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Bloody Sunday, election, Irish, Ireland, British, Ulster, Unionist, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Ahern, Blair, Irish America

Time for SF to kick the abstentionist habit

(by Liam Clarke, Sunday Times)

As Gerry Adams rises to address the republican faithful at Bodenstown this afternoon (Sunday), he may reflect that Sinn Féin is now punching significantly below its weight politically and must increase its leverage if it is to retain its relevance.

The most obvious way to up its game would be slaying the last of its sacred cows and taking its seats at Westminster after the next general election. The influence its MPs might buy in a hung or even finely balanced parliament is an untapped resource that remains available to the party.

Sinn Féin is already analysing the deals that could be done in Westminster in 2008. Martin McGuinness let that much slip after Paddy Ashdown turned down an offer of the job of secretary of state for Northern Ireland from Gordon Brown.

It looked like a kick in the teeth for Peter Hain, the present incumbent, especially when Brown explained he had a duty to get the best people into his cabinet regardless of their political affiliation. The suggestion that Ashdown might be secretary of state came as a surprise to most people, but not McGuinness.

"We have all watched how this British government has worked over the last 10 years," he commented. "Lord Ashdown, when he was leader of the Liberal Democrats, was in and out of Downing Street like a yo-yo while Tony Blair toyed with the idea of having a Liberal Democrat influence in government. Now when Labour is getting an increasing challenge from the Tories, we see this attempt to engage Liberal Democrats as a way to secure the re-election of a Labour government."

That betrays a close interest in the manoeuvrings at Westminster for someone who is a committed abstentionist. But then McGuinness has himself been in and out of Downing Street like a yo-yo and is a regular at Westminster, where Sinn Féin has an office and draws allowances.

The main obstacle to it taking seats is not the oath of allegiance to the Queen – that could be set aside as it has been in the Stormont assembly. There is already considerable support at Westminster for amending it. No, the traditional justification for abstentionism is that Sinn Féin refuses to recognise by its presence British rule over Northern Ireland. Now that McGuinness and his colleagues hold ministries whose powers are devolved from Westminster, and regularly bargain with British ministers for budgets, this position lacks any logic. It is no longer a principle. It is habit.

Abstentionism is underwritten by what Martin Mansergh, the new Tipperary South TD, has called a piece of "preposterous nonsense": the IRA army council's claim it is the legitimate government of Ireland. This claim had its roots in the Sinn Féin landslide victory in the December 1918 general election when it all but wiped out its Redmondite rivals, winning 73 of the 105 available Westminster seats. Redmond won six and unionists 26.

Instead of attending Westminster, the Sinn Féin MPs set up Dail Eireann and issued a declaration of independence. After the second Dail ratified the treaty allowing partition and setting up the Irish Free State, some republicans maintained the vote had been illegitimate. They argued that the authority of the Dail now resided in their leadership and consequently it was the only legitimate government of Ireland.

This legitimacy, handed down from generation to generation, supposedly came into the possession of Provisional Sinn Féin through a pronouncement of General Tom Maguire, the last surviving member of the second Dail. The IRA constitution described the real Dail Eireann and Stormont as "partitionist assemblies whose main tasks are treasonous". All subsequent elections were therefore null and void.

When, in 1986, Sinn Féin decided to take any seats it won in Leinster House, Maguire passed legitimacy to Republican Sinn Féin. So Ruairi O'Bradaigh was actually the president of Ireland and Mary McAleese a usurper.

This absurd dream world rested, as Mansergh observed, on the "concoction of a sort of pseudo-apostolic succession from Pearse to the Second Dail to the IRA to the Sinn Féin party to the small irredentist movement currently claiming that it, not the elected government of the republic, is the true government of Ireland".

It may have been a good tactic in 1918 to deny the legitimacy of British rule in this way. It may also have made civil war inevitable, because Sinn Féin substituted physical force for the political influence it could have wielded in the House of Commons. Instead, Lloyd George's coalition government was left heavily dependent on unionist votes.

Professor Eamon Phoenix, the principal historian of northern nationalism, talks of the delight with which Sinn Féin's decision not to take its seats was greeted by its enemies in the House of Commons. He says: "On entering the House of Commons in 1919 after the Sinn Féin landslide, Winston Churchill scanned the Irish benches, which had been dominated by Redmond and Parnell for so long, and said that he 'rejoiced in the blessed abstentionism of Sinn Féin'."

Churchill had feared an alliance between Irish republicanism and "British Bolshevism", as he characterised the Labour party. Instead, the biggest Irish party at Westminster was the unionists led by James Craig. It got cabinet seats and was able to influence the course of Irish policy decisively.

The Democratic Unionist party is as enthusiastic as Churchill about blessed abstentionism. It hogs important committee positions at Westminster and its nine seats would be a valuable voting bloc in a closely balanced House of Commons. Sinn Féin currently has five seats and could win a sixth. This could be a useful number with which to wheel and deal, especially with talk of strategic alliances being formed between parties from the devolved regions of the UK in order to extract concessions from London. Anyway, Gordon Brown has shown, by his overtures to the Liberal Democrats, that he is not averse to dealing with smaller parties.

Sinn Féin could afford to ignore its Westminster influence up to now. There has been a huge Labour majority, which can do what it likes and whose leader, Tony Blair, was desperate to bring the peace process to a conclusion. Sinn Féin was good at bargaining with him. Its currency was the rundown of the IRA, the decommissioning of weapons and support for the police. These issues gave Adams and McGuinness all the leverage they needed with the prime minister.

Those cards are now played and other strategies put forward by republicans have failed. More seats in the Dail, and entering government south of the border, were meant to replace the influence decommissioning once gave Sinn Féin, by allowing them to work on both sides of cross-border bodies. That prospect is off the radar for the foreseeable future. The party has no influence in Dail Eireann and is the DUP's minority partner in Stormont. The broad-based campaign for a united Ireland that Gerry Adams has repeatedly tried to launch or to force the Irish government to launch, shows no sign of becoming a reality and has struck no popular chord.

Most people agree with McGuinness that the next British government may need outside support from smaller parties. With neither principle nor expediency to recommend it, the policy of abstentionism at Westminster seems flawed. Those seats are a waste of the resources it takes to win them.

A first step would be the dissolution of the IRA's army council, decisively ending any lingering notion it is the legitimate government of Ireland. That would allow Sinn Féin to contest a general election on the basis of its MPs taking their seats and of campaigning for a change in the oath of office.

liam.clarke@sunday-times.co.uk

June 26, 2007
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This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on June 24, 2007.

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