Northern Ireland

Why do Sinn Fein not take their seats in Westminster? Party’s abstentionist policy explained

The party has never sat in the House of Commons

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You will not find any Sinn Fein MPs sitting on the green benches of the House of Commons.

Sinn Féin candidates at this year’s election will not take their seats in Westminster.

Despite winning 7 of the 18 seats in 2019, they have run on a policy known as abstentionism at Westminster elections for over 100 years.

What is abstentionism?

Abstentionism is a policy where candidates stand for an election to a parliament or assembly but refuse to take their seats or participate.

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It has been most widely used by Sinn Féin MPs, but inspiration was taken from Hungary during the second half of the 19th century.

How did Hungary inspire Sinn Féin?

In the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution in 1848, the Austrian Empire abolished the Hungarian parliament and provided seats for Hungarians on their Imperial Council.

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy with party  candidates during the party  Manifesto launch in Belfast on Wednesday.
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy alongside Westminster candidates at the launch of the party's manifesto. If elected, these MPs will not sit in the House of Commons. (PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN)

Hungary refused to send representatives believing that their own parliament should be restored.

As a result of this, their parliament was restored in the Compromise of 1867 as part of a dual monarchy in Austria-Hungary.

When did Sinn Féin adopt abstentionism?

Sinn Féin founder, Arthur Griffith, was directly inspired by what had happened in Hungary and developed a policy based on it in the early 1900s.

The first abstentionist MP was George Noble Plunkett in 1917 – while not a Sinn Féin candidate when standing for election, he became one later that year.

And at the 1918 Westminster election, Sinn Féin candidates that were elected refused to take their seats – they went on to establish the first Dáil in Dublin.

After partition, Sinn Féin candidates in the north have continued to not sit in Westminster.

Why do Sinn Féin practise abstentionism?

Put simply, Sinn Féin does not recognise the authority of the British government over Northern Ireland.

They refuse to swear the parliamentary oath of allegiance to the Crown, which is required in order to sit in the Commons.

They also do not view themselves as British MPs and believe that the entirety of Ireland should have decisions made for it in Ireland.

Voters elect Sinn Féin candidates on this basis.

Nationalist rivals the SDLP do not practise abstentionism and have criticised the policy during this election campaign.