May bad for the north but great for Sinn Féin

Posted By: June 09, 2018

Patrick Murphy.Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, June 9, 2018

Nationalist Ireland’s political doctors generally agree that the north is suffering from an illness known as Theresa May syndrome.

Apparently, it causes legislative paralysis in areas such as abortion and same-sex marriage and political thrombosis in the form of Brexit and economic austerity.

Despite its damage to the North’s body politic, nationalists’ only attempted treatment to date has been to complain loudly from afar in the hope that the disease will go away.

Not surprisingly, this approach has not worked, although it provides a high degree of self-satisfaction. It allows those complaining to portray themselves as politically oppressed in that nationalist tradition, which has made an 800-year old virtue out of victimhood.

But most nationalists, led by Sinn Féin, have yet to suggest tackling the disease head-on, rather than grumbling about its more obvious symptoms. And how, you ask, might they do that?

Well, they could get rid of Mrs. May and her government. Ah, you say, they should blow up parliament? Not exactly. They should fire mortars at Downing Street? No, they tried that, and it did not work.

There is a better way, generally referred to as politics. (We have never tried it in the north, so it would be a novel approach.) If we leave aside the speaker, deputy speakers and various other parliamentary roles, the disease that is Mrs. May’s government has a working majority of only 13.

That majority could be reduced to six if Sinn Féin’s seven MPs were to take their Westminster seats.

Unless Mrs. May can ensure that all Tory and DUP MPs would be present in the Commons for every vote, SF, Labour and the rest could find plenty of opportunities to bring down a deeply divided government with a majority of only six. As someone once said, she would have to be lucky every day, but they would have to be lucky only once.

As the professed leaders of nationalist Ireland, Sinn Féin has a choice: it can either end abstention from Westminster or give us a good reason for not doing so.

Modern abstention dates from opposition to the 1921 Treaty when anti-partitionists refused to recognize the legitimacy of the two new states and their various institutions and systems.

Indeed Provisional Sinn Féin originates from 1970 when it broke away in opposition to Republicans taking their seats in the Dáil and thereby recognizing a partitionist parliament. (Haven’t things fairly changed since then?)

Now Sinn Féin’s last remaining outpost of abstentionism relates to Westminster. But the party does not attempt to justify it on the basis of refusing to recognize the right of Britain to rule any part of Ireland. It has long since dropped that argument, but it has yet to adopt a new one. In effect, SF offers no coherent reason for abstention.

It merely says that their MPs were elected on the basis that they would not take their seats. This is true, but unhelpful in terms of explanation. It has also suggested that attendance would be ineffective. This is untrue because Mrs. May has a potential majority of only six. So why will they not take their seats and eradicate the north’s Theresa May syndrome?

You can have two theories. One is that they do not wish to sully the purity of Irish republicanism by entering that bastion of British imperialism, headed by an unelected monarch, who is also commander in chief of the British army. (You might like to make your own comment on that one.)

The other theory is that Theresa May’s politics and the DUP’s antics are a boost to SF’s electoral ambitions in Dublin and a source of comfort to its supporters in the north. It is important in politics to have incompetent enemies, and Sinn Féin has been blessed with them.

So Britain’s uncertainty about the nature of Brexit boosts SF’s case for a united Ireland. Its complaints about a lack of legislation for northern abortion and same-sex marriage increase its support in the south and Mrs. May’s refusal to hold a border poll helps its popularity in the north. Why go to Westminster, bring down the government and risk losing all that?

Theresa May syndrome may be bad for the north, but it is good for SF. Michelle O’Neill said this week that the Westminster debate on abortion was a first step in the right direction. Logic suggests that a second step would be to attend Westminster and influence the debate.

Instead, we are being asked to endure a political famine of economic austerity and Brexit uncertainty for what will be effectively party political gain. There is no known cure for that syndrome.