Abstentionism lends itself to British involvement in Irish affairs

Colin McGrath is the SDLP Chief Whip and MLA for South Down

Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy, no matter the size of its mandate, like all party policy positions, is not above criticism.

The catastrophe that is Brexit has awoken a new era in political history. Its implications will be far-reaching and its affects will be felt long after we exit the European Union. Any political party that has the power to change the course of this impending shipwreck should, and any unwillingness to do so is not above reproach.

Back in March, Sinn Fein MP Paul Maskey defended his party’s abstentionist position in the Guardian with an article entitled ‘This is why I won’t go to Westminster, even over Brexit’. Whilst accurately pointing out that ‘the interest of the Irish people have rarely been the concern of the British Government’, his rationale for staying away for this reason does not stack up and once you start to peel back the layers of hard line rhetoric, is inconsistent with a considerable softening of Sinn Fein’s position in regards to British involvement in Irish affairs. You only have to go back a few short months to recall Máirtín Ó Muilleoir’s comments regarding Sinn Fein’s ‘relaxed’ attitude towards British direct rule through the delivering of a Tory budget for the North in the absence of a functioning Assembly and Executive.

Sinn Fein stand on an abstentionist ticket. They make no secret of it. No one is disputing that. But in a democracy anyone should be free to question this policy, especially at such a critical time when the influence of Sinn Fein’s seven MPs in protecting the people of Ireland against a hard border and the dangerous alliance of Tory hard Brexiteers and the DUP is so significant.

Politics is about hard choices; a tough balancing act between the right thing and the popular thing. On Monday night Theresa May lost her nerve, and her cowardice lent to her own future rather than the future of the people of these islands.

Most shameful of all, the British Government with the help of the DUP has allowed the mishandling of Brexit to kick lumps out of the Good Friday Agreement. As we edge closer to crashing out of the European Union with no-deal, the inevitability of a hard border on this island becomes ever more probable day by day.

Sinn Fein once had an abstentionist policy in respect of the Dail and Stormont. They reversed that. They for a long time said no to power-sharing and for an even longer time were opposed to the European Union. They reversed both of those policies. They said no to exclusively peaceful democratic means of achieving change, then reversed that. They said no to any welfare cuts but reversed that.

Westminster abstentionism is one of a number of reasons why people vote Sinn Fein. Very few people vote for them purely and solely on this issue. And one of the facts Sinn Fein aren’t too quick to publicise, is that in the only election to take place in this new context, given the important role of Westminster in delivering Brexit, there was a 10% swing from Sinn Fein to the SDLP.

The hysteria with which Sinn Fein has reacted to any questioning of this policy and for details of how it is serving Ireland’s interests at such a critical time shows they are clearly rattled on this issue.

Sinn Fein has changed policy before and I’ve spoken with Sinn Fein voters and even one elected member who has indicated that they think it is time to change on this one too.