Abstention policy has taken several twists and turns over course of Irish political history

Posted By: August 26, 2019

Deaglán de Bréadún. Irish News. August 26, 2019 
On July 10, 1927, the justice and external affairs minister of the Irish Free State, Kevin O’Higgins (37), was shot and fatally wounded as he walked to 12 o’clock Mass in south Dublin.

Nobody was ever convicted but the general belief is that three IRA activists carried out the killing, which they saw as an act of revenge for the executions of 77 republicans – including Rory O’Connor, who was best man at his wedding – that O’Higgins had approved as justice minister during the Civil War over the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The O’Higgins assassination altered the course of Irish history, although not in the way hard-line republicans would have wished. Up to then, the Fianna Fáil party, under Eamon de Valera’s leadership, had been refusing to swear an oath of fidelity to the British Crown which was a requirement at the time for participation in Dáil Éireann. Dev’s rationale was similar to the one used by Sinn Féin today when he said: “As a party, we have been elected on the distinct understanding that we would not take that oath.” Indeed the oath itself had been a focal point in the Civil War of 1922-23.

As part of its response to the assassination, the Free State government brought forward legislation that you could not even stand for election to the Dáil unless you promised to take the oath. After much soul-searching, Dev fetched-up at Leinster House and signed the hated declaration. Five years later, Fianna Fáil came to power in a general election and ditched the oath.

Even so, traditional Republicans still held to the policy of abstentionism from the Dáil. Provisional Sinn Féin changed its line in 1986 when an ard fheis in Dublin’s Mansion House voted by 429 to 161 to take seats if elected to the Dáil. However, the late Martin McGuinness gave “a commitment on behalf of the leadership that we have absolutely no intention of going to Westminster or Stormont”.

Subsequently, Sinn Féín representatives took their seats in a rather different Stormont but still refuse to sit in the House of Commons where an oath of allegiance remains a requirement. Even the prospect of helping Jeremy Corbyn become prime minister, given his record of solidarity with Irish nationalists on various issues, apparently doesn’t tempt them. Party representatives refuse to take sides, with one of them quoted as saying that, “it’s not our place to decide who becomes British prime minister”.

You couldn’t help recalling a certain incident at the Grand Hotel in Brighton back in 1984 where republicans with a different mindset tried to remove Margaret Thatcher and her ministers from the scene in a very robust manner. A similar episode occurred when John Major was meeting his war cabinet at Downing Street in February 1991 and mortar shells flew through the air.

The O’Higgins assassination came to mind as I listened to a lecture on Eamon de Valera at the Parnell Summer School, held every August at the great parliamentarian’s birthplace and home in County Wicklow.

The speaker was RTÉ journalist David McCullagh whose widely-praised biography of Dev is published in two volumes by Gill Books of Dublin. Another speaker was Eamon Gilmore, former tánaiste and minister for foreign affairs and Irish Labour Party leader, who is now the EU’s special representative for human rights. He warned: “The consequences of Brexit extend far beyond the issues of trade and the Irish border, which are already well-known.”

Pointing out that the UK and Ireland had “regularly been allies around the EU table”, particularly on issues of foreign and security policy, he expressed concern that, after Brexit, the UK may be increasingly likely to look to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a means of exercising influence at European level. Since NATO is essentially an intergovernmental military alliance, the implications of what Mr. Gilmore said are disturbing.

For my own part, I wonder if the European federalists really understand the importance of sovereignty to independent states, including the UK. The feeling that the “Backstop” infringes on sovereignty has contributed to the mess we are in today.

Incidentally, there are suggestions that Eamon de Valera was not enthusiastic about joining the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU. In another biography, Tim Pat Coogan quotes Dev as saying on his deathbed: “I’m probably the last President of an Independent Irish Republic.”