Policy engagement at Queen’s

Fighting an election only to refuse a seat: Sinn Féin and Westminster abstention

Dr Marie Coleman looks at the history of the Sinn Féin policy of abstentionism and asks if it's now time for the party to abandon the policy and to take their seats at Westminster.

Fighting an election only to refuse a seat: Sinn Féin and Westminster abstention

Sinn Féin is the only party contesting the British general election whose MPs will not take their seats. This policy dates back exactly 100 years to when the party’s first MPs, elected in 1917, decided to abstain from Westminster. It has been the case in every election since. About 18 Sinn Féin candidates will campaign in the June 8 election, only to refuse to take part in debates and votes should they win.

The parliamentary oath that MPs must take swearing allegiance to the Queen as head of state is objectionable to Irish republicans, hence why they don’t attend parliament. But contesting the seats is essential in order to show the strength of their political support in certain constituencies in Northern Ireland.

This stance has appeared increasingly dated of late and Brexit brings new pressure on Sinn Féin to reconsider. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU referendum – a position supported by Sinn Féin but not its partner in the devolved Northern Ireland government at the time, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Unless Sinn Féin takes its seats, the people of Northern Ireland will continue to be represented in Westminster by a group of MPs who largely backed Brexit. There are 18 MPs representing Northern Ireland in Westminster, of whom eight are Brexit supporting DUP members. Although the Ulster Unionist Party officially supported Remain, one of its two MPs, Tom Elliott, voted Leave. His party colleague, Danny Kinahan, supported Remain, as did the three SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) MPs and the independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon. With the four Sinn Féin MPs staying away, only a minority of Northern Ireland’s sitting MPs supported Remain.

 

100 years of opting out

Joseph McGuinness was elected as Sinn Féin’s first MP in a by-election in Longford South on May 9 1917. Even if he had wanted to take his seat, he would not have been able to do so as he was, at the time of his election, serving a sentence of penal servitude in Lewes Prison for his role in the previous year’s Easter Rising.

McGuinness was the first candidate elected in a Westminster election who ran under the banner of Sinn Féin with the expressed intention of not taking his seat if elected. George Noble Plunkett, who won another by-election in Roscommon North three months beforehand, is often described as Sinn Féin’s first MP but he was not an official party candidate. He only joined forces with Sinn Féin after this election. He also only declared his intention to abstain after being elected.

The idea of Irish nationalists abstaining from Westminster was suggested as early as the 1840s by Daniel O’Connell and was considered by the home rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1870s. Abstentionism was a central plank of Sinn Féin policy dating back to the movement’s foundation by Arthur Griffith in 1905. It was never seen as an end in itself, but as the precursor to the establishment of an alternative parliament in Ireland.

In its 1918 election manifesto, Sinn Féin promised to achieve an Irish republic “by withdrawing the Irish representation from the British parliament” and “by the establishment of a constituent assembly comprising persons chosen by the Irish constituencies as the supreme national authority to speak and act in the name of the Irish people”. The party went on to defeat the Irish Parliamentary Party in the election and established the first Dáil Éireann (Ireland’s lower house) in Dublin in January 1919.

Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy extended to the new legislatures established in the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland after partition in 1921. However, many in the party gradually came to see the former strategy as futile and counter-productive.

In 1926 Eamon De Valera established Fianna Fáil as a breakaway from Sinn Féin, seeing the refusal to engage with politics in the newly independent southern Ireland as damaging to republican interests. While the party did not initially take its seats in Dáil Éireann in protest at the oath of fealty to the king as head of state, it soon abandoned this policy. It took its seats in 1927 and rose to power within five years.

While Fianna Fáil grew, the ongoing troubles in Northern Ireland continued to make Sinn Féin unpalatable to the electorate in the Republic of Ireland. But that changed during the peace process. Caoimhín Ó Caoláin won a seat for Sinn Féin in the 1997 Irish general election. In all subsequent Irish elections at national, local and European level, Sinn Féin has made gains. It currently holds 23 of the 158 seats in Dáil Éireann and has a realistic chance of playing a role in a future coalition government.

The retreat from abstention extended to Northern Ireland when in 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement, the party agreed to recognise the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

 

Time to turn up

Westminster remains the only parliament boycotted by Sinn Féin. In both Dublin and Belfast the party has engaged in legislative activity and has been rewarded by the electorate. The only obstacle to Sinn Féin MPs taking their seats in London is their opposition to the parliamentary oath.

A century since abstention from Westminster began, the nature of and rationale for the policy has changed dramatically. Sinn Féin has clearly benefited politically from participating in the Dublin and Belfast parliaments.

Taking their seats would allow Sinn Féin MPs to give more substance to their strong Remain stance. The party could conceivably be in a uniquely powerful position, if serving in both Irish governments and also influencing developments in Westminster during crucial negotiations on the future of the Irish border post-Brexit.

Sinn Féin’s core constituency understands and supports its absentionist stance, but abandoning it could help the party appeal to more moderate nationalists who currently support the SDLP and wish to see Irish nationalist interests represented in parliament. The question is whether such potential gains would be offset by republican desertion if abstentionism was abandoned.

