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Sinn Féin and abstentionism: 'The party will eventually need people to take oaths for Ireland'

Abstentionism has been a central policy of Sinn Féin since the party’s foundation in 1905, but condemnation of the practice has sharpened since the Brexit referendum, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor, Irish history

SINN FEIN’S POLICY of not sending elected representatives to Westminster has come under attack in recent days. On Tuesday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin blamed Sinn Féin abstentionism for the passage of the Taxation Bill in the British parliament.

The bill, which critics claim makes a hard Brexit more likely, passed by three votes. If Sinn Féin’s seven MPs were present, then the bill would have been defeated and some of the harm that may come to Ireland as a result of its passage could have been avoided.

Central policy

Abstentionism has been a central policy of Sinn Féin since the party’s foundation in 1905, but condemnation of the practice has sharpened since the Brexit referendum.

With a British withdrawal from the EU likely to have serious repercussions for this island, coupled with the fragmented nature of the British political landscape, many feel Sinn Féin’s Westminster representation could help shape Brexit for the benefit of Ireland, if only they would take their seats.

Sinn Féin maintain that they will not compromise on refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the British monarch and, furthermore, that their decision is supported by their voters, who supported them in full knowledge of the party’s stance on abstentionism.

It may be, however, that the best argument for the party to change their stance is not that they can soften the blow of Brexit, but rather that taking their seats is the best way for Sinn Féin to achieve its primary objective: a united Ireland.

Border poll

Over the last decade, Sinn Féin has repeatedly called for a border poll on Irish unity. But there is no appetite for such a move in Dublin or London. Leo Varadkar has suggested that a border poll is not worth having unless 70% of Northern Irish voters support unification. Which is the equivalent of saying that he doesn’t want to see a border poll in his political lifetime.

According to the Good Friday Agreement, the decision to call for a vote in Northern Ireland on the question of unity lies solely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, an appointee of the British Government.

The agreement says that a border poll can be called “if at any time it appears likely” to the secretary that a majority will support unification. Based on the deliberately vague language of the agreement, the British government could justify calling a border poll whenever it wanted, should it so wish.

Ultimately, if Sinn Féin wants a border poll, it will need to convince a British administration to call one. The most likely way to bring this about, at least for the foreseeable future, is for Sinn Féin to take its seats in Westminster and help prop up a government in need in return for a referendum on Irish unity.

Balance of power

Ironically, to adopt such a strategy would be to copy Sinn Féin’s original electoral rival, the Irish Parliamentary Party, which, prior to Irish independence, sought to win enough seats to hold the balance of power between the Conservative and Liberal Parties and thereby achieve Home Rule.

In this regard, Sinn Féin would have one major advantage over the Irish Parliamentary Party. For Home Rule to be enacted, a bill supporting such a measure had to survive both the House of Commons and Lords. This was far from straightforward, as many nineteenth century British and Irish politicians found out.

The mechanism to enact a border poll is much simpler, in that the decision is entirely at the discretion of the Northern Irish Secretary and does not require a parliamentary majority. On the other hand, the electoral stars would have to perfectly align in order for Sinn Féin to hold a strong bargaining position.

The first-past-the-post system used in the United Kingdom is designed to create a strong parliamentary majority for the ruling party. Occasions when parties with a small number of MPs can wield an outsized influence on forming an administration are rare. But they do happen. Just ask the DUP. If such a situation arose, would either major British party be tempted?

Taking oaths for Ireland

Given the historical baggage that accompanies Sinn Féin, such a bargain would attract even more vicious criticism than that which accompanied the 2017 deal between Theresa May and Arlene Foster.

One might think it inconceivable that the Conservative Party in particular would ever agree to such an arrangement with Sinn Féin. But given the absolutely unscrupulous behavior in the pursuit of power that we have seen in the western world in recent years, indeed, in recent weeks, nothing is unimaginable any more.

In the Sinn Féin pantheon of heroes, there are people who have fought for Ireland, died for Ireland, killed for Ireland, and starved themselves for Ireland. It could be that to achieve their ultimate goal, the party will eventually need people to take oaths for Ireland.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor, Irish history

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