Belfast Telegraph

Nelson McCausland: If there’s a moral duty to use your vote, then there is a moral duty to take your seat if you are elected

By Friday morning, we will know who has a new MP... and who has an absentee, writes Nelson McCausland

This General Election is the third vote in a year, but interest is higher than ever
This General Election is the third vote in a year, but interest is higher than ever
Nelson McCausland

By Nelson McCausland

It is two-and-a-half years since the last United Kingdom general election. As people across Northern Ireland go to the polls on Thursday, it will be their third election this year, following on from the local government elections in early May and the European Union election later in the month.

You might think we would all be experiencing voter fatigue but, in fact, I have detected little sign of that in Northern Ireland.

Indeed, I have been struck by the intensity of the canvassing, the levels of public interest and the awareness that politics matters.

There will be some people who do not vote, which has always been the case, but there is a strong case to be made for the fact that there is a moral duty to vote.

It is an opportunity for each of us to influence the sort of society we will live in, and that important opportunity should not be wasted.

It is good, therefore, to see the interest this election has generated.

The number of people registering to vote has increased, and we must hope that this will be reflected in an increased turnout.

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However, the moral duty to vote is not the only moral duty. There is also a moral duty on the MPs who are elected to actually attend the House of Commons, to participate in the debates, to table amendments, to participate in the votes and to question government ministers, face-to-face and in public.

You can’t do any of these things if you don’t take your seat. You can eat your lunch in the Westminster dining room, you can pose for the television cameras on the grass outside Parliament, or even just settle for a selfie for Twitter, but you can’t carry out the core functions of an MP unless you take your seat.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where a political party seeks election to Parliament on the basis that its MPs will not take their seats and will refuse to participate in proceedings.

As Paul Maskey explained last year: “I and other (Sinn Fein) MPs were elected on a mandate to actively abstain from Westminster.”

It is a bizarre and outdated policy, but it is a republican tradition, and the upholders of republican tradition are shackled to it.

They may have shifted their position on some things, such as taking their seats in the Dail, but for most republicans, abstentionism remains a fundamental doctrine in their political ideology, and they put party ideology and party unity before public good.

Of course, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called on voters to punish Sinn Fein for their abstentionism — a very reasonable thing to do.

He said: “History doesn’t judge those who don’t turn up at defining moments; it casts a far harsher verdict.”

So far, so good, but the SDLP leader destroyed his credibility by refusing to stand a candidate in North Belfast as part of a pact with Sinn Fein.

On Wednesday, there was an impressive social media post by Mairia Cahill, a former SDLP councillor who resigned from the party some weeks ago because of its decision not to stand a candidate in North Belfast.

She described it as a “despicable” decision to facilitate Sinn Fein.

In that post, she highlighted, “the IRA’s shameful treatment of child sexual abuse” and went on to say: “Nigel Dodds raised my case in Westminster with the former Secretary of State. Had North Belfast elected a Sinn Fein MP, it wouldn’t have been raised at all. Don’t vote for a party who will leave you voiceless. You deserve better.”

Elsewhere, there was an equally impressive and courageous intervention from Danny O’Connor, a former SDLP MLA, who said that he would be voting for the DUP candidate in East Antrim because of the party’s pro-life position.

That position has struck a chord with many people who might not be seen as traditional DUP voters but who believe passionately that all human life is precious and that both lives matter.

Some of the Northern Ireland constituencies are fairly predictable, with large majorities for either the DUP or Sinn Fein, but others are being hotly contested and will continue to be contested up until 10pm tonight.

By Friday morning, we will know who has been returned to Westminster. We will also know which constituencies have an MP and which have an absentee.

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