unfaltering loyalty to that leadership. It was and is a disciplined military outfit whose orders come from an army council that Adams and his allies had dominated since the late 1970s. Shaped by that leadership, the IRA of the peace process was one with little patience for internal democracy – dissent was stamped out ruthlessly.

One way or another the IRA was always easier to control and, apart from one short-lived rebellious bout in 1996, was invariably amenable to the will of Adams’s leadership. The failure of Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, British premier Tony Blair and their various advisers to understand this, and to realise that IRA decommissioning could, had they insisted, have been delivered much earlier than it was, led directly to the collapse of such middle ground as there was in the North, to the eclipse of the SDLP and Ulster Unionists by Sinn Féin and the DUP.

By no means untainted by authoritarianism, Sinn Féin was nonetheless a different creature. Larger and more diverse than the IRA, it was a place where debate and dissent could and did exist, where political ideas were challenged, often by people who saw themselves as guardians of the republican conscience and ideology. Bending Sinn Féin to the leadership’s will was more difficult.

Moloney also notes the manoeuvring during key Ard Fheis decisions in 1986…

None of us in the media noticed at the time, but mysteriously the number of delegates suddenly doubled for that one meeting. The previous year the ardfheis had defeated a motion saying abstentionism was not a principle but a tactic, by 181 votes to 161, a total of 342 votes. Any attempt to change party policy on the issue seemed doomed.

But the next year, 1986, the vote went dramatically the other way. A leadership motion to drop abstentionism in Dáil elections was won by 429 to 161 with some 38 abstaining, shading the required two-thirds majority by just 11 votes. That was a total of 628 votes, nearly twice the number voting 12 months before. The following year, however, the number of delegates voting settled back to its normal 350 mark and even in 1998, when the Good Friday agreement was endorsed it was the same total, with 331 for and 19 against.

So where had the extra 300 or so votes come from in 1986? The passage of time eventually loosened enough republican tongues for the truth to emerge. The IRA had arranged for the creation of over 100 ghost cumainn that were all duly registered at Sinn Féin’s headquarters, whose bureaucracy was by then safely under the army council’s control. Although none of the new branches had any members, they were entitled to send two delegates each to the 1986 conference, which they duly did. According to republican sources these were really army council delegates, loyal IRA members committed to dropping abstentionism no matter what Sinn Féin thought. In such a way was history made and the peace process made possible.

And more recently in 1998

There was similar sharp footwork at the May 1998 ardfheis which approved the Good Friday agreement, but this time it was the British and Irish governments, not the IRA, which choreographed the steps. A first ardfheis was held in mid-April, but the mood was decidedly hostile to the accord and its unexpected centrepiece, a new Assembly at Stormont. One sample of delegate views showed only 44 per cent favoured the deal, well below the two-thirds needed. Wisely, the Adams leadership stayed its hand.

A second ardfheis was held three weeks later, but this time delegates arrived to discover that 27 well-known IRA prisoners held in Irish and British jails, including the notorious Balcombe Street gang, had been specially released for the event. The effect of their presence was to remind delegates that if they failed to endorse the deal these prisoners would return to jail and spend many more years behind bars. Not surprisingly the Good Friday agreement was approved by 94.5 per cent of the ardfheis.

It would be surprising if the Sinn Féin leadership resorted to such Tammany Hall-style tactics tomorrow. For one thing, they are probably unnecessary. After all, the Sinn Féin of 2007 is the party of Mary Lou McDonald, not Ruairí Ó Brádaigh. This record of chicanery is nonetheless one reason why some view the prospect of the Sinn Féin leadership entering government in either part of Ireland with less than unalloyed enthusiasm.

But it also shows that Gerry Adams and his colleagues never go to an ardfheis on a matter of importance unless they are pretty sure what the result will be.

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