THE challenge of how to deal with a strengthening Sinn Féin with more than 11 per cent of the vote preoccupied the NIO in 1988.
In a memo to officials dated January 26, 1988, S L Rickard of the Constitutional and Political Division, reviewed the development of Sinn Féin from 1905 through the Treaty split of 1922 to its fragmentation into provisional and official wings in 1970. He wrote: "Throughout the 1970s Provisional Sinn Féin acted as a political surrogate for PIRA. However, in 1981 (Bobby) Sands' victory in Fermanagh demonstrated it was possible to combine terrorism with elected politics and launched Sinn Féin's bid for support at the ballot box."
He noted that the republican party's vote rose from 10.1 per cent in the 1982 assembly elections to 13.4 per cent in the UK general election of 1983, falling back to 11.4 per cent in the 1987 local elections. He stressed the significant impact of anti-personation measures since 1985, adding: "This limited electoral success along with (Gerry) Adams' election as MP in 1983 has helped to give Sinn Féin an aura of respectability outside NI."
Rickard argued that Sinn Féin dual policy of "the armalite and the ballot-box" had not proved easy to sustain. Its performance in the Republic had been "disastrous" while the party's 1986 decision to abandon abstentionism from the Dail had produced strains.
Nonetheless, the dual strategy had been sustained "because a significant portion of the electorate, notwithstanding Sinn Féin's links with PIRA, are prepared to vote for Sinn Féin as the most promising vehicle for achieving a united Ireland" and because the IRA's strategy focused increasingly upon attacks on the security forces rather than "civil targets which might alienate voters".
In any policy change towards Sinn Féin, he stressed, the British government must bear in mind "our interest in fostering the SDLP as the party of constitutional nationalism".
In his view, there were three possible approaches. The first involved proscription of Sinn Féin but "it might encourage political support for the provisionals under other guises".
Secondly, they could try to "wean Sinn Féin away from violence" or "split the provisionals into a mainstream non-violent party". Finally, they could "mark out Sinn Féin as a party which supports violence".
This was essentially the government's present policy and the best option. It entailed "bolstering the SDLP" while relying on the ability of PIRA "to damage Sinn Féin support through terrorist outrages such as Enniskillen".