Unseated: the Sinn Féin MPs whose absence strengthens May’s hand in Commons

Posted By: June 14, 2017

Irish Republican party says likely DUP deal to prop up Tories in the Commons will not change its stance of not participating at Westminster

Owen Bowcott. The Guardian.Tuesday 13 June 2017 

Sinn Féin remains adamant that its seven newly elected MPs will not take their seats in the House of Commons, despite the sudden shift in political geography that has thrust the Irish Republican party’s unionist rivals into the role of kingmakers in Theresa May’s minority Conservative administration.

Sinn Féin has a longstanding policy of refusing to participate in the Westminster parliament, which it believes has no legitimate right to control the six counties of Northern Ireland.

This stance, coupled with the party’s gain of three seats in last week’s general election, effectively increases the strength of the government Theresa May is seeking to lead following negotiations with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

A parliamentary majority is usually said to be 326 seats; the Conservatives and DUP together hold 328. With seven Sinn Féin MPs absent, plus the Speaker, John Bercow, also removed from calculations, May’s margin of safety is increased. In the weeks to come, those potential Sinn Féin will be greatly missed by those opposed to the prime minister.

The total wipeout of seats held by the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist party on 8 June has effectively removed much of the political middle ground in Northern Ireland. The Alliance party has not won a Westminster seat since 2010.

The map of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies is now partitioned between Sinn Féin seats, which line the border from Derry to the County Down coast, and DUP seats to the north and east.

The DUP also strengthened its position, taking 10 seats. The other seat, North Down, is held by the independent unionist Sylvia Hermon, whose previous large majority was slashed by the DUP.

The realignment of Northern Ireland’s MPs reflects the power and organization of the two main rival parties, rather than any underlying demographic shift. Two decades after the end of the Troubles, both Sinn Féin and the DUP have succeeded in broadening their electoral appeal.

There is speculation that the SDLP could merge with the Irish centre-left party Fianna Fáil in order to bolster its position in Northern Ireland. That would put the party on a level footing with Sinn Féin, which already campaigns north and south of the border and has elected representatives in the Dáil, the Dublin parliament. The party is expected to discuss the idea later this week.

The electoral success of Sinn Féin and the DUP points to a polarization in Northern Irish politics. However, the fact that both parties served for many years in power-sharing administrations at Stormont – before the collapse of devolution – has eased fears that sectarian differences could derail further cooperation. 

On that basis, the answer to the question of whether the Stormont government will be resurrected before the deadline of 29 June – after which direct rule would be imposed – would appear to have more to do with political calculation than emotive, tribal antipathy.

But at a press conference in London on Wednesday, the Sinn Féin MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Michelle Gildernew, said: “There’s a lot of anxiety and fear for what is being discussed. Any agreement is going to have to come back to Stormont to be discussed. We have faced challenges in the past and we will face this one.”

In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, a Sinn Féin spokesperson said: “As Irish republicans, we do not take our seats in Westminster and we won’t swear an oath to the British queen.

“We went to the people on an active abstentionist ticket looking for a mandate opposing Brexit, a border, and Tory austerity and standing up for equality, rights and Irish unity. We received 238,00 votes from the electorate on that platform.

“Sinn Féin intends to honor its mandate and offer strong effective representation within constituencies, at Stormont, at the Dáil and with our All-Ireland EU MEPs in Brussels rather than sitting on the green benches of Westminster.”

Meanwhile, a dispute has erupted in Derry over allegations that some voters arrived at their polling station on 8 June to be told that they had already cast their ballot. The PSNI has confirmed it was investigating a report of fraud following referrals from the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland.

The margin between the winning Sinn Féin and defeated SDLP candidate in Derry was 169 votes.

The SDLP assembly member Mark H Durkan said: “Prior to the election I had expressed concerns to the electoral office and to the PSNI regarding breaches of the electoral rules constituents had raised with me. While the PSNI have stated publicly that they are investigating the concerns that have been reported to them, since the election, more constituents have approached me about their votes being stolen on polling day.”