Imagine a scene from May 2018, the month rather than the Prime Minister, if she still holds such a position then. After a year of running a minority government within a hung parliament, the tide of popular opinion has firmly turned away from the Conservatives. The slide that began with the 2017 General Election has been exacerbated by lack of direction regarding a Brexit negotiating strategy, and the bitter pinch of austerity policies without end. Worse, the DUP's demands for maintaining a de facto coalition are becoming more ridiculous by the minute, and endangering the fragile peace process that exists across the water.
The time is right for Jeremy Corbyn to marshal a progressive alliance into action and call for a vote of No Confidence in the government, buoyed by a series of successes in by-elections brought about through resignations in the Conservative Party. At this point, Theresa May's government still holds 312 seats and the DUP 10, but with the support of seven abstentionist Sinn Féin MPs, the No Confidence measure could succeed. In such a scenario, would they take their seats and if not, why not, given that a Corbyn government might well give them their cherished border poll and help bring an end to the austerity policies they claim to abhor?
If they said no in such a scenario, then where would that leave prospects for the re-unified island that they desire, and how would it square with their anti-austerity platform in the south of Ireland? Theoretically, Sinn Féin believe that Ireland should be united as one country and no British government can claim sovereignty over Irish affairs. Thus, despite having had MPs elected in almost every General Election since 1983, Sinn Féin politicians have refused to take an oath of allegiance to the monarch and sit in Parliament. Other Republicans too, such as the hunger striker Bobby Sands and his election agent Owen Carron, have adopted the same strategy, which originates at the very foundations of Sinn Féin as an organisation. Arthur Griffith, the first leader of the movement, enacted a strategy of Irish MPs abstaining from taking seats in Parliament at a time when there were enough of them in the house to make a significant statement with their very public absence.
Such a policy of abstentionism was originally intended to draw attention to Ireland's demand for Home Rule, at a point of over one hundred MPs elected to the British Parliament from the island of Ireland. In light of such numbers, those empty seats could serve as a powerful reminder of the Irish demand for self-determination. Today's parliamentary arithmetic is very different, with only 18 MPs elected from the six counties of Ireland that remain under British rule. As such, Sinn Féin's absence and continuing policy of abstention goes largely unnoticed by the British public except at times such as now, with seven MPs in a hung parliament.
Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Féin, has repeatedly argued that the party sees the island of Ireland as being its "political centre of gravity" and therefore will not sit in a British Parliament. However, the party already takes its seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, based in Stormont, and seems more than happy to claim hundreds of thousands of pounds in Westminster expenses even though its MPs cannot claim a salary unless they take the oath of allegiance. To many outsiders this stance seems hypocritical, wanting nothing off the British other than their money - though the DUP's alleged demand for 2 billion pounds as the price of coalition suggests that the Northern Irish parties have more in common than they think. Reduced to the crudest of questions, why is it okay to take the Queen's money, but not undertake the key duties of the role that they are effectively being paid for without taking their seats?
Surely, if a scenario such as a Vote of No Confidence arose, Sinn Féin would have to consider abandoning a tactic that belongs to the politics of a century ago rather than the here and now. One option to help them on this journey might be the removal of the oath of allegiance. Already, in the Stormont Assembly where there is no oath required, provisions are made for members to make a pledge of being faithful to principles of good governance. This includes a commitment to non-violence, and adherence to a Ministerial Code of Conduct. Why then can something similar not be used in the Houses of Parliament? In its most literal interpretation, forcing politicians to take such an oath effectively excludes republicans of any type from participation in the affairs of the state. If Britain sees itself as a modern cradle of freedom, democracy and multiculturalism, why is there an enforcement of such an archaic rule in the 21st Century?
That aside though, Sinn Féin needs to decide whether or not in this day and age, the national question is the single most important issue that has to be addressed. We no longer live in the days of Arthur Griffith and the Republicans who fought for Irish independence in the first decades of the twentieth century. Today's Ireland is a modern state locked into complex legal relationships with its neighbours, and holding none of the economic independence that Griffith, for example, believed to be essential. Ireland is a part of the European Union and its single currency area, as well as being locked into a complex legal agreement with Britain regarding the long term status of Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin themselves are amongst the key signatories of that 1998 Belfast Agreement in which they accept that for unity to occur there needs to be consent from the British minority on the island.
Unfortunately for many of us who would like to see a United Ireland, there is no realistic chance of that happening immediately. Right now, Sinn Féin have seven MPs who could make a major difference to the arithmetic of a hung Parliament in which the two main issues are Brexit and the fight against austerity. If those seven MPs were to take their seats, the proposed coalition between the Conservatives and the DUP would be on even shakier ground than it is already, unlikely to see out the autumn term when further muddled by Brexit negotiations. Sinn Féin, as a party, would also be in a prime position to champion a fight against the austerity they oppose so strongly in the Republic of Ireland. Simultaneously they could act in the interests of Ireland as a whole, and not just the North, in protecting both Ireland and Britain from the economic and cultural devastation of a hard Brexit.
In doing this, they might demonstrate that they are a mature party capable of governance not just in the Ireland of the here and now, but also in the united country that might emerge from a border poll. There should be more important considerations that transcend the national question for the time being. If Sinn Féin have an opportunity to take their seats in the event of a No Confidence Vote which would bring an end to austerity and usher in a new government, then they should seize the moment rather than being held to ransom by ideals out of place in this century. For a start though they should look back on history and remember that abstentionism originated as a tactic rather than a policy set in stone. New tactics are badly needed in the changed ball game of today's politics for the sake of both Britain and Ireland.Suggest a correction