Sinn Fein’s presence in the Commons would help focus the government’s mind on the consequences of a hard Brexit for Northern Ireland, writes Sean Swan. The very real prospect of a hard border means the time has come for Sinn Fein to decide whether it is playing the game of politics or not.
The achievement of peace in Northern Ireland cannot be understood simply in terms of the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Peace was not an event: it was a process. That process was long and complex, but certain events were central to it. One such event was a speech given in November 1990 by Peter Brooke, then Northern Ireland secretary, stating that:
The British government has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland: our role is to help, enable and encourage. Britain’s purpose […] is not to occupy, oppress or exploit, but to ensure democratic debate and free democratic choice.
An advance copy of this speech had secretly been supplied to the leadership of the IRA. The intent was to demonstrate that London was neutral between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. London’s position now was that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland was a matter solely for the people of Northern Ireland. The aim was to convince the republican movement that London could be trusted to act as an honest broker: “It is not the aspiration to a sovereign, united Ireland against which we set our face, but its violent expression.”
Brooke’s speech laid the foundation for the Downing Street Declaration on 15 December, 1993, in which the Prime Minister, John Major, and the Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, agreed that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland was for its people to decide. Major also reiterated that the British government:
have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland. Their primary interest is to see peace, stability and reconciliation established by agreement among all the people who inhabit the island, and they will work together with the Irish Government to achieve such an agreement, which will embrace the totality of relationships
It was also noted that the newly created European Union would “require new approaches to serve interests common to both parts of the island of Ireland, and to Ireland and the United Kingdom as partners in the European Union.”
The Declaration paved the way for an IRA ceasefire which was announced on 31 August, 1994. The republican movement’s understanding was that the ceasefire would lead to Sinn Fein’s inclusion in peace talks. However, internal British politics were to complicate matters. The 1992 general election had given the Tories a slim ten seat majority. This majority was rendered even less secure by the constant threat of rebellion from Eurosceptic ‘bastards’ within the ranks of the parliamentary Conservative party itself.
It was a minority government in all but name. By the end of 1995 the Tory majority had eroded to only two. The prime minister, John Major, was increasingly dependent on the support of nine Ulster Unionist (UUP) MPs to stay in power. But keeping the Unionists on side came at the cost of taking, or at the very least being perceived to take, the Unionists’ side in relation to the peace process. The IRA ceasefire continued, but the peace talks Sinn Fein had assumed would follow never took place. Instead there were new demands for decommissioning of IRA arms and of the need for a ‘decontamination’ period before talks could take place.
Finally, with no progress having been made towards peace talks and growing unease about the entire process within the IRA, the IRA ended its ceasefire on 9 February 1996. Their statement announcing the fact noted that “Time and again, over the last 18 months, selfish party political and sectional interests in the London parliament have been placed before the rights of the people of Ireland”. This marked the start of a new IRA campaign which avoided violence in Northern Ireland in favour of a bombing campaign in England.
The Labour government elected on 1 May 1997 had a secure majority and was thus free to act impartially on Northern Ireland. However, the IRA did not immediately restore its ceasefire following this election. The leadership needed to reassure its volunteers that it, not events in London, would decide when a new ceasefire would be called. This was achieved by the symbolism of not ending its new campaign until it had lasted exactly as long as had the first ceasefire – 526 days.
Once the IRA restored its ceasefire on 20 July, 1997, the peace process proceeded relatively smoothly, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement the following Easter. The heart of the Agreement was the principle of consent – Northern Ireland’s constitutional position would be determined by the people of Northern Ireland; parity of esteem – the right of people in Northern Ireland to identify as British, Irish or both, and hold Irish and/or British passports; and the ‘three strands’ – relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between Ireland and Great Britain. Unlike the Downing Street Declaration, the EU was barely mentioned in the Agreement as it was then assumed to be a permanent backdrop to Anglo-Irish relations. Peace was also implicitly premised on the border becoming invisible and largely irrelevant.
Credit: Public Domain.
The entire substance of the peace agreement is now being washed away. Speaking in Belfast on 20 July 2018, Theresa May stated that the British government “will never be neutral in our support for the union” – a total negation of the Downing Street declaration. The ‘backstop’ supposedly agreed to avoid a hard post-Brexit border was dumped on 16 July by an amendment to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill. The Northern Ireland Assembly – the heart of ‘strand one’ of the Agreement – has been moribund since January 2017; the North-South Ministerial Council – the heart of ‘strand two’ – has not met since November 2016.
