Marisa McGlinchey: The SDLP's Colum Eastwood has criticised Sinn Fein abstentionism, but will the party ever take its seats at Westminster?
While the party has made significant ideological changes, such as taking their places in Dail Eireann and the Northern Ireland Assembly, a stay-away policy as regards the Commons will continue to remain, writes Marisa McGlinchey
"Westminster doesn't care about the people in the north" was a continuous theme at the Sinn Fein ard fheis last weekend in Foyle, the hotly contested constituency in which Sinn Fein's Elisha McCallion will face SDLP leader Colum Eastwood at the polls next month.
McCallion's prominence on the platform and the 'I'm voting Elisha' banners held by delegates throughout the hall was a sure sign of the impending battle for the constituency, which has traditionally been strong SDLP territory.
Eastwood has stated that voters can choose the DUP, who will misrepresent them, Sinn Fein, who won't represent them at all, or the SDLP who will represent their constituents by taking their seats. Predictably, in its election campaign, the SDLP has criticised Sinn Fein for their abstentionist policy regarding Westminster, particularly in the context of Brexit, and the question has been reignited: will Sinn Fein ever take their seats in Westminster? The answer from Sinn Fein is a resounding no.
In her presidential address to the ard fheis, Sinn Fein's party leader, Mary-Lou McDonald, stated that no Irish republican would ever swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown, thus provoking spontaneous applause. However, the issue of abstentionism goes beyond the oath; it goes right to the heart of the Irish republican position and has been a central principle since the formation of the party in 1905. In fact, abstentionism regarding Westminster has remained a fundamental throughout republicanism in its various shades.
While Sinn Fein has made significant ideological changes, such as taking their seats in the Dail and Stormont, abstention from Westminster is set to remain. Sinn Fein has emphasised structural change within Northern Ireland, which has fundamentally altered the political landscape and paved their way into Stormont. But abstentionism regarding Westminster rests on the fundamental belief that Westminster has no legitimacy in Ireland.
Further to ideology and principle, Sinn Fein speakers at the ard fheis also couched their arguments in practical terms. Conor Murphy stated that Westminster looks after English political interests and vice-president Michelle O'Neill said "the Westminster system will never represent us". O'Neill also argued that one or two isolated MPs will not make a difference and that 35 SNP MPs have not made a difference.
Martina Anderson MEP took to the platform and argued that Sinn Fein's seven MPs outside the chamber have achieved more than those participatory MPs inside. Anderson also stated that Sinn Fein MPs have "played a blinder" in Dublin, Washington and Brussels, where the party has focused its attention.
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The party's political lobbying beyond Westminster formed a running theme throughout the ard fheis and Mary-Lou McDonald stated that no Irish elected representative can stop Brexit; therefore, the party must act to protect Irish interests where it matters, in the Dail, the Seanad, on Capitol Hill and in Brussels.
The SDLP has come under criticism for standing aside in North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down, with some asking why the party would withdraw in a bid to aid abstentionist Sinn Fein candidates, particularly in the context of SDLP criticism directed at Sinn Fein for not taking their seats.
But, for the SDLP, this election is primarily about Brexit and the party has made a calculation. They have acknowledged their low level of support in those three constituencies and that, realistically, they probably won't win the seats. And so, rather than split the Remain vote, they have stepped aside - a move that the party would probably have been reluctant to make in the past.
In North Belfast, the Sinn Fein candidate is John Finucane, the son of murdered solicitor Pat Finucane. John Finucane took a prominent place on stage at the ard fheis and was described as representing the Good Friday Agreement generation. Finucane stated that 58% of people in North Belfast voted Remain and yet they are represented by arch-Brexiteer Nigel Dodds.
In reference to the SDLP standing aside in the constituency, Colum Eastwood has stated: "In North Belfast, it is an empty seat, or Nigel Dodds. I prefer an empty seat." For the SDLP, they aim to remove as many Brexiteers from the UK Parliament as possible.
It is unlikely that the SDLP's criticism levelled at Sinn Fein for not taking their seats will gain any traction, given the fact that the SDLP also made this argument ahead of the 2017 Westminster election, but the party actually lost two MPs to Sinn Fein. While Sinn Fein come under scrutiny for not representing their constituents in Westminster, the fact is that Sinn Fein's policy of abstentionism is long-standing and those who cast their votes for Sinn Fein MPs do so on the basis that they are abstentionist.
It is clear that Sinn Fein are keen to move the conversation on to what form a united Ireland would take and stated that the healing and reconciliation process is inseparable from Irish unity. Declan Kearney stated that there are victims and survivors on all sides and that Sinn Fein calls for common acknowledgement from all sides.
Probably the most hotly debated motion was that on the party's position regarding prosecutions for the past. Support was sent to John Downey from speakers, though one delegate asked why Sinn Fein TDs have not called for the release of Downey in the Dail, in the same way in which they have highlighted Catalan activists.
The resounding message from Sinn Fein was that it is no longer a question of if but when a referendum will be held on Irish unity; and that if 50% plus one is enough to maintain the Union, then it is enough for Irish unity.
Brexit has drastically altered the political landscape and Sinn Fein has argued that many from the British tradition are now asking whether or not their interests would be better served in a united Ireland within the EU, rather than in the UK outside the EU.
Marisa McGlinchey is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Coventry University. She is the author of Unfinished Business: The Politics of 'Dissident' Irish Republicanism (Manchester University Press, 2019)