Belfast Telegraph

Sinn Fein's abstentionism a relic of long-dead and buried republican past

By Liam Clarke

Could, or should, Sinn Fein take its seats if there is a hung parliament at Westminster?

When Peter Kellner, head of the YouGov polling company, said it might, it drew a swift response from Francie Molloy, Sinn Fein MP for Mid Ulster. "Liam, Gerry Adams said it last week, I repeat it today - Sinn Fein will not be taking their seats in British House of Commons no matter what the result of the next general election in May," he posted on my Facebook page.

That seems clear enough, but politicians often say "never, never, never", but then do what is necessary when the time comes. For years we heard it from the DUP about entering government with Sinn Fein and we have heard it from Sinn Fein about not taking its seats in Stormont or the Dail.

Abstentionism is an idea that kicked around the Irish independence movement after the Act of Union in 1800, that specified that the whole of Ireland should be ruled directly from London.

The idea was that Irish MPs should withdraw from Westminster and form their own national parliament in Dublin. This is a fairly standard way of declaring independence on the basis of a democratic vote without an armed rising.

Sinn Fein took on this policy in the 20th century and, after it won a majority in the 1918 general election, it set up the First Dail. It hung about like a bad smell to remind us of long-dead policies frozen stiff in some untended corner of the republican psyche. It was, as Martin Mansergh of Fianna Fail pointed out, "preposterous nonsense".

There was really no need for abstentionism after that, but the IRA supported it on the basis that only the first Dail was a legitimate parliament. All other elected bodies claiming jurisdiction over parts of Ireland, the IRA constitution once pointed out, were treasonous assemblies. In this fantasy world, the IRA army council became the government after partition was introduced and a new Dail was elected.

The policy was useful when the IRA campaign was going on, because it was one way of arguing that it was a legitimate action by the real government of Ireland.

The absurdity of the situation becomes clear if we consider what would happen if this policy was imposed on us by London. What if, of all the regions of the UK, Northern Ireland was legally excluded from Westminster but ruled from there? Wouldn't that be colonialism?

Another dollop of absurdity is provided by the demand that Sinn Fein takes part in the leaders' debate on UK national television, as the broadcasters intend including the SNP and possibly the DUP. The main logic of going on the broadcast would be to tell British electors, who can't vote for Sinn Fein, how you would behave in a close vote at Westminster. If it is not taking its seats, why would Sinn Fein be included?

It clearly wants to take part because it feels it will be missing a trick if other parties are on the telly and it isn't. Republicans never asked to be on British election broadcasts before. They are asking now because it has become an issue and they can see that they could lose out politically if they don't speak up now.

The same could happen with abstentionism. If Sinn Fein's five seats really could affect the balance of power in Westminster, then it would be the height of folly not to use this leverage to the full.

Of course, this particular election may not throw up a result that forces Sinn Fein to a decision on this outdated relic, but, in the 21st century, abstentionism is a policy that leaves the party punching below its weight.

Katie's disabled son has a right to his benefits

Katie Price is one of those people who is famous for being famous. A former glamour model and journalist, she has become a broadcaster and businesswoman, someone who has to stray close to the edge to keep herself in the public eye.

The Daily Mirror estimates that she is worth £40m, but it costs the taxpayer "up to £1,000 a day" to drive her disabled son Harvey to school. Harvey is only 12. He suffers from several conditions including blindness and autism.

Katie Hopkins, who like Ms Price is famous for being famous, rounded on her on TV, saying she should pay for it herself. Callers to Celebrity Big Brother, where the bitch-fest took place, called her "Scrooge".

There is a serious political point here, though. Benefits are a right, not a privilege, and we should not stigmatise those who claim them - provided they tell the truth when doing do.

Benefits should, in my view, mainly be paid out on the basis of need without means-testing and taxes, particularly income tax, should take more from the rich to make up for this.

In this case Ms Price deserves to be taxed on her £40m and young Harvey deserves to have a car provided by the society he is a part of.

He did not ask to be disabled, to live so far from a suitable school, or that his mum be rich. As a person he has his rights and shouldn't be made to feel bad about it.

The rich often make the argument that they should not be able to claim social benefits, for instance free transport or child benefit, because they could afford to pay themselves.

This is, at base, an argument for a two-tier society, where a wealthy few are comparatively lightly-taxed so that they can afford to pay for the best of education, healthcare and other amenities for their offspring and themselves.

The rest of society is being offered less and efforts are being made to try and make them embarrassed at what they do get. Cost is becoming the major consideration in anything that is paid out by government.

It is as if we had forgotten that the purpose of benefits, taxation and all the other baggage of politics is to provide social cohesion.

The welfare state and the whole benefits system is part of the price the fortunate pay the less-fortunate to preserve the system that enriched them.

The intention is to produce not equality, but a safety net and equal opportunities for all to fulfil their potential - regardless of background.

Fairness, and the contract voters have with government, looks like becoming a bigger and bigger political issue if inequality continues to grow.

Katie Price may sound an unlikely champion for fairness, but there is more at stake in this case than meets the eye.

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