When the Brexit votes have been and gone, the “Irish question” will remain. So stop talking about Sinn Féin taking their seats—and start asking why so many Northern Irish voters have lost faith in Westminsterby Siobhán Fenton / March 2, 2018 / Leave a comment
As the UK’s exit from the EU looms ever closer, some Remainers are turning to an unlikely saviour to come to Britain’s rescue. An increasing number of British political commentators have taken to imploring Sinn Féin to end their century-old abstentionist policy and take their seats in Westminster.
The Irish Republican party stand for election in Northern Ireland but refuse to sit in the London parliament as a symbolic rejection of British authority over the region. The party currently has 6 MPs (likely to increase to 7 following an imminent by-election in the West Tyrone constituency, which Sinn Féin are expected to win).
Writing in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee yesterday implored them “Come to parliament, Sinn Féin, as saviours of Britain and Ireland”. She argued: “If only they could mutter the loyal oath (they could always rescind it later) they would arrive in parliament as a cavalry of saviours of Ireland—and incidentally Britain.”
“As a counterweight to the Democratic Unionist party votes, they could ensure a soft enough Brexit with customs union and single market to keep the border open. They need only appear for the few crucial votes that would stop the Brexiters wrecking Irish prospects—then they can retreat again as noble deliverers of their nation.”
As the UK’s EU withdrawal date grows closer, such calls are likely to continue. But they are sadly misguided—and fail to understand both the practicalities and the wider theoretical nuances of Sinn Féin’s abstentionist stance.
Firstly, in terms of practicalities, Sinn Féin’s 6 or likely soon to be 7 MPs would not in themselves hold the balance of power in any major Brexit votes. Even with their participation, the DUP-Conservative pact gives the government a majority on Brexit. It is possible that some Conservative Remain MPs could rebel, but it is unlikely that the exact mathematics would fall into place so that Sinn Féin’s presence would sway a vote.
Secondly, and more importantly, Sinn Féin’s abstentionist position is about much more than merely a desire to avoid the oath MPs undertake to swear allegiance to the Queen, as Toynbee and many others suggest. Although their MPs certainly object to the oath, it is likely that even if it were not in place they still would not take their seats.
Irish Republicans fundamentally don’t believe that a British parliament has a right to say how Northern Ireland is run—whether an oath to the Queen is in place or not.
Many in Britain hold a caricatured view of Sinn Féin, due in part to how, during the conflict, British media outlets were forbidden from broadcasting the voices of the party’s politicians due to their associations with the IRA. This meant many British audiences instead only heard Sinn Féin’s arguments second-hand rather than directly. The new fantasy of them as the saviours of Remain is new, but caricaturing the party isn’t—although it’s an unexpected inversion of the usual dynamic showing English people as the sensible moderate peacekeepers coming over to Northern Ireland.
Calls for the party to take up their seats to save England from a hard Brexit show a fundamental misunderstanding over why nationalists and Republicans in Northern Ireland have deliberately voted for abstentionist MPs.
Following the June 2017 election, for the first time nationalists in Northern Ireland turned their backs on Westminster entirely by only electing abstentionist MPs.
Previously, the moderate nationalist SDLP party had 3 MPs who took their seats in Westminster. However, Northern Ireland is now represented only by abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs, DUP MPs and one independent, pro-Remain unionist MP.
The election marked a crucial moment in relations between Northern Irish nationalists and Westminster—and represented a key opportunity for English people to look at the parliament and consider why a growing number of people in Northern Ireland feel so alienated by it and wish to turn their backs on it.
But the issue went largely unexplored in British political discourse. Instead, media outlets’ Northern Ireland coverage of the election results largely focused on their new found discovery of the DUP due to their pact with the minority Conservative government.
That few in English politics have seriously contemplated what the success of abstentionist politicians says about this moment in politics for Northern nationalists is a huge missed opportunity.
The fact is, the day-to-day treatment of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland by Westminster MPs has lowered Northern voters’ opinion of the parliament. On the rare occasions when MPs do discuss the region, debates and discussions are poorly attended by the Conservatives, Lib Dems and Labour alike. Images and videos of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland regularly addressing rows and rows of almost empty green benches quickly go viral at home.
Throughout the Brexit talks, many English MPs on both sides of the house have exposed their ignorance of Northern Ireland, which has only added to the sense of alienation many nationalists feel towards parliament (for instance, through mispronouncing common Irish names and terms, or getting basic facts wrong, such as whether Northern Ireland has a Taoiseach).
As a result, the months following Brexit have amplified many Northern Irish nationalists’ antipathy for the English political class. For many, the referendum campaign and subsequent vote epitomised long-held fears that “national politics” really means English people making decisions without giving a second thought to people living in Northern Ireland.
Long term, this will matter more than today’s Brexit-watchers seem to realise. For, even if the mathematics fell into place such that Sinn Féin’s votes would count and the MPs took their seats to participate in a few key votes on Brexit, the momentary elation of them being power-brokers would soon fade. Brexit would still happen—at the expense of them u-turning on a century-old key policy.
For Sinn Féin to u-turn on a key pledge to their voters that they will abstain from Westminster might give them a momentary boost but would mean losing credibility and political capital in the long term.
As Winston Churchill noted following the end of the First World War: “As the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”
It’s easy to forget amid the current scrum and focus on Brexit, that there will come a time when the UK’s withdrawal from the EU is no longer a pressing political issue. In the grand scheme of things, the so-called ‘Irish question’ will long outlast it.