The fact that the Conservatives are dependent on Ulster Unionist votes to stay in power – this time the DUP – is hardly coincidental to this state of affairs, nor is the fact that the Tories themselves are deeply divided. It is a re-run of the Major years. That experience may be why, following the 2017 general election, Major warned the Tories of the dangers of a deal with the DUP. Describing the current peace as “fragile” Major pointed out that a “fundamental part of that peace process is that the UK government needs to be impartial between all the competing interests in Northern Ireland”.
The situation in Northern Ireland itself has become increasingly fraught. Derry has witnessed serious violence in recent weeks, orchestrated by Dissident republicans whose growing audacity can be judged by their recent attack on the home of former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. The peace process was premised on creating a political route forward, but politics cannot exist in a vacuum. And a vacuum is now where Sinn Fein finds itself. It has succeeded in becoming the majority nationalist party in Northern Ireland, but absent a functional Northern Ireland Assembly, coupled with Sinn Fein’s continuing adherence to an Abstentionist policy in relation to Westminster, there is no political forum.
It is this political vacuum and the real possibility of a hard Brexit and a hard border, which is proving fertile ground for Dissident republicans. The risks of dropping Abstentionism – not least of providing a propaganda coup for Dissidents – are well known but are now not as serious as the risks posed by the current situation. In fact, to the extent that Abstentionism is rendering politics futile, it helps make the Dissidents’ case that politics is pointless and the only solution is ‘armed struggle’.
Had the Sinn Fein MPs been present in the House of Commons on 16 July, they could possibly have brought the government down and an ensuing general election might have returned a government opposed to a hard Brexit. In any case, Sinn Fein’s presence in the Commons would help focus the government’s mind on the full realities of Northern Ireland. Hard Brexiteers would not be happy to be denied their Brexit by Sinn Fein, but Northern Ireland is either fully part of the UK, warts and all, or it isn’t – and if it is, its MPs, all of them, are fully entitled to vote on any matter before the House.
Finally, Sinn Fein needs to remember that the 2017 general election was a crisis election. The nationalist community in Northern Ireland returned seven Sinn Fein MPs, the party’s best ever result. If, because of Abstentionism, Sinn Fein cannot prevent a hard Brexit and ensuing hard border, that community will not be blind to the fact that had they returned seven SDLP MPs – or even seven Alliance MPs – a hard Brexit could have been prevented. And they are likely to remember that in future elections. Sinn Fein is either playing the game of politics or it isn’t; if it is, it cannot do so with one arm tied behind its back. The time has come to drop Abstentionism.
Sean Swan is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Gonzaga University. He is the author of Official Irish Republicanism, 1962 to 1972 (2007).
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“I’m not an Irish republican and I don’t understand why Sinn Fein abstains, but they do.
To change the long-held policy of abstention just because right now Sinn Fein could exercise important influence seems to me to wholly invalidate abstentionism”.
Abstentionism is about refusing to recognise the legitimacy of British rule in Northern Ireland by refusing to attend the British parliament. However, the GFA recognises the legitimacy of British rule in NI (for as long as a majority there want it). It’s clear in the text. And SF signed up to the GFA.
Abstentionism was originally also applied to the Dail (‘Leinster House’) and to the Northern Ireland parliament and its successors – but that was dropped by SF back in the 1980s.
On the other hand, Abstentionism has powerful symbolism within republicanism and has been at the heart of splits in the republican movement for almost a century.
So it’s basically a choice between, on the one hand, symbolism and principle (even though the principle in question was actually conceded 20 years ago), and, on the other, pragmatic politics. And it’s not even that clean a distinction as dropping Abstentionism would have practical political consequences as it would be something of a propaganda coup for Dissidents. I’m not saying it’s an easy or risk-free strategy, just that it’s necessary. Republicanism is a political ideology, not a religious one. It shouldn’t be afraid to kill a few sacred cows if they are now an obstacle – especially if they are already dead.
