In 2015 there were numerous news stories and debates about the possibility of Sinn Féin ending its abstentionist policy partly fuelled by a belief that the election might produce a hung parliament.
This time around the airing of those arguments have lessened significantly. The polls predict a Tory majority. However the SDLP believe its still a republican weak spot to target every time a Westminster election is called. An area that puts clear blue water between the two parties. In response to Michelle O’Neill’s call for them to stand aside in Fermanagh & South Tyrone and North Belfast recently Colum Eastwood retorted :
“There’s no point running for election if you aren’t going to take your seat.”
The operation of the Assembly for the past decade has no doubt lessened the influence (and in a lot of cases the public profile) of the MPs flying over the Irish Sea. The only development that could affect that would be if the Assembly’s powers were to return to London for a prolonged period.
Interestingly Martin McGuinness took an unsuccessful case to the European Court of Human Rights in 1999 challenging the oath after the Commons Speaker banned Sinn Féin from using parliamentary facilities.
Irish Republicans will not take an oath or an affirmation to the Queen. Its just not going to happen. And that oath will not be removed either. The Westminster ceremony has its own spin-offs in the Scottish Parliament () and elsewhere. That love of tradition and archaic practices runs deep. If English republicans that have took their seats in the Commons over many decades have not been able to secure the removal of the oath then what chance Irish republicans and nationalists? None.
Watching elected politicians take an oath to the monarch after stating directly before taking the pledge the complete opposite, or mumbling it shows the process up for the farce that it is.
Trying to force a freshly elected representative to betray their mandate by pledging allegiance to a completely different ideology is frightfully undemocratic and archaic. Could you imagine if unionists were asked to swear an oath of allegiance to the Irish President and all his successors before taking their seats in the Assembly? Unionist MLAs would refuse to do it. There would be uproar. So why is it justifiable to thrust a royalist oath on even English republicans?
Of course the Irish abstentionist tradition is about more than just the oath / affirmation.
Ultimately republicans want to take their seats in Dublin not London. Today this is no longer a pipe-dream, certainly in regard to MPs sitting in the Dáil with speaking rights if not voting rights.
The next Dáil election has to be held within 4 years (if its not called long before!) It represents the best opportunity Sinn Féin have had of entering a coalition government if they decide to take it.
In any coalition programme for government that Sinn Féin enters into northern MPs being given their place (and a credible role) in the Dáil chamber should be a redline issue.
In theory this means that the choice of sitting in Dublin – not London – could be put before the incoming cohort of MPs that we elect next month.
Given the fluid political environment created by Brexit the chances of such a proposal being agreed by the other Dail parties has increased significantly.
Whenever northern MPs are given the option of taking a seat in Dublin rather than London the abstention issue for nationalism / republicanism will be put to bed because MPs will be sitting in a parliament – just not Westminster. A role that would evolve with time.
Constituents from Derry, from Belfast and Newry will be able to go to Dublin and sit in the public chamber to listen to their MPs and meet them to discuss relevant issues of concern. This could prove to be an important position now that Article 50 has been triggered and the island awaits an uncertain political and economic outcome.
Nationalists, republicans and indeed others will see Westminster elections as an exercise that elects their representatives in the Dáil. Sooner or later, that is the inevitable conclusion to the abstention debate.