Ending abstention could make Westminster work for Sinn Féin

Posted By: October 22, 2018

Rather than staging protests, Sinn Féin could influence change at Westminster to advance Irish republicanism if it ended abstentionism.

Deaglán de Bréadún. Irish News. Belfast.Monday, October 22,  2018

EVEN those members of the nationalist community in The North who cannot abide Sinn Féin have to come to terms with the fact that, for the time being at the very least, their political fate lies in that party’s hands.

So the decisions taken by the ‘Shinners’ could have major implications for all nationalists – not to mention Unionists and those who declare themselves non-aligned.

It’s a situation few would have predicted, twenty-odd years ago.

Prior to the 1997 UK general election, the Republicans had no Westminster MP at all, whereas the Social Democratic and Labour Party [SDLP] had four. Now Sinn Féin has seven and the SDLP have none.

In 1998 Sinn Féin won 18 seats out of a total of 108 in the Stormont Assembly, compared to 24 for the SDLP.

In last year’s Assembly election, Sinn Féin secured 27 seats out of 90, just one behind the Democratic Unionist Party, while the SDLP came back with 12.

Therefore the strategy currently adopted by Sinn Féin contains consequences for everyone in The North as well as the entire island and even further afield.

And this is a party which has absented itself not just from one but two legislative bodies.

Although it was Sinn Féin who pulled the plug on Stormont, it benefits the DUP in a way not to have the power-sharing administration in existence at the moment: the republicans objectively did the Unionists a favor by breaking up the relationship and leaving their former partners center-stage.

The policy of abstentionism towards Westminster also plays into DUP hands, as the Brexit controversy rages.

There was a time when Irish nationalists were the ones who played the political game to advantage in the House of Commons.

Charles Stewart Parnell was adept at using the balance of power. His aim, of course, was to achieve Home Rule for Ireland whereas the DUP are using similar tactics at present to maintain and strengthen the Union.

Parnell’s successor, John Redmond, also worked the system very well and actually got Home Rule onto the statute book, which brought the Unionist population to the brink of armed revolt.

Politics is a numbers game and reviewing the balance of forces in the House of Commons reveals some interesting results.

There were 650 MPs returned at the last general election, but four of them normally don’t vote because of their administrative duties in the parliament.

Then there were the seven abstentionist Sinn Féin candidates who got elected. That left 639 who could vote, which meant that the support of  320 MPs was the basic figure required for a majority.

The Conservatives had 316 voting members who left them four short, and that’s where the DUP, with its group of 10, came into play.

The combined forces of Labour and the rest amounted to 313 MPs.

So let’s consider a possible future scenario where the DUP cannot buy a Brexit settlement with Brussels because of fears that it will weaken the Union.

That would presumably be a situation where the Irish border remained in its present state, but there was a customs barrier in the Irish Sea.

In my fantasy sequence of events, the Sinn Féin group of seven would hold their noses, mutter their way through the oath of allegiance – possibly in the Irish language – and vote the ‘soft Brexit’ into law. (Incidentally, on July 16 last, a Customs Bill amendment tabled by Brexiteers was passed by only three votes: 305 to 302.)

Then comes Part Two. In due course, a vote of no-confidence is tabled by the Labour Party.

The DUP are still in a huff and decide to sit on their hands. But the ‘Sinn Féin Seven’ back the Labour motion, the Tory government falls, and  there is a general election which puts Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10 and John McDonnell next door as Chancellor of the Exchequer, both of them with a record of solidarity, as it were, on the Irish question.

It would be the biggest political success for Republicans since Bobby Sands was elected MP in 1981.

Any time I set out this line of thinking to Sinn Féin activists, they dismiss it out of hand.

I have to confess that it seems rather unrealistic – as did the dropping of abstentionism towards Dáil Éireann until it was abandoned in 1986.

Other scenarios that would have evoked howls of disbelief in the past include a permanent IRA ceasefire and decommissioning of weapons, a power-sharing executive between Sinn Féin and the DUP, and a friendship between Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley Sr that was so warm and good-humored they became known as ‘The Chuckle Brothers.’

And if anyone predicted a Sinn Féin candidate for President of Ireland would declare willingness to wear the poppy symbol, usually associated with the British Army, that too would have been laughed out of court.