“what you don’t explain is what fundamental new situation has arisen which would cause Sinn Fein to drop abstentionism. Of course, almost by definition, Sinn Fein could exercise more influence within the UK constitution by participating than by abstaining. That’s true now and it always has been true.”
Fair question – the simple answer is I think the current government is dangerous to the GFA Peace agreement and likely to be reactionary when it comes to further constitutional evolution in relation to both Ireland and Scotland. And adherence to the policy of Abstentionism is helping keep it in power. At the same time, current parliamentary arithmetic, almost uniquely, means that, SF’s 7 MPs could play a possibly decisive role. In more detail:
1) The risk of a hard Brexit and a hard border – much more real now than even a few weeks ago – and the way it would undermine the GFA.
2) A drift on the part of Mrs May back towards a partisan ‘Ulster is as British as Finchley’ position (see her speech in Belfast). The heart of the Agreement is the de facto recognition that Northern Ireland is basically bi-national, which is why people can choose Irish or British citizenship – and that wouldn’t change even if there were a united Ireland (see text of GFA). Mrs May’s position is drifting away from that – due, I suspect, more to her partnership with the DUP than to personal conviction. But it’s still an eroding of the principles that the peace process was built on.
3) The parliamentary balance of power has never been so close – there is not really a true majority of any sort now. Mrs May is hostage to the DUP and to the ERG. At the same time, SF have never had as many MPs. This is one of the rare occasions on which 7 MPs would actually make a difference – meaning they could help bring this government down.
4) I suspect that once a hard Brexit is achieved, this government would pull up all referendum drawbridges. They would say that in future all referenda on constitutional questions – be it a new referendum to re-join the EU, a referendum on the electoral system, a referendum on Scottish independence or a referendum on Irish unity – would require more than a simple majority to pass, perhaps a 60% majority. Those Remainers who have been emphasising the narrowness of the Brexit referendum and the folly of basing big changes on such a narrow victory, have, inadvertently, laid the ground work for exactly this scenario. The hard Brexiteers, once they have their Brexit, might suddenly become very sympathetic on the subject of the dangers of constitutional decisions being made on close referendum results.
“It’s like saying you are against the death penalty, except for really bad criminals. In practical terms it would mean Sinn Fein loses all credible claim to abstentionism”.
Being against the death penalty except for certain crimes would be a totally coherent position, wouldn’t it (not one I would support, I hasten to add)? On that point, we are now hearing the beginnings of arguments in favour of the re-introduction of the death penalty post-Brexit – an indication of the direction in which this hard Brexit thing is going. As for SF losing ‘all credible claim to abstentionism’, well yes, obviously. But is that the most important thing? Maybe it’s just outlived its purpose.
Finally, it’s entirely possible that SF actually want a hard Brexit – and the harder and more disastrous the better – in the hope that it would lead to an increase in support for a united Ireland. Polls are currently showing such an increase – but only amongst the Catholic community. In other words, one likely outcome of a hard Brexit would be an increase in sectarian division without yielding a majority in favour of a united Ireland.
“You are assuming that if SF took the 7 seats all the other variables would stay the same. This would not happen”.
Why? The only variables in question here are numbers and votes in the House of Commons Would dropping Abstentionism somehow change the number of Tory, Lab, Lib Dem, etc MPs?
“Neither Labour nor the Government want an election because it would expose the split in both parties”.
Labour would jump at the chance of an election – just like they did in 2015, when everybody said they would be wiped out – and they were just as split then as now. As for the Conservatives, it’s the very fact that they are split that makes an election possible. The ERG care more about a hard Brexit than about an election. They’d be quite happy to bring May down if they thought they weren’t getting one. That was the reason May accepted the amendments to the Taxation bill, even though it made nonsense of the white paper. But if it is looking like there will be a no deal Brexit, Soubry and the other Tory Remainers may pull the plug – if they have the numbers (they don’t on their own – yet at least – because Hoey and Fields et al would probably vote with the gov on this). And of course the Lib Dems want an election. The SNP might be a bit nervous about it – but it would be politically impossible for them to NOT vote against May in a vote of confidence.
The party that really, really don’t want an election is the DUP. They have everything to lose from it.
“Secondly you are assuming that bringing down the government would be a good thing for NI”.
