Theresa May’s plan to rely on support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in the hope of surviving as a minority government has raised many questions about how the latter will influence British politics.
It also raises an interesting one for Sinn Féin. With its main political rival playing such a significant role, is it time for the Irish republican party to start taking its seats in the Westminster parliament?
The results of this general election leave Irish nationalists with no political representatives at Westminster for the first time since 1966. Northern Ireland’s three Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) MPs lost their seats and while Sinn Féin gained three seats and now has seven, it has historically refused to turn up to parliament.
In the absence of the seven Sinn Féin MPs, the number of votes required for a government to command a majority of the House of Commons is reduced from 326 to 322, leaving the Conservative/DUP combination of 328 slightly more breathing space. If Sinn Féin turned up, the government would find it much harder to survive for long.
In the immediate aftermath of the result Sinn Féin indicated that it had no intention of abandoning its century-old policy of abstention. It’s clear that it will not do so simply to defeat a Conservative government. However, whether it would do so to ensure the election of a Labour minority administration led by long-time supporter Jeremy Corbyn is another matter. That scenario might potentially arise if another election follows in the near future.
Without a nationalist voice
Pressure from within the nationalist electorate might also fuel a change of heart on abstention. Other non-Sinn Féin nationalists have taken their Westminster seats in the past to ensure that the nationalist voice would be heard and the political ground not ceded exclusively to unionists.
It was for this reason that the republican socialist Bernadette Devlin, elected in a by-election in 1969, also took her seat. She subsequently gained considerable notoriety for slapping the home secretary, Reginald Maudling, over his defence of the actions of the Paratroop Regiment during Bloody Sunday in 1972.
Historically, nationalists have been wary of not having representatives in Westminster. As far back as the 1918 general election, Sinn Féin’s support was weaker in Ulster than the rest of Ireland, due in part to concerns about legislation affecting Ireland being too heavily influenced by unionists.
Nationalists also felt that the geographical organisation of Northern Ireland into a Protestant-dominated six-county system – the option most favoured by unionists – was facilitated by the absence of a considerable nationalist bloc in Westminster. By the time this decision was made, the 73 Sinn Féin MPs elected in 1918 had established their alternative parliament, Dáil Éireann, in Dublin so didn’t play a role in voting on the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, which enshrined partition.
For decades, the willingness of the SDLP to sit and participate in parliament has afforded Sinn Féin the luxury of continuing to abstain in the knowledge that there would continue to be a nationalist voice in parliament. That is no longer the case. Sinn Féin may well come under pressure to end abstention as a result.
DUP in charge
In defence of abstention, it might be argued that the Westminster parliament is no longer as significant since devolution brought greater power to the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, following the breakdown of the Northern Ireland government earlier this year, the devolved parliament is not currently functioning. Northern Ireland does not have a government at the moment and the rise of the DUP in Westminster militates against its revival in the immediate future. Sinn Féin will be concerned about the ability of a DUP-dependent government to play the role of honest broker in any negotiations aimed at restoration of the devolved institutions.
Brexit will also be of concern to nationalists. The majority of voters in Northern Ireland (56%) voted to remain in the EU. What’s more, it’s estimated that the remain vote was as high as 85% among Catholics. Yet all but one of the 11 sitting Northern Irish MPs are ardent Brexiters from the DUP. What’s more, the DUP’s views on Brexit will be a key consideration in its negotiations with the Conservatives.
Somewhat ironically, the DUP’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, now finds himself in a position similar to Irish nationalist leaders such as Charles Stewart Parnell in 1886 and John Redmond in 1910. In both cases the price for their support for the Liberal governments of the day was the introduction of an Irish home rule bill. If the DUP drives as hard a bargain now, the deafening silence from the House of Commons benches previously occupied by the SDLP is likely to concern nationalist voters greatly.
At present there is no immediate indication that Sinn Féin will consider abandoning abstention. But any number of factors could change that in the future.