Alex Kane: Time has come for Sinn Féin to take its seats in Westminster

Ending of abstentionist positions has been key to emerging as dominant voice of both nationalism and republicanism

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

Alex Kane is an Irish News columnist and political commentator and a former director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party.

The House of Commons returns from its Christmas break on Monday (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)
What damage would be done to Sinn Féin if its elected MPs ended their policy of abstention and sat on the opposition benches in the House of Commons? (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

Alex Kane replies to Brian Feeny’s column from today on Sinn Féin’s abstentionism at Westminster

Like you, Brian, I’m old enough to remember when Sinn Féin took the abstentionist approach to just about every assembly or parliament you could think of in Ireland – before and after partition.

I understand why. Let’s face it, when you believe that your country is under a force or structure of occupation, then why would you either be members of or cooperate with institutions which clearly – or so you believed – underpinned that occupation?

But things change and as they change then so do your long-term strategies and tactics. Non-participation and cooperation – especially if they have gone on for decades – need to be reassessed.

You have to decide if the ‘purity’ of your abstention is actually serving the cause you claim to be representing. In other words, are you better off making at least part of your case from the inside rather than always staring inwards through the windows?

Indeed, isn’t there an argument to be made that your very presence in places you’ve absented yourself from for decades can, in fact, become the catalyst for the institutional/constitutional changes you are seeking?

Jim Prior has died aged 89. Picture by Michael Stephens, Press Association 
Former Secretary of State Jim Prior

How did you feel in 1982, Brian, when Sinn Féin decided to contest the elections for Jim Prior’s ‘rolling devolution’ assembly? Fair enough, the party still fought on an abstentionist policy (as did the SDLP on that occasion), but it was an enormous step forward in terms of strategy. A step that was later added to by the end of abstention in the Dáil, the European Parliament, local councils and eventually in the 1998 Assembly.

Did the ending of the abstentionist policy do Sinn Féin any real damage in terms of electoral support or political/negotiating influence? No. Quite the opposite, in fact. In Northern Ireland it paved the way for its eventual eclipsing of the SDLP and ongoing rise to where it is now.

By the mid-1990s Sinn Féin knew – even if it never said so in public – that it would have no serious role to play in the peace process if it wasn’t clear that it would be taking its seats in any new institutions. If it really was coming in from the democratic cold then that would mean taking seats and ministerial office in any new assembly and executive. Once that became clear, its own base backed it and it also added new support from both the SDLP and previously habitual non-voters.

Sinn Fein Fermanagh South Tyrone candidate Pat Cullen with Michelle O'Neill and Michelle Gildernew
Sinn Fein Fermanagh South Tyrone candidate Pat Cullen with First Minister Michelle O'Neill and outgoing MP Michelle Gildernew

In Northern Ireland, the ending of abstention was the key to emerging as the dominant voice of both nationalism and republicanism. And that’s because its base recognised that sitting in Stormont, in an executive with the DUP, governing this part of the United Kingdom and agreeing legislation that required royal assent, was neither a betrayal of old principles nor an obstacle to eventual Irish unity.

It was abstention which would have been the obstacle. In the same way that abstention would have prevented the rise of the party in the south in terms of a pathway into government.

There is only so far you can go by winning votes but not taking seats. Sinn Féin recognised that in Brussels, Belfast, Dublin and local councils. More important, the vast majority of republicanism and nationalism has recognised it too, and endorsed it in elections.

It doesn’t mean that Sinn Féin won’t have other electoral problems to contend with (which may become apparent at local/Euro elections this weekend), but it does means that it is taken more seriously now than in the days when it remained on the outside.

Newly elected MP for Tiverton and Honiton, Richard Foord, swearing the oath of allegiance to the Queen, in the House of Commons
Newly-elected MPs swear an oath of allegiance to the King on entering the House of Commons (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA)

So, Brian, what about the one place where the abstentionist policy still applies? What damage would be done to Sinn Féin if its elected MPs sat on the opposition benches in the House of Commons?

It clearly didn’t do any damage to the SNP (although it has home-grown problems), a nationalist party which has had one ‘border poll’ and is pushing for another. Its MPs take the oath of allegiance, as do quite a few constitutional republicans from the Labour ranks and some smaller parties and independents. Sinn Féin’s leadership is practically on first name terms with the King for goodness sake.

It’s a nonsense to say that small parties don’t have influence in the Commons. They can. They do. Look at the DUP, for example, propping up a UK government between 2017-2019.

Have a look at the parliamentary mathematics in that period if the Sinn Féin MPs had been taking their seats. Look too, at the influence a powerful, passionate speaker can make in the Commons: someone like Pat Cullen, assuming she wins a seat.

In Northern Ireland, the ending of abstention was the key to emerging as the dominant voice of both nationalism and republicanism

And if, as Sinn Féin insist, a border poll is inevitable, then why shy away from the critical challenge of shaping the debate and maybe legislation inside as well as outside.

My view – admittedly an odd one for a unionist (although, like you, Brian, I cherish my oddity) – is that the ending of abstention elsewhere has worked for Sinn Féin. It learned a lot from taking seats, not least the everyday realities of hands-on governance.

The party has no particular interest in the UK. Fair enough. But I’m sure it could still benefit from the experiences that only somewhere like the House of Commons can bring.

Right now, this remaining abstentionism just looks churlish.