I’m assuming that the EU means what it says when it says there can be no extension of Art 50 without either a Brexitref2 (not going to happen under this government) or a general election. The chances of a deal being worked out before March (or December, being realistic about it) are small and getting smaller by the day – and the ERG will act as wreckers on any deal. They can smell a crash-out/no deal Brexit, and they want it. Look what happened to the Chequers deal. A general election is the only escape from this schizophrenic government which looks destined to fall out of the EU in March with no deal.
“Obviously no one knows but likely that a hard brexiteer would be PM.
Good for NI.
I doubt it.”
Either Corbyn or May would be PM – unless the Tories went for a leadership contest in the midst of a general election campaign. That would be a bit silly – and there would be no time for it. But suppose they did? Who would win it? Boris is damaged goods, Gove is seen as a snake. JRM? The mind boggles… plus it would cause a constitutional crisis – remember the Act of Settlement. Besides that, there’s the fact that the hard brexiteers are actually a minority of the Conservative parliamentary party. There is no obvious credible hard Brexit rival to May. In fact, there’s no obvious alternative candidate at all – at least at the moment.
OK, a general election might change nothing, but that’s unlikely. It might result in a Labour gov, or a Labour/SNP gov. Or a labour/SNP/Lib Dem gov, Or a Tory majority gov without the DUP, or a Tory/Lib Dem gov. Any of those combinations would be better that what’s there now as far as it relates to avoiding a hard Brexit/hard border.
But maybe SF think a hard Brexit is a good thing and would lead to a border poll and there would be a majority for a united Ireland. Maybe, but I can’t see it. I can’t see a Yes majority in an indyref2 in Scotland either – maybe it’s coming, but I can’t see it yet. It would be a bit ironic if there was a hard Brexit, followed by a border poll – that voted ‘No to a united Ireland, and an indyref2 that voted ‘No’ to indy. This could very well happen because a hard Brexit would be a big upheaval – and that might make people wary about risking even more upheaval by leaving the union. Events can have very unintended consequences sometimes…
so obviously you know a lot more about Sinn Fein than I do. But what you don’t explain is what fundamental new situation has arisen which would cause Sinn Fein to drop abstentionism. Of course, almost by definition, Sinn Fein could exercise more influence within the UK constitution by participating than by abstaining. That’s true now and it always has been true. But they don’t want to. I’m not an Irish republican and I don’t understand why Sinn Fein abstains, but they do.
To change the long-held policy of abstention just because right now Sinn Fein could exercise important influience seems to me to wholly invalidate abstentionism. It’s like saying you are against the death penalty, except for really bad criminals. In practical terms it would mean Sinn Fein loses all credible claim to abstentionism. At all future elections to Westminster their candidates would come under pressure to specify which policies they would support in the Commons if Sinn Fein votes would make a difference.
At the start of the article you write “The very real prospect of a hard border means the time has come for Sinn Fein to decide whether it is playing the game of politics or not.”. They made their decision a long time ago. They will play politics, but not at Westminster.
As a Britisher, I find SF abstentionism hard to understand, but maybe the following model helps. Suppose the USA invaded Britain and forced it to become the 51st state. Britons would be allowed to elect representatives to Congress, who would have to pledge allegiance to the USA before participating. Would I vote for participation on these terms? Could the pledge be made without it being meaningful? I don’t think so!
“So 7 extra MPs would make a difference.”
You are assuming that if SF took the 7 seats all the other variables would stay the same. This would not happen. Neither Labour nor the Government want an election because it would expose the split in both parties.
Secondly you are assuming that bringing down the government would be a good thing for NI. Obviously no one knows but likely that a hard brexiteer would be PM.
Good for NI.
I doubt it.
@Gavin a border poll? Please show me an opinion poll – any opinion poll – that shows a majority for a united Ireland. The best result I’ve seen was Lord Ashcroft’s poll, showing 44% in favour, 49% against and 7% undecided. That looks very similar to the population breakdown by community background in the 2011 census to me – 45.1 Catholic, 48.4 Protestant and 6.5% other/none. I could be very, very wrong, but I don’t believe the result would be for a united Ireland – it would be bitterly divisive though.
As far as not being able to stop a hard Brexit, take a look at how close the voting was on the amendments to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill on the 16th. May only won the substantial amendment by THREE votes – and had she lost, there would have been a vote of no confidence. In other words, the government would probably have fallen. So 7 extra MPs would make a difference.
