Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Poll: Quarter of Sinn Fein supports still back armed struggle

Martin McGuinness addresses delegates at the Sinn Fein ard fheis in Castlebar, Co Mayo, at the weekend
Martin McGuinness addresses delegates at the Sinn Fein ard fheis in Castlebar, Co Mayo, at the weekend

More than a quarter of Sinn Fein members still back an armed struggle so long as there is British rule in Northern Ireland, a Belfast Telegraph poll has found.

And almost half said they didn't feel a civic duty to report the activities of dissident republicans to the police to prevent an attack.

The Belfast Telegraph polled Sinn Fein members taking part in the party's annual ard fheis in Castlebar, Co Mayo, at the weekend on a range of issues including dissident activity and abortion. The snap survey of 50 members showed surprisingly sharp divisions on several key issues.

On dissidents, a picture emerged which showed grass roots attitudes were not as strongly opposed to such republican terrorism as the party leadership.

We asked members if an armed campaign was justified while British rule remains. Some 26% agreed while 66% disagreed.

Only 12% agreed with Martin McGuinness's statement that the dissidents were "traitors to Ireland", while 72% disagreed.

Mr McGuinness made his comments just over three years ago after the murder of PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll, a killing claimed by the Continuity IRA. The results of our survey suggest that he was attempting to lead opinion, taking a risk for peace, rather than reflecting the views of his followers.

This is called "stretching the republican constituency". Several of the 50 Sinn Fein members questioned mentioned themselves that Mr McGuinness had made the "traitors" statement and that they disagreed with it.

Dissident republicans have been responsible for a series of deadly attacks, including, most recently, the murder of prison officer David Black last November.

The Deputy First Minister used the ard fheis to voice criticism of dissident republicans again, saying they had been "swamped by ruthless criminal elements".

But just over a third of delegates (34%) believed that violent dissidents were criminals, and a clear majority (58%) regarded them as political offenders.

Part of Sinn Fein's journey to entirely democratic means has included backing for the PSNI in recent years.

However, only one in three delegates (34%) felt it was a civic duty to report dissidents to the police.

Many said they didn't support violence and might call the police in some circumstances.

There were other worrying signs for the PSNI.

More than half of those questioned (54%) felt that it was not "an impartial force", as against 36% who felt it was.

Abortion was another divisive issue.

The ard fheis passed a motion calling for the Irish government to pass legislation to cover the 'X case', in which a 15-year-old pregnant and suicidal rape victim was denied an abortion.

But our survey suggested that most delegates (64%) would have gone further and given women a right to choose whether to have an abortion once they had counselling on the alternatives available to them.

Some 86% of those questioned said they believed that rape and incest victims should have the right to an abortion, with only 10% opposed, but only around half (52%) did not believe that suicide risk alone should be grounds for abortion.

Outside the ard fheis anti-abortion picketers distributed leaflets equating abortion with murder and claimed that dead republican hunger strikers would be "turning in their graves" if Sinn Fein allowed it.

However, only 20% of delegates believed abortion to be murder and the picketers were largely ignored.

Sinn Fein is pushing for a border referendum and a debate on what "a new Ireland" might mean. The survey showed delegates willing to make some concession to unionists if Irish unity was agreed.

Nearly two-thirds (64%) felt that the Stormont Assembly should remain with power devolved from Dublin, with some volunteering that this was necessary as a transitional step.

A majority (58%) also favoured Stormont-style assemblies in other Irish regions, with just one in five opposed to the idea.

Nearly four out of five (78%) felt citizens of a united Ireland should be allowed to hold UK passports if they wished.

However, only a fifth would agree to a united Ireland joining the Commonwealth, and 72% would want the Irish language to be a compulsory subject in all State schools.

Most felt Sinn Fein had been right at the time to oppose the Queen's visit to Dublin, but many said they would not necessarily oppose another visit.

Overall, the survey showed Sinn Fein to be a more diverse party than is often assumed.

There was active internal debates on a number of issues rather than unquestioning obedience to the leadership.

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