Sinn Féin’s abstentionism does a major disservice, says John Bruton

Former taoiseach says party not representing nationalist interests at crucial time

Former taoiseach John Bruton. Photograph: The Irish Times

Former taoiseach John Bruton. Photograph: The Irish Times


Sinn Féin are doing themselves and their supporters a major disservice by refusing to take their seats in Westminster at a time when the nationalist people of Northern Ireland need to have their views on Brexit heard in the UK, former taoiseach John Bruton has said.

Mr Bruton said it was not for him, as a member of Fine Gael, to tell members of Sinn Féin what they should do, but he could see no logic in the party continuing with its policy of abstentionism in the House of Commons when the views of northern nationalists deserved to be heard.

Speaking at the Daniel O’Connell Summer School in Cahersiveen, Mr Bruton said O’Connell’s achievement with Catholic emancipation was not securing the vote for Catholics, which already existed, but rather securing the right for Catholics to sit in parliament.

“Is it not a strange commentary on this that none of O’Connell’s Ulster Irish co-religionists, who are entitled to do so, will take their seats in the same parliament at a time when vital legislation affecting Ireland will be decided there in a few days time,” he said.

Mr Bruton said this is the first parliament since O’Connell took his seat in Westminster in 1830 that the view of Irish Catholics and nationalists will not be voiced because of Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy.

“The simplest thing of all is for Sinn Féin to change its policy, do what the SDLP have done, do what Daniel O’Connell did in 1830 and do what Fianna Fáil did in the south in 1927and that is take their seats. It’s a simple solution to a problem that needs addressing,” he said.

“I would have thought that from Sinn Féin’s own point of view, as far as their own prospects in this jurisdiction is concerned, they would be doing themselves a big favour by taking their seats and they are doing themselves a big disfavour by not taking their seats.”

Mr Bruton pointed out that while a majority in Northern Ireland had voted against Brexit, the fact remained that a majority of unionists had voted for Brexit and with the DUP supporting the Tory Government, it was important that the views of Remain voters in the North were represented.

“There’s a clear difference of opinion between unionists and nationalists on Brexit but I don’t think this causes the sectarianism that exists in the North which goes back to something much more deep and has to do with people who don’t have a satisfactory way of expressing their identity,” he said.

“People need to find something more positive when it comes to expressing their identity other than their identity being defined by being against Taigs or being against the Orange. We have less direct friction than we used to have in the North but we still don’t have real reconciliation.”

Mr Bruton said he was not sure whether the Northern Assembly and the government structures in the North established by the Good Friday Agreement, if set up in a different way, would have led to greater reconciliation on the ground between communities.

“The two biggest parties must form the government and there must be self described nationalists and self described unionists in the government and that means very little space for parties that are neither unionist nor nationalist who were just for Northern Ireland having a better way forward.”

Mr Bruton said he understood the logic behind such a set up, but he wondered if it would have been better if a structure was put in place where, instead of saying a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists must agree, any decision would have to have the support of 70 per cent of representatives.

“People need to take responsibility themselves in Northern Ireland for the sectarian divisions that exist in Northern Ireland and they need to say ‘Well this is my country and my responsibility’ rather than saying ‘It’s London’s responsibility or Dublin’s responsibility or the other’s side responsibility’.”