After each Parliamentary vote that has taken place in recent weeks relating to the UK withdrawal from the EU, the BBC and other news sources produced a helpful interactive with the title “How did my MP voted?” which for approximately half the population of Northern Ireland is about as useful as Secretary of State Karen Bradley. Anyone living within one of the seven constituencies represented by a Sinn Féin MP already knows the answer to said question.
Sinn Féin defended their policy of abstentionism, with Chris Hazzard, MP for South Down, asserting that they were above the Westminster ‘circus’ and were instead launching a ‘diplomatic offensive across Europe.’
The party have seen a number of calls to take their Westminster seats, ever since the 2017 general election placed votes on a knife-edge, yet each time they have easily batted away any such suggestion.
Paul Maskey, MP for West Belfast, in March last year wrote an article in the The Guardian asserted that his Party would never “validate British sovereignty over the island of Ireland by sitting in the Parliament of Westminster.” Maskey wrote that Sinn Féin were not British MPs, but Irish MPs and that our “difficult and troubled history tells us, the interests of the Irish people have rarely been the concern of the British government or Parliament.”
It is true that the height of knowledge of Ireland, its people and their affairs, among English people is and has largely been limited to a few a lines of Yeats’ poetry, the fact that Connemara is supposed to be lovely in the spring, and of course Father Ted, and there is very little interest in expanding this lexicon. Certainly not from any member of the Conservative Party, as everyone from Karen Bradley to Jacob Rees-Mogg has, in the last year, been guilty of saying something very, very silly on the topic of Ireland.
Many unionists would probably accept this analysis, as there is a significant feeling of exceptionalism within Northern Ireland. The sentiment described above was best summarised by the late Ronan Fanning, a Professor of Modern History at UCD, who wrote in his book Fatal Path, the first World War gave Hebert Asquith the perfect excuse to do “what he had always wanted to do about Ireland: nothing.”
Yet the current position of Sinn Féin represents an incredibly narrow kind of republicanism, which fails to recognise the longstanding efforts of nationalists from Daniel O’Connell to Bernadette Devlin-McAliskey, with the Redmond brothers in between, in forcing Britain to pay attention to Irish affairs, when its predisposition is to do nothing, as Asquith enjoyed. This is an important dimension of Irish history in general, and Republicanism in particular, and refusal to engage with it only does a disservice to ourselves, alone.
Secondly, the Party’s intransigence makes it appear blind to the monumental changes it has undergone in recent years, particularly the deviations from abstentionism which have already taken place. Sinn Féin is by no means the same party that was founded by Arthur Griffith, nor is it the same party founded by the split in 1970, which was caused by the Ard Fheis voting to take their seats in Dáil Eireann. Almost thirty years later, Sinn Féin signed the Good Friday Agreement and agreed to cast aside the ‘armalite’ dimension of their strategy, in favour of the ballot box, recognising Northern Ireland as a constituent member of the United Kingdom until such time as a majority votes to change that status; they have further recognised the status of Northern Ireland by taking their seats at Stormont and governing it.
While they do not sit in the chamber, Sinn Féin MPs still maintain offices at Westminster, for which they expenses; party members are a common sight everywhere around Westminster except the Commons chamber itself. Abstentionism has been ended in the de facto sense, and taking their seats is the next logical step. The only argument which remains against doing so is the requirement of taking an Oath of Allegiance to the British Monarch, yet if Bernadette Devlin could bring herself to do so, I see no reason why Paul Maskey and Chris Hazzard cannot; it is a formality which can be easily overcome, and would hardly be the first time an Irish republican lied to a Brit.