Of course, if Brexit gets as bad as it might – isn’t the government now advising people to stock up on food? – anything could happen. And Amazon has been predicting civil unrest – I don’t know exactly why they are speaking out, but apparently they are. ‘Civil unrest’ sounds like a lot of fun…
On the other hand, a hard Brexit might just ‘work’ – in the sense of not being a TOTAL disaster – then where are we? And remember, a lot of people would put the blame for any disaster on the EU, not on London.
The real one to watch is Scotland. It has a nationalist government with a mandate for an indyref, and the latest polls show three-quarters of Scots are opposed to Brexit – but I’ve yet to see a poll showing a lead for independence.
You’re right, Sean. So far, no poll has shown a majority in favour for a united Ireland but as the SF goal is to unite Ireland and a border poll is the means by which it can happen, then that’s what SF will push for. I’m not sure the majority would vote to unite Ireland but sentiments can change.
You’re also right about votes being close but I don’t believe this would cause SF to change a policy which their voters are clearly comfortable with and most likely support.
There’s a theory that SF are out of government in NI so that they cannot be viewed responsible for a hard – or messy – Brexit and can blame others. At the moment, the same goes for Westminster. If they do take seats and don’t prevent a hard border they will be seen as weak and breaking abstentionism with no real gain.
Considering the boost in discussion about a border poll in NI following the EU referendum, it’s also possible a hard border or hard brexit would be a catalyst for a border poll – something SF would be quite happy with.
@Alias yes, I know. I mentioned that in my other piece on Abstentionism. I’m also aware that I’m saying something very different here, but the situation has changed since March. Here’s my earlier piece
A good case could be made for a legal challenge to the Oath under the GFA as the Oath requires Irish citizens to take an Oath to the Queen. Remember that people in Northern Ireland are fully entitled to be, and be recognised as being – Irish citizens under the GFA. But why would Irish citizens want to sit in the British parliament? Simply for practical reasons because that parliament currently governs Northern Ireland. But that’s all a complicated legal argument which would take years. What’s needed is a special ard fheis and a change in the Abstentionist policy.
@Barry I get the point, but would make a few suggestions and comments on it:
1) Sinn Fein could turn up and refuse to take the Oath and provoke a constitutional crisis – a bit like Daniel O’Connell.
2) Take the Oath, but declare while taking it that you are not taking any oath but simply repeating a formula of words which are a technical requirement to enter parliament. That is, declare it an ’empty formula’, like Dev did.
3) While there are obviously a lot of significant differences between Sinn Fein and the SNP, the fact is that the aim of the SNP is as ‘subversive’ as that of Sinn Fein – to end the Union. If the SNP can do it…
4) Has not HM’s government – in the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement – declared that it will facilitate a united Ireland if there is a vote in a referendum for it – and as Sinn Fein has signed up to the Agreement too, there is no fundamental contradiction between the two positions.
5)This is the 21st century, should people still be hung up on oaths like these? The Queen herself is above politics and – formally – has no opinion on any political matter. She was, for example, formally neutral during the Scottish independence referendum. Given that to be the case, what does ‘allegiance’ mean when she has no political position to be either loyal or disloyal to? Remember, the oath is to the Queen, not to the British government. That might seem like a fine distinction, but it is an important one
“Sinn Fein’s presence in the Commons would help focus the government’s mind on the full realities of Northern Ireland. ”
If you added the 7 MP’s to the mix, the dynamics change but the result is still the same, the Conservatives are split on Brexit and so is Labour. I’m not sure that bringing the Government down would solve anything.
The 7 SF MPs would be no more effective that the 36 SNP MPs getting the British Government to face full realities of Scotland. We have seen how little influence the SNP have.
Unfortunately Brexit is not going to be fixed by 7 MPs
Oh that it were that easy.
For the Sinn Fein response to the idea that they should take seats at Westminster to oppose the UK government on Brexit, see
I get everything you are saying Sean. But there is one thing you are missing and overlooking. Why do SF not take their seats? To my knowledge it is because in order to sit in the House of Commons you have to swear an oath to the Queen. This would go against everything SF stand for which is a united Ireland and opposing occupying forces.