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Either by the Armalite or by the Ballot Box

Either by the Armalite or by the Ballot Box

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald is hoping her party will claim the most seats in the assembly election

In mid-May the Irish political party, Sinn Féin, won the plurality of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Many American readers might not fully understand the significance of Sinn Féin’s political victory- but rest assured that subjects of the United Kingdom and a wide range of political movements the world over have heard the message loud and clear.

For those unaware of Sinn Féin’s origins, a bit of history is necessary. 

The early years of the 1900’s saw the planting of many of the most important seeds that would grow to shape the politics of the coming century- perhaps the most important of these is the idea of national self-determination. The concept of national self-determination is straightforward – it is the idea that groups of people who view themselves as a distinct nation have the right to create government institutions that materialize their shared belief. This view was espoused by political figures as varied as American President Woodrow Wilson and Soviet Premier Vladmir Lenin at the time, and the principle of national self-determination remains enshrined in the UN charter today.        

Inspired by this political philosophy and justified by a history of imperial repression, men and women throughout Ireland came together to forge a band that would pursue, and if necessary fight for, a nation made up of the whole of Ireland that would be fully independent from Britain rule. That movement, over the years that followed, materialized into two nominally distinct but regularly overlapping efforts. The more internationally famous of these two groups is the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which participated in a gorilla conflict against the British military with the goal of making “crown rule” in Ireland ineffective. The second group to emerge from this turmoil was the political party known as Sinn Féin. While Sinn Féin shared many of the IRA’s political objectives, Sinn Féin differentiated itself from the IRA by focusing its efforts on the political liberation of Ireland without employing military force.

It must be said that while the IRA and Sinn Féin were founded as separate institutions, the two groups have generally worked together as if they were a common body. Many of the most prominent Sinn Féin representatives, including Gerry Adams who was Sinn Féin’s President from 1983 to 2018, were allegedly members of the IRA before making a transition into political life. This collaboration was given its rhetorical foundation through IRA volunteer and Sinn Féin Public Director Danny Morrison’s infamous 1981 proclamation that both the “Armalite rifle and the ballot box” would prove necessary in securing full Irish independence. English politicians used this overlap in order to discredit Sinn Féin’s efforts to earn political legitimacy, going so far as to bar Sinn Féin members from appearing in media throughout the British Empire despite Sinn Féin’s grounding as an entirely legal political organization. 

The point of my writing here is not to provide a historical overview of the conflict between Ireland and England- others have covered this topic with more nuance than I could hope to achieve here. Instead, for our purposes, it should suffice to say that the IRA took up arms, and occasionally employed terror tatics, in an attempt to resist the British government’s wrongful killing of Irish citizens, unjust interference with Irish politics, and refusal to allow for Irish territorial sovreignty. This conflict reached its apex beginning in the late 1960’s and raged consistently through 1998 during a period commonly known as The Struggles

During this time, the IRA’s militant approach figured more prominently than Sinn Féin’s political efforts in the quest for full Irish independence- the rifle took precedence over the ballot box. Ultimately, despite earning meaningful concessions, the IRA failed to achieve its objective of Irish unification as Northern Ireland was to remain part of the British Empire following the Good Friday Agreement, which formally ended the armed conflict between British forces and Irish republicans. 

While the Good Friday Agreement put a stop to the IRA’s military activism, Sinn Féin’s work at winning the ballot box was in truth just beginning. In the roughly twenty-five years that have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin took up the work of proving themselves a legitimate political party both in Ireland proper and in the disputed territory of Northern Ireland. Ultimately, this entailed maintaining the fervor that comes with being the IRA’s political successor while generating sufficient distance from the IRA’s violent heritage. In doing so, Sinn Féin abandoned the rifle in favor of full dedication to the ballot. Following the aforementioned election results in Northern Ireland, there is reason to believe that these efforts are beginning to bear fruit. 

Sinn Féin’s electoral victory in Northern Ireland may prove a necessary condition in order for Irish unification to be achieved, but it is not sufficient in and of itself. Sinn Féin will now need to take on the challenge of directing its newfound political power towards actually achieving the desired policy results. 

In either event, the rise of Sinn Féin as a peaceful stand-in for the political ambition of the IRA is a win for the Irish, the British, and the entire peace loving world. Should Irish unification be achieved, one would hope that it would be through exclusively political means.

A similar line should be taken as it applies to other militant groups the world over. According to a study conducted by Rand, more modern militant conflicts are resolved through political integration than by any other means. Notably, the second largest set of conflicts in this study have not truly ended but instead are managed only through sustained efforts at policing militant organizations. 

The challenge of allowing militant groups to participate in the political process is obvious – it means overcoming long standing hostilities and ceding credibility to groups that were once restricted to the fringes. More directly- it means extending sympathy to people who have proven themselves “our” enemy. I contend that the price of integration at the ballot box is far cheaper than the loss of human lives through the rifle.

Kurds, Palestinians, and other subjugated people around the world see their political rights repressed by their imperial holders. Without the opportunity to meaningfully participate in local politics, these groups might feel that violence is the only way to guarantee a seat for themselves at the decision making table. 

Political inclusion is preferable to political violence- the American genesis reaffirms this fact. Repressed people in all corners of the world will continue their struggle for honest representation and national sovereignty- through the ballot box or, if political participation is barred, through the Armalite

Peter Scaturro is the Director of Studies at the Foreign Policy Association. The opinions expressed here are his, and not necessarily the opinions of the Foreign Policy Association.