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Fighting an election only to refuse a seat: Sinn Féin and Westminster abstention

Sinn Féin is the only party contesting the British general election whose MPs will not take their seats. This policy dates back exactly 100 years to when the party’s first MPs, elected in 1917, decided to abstain from Westminster. It has been the case in every election since. About 18 Sinn Féin candidates will campaign in the June 8 election, only to refuse to take part in debates and votes should they win.

The parliamentary oath that MPs must take swearing allegiance to the Queen as head of state is objectionable to Irish republicans, hence why they don’t attend parliament. But contesting the seats is essential in order to show the strength of their political support in certain constituencies in Northern Ireland.

This stance has appeared increasingly dated of late and Brexit brings new pressure on Sinn Féin to reconsider. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU referendum – a position supported by Sinn Féin but not its partner in the devolved Northern Ireland government at the time, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Unless Sinn Féin takes its seats, the people of Northern Ireland will continue to be represented in Westminster by a group of MPs who largely backed Brexit. There are 18 MPs representing Northern Ireland in Westminster, of whom eight are Brexit supporting DUP members. Although the Ulster Unionist Party officially supported Remain, one of its two MPs, Tom Elliott, voted Leave. His party colleague, Danny Kinahan, supported Remain, as did the three SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) MPs and the independent unionist, Sylvia Hermon. With the four Sinn Féin MPs staying away, only a minority of Northern Ireland’s sitting MPs supported Remain.

100 years of opting out

Joseph McGuinness was elected as Sinn Féin’s first MP in a by-election in Longford South on May 9 1917. Even if he had wanted to take his seat, he would not have been able to do so as he was, at the time of his election, serving a sentence of penal servitude in Lewes Prison for his role in the previous year’s Easter Rising.

A campaign poster for Joseph McGuinness. Capuchin Archive, CC BY-NC

McGuinness was the first candidate elected in a Westminster election who ran under the banner of Sinn Féin with the expressed intention of not taking his seat if elected. George Noble Plunkett, who won another by-election in Roscommon North three months beforehand, is often described as Sinn Féin’s first MP but he was not an official party candidate. He only joined forces with Sinn Féin after this election. He also only declared his intention to abstain after being elected.

The idea of Irish nationalists abstaining from Westminster was suggested as early as the 1840s by Daniel O’Connell and was considered by the home rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell in the 1870s. Abstentionism was a central plank of Sinn Féin policy dating back to the movement’s foundation by Arthur Griffith in 1905. It was never seen as an end in itself, but as the precursor to the establishment of an alternative parliament in Ireland.

In its 1918 election manifesto, Sinn Féin promised to achieve an Irish republic “by withdrawing the Irish representation from the British parliament” and “by the establishment of a constituent assembly comprising persons chosen by the Irish constituencies as the supreme national authority to speak and act in the name of the Irish people”. The party went on to defeat the Irish Parliamentary Party in the election and established the first Dáil Éireann (Ireland’s lower house) in Dublin in January 1919.

West Tyrone MP Pat Doherty wins back his seat in 2015. PA

Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy extended to the new legislatures established in the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland after partition in 1921. However, many in the party gradually came to see the former strategy as futile and counter-productive.

In 1926 Eamon De Valera established Fianna Fáil as a breakaway from Sinn Féin, seeing the refusal to engage with politics in the newly independent southern Ireland as damaging to republican interests. While the party did not initially take its seats in Dáil Éireann in protest at the oath of fealty to the king as head of state, it soon abandoned this policy. It took its seats in 1927 and rose to power within five years.

While Fianna Fáil grew, the ongoing troubles in Northern Ireland continued to make Sinn Féin unpalatable to the electorate in the Republic of Ireland. But that changed during the peace process. Caoimhín Ó Caoláin won a seat for Sinn Féin in the 1997 Irish general election. In all subsequent Irish elections at national, local and European level, Sinn Féin has made gains. It currently holds 23 of the 158 seats in Dáil Éireann and has a realistic chance of playing a role in a future coalition government.

The retreat from abstention extended to Northern Ireland when in 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement, the party agreed to recognise the new Northern Ireland Assembly.

Time to turn up

Westminster remains the only parliament boycotted by Sinn Féin. In both Dublin and Belfast the party has engaged in legislative activity and has been rewarded by the electorate. The only obstacle to Sinn Féin MPs taking their seats in London is their opposition to the parliamentary oath.

A century since abstention from Westminster began, the nature of and rationale for the policy has changed dramatically. Sinn Féin has clearly benefited politically from participating in the Dublin and Belfast parliaments.

Taking their seats would allow Sinn Féin MPs to give more substance to their strong Remain stance. The party could conceivably be in a uniquely powerful position, if serving in both Irish governments and also influencing developments in Westminster during crucial negotiations on the future of the Irish border post-Brexit.

Sinn Féin’s core constituency understands and supports its absentionist stance, but abandoning it could help the party appeal to more moderate nationalists who currently support the SDLP and wish to see Irish nationalist interests represented in parliament. The question is whether such potential gains would be offset by republican desertion if abstentionism was abandoned.

How long will it be until the current leadership of Sinn Féin decides that a parliamentary oath is not as meaningful as they continue to insist, and can safely be taken without seriously compromising their republicanism?

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