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Sinn Féin must end abstentionism to achieve a united Ireland

Noel Whelan: The party needs to hurry up and take its seats in Westminster

Sinn Féin MPs voting at Westminster is an idea whose time has come. The arguments that Sinn Féin leaders still advance against doing so do not stand up against rational examination or precedent.

Abstentionism has been associated with Sinn Féin since Arthur Griffith set up the original party 113 years ago, proposing that Irish MPs follow the Hungarian example of not sitting in the imperial parliament.

After the War of Independence and Civil War, those left in Sinn Féin adopted a policy of abstention not only from Westminster but also from Dáil Éireann, resisting the notion of swearing an oath to the British monarchy.

Recognising the futility of this policy was the primary reason why Éamon De Valera and a majority of other members left Sinn Féin to set up Fianna Fáil. In the 1927 election, De Valera’s new party ran on the basis of abstentionism as a tactical rather than a principled stance.


Ultimately, in August 1927, under threat of being prohibited from contesting future elections, Fianna Fáil took their seats in Dáil Éireann, dismissing the oath of allegiance as “an empty formula”.

Those who succeeded from the remnants of Sinn Féin left behind by De Valera also later abandoned their abstentionist policy towards Dáil Éireann. It took them more than half a century to do so. Indeed, the current incarnation of Sinn Féin is the successor to Provisional Sinn Féin which broke from “Official’ Sinn Féin in 1970, in part because of the latter’s decision to end Dáil abstentionism.

Then Provisional Sinn Féin itself later opted to enter Dáil Éireann. This week Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin announced he will retire at the next election after more than 21 unbroken years sitting as a Dáil deputy. Much of the current rhetoric about not taking seats in Westminster echoes that which preceded the party's decision to enter Dáil Éireann.

Ballot box

Ó Caoláin was the first Provisional Sinn Féin candidate to take his Dáil seat. In doing so, the party crossed an important rubicon. Originally part of the “armalite in one hand and ballot box in the other” strategy, it is noteworthy that Sinn Féin never really took off at the ballot box in the Republic until it laid down the armalite.

Traditionally, Provisional Sinn Féin also refused to contest elections to any parliament in Northern Ireland. Then it opted to contest but not take seats won. Since the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Féin – current hiatus notwithstanding – has not only taken seats in a Stormont Assembly but has served in a powersharing government, the purse strings for which are controlled by her majesty's government in Whitehall.

Sinn Féin MPs in parliament could help shape how Brexit is implemented

Where Sinn Féin is at now is a very different place from the 32-county, socialist republic for which its members traditionally campaigned and for which some of them killed or died.

Since the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Féin has also loosened its attitude to Westminster itself. It now takes expenses from that parliament and has office space there. Indeed, its MPs have attended events in almost all the significant rooms in the Westminster complex, except in the Westminster chamber itself.

The remaining argument put forward by Sinn Féin is that the people of Northern Ireland elected them on an abstentionist policy. This, of course, is true – but it doesn’t always have to be true. Whenever the next Westminster election comes, Sinn Féin could choose to run on a policy of taking its seats and voting if and when it is strategic in the interest of the Northern Ireland voters it represents.

Brexit context

Much of the current demand for Sinn Féin to take its Westminster seats arises from the precarious state of Theresa May’s government, the fact that the DUP is keeping her in power, and the possibility Sinn Féin could make up the numbers to inflict parliamentary defeats on Brexit. Asking Sinn Féin to go into the Westminster parliament without first going back to its electorate for a fresh mandate is unrealistic, however.

There is a possibility the UK will have a general election before the crucial parliamentary votes on Brexit votes are held. Indeed, the UK may end up having an election over Brexit itself. Either would be a good moment for a shift in Sinn Féin policy on taking its seats.

Even if the next Westminster election comes after the Brexit deal is signed, however, there would still be much which Sinn Féin MPs, as voting representatives of Northern Ireland nationalism, could achieve in that parliament, not least in shaping how that Brexit is implemented.

They could also, of course, have an impact in Westminster in shaping the constitutional and legislative pathway towards achieving a united Ireland, particularly if that scenario were to crystallise in the post-Brexit years.

Having taken its time in deciding to sit in Dáil Éireann and in government at Stormont, Sinn Féin needs to hurry up and take its seats in Westminster while it still matters.