I wrote this piece for the Sunday Business Post last week. Some took it as a prediction that Sinn Fein will take their seats at Westminster. That’s not what I’m saying – in fact, the reference to fantasy politics at the beginning gives an indication of how likely I believe that move will be.
However, I can’t quite fathom why Sinn Fein seems unwilling to cross this particular rubicon. Perhaps the party feels the need to hold on to at least one sacred belief as a means to distract from all the others it has conveniently jettisoned over the years. But, really, they’re not fooling anyone.
A smart analysis would look to the SNP and see how a radical, but engaged approach can achieve so much more.
I’m not saying I want Sinn Fein to take their seats. I’m merely arguing that they stand to gain so much more by participating than by maintaining the nonsense of abstention.
Sunday Business Post
January 29th 2015
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams is a man gearing up for government…at Westminster. That’s if you believe the Sun Newspaper which this week suggested the British Labour Leader Ed Milliband had sanctioned coalition talks with the Irish republican party.
Few do believe the Sun on this occasion and both Labour and Sinn Fein were quick to rubbish the suggestion. But as a starter for a game of fantasy politics, it’s an interesting proposition.
All the polls suggest the forthcoming Westminster elections will be the messiest and most unpredictable in living memory.
Labour could face the same annihilation as the Tories in Scotland as the SNP milks post-referendum anger with Westminster’s broken promises.
Meanwhile the Conservatives face tough hand-to-hand battles with UKIP in countless constituencies across England as voters seek easy solutions to the complex problems of the modern world.
Both main parties are riven with division – the Tories over Europe and immigration; Labour, still scarred by the Blair-Brown years of internecine warfare, over the poor performance of its current leader.
The Liberal Democrats have been fatally wounded by government. They made naive promises in the last election campaign on student tuition fees that they couldn’t keep in coalition and saying “sorry” hasn’t restored any credibility to the party or its leader Nick Clegg.
A handful of votes could determine the balance of power, so political pundits are looking around to see who might deliver the numbers and see themselves crowned deal-maker.
Sinn Fein currently has five MPs at Westminster – it has every chance of retaining these and a shot at gaining another three or four. They do not take their seats. Abstention appears to be a sacred principle the party will not alter.
But why hold on to this particular article of republican faith when all others have long been jettisoned for the sake of power and progress?
Until 1986 it was Sinn Fein policy to abstain from the Dáil and Westminster. But the ban on Sinn Fein TDs taking their seats was lifted after Gerry Adams carefully engineered IRA backing for the move, giving the party the signal that it could be done without splitting the movement.
In the theology of Irish republicanism, taking seats in the 26-County parliament is equally heretical to warming the green benches at Westminster. But pragmatic considerations ultimately won the argument.
Those in the party who feared and predicted that such a move would ultimately lead to the end of armed activity, the recognition of the Northern state and the acceptance of British rule have been proven right. But where are they now, and who cares?
Meanwhile Martin McGuinness, the man many believe to have been a key IRA leader during its bloodiest days, went on to join Ian Paisley in government and become a big fan of the British Queen.
That handshake between McGuinness and the Monarch in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre in June 2012 was another example of how the party is willing to stretch its core constituency in order to win a greater share of the nationalist vote – North and South.
The handshake was fraught with difficulties on both sides and initial indications from organisers were that it may happen, but only behind closed doors. Speaking to one of the key people at the time, I was surprised to learn that it was Sinn Fein, and not the Palace, that was nervous about the picture.
I suggested that the party would regret not having the images because it would alienate its hardcore without winning new hearts and minds – if the handshake was to be done, the clear rationale was to have cameras capture the moment.
Nervousness overcome and successful pictures taken, the Queen has since been used by Sinn Fein almost as a mascot for its peaceful intentions. Martin McGuinness has attended a white tie banquet at Windsor Castle and given the Monarch a tour of Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast where many of his colleagues spent time inside. That trip even merited a mention in the Queen’s Christmas address.
The point is, there is no longer anything sacred in Sinn Fein’s version of republicanism. And that’s a good thing. Politics isn’t religion – it’s about the here and now as well as the brighter tomorrow.
If the party applies the same logic it has done since removing the ban on taking Dáil seats in 1986, it will see the sense in ending abstention at Westminster too. Not because it’s likely that they’ll form a coalition with Labour, but because it will give the party a powerful story that could finish its nationalist opposition in the SDLP.
Sinn Fein is targeting the three SDLP seats held by the leader Alastair McDonnell and former leaders Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan. It also has a slim chance of victory in North Belfast where the DUP’s Nigel Dodds is MP and the politics is sectarian and polarised by the parades issue.
A promise to take seats at Westminster and wield republican power would electrify the election. The party wants to be the biggest in the Stormont Assembly after 2016. It has the chance to be the biggest Northern Ireland party at Westminster this year.
It’s long been predicted that Sinn Fein could take power in government both North and South in time for the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Westminster might yet provide the hat trick.