Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: The main casualty of a roller coaster week at Westminster has been the very public slaughter of Sinn Fein's self-serving policy of abstentionism

Republicans now languish at the whim of a Parliament they refuse to sit in to push through 'their' equality agenda

People marching in Belfast to support same-sex marriage
People marching in Belfast to support same-sex marriage

By Tom Kelly

Wordsworth nailed it: "Dull would he be of soul who could pass by a sight so touching in its majesty." He was speaking, of course, about the view of Westminster. The words of Wordsworth were echoed by the former SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, in an interview during his first visit to Westminster as an MP in 1986. As in many things, Mallon was, as ever, prescient.

On Tuesday, I was standing on the terrace of Westminster, looking back towards the bridge, and the majesty of Parliament never seemed more touching. Parliament was at its best.

Tories, Labour, Lib Democrats and Scot Nationalists mingled and they were beaming. Just as Simeon was promised by the Holy Spirit he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah, so too was the British Parliament delivering up to Northern Ireland the equal rights so desperately sought by the majority of its citizens.

In a day during which 10 DUP Members of Parliament, including the party's deputy leader Nigel Dodds, tried hopelessly (and not for the first time) to have their devolution cake and eat it, and when seven Sinn Fein members stood idly by - like the well-remunerated political tourists they are - another Irishman (who, like them, is a British MP) delivered up the long-awaited promise of equal rights for the LGBT community.

Conor McGinn - reared from the same earth that gave birth to the poets Cathal Bui Mac Giolla, Art Mac Cumaigh and Seamus Dall Mac Curta - was equally eloquent in his prose to his fellow parliamentarians that no citizen in the north of Ireland should be bereft of rights that were available in the rest of UK, or the island of Ireland.

In a way, to borrow a phrase, it was a no-brainer.

It was a day of full of irony. The irony that unionist MPs, who, with the notable exception of the indefatigable Lady Sylvia Hermon (a touchstone for equality and fairness), voted to deny parity of rights to citizens within the UK.

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These champions of the benefits of 'the Union' (and who this week will feast on a festival of their unique interpretation of a Britishness that didn't exist in 1690) will forfeit that Union by forsaking the young unionists and their aspirations for a more equitable and fairer society.

And so too does Sinn Fein make the same forfeiture. They rode the back of the equality agenda. They garnered behind them disparate elements of the movement for change - only to let them down.

The middle ground, tired of stalemate, kicked back electorally - not once, but twice.

Alliance, Greens and People Before Profit grew their vote share. The SDLP didn't implode. People in Northern Ireland wanted politics that was participative, not regressive, or abstentionist. The tribalism of identity politics was at last being seriously challenged.

The irony too that Sinn Fein now awaits the whims of a British Parliament to deliver 'their' equality agenda while taking millions of pounds in public money, but don't speak in Parliament on behalf of those taxpayers who demand change.

The Treasury pound spent on politicians in Cardiff and Holyrood is of no less value than that spent at Stormont or Westminster.

But back to the equality agenda and, with the stalemate at Stormont, the only place which could actually create the circumstances to provide for social change was Westminster. And yet those Sinn Fein MPs who shamelessly photo-bombed every equal-opportunity press event, and who were to the fore of every Pride march, ended up as understudies, never getting to play the parts for which they rehearsed. Just like Dad's Army, they haplessly prepared for the invasion that never came.

In a way, Sinn Fein and the DUP have found common cause. Conor McGinn, the happy crusader, got both off their self-imposed hooks - especially of those that could, but wouldn't and those that wouldn't, but could.

On one hand, the DUP could have argued that membership of the UK benefits all. But they didn't. And, in doing so, they sounded like Ulster nationalists - loyal to a crown, not the Crown.

And Sinn Fein (as with opposing Brexit from the gardens of Westminster) could have used their mandate in the House of Commons, but didn't. They could, in a principled way, have refused the half-crown, but didn't.

Whether at group prayer and a tea dance, or in a dark smoking room over a pub flowing with beer, both the DUP and Sinn Fein must be secretly happy that social change has come about through a south Armagh nationalist and British MP, who is actively committed to the Parliament in which he serves.

Neither party will say that and McGinn wouldn't expect it, but there will be general relief all around.

The DUP and Sinn Fein should embrace what has happened and now negotiate the return of Stormont. But they won't. There is still mileage in sham fights and flag-waving.

The main casualty of this week has been the public slaughter of that self-serving party political policy of abstentionism. A standard echo-chamber call of Sinn Fein is that Westminster is irrelevant to Northern Ireland. It wasn't - and it isn't.

The arguments are well-rehearsed. The late Eddie McGrady painstakingly took our fair employment legislation line-by-line through Parliament. Seamus Mallon did the same with policing. Sinn Fein acted as lobbyists asking others to do the heavy lifting.

Yet our benefits system, welfare, pensions and taxation are all dealt with at Westminster.

Some of these areas (although initially devolved) were actually returned to the sovereignty of Parliament from Stormont via the DUP/Sinn Fein axis.

Brexit is a Westminster issue, if you hadn't noticed.

And if you are a credit union member, the local Department of Enterprise also relinquished control and regulation to London.

So, when anyone says Westminster is irrelevant, that is simply nonsense. When someone says attending Westminster doesn't matter, it does.

It currently gives the DUP a stranglehold and Sinn Fein's absence allows them to go unchallenged.

But look at this week. A single backbench opposition MP, Conor McGinn, without being born with the benefits of a silver spoon in his mouth, or having high-society connections, built up the arguments and the essential political coalitions to deliver change for victims everywhere through Helen's Law and equality for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland.

As the saying goes, one person can make a difference and every person should try.

Tom Kelly is a writer and commentator

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