1 March 2019 Edition
Active abstentionism is a step towards Irish unity
In the crisis around Brexit one constant theme to emerge has been the demand from our political opponents that Sinn Féin abandon our abstentionist approach to the British Parliament. This is despite the reality that the numbers game at Westminster clearly means that the votes of the seven Sinn Féin MPs would have no impact on the outcome of any Brexit vote.
However, this hasn’t stopped Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and the SDLP lining up to demand that Sinn Féin MPs should break our pledge to the electorate, take the Oath of Allegiance to the English Queen, and support a British Conservative government that is in serious breach of its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement. A Tory government which – through its confidence and supply agreement - bolsters the DUP’s anti-democratic policies which collapsed the power sharing government at Stormont.
The reality is of course that none of these parties are really concerned about abstentionism. This is all tactical. It’s part of the game playing by political opponents who hope to damage outstanding with the electorate and to see off the challenge they increasingly realise Sinn Féin poses to their narrow conservative policies – north and south.
If Sinn Féin MPs did what they demand, and stand their principles on their head, dishonouring their commitments to the electorate, taking our seats, these parties would be among the first to claim that Sinn Féin can’t be trusted to keep its word.
So, let’s deal with the realpolitik. The Westminster elections in 2017 produced a historic result for Sinn Féin. We achieved our largest vote ever of 238,915 or 29.1%, and won seven seats – an increase of three.
As the results emerged the Dublin establishment parties cynically turned their attention to attacking our abstentionist approach to Westminster. It was as if they were hearing about this for the first time. The reality is that in the seven weeks of the campaign the SDLP, which had the leaders and members of all of the southern establishment parties campaigning for it, used every opportunity to raise the issue of abstentionism.
Sinn Féin’s refusal to take seats in Westminster became a key issue for the SDLP as it tried to claim that its presence in the British House of Commons had made a difference. It obviously thought that abstentionism would be a negative for Sinn Féin in the election. Every broadcast interview by a Sinn Féin candidate saw this issue exhaustively examined as some elements of the media rowed in behind the SDLP position.
The first problem for the SDLP was in its failure to produce anything of substance to bolster its claim of making a difference sitting in the British Parliament. The widely shared social media video imagery of the three SDLP MPs affirming allegiance to the English Queen and her successors also had its effect.
On June 8th the nationalist/republican voters saw through this nonsense. They chose to support Sinn Féin. Our vote increased in every constituency. The nationalist electorate made a choice. They voted for the active abstentionism of Sinn Féin and against the pointless participation of the SDLP at Westminster. The nationalist/republican people of the North conclusively turned their back on Westminster.
One SDLP representative even went so far as to evoke the names of Daniel O’Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt as examples of successful participation in Westminster. The reality is that all of these leaders failed to achieve their primary political objectives. O’Connell failed to secure the Repeal of the Union and Parnell failed to achieve Home Rule.
Michael Davitt was so exasperated with the British system that when he withdrew from the British Parliament in October 1899 he declared: "I have for years tried to appeal to the sense of justice in this House of Commons on behalf of Ireland. I leave, convinced that no just cause, no cause of right, will ever find support from this House of Commons unless it is backed up by force."
This was 17 years before the 1916 Rising. Two years after the Rising and following the 1918 election, the Sinn Féin MPs abstained from Westminster and established the First Dáil. This was not just about the taking of an oath of allegiance to an English Queen. That was certainly part of the equation. But the key issue was and is one of sovereignty.
To take seats in Westminster requires that a successful Irish republican MP accepts that the British state has the right to sovereignty over Ireland or a part of the island. It also means that their first political act as an MP is to take the oath which states:“I … swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to Law. So help me God.”
Let me be very clear. I am an Irish republican. I believe in the sovereignty of the Irish people. I am against monarchies and elites of all kinds. As the MP for west Belfast I was very proud to represent all of the people of west Belfast for decades. Those who voted for me in election after election saw no disadvantage in my being an active abstentionist. Paul Maskey increased that vote taking over twenty-seven thousand votes.
Active abstentionism is about energetically representing citizens. It’s about working with those citizens as equals and empowering communities to effectively fight for their rights, whether they be cultural rights, economic, national or political rights. Sinn Féin has an unparalleled reputation for effective constituency representation.
• Is Micheál Martin telling us if his party stands candidates in the North, and they are successful, they will take the Oath to the English Queen?
We have also been diligently and steadily building an all-Ireland movement for equality and unity. Our MPs attend the Good Friday Agreement Committee in the Dáil. They join 27 Sinn Féin TDs and Seanadóirí and twenty seven MLAs. They will be actively backed by our all-Ireland team of MEPs who are showing great leadership, particularly and importantly on the issue of Brexit and the need for designated special status for the North.
The building of this all-Ireland movement and strong representation by Sinn Féin across the island, including in councils, will continue in the time ahead, beyond the distractions of temporary alliances between the DUP and the English Tories.
In the late 1990s we discovered that abstentionist MPs could avail of facilities at Westminster to represent their constituents. This was to accommodate English republicans or others who were against the Oath. We sought a mandate for active abstentionism and were given the use of offices and other resources in Westminster. We have utilised these since then to fulfil our mandate despite efforts by some to deny us and our voters these entitlements.
After the 1997 Westminster election, in which Martin McGuinness and I were elected for Mid Ulster and west Belfast, the Speaker of the British Parliament, Betty Boothroyd, banned us from the facilities unless we took the Oath of Allegiance. That was overturned five years later, although periodically Conservative and Unionist MPs still raise the issue. Sinn Féin MPs contrary to some inaccurate reporting do not receive a Westminster salary.
Sinn Féin fundamentally differs from the Dublin establishment parties on many issues. This includes our commitment to Irish national self-determination; to the unity and sovereignty of this island and the ending of partition. Their demand that Sinn Féin MPs should take the Oath of Allegiance and accept British sovereignty has nothing to do with what is good for the people of the North, or for those who voted for us on the basis of our abstentionist position; it is about trying to do what the SDLP failed to do – present Sinn Féin as a party that refuses to represent its electorate.
Fianna Fáil especially has a short memory. Its founding leaders stood on a platform of abolishing the British oath to the Dáil. The war cry was ‘Dismiss the Imperialists – Abolish the Oath – Vote for the Fianna Fáil candidates – One Allegiance Only.’
Is Micheál Martin now telling us that if his party ever stands candidates in the North, and they are successful, that they will take the Oath to the English Queen? What kind of Irish leader of a party which claims to be ‘The Republican Party’ would ask Irish men and women to ignore their electoral mandate; swear loyalty to the English Queen, or legitimise the British Parliament's role in Ireland? Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour should end their abstentionist policy in respect of the North, come off the side-lines and onto the pitch, and allow their parties to stand candidates in northern elections and seek a mandate from the people.
Next May 24th will give them all a chance to catch up on progressive public opinion. On that date southern voters will get to vote to allow others living outside the state a vote in future Presidential elections. Sinn Féin will campaign and welcome such a development.
In the meantime those MPs who want to, should have speaking rights in the Dáil, without voting rights, as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern promised over 20 years ago.
The Southern parties should also, as they are constitutionally obliged, plan for a new shared Ireland. They could do this by the Oireachtas or the Government convening an all-island and diaspora wide consultation process, including consultative conventions to discuss how a shared Ireland can be built in an inclusive way. In keeping with the Good Friday Agreement this involves a referendum on Irish unity. The Taoiseach has a duty to plan for this now.
• Gerry Adams is a Sinn Féin TD for Louth.