How long will it be until the current leadership of Sinn Féin decides that a parliamentary oath is not as meaningful as they continue to insist, and can safely be taken without seriously compromising their republicanism?
Article originally appeared in The Conversation. 


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has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons licence.

Dr Marie Coleman
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Dr Marie Coleman is a Lecturer in Modern Irish History in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University. Marie's principal research interests are in twentieth-century Irish history, especially the Irish revolution. Her works include 'The Irish Revolution 1916-1923' (2013) and she was Principal Investigator on the research project 'Northern Ireland's 2016' funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

5 Comments

Firstly, apologies, for whatever reason I seem unable to write this other than in a caps only font.

In answer to the question posed at the end, i suspect a very, very long time.

i have been a sinn fein member for more than 20 years. i have literally never heard a single party member, informally or otherwise, suggest we should take our seats in westminster.

on the other hand, discussions about joining a northern assembly, putting arms beyond use, supporting policing, the need for an armed republican organisation to name but a couple were all live issues for internal debates, with people on both sides, years before any of them came to pass.

the complete lack of interest of grassroots members or the leadership even discussing this means that even if the latter decided to change its position, it would take years of preparation to do so.

It’s misleading to equate today’s sinn Fein with arthur Griffith’s, or even imply any continuity between them. The High Court’s decision in the “Sinn Fein Funds case” was very clear on that point. The original Sinn Fein party was a wholly distinct organization from the IRB. Today’s SF was created as the political wing of the provisional ira. If there is such a thing as a successor party to the original Sinn Fein, it would be Fianna Fail.

Sadly, i think this history lecturer needs to spend a little more time understanding the present, rather than distilling the past.

it is partition itself which is moving into focus as the anachronism of our time, not abstentionism. the idea of decision-making occurring in ever more distant venues from local communities is increasingly recognised as objectionable – at the eu level for example, the europe of the regions concept and multi-level governance recognises this. within the uk, devolution, devo-max, and the the rise of scottish separatism as a vast popular movement, all suggest that westminster is less – not more – influential in the lives of communities across these islands.

a more productive analysis might have sought to explain why enhanced decision-making in belfast – or, dare i say, it – dublin, would be more preferable than waltzing off to westminster. what of speaking rights for all northern mps in the oireachtas? how can the irish state meaningfully readjust to recognising in its state apparatus that there is a nation beyond the state as constitutionally recognised (as recognised by the Constitution’s post-gfa articles 2 and 3). what impact will presidential voting beyond the state have for this? and a reformed seanad?

the idea for many irish republicans of decision-making for ireland occurring in london isn’t just objectionable because of the oath, though clearly such an oath is objectionable to any patriotic irish citizen. it is objectionable because it involves a tacit acknowledgement that ireland is unable to manage its own affairs without british interference (but with active british interest and goodwill). the brook declaration recognised that britain has no selfish economic or strategic interest in the north. this has, since 1991, been the long-standing perspective of successive british governments. this mental disengagement on the part of the british government, evident even within successive british government’s papers, suggests that those who seek to articulate a continuing role for westminster are profoundly misguided. westminster itself is not committed to a continuing role in the north!

There is no reason for any irish republican to partake in institutions the relevance of which are increasingly called into question in parts of britain (think scotland), never mind ireland. after the demise of the sdlp – likely hastened by the expected outcome of this election – this fact will be reinforced with ever greater vigour by the representatives of the irish people in the north.

I agree. the time has come for Sinn Fein to learn to compromise, and work with other outside of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The taking of the oath is nothing, mere words.

When the future of not just Northern Ireland but the whole Island and the Uk is at stake with brexit, the time has come for the SF Mps to take the arbitary oath and state their case clearly and sucinctly at westminster. to work in tandem with the other devolved governments of the Uk scotland and Wales (both of whom wish to remain in the EU), presenting a united front against the increasingly right-wing Tory government.

Surely they can see that the prospect of a hard border between Northern ireland and the Republic of Ireland is dngerous and as threatening to peace as is the possibility of a narrow victory for union in a “Border poll” shattering the peace, with the likelihood of the losing side feeling betrayed or abandoned, and “loyalist” paramilitaries rising up and resuming “the troubles”, but this time consuming the whole of the island of Ireland. Not a prospect any of us wish to see or live through.

Co-operation in westminster now could avert all forms of trouble, and advance sinn Fein’s standing. Fight too remain in the EU. Fight in union with the other devolved governments for increased devolved powers, and loosen the grip of westminster slowly but surely whilst retaining peace and stability.
Happily, Section 2 of the European Union act of 2011 means that any deal reached by the uk government with the EU is subject to a compulsory rferendum.
I urge Sinn Fein to go to westminster, state the case for remaining in the EU etc,; and show the British public that SF is a force for good. ~ As in the UK they are still most often seen as j the political wing of the PIRA. It would be worth it for the PR alone.

If 50-odd SNP MP’s can’t make any discernible difference to things in Westminster, what conceivable chance could 18(?) SF MP’s make? Westminster needs undermining, not propping up.

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