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The row over Sinn Féin's abstentionism (and why its MPs won't be taking their seats anytime soon)

The party sees its MPs as having a clear mandate not to take seats in Westminster.

FIANNA FÁIL LEADER Micheál Martin went on the attack against Sinn Féin yesterday, over its abstentionist policy in Westminster, and was joined by other opponents of the party calling for action in light of the ramifications that Brexit will have on Ireland.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to make concessions to hardline Brexiteers in order to avoid a defeat in the House of Commons on her Brexit plans.

In the end she passed the bill for the whole of the UK to leave the EU’s VAT regime by just three votes.

One of those concessions inserted contradicts the EU’s legal draft of the Irish backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland within the customs union for a period of time, avoiding the need for a hard border.

Sinn Féin – which had seven MPs elected in the 2017 general election – does not take any seats in Westminster, in part due to a party policy of not taking an oath of allegiance to the British monarch.

Sinn Fein ard fheis Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou McDonald Source: Brian Lawless/PA Images

With the DUP helping to prop up May’s Conservative government, and crucial Brexit decisions currently being made that will affect Northern Ireland, Micheál Martin said that this Sinn Féin policy allowed the hardline Brexiteers to win the vote.

He tweeted: “Hardline Brexiteers won last evening’s Westminster vote because of Sinn Féin abstentionism. Anti-Brexit majority in Northern Ireland not represented in any forum. Durkan, Ritchie, and McDonnell would have defeated that damaging vote for Ireland.”

Martin was joined in this condemnation of Sinn Féin by Fine Gael Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan who said Sinn Féin’s “refusal to take up its Westminster seats has plunged the British PM into the clutches of the hard Brexiteers again”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted that “the idea that because Sinn Féin won seats as abstentionists, no one can ever question abstentionism is ridiculous”, and added “our fate is being decided at Westminster right now”.

Strong mandate

Republican abstentionism from elected office stretches back over 100 years. It is just over 30 years ago that Sinn Féin agreed to end its abstentionist policy from the Dáil by 429 votes to 161.

The long-standing practice of refusing to take up seats in Westminster continues to this day, with the party running candidates on the clear policy of abstentionism.

Voters are made aware that a vote for Sinn Féin in the House of Commons means they’re voting for a candidate who will not take up a seat if elected.

All MPs must take an oath to the Queen when taking their seats in Westminster, swearing true allegiance to the monarch. Sinn Féin opts not to do this.

In the most recent election, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) were the only Nothern Ireland parties to win seats. The other nationalist party, the SDLP, who would have taken up Westminster seats, failed to win one.

Pressure has come on Sinn Féin to change its abstentionist policy within the context of Brexit as majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU.

Given that the decisions being made in the House of Commons now will directly affect the future of the island of Ireland, the argument made from Sinn Féin opponents such as Martin and Flanagan is that with such tight margins in the Commons they could help swing votes towards a more favourable result for Ireland.

Writing in the Guardian in March, Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey said that sitting in the British parliament is “not what I was elected for”.

“We are not British MPs,” he said. “We are Irish MPs and we believe the interests of the Irish people can only be served by democratic institutions on the island of Ireland.

Sinn Féin goes to the electorate seeking a mandate for that position. We are elected as MPs who vote for Sinn Féin not to take seats at Westminster.

Maskey went on to say that the “people of Ireland will not find a solution to Brexit in the parliament that is imposing it”.

Crucial votes

Even if Sinn Féin were to take its seats and vote against the government, it’s not a certainty that it could defeat the Conservatives on any crucial topics, given how the mathematics of the Tory majority is borne out.

There are 650 MPs elected to the House of Commons. Four of them – the house speaker and the deputy speakers – do not vote, unless there is a tie break.

When you add in the seven Sinn Féin MPs who abstain, it means that the maximum amount of MPs that could vote in a regular vote would be 639.

To win a vote, 320 MPs must back a proposal.

Theresa May’s Conservative party has 316 seats, and it has also secured the support of the 10 seats from the DUP.

When it stands alone against the rest of the Commons, it has 326 votes which is a majority of six. If Sinn Féin was to reverse its abstentionist policy, the government would still win crucial votes if all party members and the DUP voted with it.

The number of MPs who could vote would increase to 646, meaning a motion would pass with 324 votes.

May just has enough to win in such a scenario, but this also does not reflect the divisions within her own party.

The hardline Brexiteers don’t agree with the pro-EU section of the party, which has left the Prime Minister faced with a string of senior resignations from within her own Cabinet over the past week. It has also meant she’s faced opposition when it has come to getting key Brexit motions through.

Regardless of whether a Sinn Féin vote could swing a vote that would be more favourable for Ireland or not, its long-standing policy shows no signs of changing. Furthermore, it has long been a tactic of political opponents of Sinn Féin to attack this policy at various junctures.

Speaking on RTÉ’s News at One yesterday, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said that the votes of party MPs wouldn’t have made a bit of difference earlier this week.

“We have a British government that has spent the past two years in-fighting,” she said.

“If we boil these down, what we clearly have here is a British government in disarray and doesn’t know what it’s doing.

The numbers don’t stack up. It’s nonsense. We need to protect the island of Ireland’s interest… We need to make sure the backstop is the absolute bottom line… This will not be sorted out in the House of Commons or in Westminster.

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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