Sinn Féin abstention policy means party will stand but never sit in Westminster
‘Michelle Gildernew’s recent description of herself as a never-say-never type of person prompted a flurry of speculation the party might be set to begin a process of soul-searching about the policy’
‘Obviously, none of this has done Sinn Féin any harm electorally, given that the party is going from strength to strength. Party leader Gerry Adams, TD for Louth, and the North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have made clear they are not for turning on the issue of abstentionism.’ Above, McGuinness (left), and Adams with Michelle Gildernew during the launch of the party’s general election manifesto in Dungannon, CoTyrone. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A topical and interesting question came up on the BBC television quiz show University Challenge recently as the Westminster election taking place today loomed.
Host Jeremy Paxman asked the contestants to name the most marginal constituency in the UK.
While the students hesitated over whether the answer might be Hampstead and Kilburn or perhaps North Warwickshire, the uncompromising Paxman barked out the correct response: “Fermanagh South Tyrone.”
The constituency’s incumbent MP Michelle Gildernew is one of Sinn Féin’s five Westminster representatives who do not take their seats in the House of Commons because of the party’s long-standing abstentionist policy.
Eight DUP and three SDLP MPs travel back and forth between Northern Ireland and London, along with Naomi Long of the Alliance Party and the former Ulster Unionist turned Independent Lady Sylvia Hermon.
Attendance records vary.
Sinn Féin’s objection to entering the Commons chamber is ideological, stemming from its refusal to recognise the legitimacy of British authority in Northern Ireland.
The party’s MPs are disinclined, to put it mildly, to swear an oath of allegiance to the British monarch.
Sinn Féin representatives also claim to have achieved more for their constituents through direct negotiation than Northern politicians of other stripes who have spent decades working the Westminster system.
Avail of expensesGildernew and her four colleagues do not get paid MPs’ salaries, but do avail of expenses to which they are entitled.
Their party has a small suite of offices under a turret in the old Palace of Westminster building.
According to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), the Sinn Féin MPs received a total of £666,808 in allowances during the parliamentary year 2013-2014.
Along with aggregated travel expenses and staffing payroll, office costs for which these allowances are paid include constituency office rent, water and electricity, as well as “professional services” such as IT support.
The installation and maintenance of office equipment is also covered, along with the purchase of stationery and telephone and internet usage and rental.
The party says its individual MPs tend to travel over to London at least once a week to brief and lobby as part of the service they provide to their constituents back home.
Obviously, none of this has done Sinn Féin any harm electorally, given that the party is going from strength to strength.
Party leader Gerry Adams, TD for Louth, and the North’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have made clear they are not for turning on the issue of abstentionism.
Not even the possibility of holding the balance of power at Westminster could persuade them to abandon the policy, they insist.
Traditionally, Northern politicians have been pretty much irrelevant to the arithmetic of government formation in Westminster but, a hung parliament could give the North’s MPs real clout.
Keys to Downing StreetThere is a chance that those elected this week could determine whether it is David Cameron and his Conservatives or Labour leader Ed Miliband and his party who obtain the keys to 10 Downing Street.
Sinn Féin likes to describe itself as “future-focused” and prepared to have “uncomfortable conversations”.
It appeared to have overcome its difficulties with Queen Elizabeth’s 2011 visit to Ireland when McGuinness shook hands and held a private meeting with her in Hillsborough Castle last June.
Yet to hold on to an arguably antiquated policy, while still maximising expenses funded by neighbours’ taxes when the party already has more money flowing in than most other Northern parties combined, does seem somewhat grubby.
Reports that party candidates heard complaints about the policy on the doorsteps during the Westminster campaign have been dismissed by senior figures.
The issue has certainly not generated debate within the party, with representatives standing solidly behind the leadership line.
They point to the reality that Sinn Féin voters back the party in large numbers in the full knowledge of the implications of the policy. And they say their political opponents and commentators raise the issue during every Westminster campaign.
The cheerful Gildernew’s recent description of herself as a “never-say-never” type of person prompted a flurry of speculation that the party might be set to begin a process of soul searching about the policy.
But she and colleagues have since borrowed from the Ian Paisley songbook to cry “Never”.
Even the late reverend changed his tune in the end, but Sinn Féin seems destined to continue to stand but not to sit. Mary Minihan is on The Irish Times political staff