Belfast Telegraph

Why Sinn Fein's abstentionism from parliament ensures it is an irrelevancy at election time

NI parties could hold balance, but republicans will still be on the outside, counting their expenses, says Alban Maginness

Electing an abstentionist candidate as your MP is like employing a plumber who refuses to do house calls. It is an exercise in futility and absurdity. It is an archaic act of gesture politics that will achieve nothing.

Arthur Griffith, the original founder of Sinn Fein, advocated withdrawal from the British parliament as a tactic in the early-1900s.

He saw abstentionism as a tactic to highlight the principle of Irish independence and a dramatic and visual rejection of British sovereignty in Ireland.

He advocated that the Irish Home Rule Party shouldn't go to Westminster and, instead, a council of 300 should meet in Dublin and usurp, by peaceful means, so much of the powers of government as it could.

Later on, in the context of the enormous 1918 election victory for Sinn Fein, it made sense for its members to abstain from Westminster and meet as an embryonic Irish parliament in the Mansion House in Dublin instead.

However, Griffith did not regard abstention as a principle in itself, but as a way of demonstrating the principle of self-determination and national independence.

Today's Sinn Fein has elevated this political tactic into a long-standing, fundamental principle that cannot be breached by its elected MPs.

Mind you, that does not prevent it - quite cynically and literally - taking hundreds of thousands of pounds in parliamentary expenses from Westminster.

Not a very honest nor principled position, one would suggest.

Yet, curiously, it heartily abandoned its abstention from Dail Eireann in the 1980s and from Stormont in 1998.

Both of these institutions were rejected for decades as being illegitimate institutions and instruments of British sovereignty in Ireland.

Dail Eireann was allegedly not the true parliament of the Irish people and was to be shunned and boycotted by republicans.

Now Sinn Fein members can't wait to join the fun and games of parliamentary life in Leinster House.

As for the Assembly at Stormont, since its initiation in 1998 Sinn Fein has never advocated abstention or withdrawal from that institution - even though you could strongly argue, from a purist republican point-of-view, that Stormont is a very obvious exercise in British sovereignty over the north and its people.

All of this stands in stark contrast to the archaic and myopic ideological stance of Sinn Fein against any northern parliamentary institution over many years.

We know to our painful cost about its aggressive boycott of the elections to the power-sharing Assembly in 1973 and the vehemence and violent rhetoric with which it opposed that power-sharing Assembly in 1974.

Therefore, having abandoned its abstention from Dail Eireann and Stormont, it is hard to understand why, in the cold light of day, it can possibly justify absenting its MPs from Westminster now in the year 2017.

This archaic nonsense is compounded by the current opinion polls that put Labour within three points of the Conservative Party.

The recent YouGov constituency-by-constituency projection had the Tories actually losing 20 seats and Labour gaining 30, leading to a hung parliament.

It has been Theresa May's lacklustre campaign, her U-turn on social protection and her failure to endorse the triple-lock protection for the state retirement pension - as well as the fear of a "dementia tax" - that has frightened the grey vote in England that is traditionally more Tory than Labour. May, by her incompetence, could well be throwing the election away to Corbyn.

Only the weekend terrorist attacks in London might damage Corbyn, who is seen as weak on security and defence.

The Tories are traditionally seen as strong on law and order, and could be beneficiaries of people's rightful concerns over security and terrorist attacks.

In any event, the opinion polls clearly indicate a closer result than anticipated at the beginning of this dreary general election campaign.

The prospect of Corbyn being Prime Minister is no longer regarded as a fanciful joke. A hung parliament seems a real prospect.

Given its crucial numbers, the Scottish Nationalist Party could be about to claim the mantle of Charles Stewart Parnell and his Irish Parliamentary Party in determining the future direction of British politics.

In such circumstances, you cannot rule out the creation of a future Westminster government being dependent on some of our Northern Ireland MPs.

That the SDLP or DUP could hold the balance of power and become kingmakers is not an idle thought.

With so many crucial issues surrounding Brexit, it would be criminally irresponsible for our MPs not to be actively involved in parliament.

At such a pivotal moment in Irish/British history, it really does matter that your duly-elected MP attends parliament.

There are many vital issues at stake in Westminster for our MPs to urgently address.

Now, with the Assembly paralysed and unlikely to return soon, undoubtedly our politics will become Westminster-focused.

Belfast Telegraph

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