Brian Feeney: Calling for Sinn Féin to end abstentionism is a distraction from the big picture

There’s only one direction of travel, and it’s not towards Westminster

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

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

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

I’m afraid, Alex, you’re concentrating on what the Greeks called ‘adiaphora’ – inessentials, matters of indifference.

You’re also confusing tactics with principles, as indeed a lot of Irish republicans did during the Troubles.

Thus, insurrectionary violence isn’t a principle of Irish republicanism, though you could be forgiven for thinking it is. On the contrary, as soon as a political path became available to them, republican leaders looked for a way to end the armed struggle.

A political path to what, you might ask. Very simple, Alex, the core aim of republicanism and something you missed entirely: self-determination for the Irish people.

You see, republicans regard this place as the last remnant of England’s first settler colony, a place which England (and it is still England) annexed and has no right to rule.

English governments have consistently blocked Irish self-determination, most obviously in 1919 after the overwhelming vote for independence. In his masterly book Fatal Path: British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-22, Ronan Fanning concluded: “There is no shred of evidence that Lloyd George’s Tory-dominated government would have moved beyond the 1914-style limitations of the Government of Ireland Act 1920.”

Sir John Lavery's portraits of Anglo Irish Treaty signatories Michael Collins, David Lloyd George and Arthur Griffith
Sir John Lavery's portraits of Anglo-Irish Treaty signatories Michael Collins, David Lloyd George and Arthur Griffith

The idea put about by neo-Redmondites like John Bruton that 70-plus Sinn Féin MPs turning up in Westminster could have halted partition is nonsense.

The paradox is that Ulster Unionists want self-determination too, but retain touching faith in the belief that clinging to the coat-tails of England somehow secures their position. It doesn’t and it won’t because the English won’t ever again allow unionists to run the north.

Contrary to what you claim, Alex, unionists have got nothing from attending Westminster. Oh yes, you can point to the odd piece of legislation but it’s that word again, ‘adiaphora’.

On anything that mattered to unionists’ hopes of self-determination (aka being in charge of the north), they got nathin, zilch, nada.

Secretary of State Tom King (centre) and Tánaiste Dick Spring look on as Margaret Thatcher and Garrett Fitzgerald sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985
Taking seats at Westminster didn't stop the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985

Did attending Westminster stop the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, Irish civil servants in Maryfield, the 1993 Downing Street Declaration of “no selfish strategic or economic interest” here?

Unionists even tried abstaining from parliament for a while in 1986, refused to speak to English ministers, boycotted talks. To what end?

You mention the DUP’s influence 2017-2019. Did you keep a straight face when you wrote that? For all their serf-like toadying and boot licking, did they secure a hard British border in Ireland? Did they stop the Irish Sea border? Or did they split their own party?

Boris Johnson was guest speaker at the DUP annual conference in 2018. Picture by Arthur Allison/Pacemaker Press
Did cosying up to the Tories stop them imposing an Irish Sea border on unionists?

We’ll return to unionists in a couple of hundred words but going back to republicans’ aims and objectives, it’s necessary to look at their difficulties.

First, with the Rising and the War of Independence as dominant exemplars, any departure from the methods and prevailing theology would provoke a split. Some of the protagonists settled a political argument by letting air into people’s skulls.

Secondly, because of their association with subversion, republicans faced proscription, particularly in the north where Sinn Féin was banned in the 1960s. They had to call themselves Republican Clubs.

The turning point was the election of Bobby Sands to Fermanagh/South Tyrone, which proved to republicans they had a massive political constituency, for hunger strikers were also elected in the south. Sinn Féin leaders immediately seized the chance to use the political strength they realised was available, psyched the SDLP into abstaining from Prior’s 1982 assembly, won West Belfast in 1983 and so on and on into councils and the Dáil.

Bobby Sands died on hunger strike on May 5 1981
Bobby Sands was elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone before dying on hunger strike on May 5 1981

Now, here’s the thing. Councils, the Dáil, Brussels and the 1998 assembly are all different from Westminster, which to republicans is the seat of the colonial power.

Running the north, which Sinn Féin is, and will be doing, is completely different from being a powerless MP. More importantly, if, as republicans believe, England has no business in Irish affairs, on what basis should Irish politicians interfere in English affairs?

Furthermore, the Good Friday Agreement mentions ‘equal’ or ‘equality’ 28 times, embodies rights for all people on the island, but crucially establishes a mechanism for securing self-determination, a referendum. Westminster has no role in that. “It is for the people of the island of Ireland alone… without external impediment.”

There’s only one direction of travel, Alex, and it ain’t towards Westminster

There’s only one direction of travel, Alex, and it ain’t towards Westminster. As you must know, the English would be delighted to leave here and this is where unionists come back into play again. Unionist leaders will inevitably have to negotiate the terms of their own self-determination on the island on equal terms with the rest of the people on the island, not hide in Westminster, the plaything of Conservatives, eternally paranoid about the next inevitable betrayal.

As a rapidly diminishing minority, the only way for unionists to feel secure in their own future is to take their destiny in their own hands and seal a deal under the guaranteed rights in the Good Friday Agreement. It will be their deal, not one cobbled together for them by a British government they don’t trust and anxious to get rid of them.

So you see, Alex, abstention as a bone of contention is a matter of indifference. It has nothing to do with the big picture. Republicans keep their eye on the ball.