Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Why it's not the DUP propping up Theresa May, but SF MPs with their ignorance about abstentionism

Republican misreading of Arthur Griffith's tactic is allowing Tory party to cling on to power, writes Alban Maginness

Arlene Foster greets Theresa May during the PM's visit here last week. Sinn Fein's policy of abstentionism has handed the DUP an unprecedented level of influence at Westminster
Arlene Foster greets Theresa May during the PM's visit here last week. Sinn Fein's policy of abstentionism has handed the DUP an unprecedented level of influence at Westminster

The midsummer madness that has swept through the Palace of Westminster is a symptom of the confused - and confusing - politics in and around Brexit.

Last week, there were two critical votes in the Westminster parliament about Brexit. In one vote, the Government won by six votes and in the other the Government won by three votes. Both votes could easily have been lost.

Thus, by the skin of her teeth, Theresa May won both parliamentary votes and clung on as Prime Minister to carry out her compromise Chequers Brexit plan.

The DUP, in keeping with their "confidence and supply" deal with the Conservatives, came to the rescue of a very battered and humiliated Prime Minister with their 10 crucial votes. Without the DUP's significant numerical support, Theresa May - and, indeed, her Government - would have been defeated and, probably, been mortally wounded.

Given the extreme seriousness of these Brexit votes, the Government could easily have collapsed and a General Election had to be called.

Whatever one feels about the DUP and its disastrous position on Brexit, they at least attended and voted in the Westminster parliament and made a crucial input by supporting Theresa May and her Government and, in doing so, are helping to shape to their liking the future relationship between the UK and the European Union.

Today, there is no bigger political and economic issue than Brexit. What is decided now will determine and map out our politics and economy for generations to come.

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It is a hugely complex problem that requires careful fixing and good management, not just for Britain, but also for Ireland, north and south. So, it really does matter who does it and how they do it.

For Sinn Fein's seven MPs not to be at those vitally important votes in parliament was a huge strategic mistake. Sinn Fein's continued refusal to sit in the London parliament is historically understandable, but at this moment in time it is clearly out-of-date gesture politics and is, frankly, an archaic relic of past politics.

Potentially, given the importance of those Brexit votes, abstention by Sinn Fein could be disastrous for the long-term interests of the Irish people. Clearly, simply by being absent from parliament, bolsters this weak Tory Government with its menacing Brexit agenda.

By being absent from Westminster, Sinn Fein is indirectly supporting the continuance of this Tory Government in London. If Sinn Fein were to take up its seven seats at Westminster, the May Government would be under real pressure on Brexit and, indeed, its own survival would be seriously in jeopardy.

By their absence from the floor of the House of Commons, Sinn Fein may as well give Theresa May a present of seven extra seats. This significantly strengthens the hand of a weak and inept Tory Government, that does not give two hoots for Ireland, north or south. Ironically, it also plays into the hands of the DUP, who can, as a result of their enhanced, pivotal parliamentary position, prise further concessions and support from the British Government.

Despite the remarkable and shocking parliamentary censure of Ian Paisley MP, the DUP's political stock has dramatically risen, thus Theresa May's scenic tour of the border, accompanied by Arlene Foster and her hardline, DUP-toned speech in Belfast. The DUP could not be in a more powerful position - and they know it. The tradition of abstention from parliament is strongly ingrained within republican ideology. But Arthur Griffith, the original founder of Sinn Fein, did not regard abstention as a principle in itself, but as a way of demonstrating the principle of Irish self-determination and national independence.

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

In the present circumstances, this simply does not make any sense anymore, as Sinn Fein abandoned abstention from Dail Eireann in 1986 and from Stormont after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Having abandoned abstention from these institutions in the relatively recent past, it is very hard to understand why - given the current, pressing realities of Brexit - Sinn Fein can sustain this nonsense of a policy, which is clearly contrary to the interests of the Irish people, both in the short and long term.

Maybe Sinn Fein are playing a cynical political game and are secretly hoping that, out of all this confusion in Britain, a "hard border" emerges, which they can wholeheartedly condemn and exploit to their political advantage in Ireland.

What other reason have they got not to review and change their counter-productive abstention policy, given the grave circumstances that confront us all?

Surely, now is the time for Sinn Fein to act in the national interest - not their party's interest - and end their futile abstention from Westminster?

Belfast Telegraph


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