Belfast Telegraph

Don Anderson: Sinn Fein's policy of abstentionism always appeared self-defeating, but Brexit has made it look ridiculous

However, history shows republicans tend to do well in December general elections, writes Don Anderson

Conor Murphy with Sinn Fein colleagues
Conor Murphy with Sinn Fein colleagues

By Don Anderson

Our politicians often act illogically. Perhaps it is in the nature of their calling, particularly at election time, when they are under pressure to promise what they would like to do rather than what they can realistically do.

In their defence, most of us are guilty of this from time to time. But politicians are more blatant, more unrepentant, more unrelenting and, frankly, more unselfconscious in that respect.

For example, logic would have propelled the anti-reunification DUP to urge remaining in the EU to keep the border out of sight and mind, letting that sleeping dog lie conveniently undisturbed.

Instead, in spite of public warnings from other unionist politicians about inevitable unintended consequences, they fired broadsides at the EU and thus helped raise Irish reunification to a new level of possibility.

Turning to the UUP, logic should have propelled it to define itself as different from the DUP and damn the consequences in order to justify the party's separate existence.

But it cannot do that by means of consistent electoral confrontation against the DUP and it may thus be heading for oblivion. It has no representation at Westminster, a very far cry from the old days.

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Matters are no less baffling on the other side. The SDLP is also fighting for existence (the Good Friday Agreement, for all its virtues, was not kind to the political middle ground here).

It too has no Westminster representation, because all three of its MPs lost their seats in 2017.

In trying to reverse the flow it has opted for a close relationship with Fianna Fail. Not all that logical, because a sizeable minority of its members - some of whom have resigned - think this cross-border relationship runs counter to what the party has stood for since its foundation, which is collaboration with all parties in Dublin.

The illogicality is more apparent because the SDLP has a strong Leftist and social democratic tradition, as its name declares, and this runs counter to Fianna Fail's broadly conservative position on the centre-Right.

Then there's Sinn Fein. What brought political illogicality to mind was news that the youth wing of Fine Gael has written to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar calling for the party to field candidates in Northern Ireland in this upcoming general election, and, here is the interesting bit, to take seats in Westminster if elected.

Nothing illogical in that, I hear you say. But it tends to make the abstentionist policy of Sinn Fein appear illogical, if not ridiculous.

Last year Tanaiste Simon Coveney said he would like to see Fine Gael involvement in Northern Ireland politics, although he did state it was not a priority.

Nevertheless Fine Gael is the ruling party of the nation whose sovereignty underpins the political philosophy of Sinn Fein.

If sections of Fine Gael are floating representation at Westminster, can Sinn Fein validly take a holier-than-thou stance by asserting, in effect, they are too Irish to take their seats? Note that the Scottish and Welsh nationalists take their seats and reap benefit.

Sinn Fein must be feeling some pressure to change their stance because very recently they rejected overturning the boycott of the House of Commons to help pro-Remain parties. Senior member Conor Murphy branded the suggestion absurd and a nonsense.

However, clearly some within Sinn Fein have questioned the party's abstentionist stance, particularly through the Brexit process, arguing its seven MPs could have played as significant a role as the DUP in the fractured British Parliament.

Mr Murphy said: "You are saying, put seven more bums on a bench at Westminster and that will have an impact?"

Well, er, yes. Some of the crucial votes in the Commons were that close.

Anyway, Conor Murphy's argument could be used to denigrate Sinn Fein's 21 seats in the Dail as a minority without impact and, by that dictum, they should not be taking their seats there either. As I say, illogical.

Much mention has been made that this general election is the first December poll since 1923, which incidentally resulted in the first Labour Government. The December election before that was December 1910. What happened then? Pre-partition Irish nationalists took 85 seats and, therefore, held the balance of power because they took their seats.

Pundits are saying that this election could be too close to call.

Abstention is an act of self-inflicted disenfranchisement because voices minus political bums on political seats are mere background noise, signifying nothing. That's logical.

However, there is a footnote offering some sense to all this. The next December election was in 1918 and it wiped out the old Irish nationalists in favour of Sinn Fein, which took 73 seats, the unionists 22 and the old Irish nationalists reduced to a rump of six.

The Sinn Fein manifesto declared for an independent republic and no recognition of Westminster authority.

Sinn Fein, instead, set up the Dail in Dublin and the logic of not taking seats at Westminster stems from this turbulent period.

What followed was the guerrilla War of Independence and the establishment of the Irish Free State in the early 1920s, encompassing the partition of the island to cater for the Ulster unionists, who were hostile to the government in Dublin and threatened armed revolt if forced to join. The rest is bloodied history.

If there is a political logic in all this, or perhaps a lesson, especially for the Conservatives, it should be to avoid at all costs elections in December.

Don Anderson is a writer and broadcaster

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