Should Sinn Féin now reverse its policy of not swearing the oath at Westminster and actively take up its five seats?
The question now becomes pertinent due to the desire of the party to take a more active role in supporting Irish people in Britain and the closeness of the recent anti-terror vote in the Commons.
The closer relationship desired with the Irish community in Britain was evidenced this week with a fact finding trip to London led by Sinn Féin TD Aengus O Snodaigh. Sinn Féin has been upping its profile here for some time but now it appears ready to take forward some of the problems of the Irish community in legislative forums.
Issues like the plight of those who came to Britain to work on the construction sites and the like during the 1960s and 70s and did much to keep Ireland afloat with the money they sent home. Many of these men now flounder homeless and penniless on the streets of London.
Then there are the rights of Irish people living in Britain to vote in elections at home.
This is a basic right that British, American and other countries citizens living abroad enjoy. Sinn Féin want to raise this issue with the Irish government and Dail because it will help increase the profile of the problems of the Irish community in Britain.
There is a limit to what Sinn Féin can do for the Irish living in Britain. After all, it is an Irish based party, though due mainly to the peace process there are now a number of different political pressure points to access. There is the Dail, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, the councils in Ireland, the cross border bodies and the direct line to the British Prime Minister through the peace process talks. Never slow to spot a political opportunity Sinn Féin has seen how it can use these avenues to benefit the Irish at home and abroad. In the case of the Irish living in Britain they have also probably spotted how the community here can exercise influence on politicians and government to the benefit of the party.
Groups like the Agreed Ireland Forum, Friends of the Good Friday Agreement, the Wolf Tone Society and the Connolly Association have all played roles in putting pressure on the British Government in various areas. There have been the individual contributions of MPs like John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and previously Kevin McNamara. So there has always been a ready Irish political diaspora to tap into at Westminster. Peace has ofcourse helped to open up the avenues that Sinn Féin is now proceeding down.
The recent Anti-Terror bill vote, revealed how the abstentionist policy adopted by Sinn Féin could now be out of date. By failing to take up the seates Sinn Féin effectively turns the the Labour Government's majority from 66 into 71. So has the time not come to actively use those seats to win concessions out of the government? The precedent about not taking up the seats goes back to partition but much has changed over recent years. Remember, it was also a post partition position not to take seats in the Dail or the Northern Ireland Assembly. Things have clearly changed.
Given the party's desire to serve all parts of the Irish community at home and abroad, maybe the time has come to change the policy. Since the republican movement decided poltics should be the sole way to advance its agenda, surely all means of obtaining those goals must be utlilised.
There is also the incentive of the new political terrain where it looks as though the Labour Government with its much smaller majority is going to have to fight all the way to get its policies through. The five Sinn Féin votes could suddenly become a very potent tool in dealings with the government.
Sinn Féin would certainly have every right to pursue its agenda through the Westminster Parliament as Scottish and Welsh MPs do for their constituents. As a result of devolution, there has already been the sight of Scottish MPs voting through policies to apply in England that don't operate north of the border. Given the friction that this has already caused, it could be argued by the republicans on purely strategic grounds that playing an active role at Westminster could accelarate the break up of the union and ultimately advance the creation of a united Ireland. There is certainly it would seem a strong case for Sinn Féin now actively taking up those Westminster seats.