Belfast Telegraph

New Sinn Fein MP for West Tyrone will prop up Tory misrule... is that what republicans really vote for?

Abstentionism from Westminster merely serves to keep Theresa May in power, writes Alban Maginness

There was nothing inevitable about Barry McElduff's resignation as MP for West Tyrone. The disgraced politician's forced resignation - for that's what it was - was a result of the failure of the Sinn Fein machine to properly manage its damage-limitation exercise in the wake of McElduff's woeful video.

The initial, outright no-holds-barred criticism of him by party chairperson Declan Kearney Monday week ago had melted into a limp slap on the wrist by that evening.

His suspension on full pay for three months cut no ice with the public at large. It was widely regarded as adding insult to injury.

It drew huge negative criticism from the families of the Kingsmill victims, an array of unionist and nationalist politicians and, more significantly, seasoned political commentators.

Even Patricia McBride, a former Victims' Commissioner usually more sympathetic to Sinn Fein, was critical of the inadequate sanction given to McElduff.

The media reaction throughout the rest of the week continued to be critical and non-stop, and left Sinn Fein vulnerable to the charge of tolerating the apparent disrespect shown to the Kingsmill victims by McElduff's appalling video.

Mary Lou McDonald's car crash interview on RTE on the subject of McElduff did further damage to Sinn Fein's management of the issue.

It could not shake off the continued criticism, and the enforced silence of its leadership team compounded the problem.

Only John O'Dowd's forthright and courageous condemnation of the Kingsmill massacre as "sectarian" and "shameful" for republicans brought some relief for the party. But this was not enough to make the issue go away. Clearly, this was going to be a much greater issue than first imagined.

By the weekend it must have realised that it had a very serious problem of credibility on this issue, particularly in the South, where it holds huge electoral ambitions.

On Sunday it was dealt a major body-blow when Miriam O'Callaghan on RTE interviewed the dignified and impressive Alan Black, the only survivor of Kingsmill. He was shot 18 times and left for dead with 10 fellow Protestant workers.

The interview was an extraordinary account of his terrible experience on that fateful evening in January 1976. It was a very moving and compelling piece of broadcasting and was marked by gentleness, a complete lack of rancour, or urge for revenge, on his part.

He stated that he felt that the Kingsmill murder victims were being treated as a political football. He urged politicians to get on with what they were elected to do, namely the job of governing and sorting out problems, like health.

Politicians, whether they be DUP or Sinn Fein, should not be "poking sticks into each other's eyes".

It is extraordinary that, from time to time, an ordinary, plain-spoken citizen like Mr Black can grasp the awful truth of the reality of our situation and give amazing witness to all of us, but, in particular, to our political elite

He still maintained his criticism of McElduff's video as being depraved and designed to hurt. He made it plain that he did not accept McElduff's apology and his assertion that it was not his intention to offend the families of the victims.

On a subsequent radio current affairs programme, just after that sobering interview on RTE, a Sinn Fein TD tried in vain to defend the party's position on McElduff, but was hopelessly marginalised by the fierce criticism drawn from his fellow contributors on the programme.

By the end of these damaging interviews on RTE it would have been clear to Sinn Fein that decisive action needed to be taken to end the McElduff problem, which was now spilling over into the Republic and endangering its grand design for the next Dail election. By Sunday evening McElduff's fate was sealed.

We are now faced with a by-election in West Tyrone. However, the by-election does raise the uncomfortable position of Sinn Fein's abstentionist policy, which indirectly supports the continuance of the Tory Government at Westminster.

If Sinn Fein was to take up its seven seats at Westminster, Theresa May's Government would be under real pressure on issues such as Brexit and, indeed, its own survival would be in jeopardy, having a tiny majority - even with DUP support.

Confronted with this absurd position of unintentionally supporting the Tory Government, the good electors of West Tyrone may have a problem endorsing a Sinn Fein candidate who will continue, like McElduff, to wastefully abstain from Parliament.

In the past it could be argued by Sinn Fein that abstention did not matter, as the numbers were not close.

But it is now clear that the numbers are close and attendance would make a real difference on a wide range of crucial matters - not least Brexit.

In those circumstances, an active, attending Member of Parliament could count a lot - and not just for the people of West Tyrone.

Belfast Telegraph

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