With just days left before elections in the North of Ireland, Sinn Féin has called for a new nationalist strategy on Irish unity.
Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has recently urged the Provisional IRA to abandon all but political means to achieve its goals, an appeal which is currently being considered by the organisation.
Two days ago, Mr Adams confirmed that he had been contacted by the IRA leadership to say it had authorised an internal debate on his call to consider abandoning armed struggle.
Mr Adams restated his view that the way forward for republicanism was through building political support for its objectives across Ireland and internationally.
“Irish republicanism is at a defining point. The peace process is at a defining point,” Mr Adams said.
“A positive decision by the IRA at the end of its internal deliberations will have enormous significance and impact. It has the potential to halt the downward spiral in the peace process and to strengthen our ability to advance our republican objectives.”
A move by the IRA to stand would pose major challenges for the parties of “constitutional nationalism”, which oppose partition but do not challenge its legitimacy.
Sinn Féin’s recent discussion paper calls on the Dublin government to draw up a strategy towards Irish unity, identifying steps and measures that can assist and promote the successful transition to a united Ireland. Dublin, the party believes, should negotiate the issue with the British government and support should also be sought internationally.
Parallels are frequently drawn between Sinn Féin’s current position and Fianna Fail’s move away from the old anti-treaty IRA in the years following the Irish civil war.
Earlier this week, the 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Ahern claimed his Fianna Fail party continues the tradition of Irish republicanism and attacked Sinn Féin.
Delivering his address at Fianna Fail’s annual commemoration of the 1916 Rising in Arbour Hill, Mr Ahern contended that “democracy has always been the fundamental goal of true republicanism.”
He said the Easter Rising had only taken place after the democratic wishes of the Irish people for self-government had been frustrated for over 30 years.
Mr Ahern argued that the position had changed in 1923 with the creation of a the 26-County state.
In questioning the democratic basis of the IRA post-1923, Mr Ahern said: “A small minority chose the other path of a closed anti-democratic militaristic elitism, unaccountable to the people and dangerous to this State and its freedom.”
The 26-County and British governments have previously worked, against Sinn Féin, attempting to forge a coalition between David Trimble’s Ulster Unionists and Mark Durkan’s SDLP. The failure of that strategy appears set to be underlined by the election results, which most observers believe will lead to major gains for Ian Paisley’s DUP and Sinn Féin.
Sinn Féin general secretary Mitchel McLaughlin called on his nationalist rivals in the SDLP to demonstrate their support for a united Ireland by demanding a Border poll -- a vote on reunification within the Six Counties, allowed every seven years under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Mr McLaughlin said this week: “Given our two parties espoused position in favour of Irish unity, I would expect that the SDLP would back an immediate call for a referendum on partition.
“After the elections are over, we intend to engage the SDLP on how we can best prosecute the united Ireland agenda with the parties and the two governments.
“Both parties - Sinn Féin and the SDLP - are saying the same thing: we wish for a united Ireland. Both parties should therefore push for a referendum on the Border immediately following the elections,” he said.
The SDLP could lose two of its three seats in Westminster to the larger Sinn Féin, which shuns the parliament. The party, like its southern allies in Fianna Fail and Labour, has now claimed allegiance to the republican tradition.
Meanwhile, the breakaway Republican Sinn Féin party has called on “all true republicans” to either boycott the Westminster election or spoil their vote.
And the hardliners criticised Sinn Féin for fielding Billy Leonard, a former RUC officer, as its Westminster candidate for East Derry.
“It is a sad day indeed when the only person they can find to contest the constituency is a former RUC man,” Michael McGonigle of Republican Sinn Féin said.
“He may well be a ‘most suitable’ candidate for the Provisionals given the current direction of their movement but he is no way a fitting candidate for any republican.”
But the tiny left-wing Workers’ Party, linked to the Official IRA in the early ‘70s, said those who stayed at home for the election were “signing up for political stalemate”. The party is fielding eight Westminster candidates.