Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein's stay-away MPs risk hard border, say critics

By Suzanne Breen

Sinn Fein's political opponents have accused the party of handing a victory to hardline Brexiteers by not taking its seats in Parliament.

The SDLP, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fail rounded on the party on Monday after the Government narrowly avoided defeat in key votes in the House of Commons.

They claimed amendments secured by Brexiteers to the Government’s Customs Bill effectively destroyed agreements between the UK and EU to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted: “To those who say Westminster doesn’t matter — wake up. Our future is being torn apart by the British Government.

“Abstentionism is not acceptable. Sinn Fein gift Theresa May a win over Brexit. SDLP MPs would have been there to stop Tories.”

But Sinn Fein senator Niall O Donnghaile tweeted back to the SDLP leader: “Wake up. Nationalism has turned its back on Westminster. Wake up.

“Every nationalist constituency in the North elected an abstentionist MP. Wake up. Nationalism looks to Dublin for their political futures. Wake up.”

Sinn Fein’s rivals claimed the party had damaged Irish interests by not taking its seats for the razor-edge vote s yesterday.

The party has seven seats in Westminster as the SDLP’s three MPs — Mark Durkan, Margaret Ritchie, and Alasdair McDonnell — were defeated in last year’s general election. A total of 56% of the electorate here voted to remain in the EU, although only one Northern Ireland MP — Lady Sylvia Hermon — opposes Brexit in the Commons.

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin tweeted: “Hardline Brexiteers won last evening’s Westminster vote because of Sinn Fein abstentionism.

“Anti-Brexit majority in Northern Ireland not represented in any forum. Durkan, Ritchie and McDonnell would have defeated that damaging vote for Ireland.”

The Republic’s Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan also pointed the finger of blame at Sinn Fein. He tweeted: “The refusal by Sinn Fein to take up its Westminster seats has plunged the British PM in to the clutches of the hard Brexiteers again.” Mr Flanagan also said: “Votes are very tight. There are seven lawfully elected Sinn Fein MPs — they could tilt the balance in their favour if they wished.

“I acknowledge it is a long-held position of Sinn Fein, one of abstentionism. I am not a supporter of boycotts or abstaining. There may well be an opportunity now to reverse that on the part of Sinn Fein.”

But Sinn Fein TD John Cullinane rejected the criticism.

“Micheal Martin has played politics with the North for a number of years,” he said.

“We know that the backstop, the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and issues over a hard border will not be won in the House of Commons so it’s high time he stopped playing politics with the North and Brexit, and acted in the national interest.”

Mr Cullinane said it was “factually wrong” to claim his party’s presence would have altered the outcome of the votes.

“There were a number of votes that were inconsequential to the North that were passed by three votes, however the overall Bill was passed by 30 votes,” he said.

One of Monday’s amendments — the insertion of a legal guarantee that there will be no post-Brexit customs border between Northern Ireland and Britain — effectively undermines the terms of the co-called backstop position agreed by the UK and EU last year.  It stated Northern Ireland would remain subject to an EU customs regime if a wider trade deal failed to materialise.

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