Sinn Féin abstentionism should not be taken as read

11 Aug 2019


Much has been made of Fintan O’Toole’s article in last weekend’s Irish Times, and not for the most positive of reasons. O’Toole suggested a rather epic saga of technicolour political machinations and manoeuvres which would allow Ireland to stop Britain from suffocating itself in a vain attempt at self-pleasure and leaving the EU without a deal on 31st October.


The vision in question would see the Northern Irish seats in the House of Commons given over to a game of musical chairs, with the seven Sinn Féin MPs resigning temporarily, and triggering by-elections in each of their constituencies. Next, all parties would agree (a farcical notion by itself) upon a set of candidates drawn from various facets of Irish public life to replace them. Former President Mary McAleese, former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan, and, for some reason, the actor Adrian Dunbar were all suggested as prospective appointees. 


These super candidates would use their borrowed time to vote against Johnson’s ever eroding minority government, and safely avert a no-deal Brexit. Once we were happily past the nightmare scenario, the new MPs would resign and the Shinners would once again take the helm. 


O’Toole is to be applauded for his imagination, which is an ability sorely lacking in public life generally, and he is also to be given full marks for effort. However it must be asked whether he is overthinking the issue to some extent. The realism of O’Toole’s vision is on a par with the idea of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the mythical Irish hero, rising from his slumber in order to once again defend Ireland and keep the border open. 


The article in question was a bit of a dog and pony show which avoided asking the obvious, tired question of why don’t Sinn Féin take their seats in Westminster? 


The answer to this, as anyone abreast with Irish politics knows, is because doing so would entail Sinn Féin swearing an oath of allegiance to the British crown, which would not only leave a bad taste in the mouth of any nationalist but would also depart from one of the founding principles of the original Sinn Féin movement. 


Frankly, this is clap trap. While any republican or nationalist would understandably wince at solemnly swearing before the yoke of British imperialism, this unease can be easily circumnavigated by crossed fingers behind the back. 


While it breaks from the party policy established by the movement founder Arthur Griffith in 1905, it speaks to the much older Irish tradition of running rings around the Brits. After all, the term ‘Blarney’ is said to have been coined by Queen Elizabeth I to describe the manner in which MacCarthy of Blarney Castle would sing her praises and pledge her support, but never formally kneel before her. Meanwhile, northwards, Hugh O’Neill would swear fealty to the English Queen and, as soon as he was back in Ireland, resume raising an army against her. 


The oath means nothing. It is a purely semantical argument. If Irish civil rights leader Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey was able to stomach it, then I see no good reason why Sinn Féin’s Paul Maskey should not be able to. 


There is also the fact that modern Sinn Féin is a very different party from the one founded by Griffith in 1905. This is largely due to the split which occurred as a result of their Ard Fheis or party conference in 1970, with some members of the party voting to end the policy of abstentionism to Dáil Eireann. The memory of this schism between the Provisionals and the Officials may well be why the party delays ending this last stand of the abstention policy towards the UK parliament. Not only would such a move need to be voted on at their Ard Fheis, but it would not sail past the membership, nor even the voters, without a hassle. 


Since taking their seats as TDs in the Irish legislature, Sinn Féin have risen to become the third largest party in the south; they have also taken their seats at Stormont, in both the Assembly and the Executive. This was the result of their being party to the Good Friday Agreement, a formal recognition of Northern Ireland as a constituent member of the UK until such time as a majority of people vote otherwise. 


In 2016, Martin McGuinness raised interest in the issue for refusing to rule out the party taking their seats in order to prevent Westminster from denying ‘the democratically expressed wishes of the people of the north to remain in Europe.’  


Sinn Féin MPs are a common sight around all corners of Westminster, with the one exception of the Commons chamber. They maintain offices there, and by and large fulfill their roles well. Even their detractors will sometimes admit they are a credit to their constituents. This is something of an abstentionist party in name only. 


By refusing to take their seats they deny themselves a media platform for their ideas and principles, and what’s more they allow the DUP to present themselves as the sole representatives of Northern Ireland in the eyes of the British government and public. 


Furthermore, by taking their seats they would not only be in a powerful position in Parliament, but they would also send a practical demonstration to unionists that all their pretty words about outreach are genuine and not mere bluffs designed to hoodwink them into a United Ireland. 


Abstentionism is a fossil of a long gone past, and it does not match nor serve the present reality. 

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