A letter in today’s Irish Times raises once again the matter of Sinn Féin’s abstention from Westminster. The writer shows a lack of awareness, whether deliberately or through ignorance, of Irish history.
He states that Sinn Féin has declined to attend Westminster but has accepted payment for its MPs. The uninformed reader coming to that would conclude that Sinn Féin politicians get elected, collect their salaries but stay at home. Intentionally or accidentally, this is misleading. Sinn Féin do not receive their MPs’ salaries. They do receive expenses, which they use to establish a presence in Westminster, where they work with the Irish diaspora in Britain, lobby British politicians and represent the interests of their constituents.The first Sinn Féin MP elected to Westminster was Constance Markievicz in 1918: she did not take her seat nor have any of the other Sinn Féin MPs elected since that time.
The letter-writer might conclude that the policy of abstentionism makes the election of Sinn Féin MPs pointless. The British government doesn’t appear to think so. When Bobby Sands was elected MP in 1981, Britain’s parliament hastily changed the rules so that the likes of Sands couldn’t be elected in the future.
Sinn Féin’s argument is that the British parliament looks after the interests of Britain, not Ireland. History attests to the accuracy of that view. Talk about how Sinn Féin could transform the Brexit debate today by taking their seats is finely-sliced tripe. The presence of Sinn Féin MPs in the voting lobbies would be a signal to high-minded British politicians to avoid following their lead.
So in terms of pragmatism and principle, Sinn Féin don’t take their seats in Westminster. The betrayal of Irish interests in that place over the past one hundred years shows it has been a wise decision.
Besides, the outstanding performance of the DUP over recent months would be such a hard act to follow.