Armalite and ballot box strategy
The Armalite and ballot box strategy was a strategy pursued by the Irish republican movement in the 1980s and early 1990s in which elections in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were contested by Sinn Féin, while the IRA continued to pursue an armed struggle against the British Army, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and loyalist paramilitary groups. This strategy was a matter of some controversy within republicanism; some IRA members and supporters who disagreed with the strategy left to form Republican Sinn Féin in 1986.
Armalite refers to the AR-15 (a version of the US military M-16 available to civilians in the US) and AR-18 ArmaLite assault rifles. Both were originally manufactured by the Armalite corporation, later Colt. The IRA smuggled significant quantities of these rifles into Northern Ireland during the early 1970s and the "Armalite" became a symbol of republican armed struggle. Through the AR-18's mass use by the PIRA and volunteers' love of the weapon for its accuracy and compact nature, the rifle became known as the "Widowmaker".
The strategy emerged after the 1981 Irish hunger strike as a response to the electoral success of Bobby Sands in the April 1981 Fermanagh and South Tyrone by-election and pro-hunger strike campaigners in the Northern Ireland local elections and Republic of Ireland Dáil Éireann elections of the same year. It was first formulated by Sinn Féin organiser Danny Morrison at the party's Ard Fheis (Annual Conference) in 1981, when he said:
The strategy was a mixed success. Sinn Féin had a solid core of 9-13 percent of the vote in Northern Ireland, which gave the party some credibility on the international stage. However at home it highlighted the dominance at the time of the non-violent Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern nationalist politics, while Sinn Féin's vote in the Republic remained tiny once the emotion generated by the 1981 hunger strike subsided.
In the longer term it had two important political consequences, each of which fed in to the emergent Northern Ireland peace process.  When the governments of the UK and the Ireland drafted the Anglo-Irish Agreement, this convinced many in Sinn Féin that it was possible to make political gains without violence. However, some[who?] would also argue that electoral setbacks suffered by Sinn Féin, such as the loss of 16 of the party's 59 council seats in 1989 and the defeat of Gerry Adams in the Belfast West constituency in 1992, pushed the emphasis of the Republican movement away from the Armalite and towards an election-focused strategy.
For some time after the IRA ceasefires of 1994 and 1997, opinion in Northern Ireland remained divided on whether the armalite and ballot box strategy had ended. However, with the cessation of large-scale political violence, the complete decommissioning of weaponry by the IRA and a statement from the Army Council that 'the war is over', the majority of unionists have overcome their scepticism and now believe that the strategy has been abandoned.
The strategy has also been attributed as having inspired members of the Loyalist Ulster Defence Association such as John McMichael to seek a similar route into electoral politics through vehicles such as the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party (later Ulster Democratic Party (UDP)). However, parties directly linked to Loyalist paramilitaries had minimal success in elections in Northern Ireland, with the UDP's and Progressive Unionist Party's (PUP) combined electoral share failing to exceed 1% before the May 1996 elections for the Northern Ireland Forum.
Notes and references
- McAllister, I. (2004). "'The Armalite and the ballot box': Sinn Féin's electoral strategy in Northern Ireland". Electoral Studies 23: 123–142. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2003.10.002.
- "Provisional IRA: War, ceasefire, endgame?". BBC. Retrieved March 13, 2014.
- J. Bowyer Bell (2000). The IRA, 1968-2000: Analysis of a Secret Army. Taylor & Francis. p. 183.
- English, Richard (2005). Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA. Oxford University Press. pp. 224–225. ISBN 978-0-19-517753-4. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
- A Secret History of the IRA, 2nd Edition, Page 33, Ed Moloney, Penguin Books, 2002, 2007.
- McDonald, Henry; Cusack, Jim (2004). UDA: inside the heart of Loyalist terror. Penguin Ireland. p. 121. ISBN 978-1-84488-020-1. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
- Dillon, Martin (14 October 2011). The Trigger Men: Assassins and Terror Bosses in the Ireland Conflict. Mainstream Publishing. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-1-78057-376-2. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
- Norris, Pippa; Kern, Montague; Just, Marion (2013). Framing Terrorism: The News Media, the Government and the Public. Routledge. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-135-93822-2. Retrieved 19 May 2013.