Abstentionism….If there is ever a topic that sets tongues wagging it’s the age old debate about whether Sinn Fein will ever take their seats at Westminster.
This obsession is set more so amongst commentators who have for years predicted that Sinn Fein are close to giving up their abstentionist policy when it comes to Westminster.
Such an analysis ignores the very basic tenet of republicanism is to make Westminster as irrelevant as possible in Irish affairs. Since 1918, it has been a policy adhered to by republican minded parties that if they are elected to the House of Commons they do not take their seats.
The very act of not taking your seat is a powerful symbol that this place has no beneficial role in our political discourse. (I appreciate this is a contested view)
I appreciate that Sinn Fein evolved their abstentionist policy to take seats in the Dail and the Assembly, but these are local parliaments which help emphasise the irrelevance of Westminster. This again in the longer term helps fuel the narrative that governance is better done on the island of Ireland and not in Westminster.
The whole raison d’être of republicanism is about marginalising Westminster and emphasising that building a united Ireland, rather than the United Kingdom is a priority.
In the longer term could an issue arise that forces Sinn Fein or any other republican to take their seats, of course it could. But as a tangible strategy for the future of creating an all island political dynamic and again building on the narrative of Westminster being irrelevant, it would be hard to square that circle for the party.
I have always been a big proponent of republicanism coming up with new ideas and new thinking to capture the policy initiative. However, sitting in Westminster, whilst it might look attractive in the context of a hung parliament, is not something that is in the long run helpful to your fundamental reason for being in existence.
For Sinn Fein to properly boost republicanism, they need to show that it’s local decision makers who matter. The decision to abstain has been based in the past on dislike of Britain, but for modern day circumstances the pragmatic approach of making our all island bodies stronger, our local parliaments more responsive and those sitting in Westminster irrelevant to the local debate has to be the key going forward.
In short the game plan has to be about building the united Ireland narrative, not indulging in Westminster speculation. Make your local representatives count.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs