Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: The contagion of abstentionism, once confined to Sinn Fein, is now coursing through the body politic

For the SDLP, whether to challenge SF comes down to whether you live in Belfast or Derry.

Malachi O'Doherty

By Malachi O'Doherty

There is a reason why some people vote for the SDLP rather than Sinn Fein, just as there is a reason why some people prefer to vote for the Ulster Unionist Party than for the DUP.

The function of these parties is to distinguish themselves from each other. In our strange, divided society, contests happen within communities rather than between them, but the message of the pact-makers is that communal solidarity counts for more in the end than the political principles that individual parties stand for.

They are communalist first and the distinctions are luxuries for afters.

True, many voters, in a PR election, would give second preferences to their least-favourite nationalist or unionist party before they would cross over on the constitutional question. That is the blight of this place.

From time to time, we imagine that there is a middle ground represented by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. We've been kidding ourselves, so perhaps it is only appropriate that they should cede the middle ground to Alliance.

Some of us would never give a vote to a party simply on the basis of it being nationalist or unionist, not if it adheres to principles that are otherwise appalling.

And there are no more appalling parties in Northern Ireland than the DUP and Sinn Fein.

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So, in the eyes of a few of us, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, both of which I have voted for in the past, have jeopardised the rationale for their own existence.

If they identify themselves primarily as part of a communal faction, as near-neighbour to the parties they usually contend for votes against, then I don't really want to know them.

I would never vote for Sinn Fein, at least not as long as they maintain their endorsement of the IRA campaign. If I lived in north Belfast, I would be profoundly insulted by the presumption that I would sooner vote for an abstainer and a republican than for any other candidate.

Implied in the deal to withdraw from that constituency is the confidence that those who would love to have had a chance to vote for Nichola Mallon, or another candidate there, will obey party expectations and vote for John Finucane.

This is supposed to be a fair sacrifice to make for the prospect of bringing down Nigel Dodds.

And we are told that this election is not about the old divide between nationalists and unionists; it's about Brexit. If it's about Brexit, then I would actually consider voting for Dodds.

It would choke me to do it, given that he is a key architect of the Brexit mess, but he is also now a potential Remainer.

He is opposed to the latest deal, so fate may have delivered him up as one of the best prospects for getting Article 50 revoked.

The whole point of this election is to rearrange the balance of forces and have a vote. Dodds' vote will be against the Johnson deal. We don't know how Finucane would vote if he chose to show up. He has the luxury of not having to commit.

The claim that a vote for an abstainer will contribute anything to that Brexit vote is ludicrous.

If somebody declares that they are going to help Remain by not even taking a seat, then you would have to be some class of an ignorant lig to take that seriously.

The great defence of abstention is that Sinn Fein MPs get more done behind the door, in their private meetings with Michel Barnier and Leo Varadkar.

There was some chump on Talkback yesterday, claiming that Sinn Fein had influenced the Taoiseach to hold the line against compromise on the backstop.

This as if the support of 26 European nations weighed as nothing in the balance against the persuasive authority of Mary Lou McDonald.

It used to be that Sinn Fein argued for abstention on principle; that they simply should not be obliged to swear an oath to the Queen. That's a decent argument.

A decent counter to it is that plenty of republican-minded, but pragmatic and conscientious, British politicians have managed to take the oath with their fingers crossed behind their backs.

It means no more to them than the words of the hymns they occasionally sing along to at church services they're expected to attend.

Now, we are to believe that there is a pragmatic case for it, that more can be achieved by not taking your seat.

And it's true that a good, brazen debater like Chris Hazzard can talk some interviewers to a standstill with this nonsense.

But if you can be such a brilliant parliamentarian by not taking part, then why not deploy the same strategy in the Dail? When this election is over, Sinn Fein will do what it has always done when it is challenged on its fruitless abstentionism; it will argue that it has a mandate to abstain.

It will point to the votes it has garnered and say that every one of those votes comes from someone who knew the party's policy and approved it.

Yet, now some of those votes will be borrowed from the SDLP, which rejects abstention and has been arguing for the past week that it achieves far less than actually turning up does.

It will be fighting Elisha McCallion in Derry on precisely that argument; that a vote for her is a wasted vote, while at the same time lending its own weight to John Finucane's promise not to go to Westminster and vote on Brexit. As for the Ulster Unionist Party, having ditched a principle it is plunging as eagerly towards irrelevance as the SDLP is.

I get it that politics is the art of the possible and that outcomes are what matters and that getting Nigel Dodds out of Westminster and Claire Hanna in will make the place more representative of actual opinion here.

It would, of course, be a lot more representative if Sinn Fein took its seats.

What we now see is the anti-democratic policy of abstention corrupting all politics.

It's bad enough that constituents of abstaining politicians are denied representation. An elected MP stands not just for a party, but for the whole constituency and has no right to deny access to Parliament to those who did not vote for that party.

But now the SDLP is roped into colluding with this Sinn Fein policy, throwing weight behind a political and at the same time discarding the distinctive character of the party that alone entitles it to votes - a big mistake.

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