Although it was passed by a two-thirds majority, those who went on to form RSF claimed that the decision to end abstention was invalid under the Sinn Féin constitution, Section 1b of which stated: "No person ... who approves of or supports the candidature of persons who sign any form or give any kind of written or verbal undertaking of intention to take their seats in these institutions, shall be admitted to membership or allowed to retain membership." They pointed out that in their opinion the correct procedure was to drop or amend Section 1b of the constitution in one year, then come back the next year and propose entering Leinster House, when Section 1b was no longer in operation. In protest, they staged a walkout from the ardfheis and reconvened the ardfheis at another venue. RSF subsequently claimed that the delegates who had voted to drop abstentionism had in effect expelled themselves from the party. It is on this basis that RSF views itself as the only party entitled to the name of Sinn Féin and the sole legitimate successor to the original Sinn Féin established in 1905. Supporters of abstentionism also claimed that the vote at the ardfheis was gerrymandered. Journalist Ed Moloney, for example, points out that in 1986 the number of votes at the ardfheis, which reflects the size of Sinn Féin, almost doubled from 1985 to 1986, and then reverted to the 1985 level in 1987.
This claim is rejected by most people who see themselves as Irish republicans. Sinn Féin points out that a previous party ardfheis in 1983 amended the constitution so that "no aspect of the constitution and rules be closed to discussion". This was done to enable the ardfheis to debate a motion to allow Sinn Féin candidates to stand in elections to the European Parliament and to take their seats if successful. Some argue that this argument is weakened, by the fact that candidature to the European Parliament had already been debated at the 1978 ardfheis, when a motion to stand candidates in the 1979 European elections was defeated at the Sinn Féin ardfheis.. A vote to change abstentionism from a principle to a tactic failed to achieve a two-thirds majority vote in 1985. The results were 181 opposed and 161 in favour.
There is disagreement on the number of people who walked out. Brian Feeney claims that after the vote was passed about 20 members, led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, walked out.. J. Bowyer Bell, in The Irish Troubles, states that Ó Brádaigh and Dáithí Ó Conaill "and about one hundred others walked out to form Republican Sinn Féin (RSF) at a previously hired hall in a hotel outside Dublin.". Whatever the number, that evening, approximately 130 people, including some of the delegates who voted against the motion, reconvened at Dublin's West County Hotel and established RSF. By itself, the RSF Officer Board formed that evening had 6 members, also formed was an organising committee of 15 members. Bell also notes that in response to the split, there was a "flurry of military operations in and around Belfast" by the Provisional IRA during the remainder of the year to show "country militants that the city was not a centre of politics" .
At the centre of those who formed Republican Sinn Féin were key people who formed the Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin, including Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, Des Long, Joe O'Neill, Frank Glynn, and Dáithí Ó Conaill. Among those in attendance at the first Bodenstown commemoration, staged by the version of the Continuity Republican Movement which RSF sees itself as forming part of, were four members of the first Provisional IRA Army Council: Ruairí Ó Brádaigh (Longford), Dáithí Ó Conaill (Cork/Dublin), Leo Martin (Belfast), and Paddy Mulcahy (Limerick). Among those present at the West County Hotel when RSF was formed was Billy McKee, an early member of the Provisional IRA Army Council, and the former O/C Belfast Brigade of the Provisional IRA. Another early supporter of RSF was Sean Tracey, a member of the first Provisional IRA Army Council, who later "drifted away" from RSF. The influence of those who founded Provisional Sinn Féin should not be understated. Of the 20 people on the Sinn Féin Caretaker Executive formed in January 1970, ten were still involved in PSF in 1986. Nine of the ten joined Republican Sinn Féin.
At their formation, the Chairman of Republican Sinn Féin was Dáithí Ó Conaill. At the party's first ardfheis, they elected their first President,Ruairí Ó Brádaigh, who was President of Sinn Féin from 1970 to 1983. He remains the party's President. He was joined by Dáithí Ó Conaill, another prominent figure in Sinn Féin and the IRA in the 1970s. The current Vice Presidents are Des Dalton and Cathleen Knowles McGuirk. Joe O'Neill and John O'Connor are the joint treasurers and Líta Ní Chathmhaoil and Josephine Hayden are the General Secretaries. Richard Walsh is the Publicity Officer.
RSF is a fringe party and continues to uphold policy of abstentionism, which means that it would not take seats in Dáil Éireann, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the British House of Commons if elected. In any case, the party has never contested elections to Dáil Éireann or British House of Commons, although it has contested local elections and did field candidates in the Northern Ireland Assembly election, 2007.
It refuses to recognise the validity of the Good Friday Agreement as it argues that the referendum on the agreement did not offer the people of Ireland the choice of living in a united Ireland, and that the referendum was invalid since separate polls were held in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
It opposes the Northern Ireland Assembly as it feels it this further entrenches British presence in Ireland, adding that "those nationalists who took their seats in the new Stormont" were "guilty of treachery to the Irish Republic".
The party occasionally stands in local elections in the Republic of Ireland, and until 2007 did not contest elections in Northern Ireland (RSF now can contest elections in Northern Ireland on an abstentionist ticket on the basis that there is no political oath to the British crown.) It initially planned to field 23 candidates, including three sitting councillors elected for Sinn Féin in 1985, in the 1989 local government elections in Northern Ireland. However, shortly before the elections, the British Parliament introduced a the 'Elected Authorities (Northern Ireland) Act' which required that all prospective candidates sign the following declaration renouncing:
RSF refused to do so on the grounds that such an oath "calls for the public disowning of the Irish Republican Army, Cumann na mBan, Fianna Éireann and a repudiation of the right of the Irish people to use force of arms to end British occupation". Consequently its candidates became ineligible. It is not registered with the Electoral Commission as a political party in Northern Ireland meaning that in elections in Northern Ireland, the party name cannot appear on the ballot paper, the party cannot make party political broadcasts or incur expenditure of more than £5,000 in an election.
It stands on a platform of the establishment of social justice based on what it describes as the principles of Irish Republican Socialism, based on the 1916 proclamation of an Irish Republic. It also has a policy named Éire Nua ("New Ireland"), which would see the establishment of a 32 county Ireland completely independent of the United Kingdom and set up as a federation of the four Irish provinces.
The RSF aligned candidates netted a total of 2,522 first preference votes. The candidates share of the total valid poll (661,191) was 0.38 per cent. Their share of the total valid poll in the six constituencies in which it fielded candidates (242,860) was 1.03 per cent.
Republican Sinn Féin ran seven candidates in the last local elections in the Republic of Ireland. The party's only elected representative lost his seat in the elections. Netting a total of 2,403 first preference votes, the RSF share of the total valid poll (1,819,761) was 0.13 per cent.
The results for 1991 are only partially available. A number of other people stood for RSF, including Joe O'Neill for Bundoran UDC, Sean Lynch for Longford County Council, Tomás Ó Curraoin, David Joyce and Frank Glynn in Galway, and Jimmy Kavanagh in Wexford. Two sitting councillors, Joe O'Neill (Bundoran UDC) and Seán Lynch (Longford County Council) were re-elected. Sitting county councillor Frank Glynn lost his seat on Galway County Council which he had held for 24 years.