Sinn Féin must not shirk its responsibility to lead
A government in the North would be a powerful dynamic in the Brexit process
Gerry Adams: he understands that the facts can change if the symbols are maintained. Photograph: Getty Images
The prospect of Sinn Féin MPs taking their seats at Westminster to fight against the Tory-DUP “hard Brexit” is a sensible but politically unrealistic one. Yet the party’s continuing unwillingness to form an Executive and restore the Assembly at Stormont is becoming indefensible.
Even though it would be a game-changer in terms of the parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Commons, and could limit the damage that Brexit will do to Ireland (and the UK, for that matter), the idea of abandoning – even temporarily – its abstentionist policy is a non-starter for Sinn Féin. It is not even remotely near the agenda.
The party’s ardfheis this week has motions on the dangers of gambling, domestic violence, the sedentary nature of children and adolescents, the establishment of an Irish republican historical library and the abolition of the presidency (of Ireland, not of Sinn Féin). But taking seats in Westminster is firmly not on the list.
The party has seven MPs. The DUP props up Theresa May’s government and its Brexit programme with 10. There is a bunch of Tory rebels who are making May’s life difficult, and will make it more difficult as Brexit legislation proceeds through the Commons.
Seven more anti-Brexit MPs at Westminster – with a focus on Northern Ireland issues – wouldn’t mean the immediate collapse of May’s government but it might in time. It would certainly make a significant, and perhaps a decisive, difference.
A bridge too far
But for the republican heartlands of the North, to see Sinn Féin MPs taking their seats in the epicentre of British political power, swearing an oath to the queen, would be a bridge too far.
Sure, you could list the contradictions: the party has abandoned the physical force tradition in favour of politics and the parliamentary route in pursuing its goal of a united Ireland and a “rights-based society”; it accepts the existence and legal basis for the North’s status as a part of the United Kingdom; it maintains an office in Westminster and has regular contacts with British politicians and officials and so on.
Symbols, rhetoric and emotion matter in republicanism, and Gerry Adams, more than most, understands how much. He also understands that the policy and politics can move, and the facts can change if the symbols are maintained. After all, you can still buy “IRA: Undefeated Army” T-shirts at the Sinn Féin ardfheis.
You also have to appreciate that the biggest priority for Sinn Féin – above absolutely everything else – is the maintenance of the unity of the movement. So despite the opportunities it would provide, Westminster is not going to happen.
But it’s harder to understand or defend the continuing suspension of the Northern Executive and Assembly.
There would be a strong case for Sinn Féin to rejoin the Executive even without Brexit; at a time when the North is becoming a pivotal issue in the future of Brexit it is simply astonishing that Sinn Féin thinks the cash-for-ash scandal, an Irish language Act and same-sex marriage are higher priorities.
Honestly, what sort of leadership is this? I doubt even if the North’s gay gaelgeoiri are happy with it.
It would be entirely feasible for Sinn Féin to consent to the relaunch of the Executive and the Assembly – even for a trial period of six months or a year – in order to give the North a voice in the Brexit debate. That voice could be raised not just in London and in Dublin, but also in Brussels and, if necessary, in Paris and in Berlin.
The need to protect the peace process is a powerful argument in Brussels – more powerful, perhaps, than it currently is in London. Doors would be opened in Europe, and people would listen.
There’s a pair of them in it, of course. The Sinn Féin tactics may be misguided, but the DUP position is naive at best, malicious at worst, and is likely to work directly and predictably against the interests of the people DUP representatives are elected to protect. That is apparent to anyone who looks at it, even the DUP.
But it is Sinn Féin that is best positioned to break the logjam by parking its concerns on gay rights and the Irish language, and giving the North a government and a voice.
Act of leadership
There is also a self-interest argument for Sinn Féin to pursue such a path. Willingness to take responsibility and leave aside – even temporarily – previous political concerns would be an act of leadership that would impress Southern voters at a time when the party is anxious to show its credentials for government in Dublin.
Certainly the current standoff is not doing the party any good if recent polling trends are to be believed.
To have a government in the North – led by Sinn Féin and the DUP – that was advocating special arrangements to preserve the open trade and security border on the island would be a new and powerful dynamic in the Brexit process just at the time that it desperately needs it.
It could be a special economic zone which would enable special status for the North, and might kickstart the North’s moribund state-dominated economy.
It could be a special arrangement that allowed access to the Customs Union.
Whatever it might be, the North stands a better chance of securing it if its leaders are banging tables in London, Dublin and Brussels.
The next few weeks are not just crucial in the Brexit process, they are exactly the point at which Northern Ireland issues are at their most central to the proceedings.
For Sinn Féin to opt out of political leadership in the North at a time when it is desperately needed is an abrogation of responsibility which history might not lightly forgive.