It 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:
"Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?"
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 Republic of Ireland drafted the Anglo-Irish Agreement, this convinced many in Sinn Féin that it was possible to make political gains without violence. However, some 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.
Since the IRA ceasefires of 1994 and 1997, opinion in Northern Ireland remains characteristically divided on whether the armalite and ballot box strategy has been abandoned. Most nationalists, noting the abandonment of large scale political violence and beginning of decommissioning by the IRA, feel that the republican movement have set aside the gun for good, while many unionists remain skeptical.
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. However, parties directly linked to Loyalist paramilitaries have had minimal success in elections in Northern Ireland.