Taking their seats at Westminster would be a high risk U-turn for Sinn Fein

Noel Whelan  in the Irish Times  today repeats  the case for Sinn Fein to take their seats at Westminster  – but only after a general election for which the end of abstention would be in their manifesto. This differs from the plea by the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee who recently wrote that

..the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, ventured to call on the party on Wednesday to take up their six – soon to be seven – Westminster seats “to make things better for Ireland”. He’s right: this should be their heroic moment to step up to rescue their country, north and south. The Irish Labour party joined the call on them to “defend the interests of Ireland”. If only they could mutter the loyal oath (they could always rescind it later) they would arrive in parliament as a cavalry of saviours of Ireland – and incidentally Britain. As a counterweight to the Democratic Unionist party votes, they could ensure a soft enough Brexit with customs union and single market to keep the border open. They need only appear for the few crucial votes that would stop the Brexiters wrecking Irish prospects – then they can retreat again as noble deliverers of their nation.

Toynbee’s is  at heart a self serving UK argument, an attempt to play a green card rather than an orange one and was predictably rejected.  Whelan’s  focus is Irish  He contends that abandoning absentionism is intrinsic to the development of the Irish state since de Valera ended it in 1927 when the newly formed Fianna Fail took their seats in the Dail after splitting from the wreckage of the original Sinn Fein over which he had presided.

The weakness of Whelan’s argument is that this is an Irish not a British  precedent.  For me the relevant precedent is the original one, when the newly elected Sinn Fein MPs refused to take their seats at Westminster in 1918 and went on  to form the Dail. This was using parliamentary means to make revolutionary change. (In  my book it made the whole war of independence unnecessary but that’s another story).

In his recent history of the period Charles Townshend coins the brilliant phrase, “ the imagined state” of  the Republic,  the vision  that was  emotional driver for refusing  all recognition to British state institutions in areas they increasingly  controlled  followed by attempts to create a “counter state.” This strategy strengthened Sinn Fein’s hand throughout the 26 counties and helped to wear down the British will to remain. True, it was accompanied by intimidation but  it could probably  have succeeded without it. The refusal  to recognise the then still obvious fact of British rule was an imagined reality that in time became actual. This implacable approach still features in republican behaviour and ideology today. Abstention from Westminster is embedded in it.

The betrayal of the vision of the Republic in the eyes of hardliners only enhances its appeal with modern Sinn Fein. Today they can afford to indulge its memory along  with its living legacy of abstentionism, while in reality  relying on the far more compelling appeal of a modern Ireland reconciled with Britain that their heroes did so much to thwart and delay.

By comparison, even setting aside principle, gambling on the state of Westminster politics after a forced general election looks very risky. Even supposing Labour was the largest single party – a moot point – what would be the most 6 or 7 Sinn Fein MPs could hope to achieve if they held the balance of power along with assorted SNP, Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru?   Full alignment with the EU for Northern Ireland?  Would the Nats buy that without similar concessions for pro-Remain Scotland? Would enough Labour and Conservative MPs then join together to” save the Union” on the negotiated terms with the EU?

For Sinn Fein a pledge from Labour government to hold a border poll would be non-negotiable.   Legally the government would still have to show by means still to be determined and agreed, that there was a likely majority in the North in favour of a poll. If they could do that, why would they need to take their seats at Westminster?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London