Any debate about Sinn Féin’s Westminster abstention policy tends to cover no new ground. It always starts with someone – most recently Polly Toynbee – suggesting that SF should take their seats to pursue some common, worthwhile objective, in this case, that of blunting the sharp edges of brexit. It ends with SF supporters asserting that (a) it is a key republican principle that can’t be easily argued away; (b) that the party has a clear mandate to abstain from Westminster; and (c) nothing gets done in Westminster anyway.
Generally, this debate is a waste of time; it’s a matter for SF, and their voters, to decide what they want, and a matter for other parties to propose an alternative which wins support. And, so far, SF’s mandate on the matter is unambiguous.
Having said that, I find the idea that SF’s supporters would refuse to swallow this watering down of principle rather hard to accept. These are supporters who have stood by the party for over 20 years as it trampled underfoot Irish republican orthodoxy on national self-determination, on abstention from Stormont and the Dáil, on an “internal solution”, “not one ounce, not one bullet”, the requirement for a ban on plastic bullets prior to supporting policing (remember that?), the refusal to acknowledge the Queen or other members of the royal family, or on attending commemorations for WW1/WW2 etc. Most recently they have walked back manifesto commitments such as the demand that Arlene Foster resign, and their own historic pro-life policy – in both cases doing so without seeking a renewed electoral mandate.
The real reason why the policy will not change is a more simple calculation : SF stand to lose face, with a certain amount of risk, with nothing gained in return. That’s why no political commentator with a passing familiarity with Northern Irish politics would predict that abstention will end at any time in the near future.
But how could this change ? I recently read an interesting angle on this subject from an old internet acquaintance, @Julian__West, on Facebook. In a discussion about recent comments by Leo Varadkar suggesting that SF should take their seats to thwart brexit, and in doing so serve the Irish national interest, Julian observed that Leo would have been well aware that SF would not take up this idea. Rather, Leo’s comments were aimed at establishing in the minds of the southern electorate that SF will put ideological principles, and narrow electoral concerns, over the Irish national interest. Dutifully, SF fell into the trap, with a spokesperson reaffirming that there were no plans to end the policy – exactly as Leo intended.
This is all water off a duck’s back to Northern nationalists who won’t be fazed in the slightest by this argument. But Leo wasn’t speaking to them. His message is aimed at any voter considering switching their vote to Sinn Féin in a future Dáil election.
In order to fulfil its ambition of being a viable coalition partner in an Irish government in the near future, Sinn Féin needs more votes. It will need to collect votes from former Labour and Fianna Fáil voters in particular. These are voters who are used to a more conventional political culture where manifesto commitments are necessarily flexible (sometimes a little too flexible – but that is a different debate) and where political dogma is not so easy to sell.
Outside of the straitjacket of tribal politics that frustrates serious political debate in the North, such voters might not so easily understand why a party, faced with an opportunity to take action to stop a future calamity, would refuse to do so and instead choose to take a high-minded stand on a principle. That party would be painted by the other Dáil parties as being unfit for government by dint of its desire to prioritise narrow electoral interests rather than taking tough decisions in a time of crisis. Due consideration must be given to the political backdrop of the past decade, where the Irish electorate has shown itself amenable to the idea that building a successful and prosperous modern state requires hard choices, belt tightening, and a willingness to roll up sleeves and get hands dirty.
How likely is it that Sinn Féin will be faced with this possibility ? The answer is “not very”, which is a small but perceptible distance away from “never”.
With Sinn Féin voting with the Opposition in the Commons chamber, a total of 5 or so Conservative MPs voting against the Prime Minister in a motion of no confidence would be all that it would take to bring an end to Theresa May’s government and open up the likelihood of a general election leading to a Corbyn administration. Corbyn’s recent commitment to maintain access to a customs union and aspects of the single market is clearly far more favourable to Ireland, north and south. Even Gerry Adams felt, for the first time, that it was appropriate to place on the record his opinion that he would like to see Corbyn as the next PM.
This sounds simple, until you consider that there is no recent precedent for a UK Prime Minister losing a vote of no confidence at the hands of rebels inside his or her own parliamentary party. Jim Callaghan was removed from office in 1979 when he lost the support of the SNP. Prior to that, you have to go back to the Ramsay McDonald ministry of 1923-24. McDonald’s was a minority government to start with; it voluntarily resigned when the Liberal and Conservative parties voted together to inquire into the Campbell affair, when accusations of communist influence in the Labour Party were being bandied about. The circumstances where even a small number of MPs would act to remove their own Prime Minister would be an extraordinary development – although arguably, we are in extraordinary times, and rebel MPs may argue it to be in the overriding public interest to allow voters to have their say on the progress of brexit discussions to date.
The other sequence of events that could happen is much more complex. These would involve SF entering the Commons at certain critical stages to support amendments to the Brexit bill. Such amendments would be significantly more likely to attract the support of Conservative rebels. This is offset by the risk of certain pro-brexit Labour MPs voting with the Conservative whip.
The political risks for Sinn Féin over abstention are therefore isolated to a limited range of hypothetical circumstances which are unlikely to occur but will involve high stakes if they do. It is difficult to anticipate ahead of time how a Commons vote will go and whether or not there will be a sufficiently sized government rebellion. The party would end up embarrassed if it abandoned abstention but then found itself unable to make a difference in a Commons vote. Conversely, if an attempt to water down or stop brexit fails due to SF’s missing six votes, Dáil parties will spare no effort to ensure that prospective SF voters are aware that the party chose not to lift a finger to stop British parliamentary extremists from inflicting a calamity on Ireland.
I won’t predict the end of abstention for now, but I’ll wager that SF’s leadership are alive to the risks, and are keeping themselves well informed about the direction of travel among the Opposition MPs.