Sinn Féin, Brexit and the Oath of Allegiance

1 March, 2018

The abstentionist policy of Sinn Féin in respect of their seats in the Westminster parliament has been thrown into the spotlight by the narrow majority held there by Theresa May’s Government, particularly as that majority depends for its existence on her deal with the Democratic Unionist Party. It’s not too fanciful to suggest that the (self-inflicted) inability of the seven Sinn Féin MPs to argue and vote against Brexit in Westminster could have a long-lasting and damaging effect on all Irish people, north and south.

The Sinn Féin MPs refuse to take their seats as they will not swear an Oath of Allegiance to the Queen.  They are accordingly not allowed to draw an MP’s salary or pension, but they do claim substantial allowances for the costs of staff, offices and travel.  Although they will not enter the House of Commons chamber (and thus cannot vote on any issue being dealt with therein), in almost every other respect they act as normal MPs do, representing their constituents, holding clinics, and lobbying UK Government Ministers on relevant matters.

Given the high stakes involved in the Brexit issue, surely Sinn Féin should re-assess their abstentionist policy. They only need to look to Eamon de Valera’s pragmatic response in 1927 to a similar problem:  up until then, Fianna Fáil refused to take their seats in Dáil Eireann because that would have involved their taking an Oath of Allegiance (albeit a dilute and arguably ambiguous one) to the British Monarch.

However, the assassination of the Vice-President of the Executive Council, Kevin O’Higgins, led the Free State government under W. T. Cosgrave to (among other things) introduce the Electoral (Amendment) (No 2) Act .  This required every candidate to sign an affidavit stating that he or she would take their seat in the Dáil and sign the Oath if elected, or else face disqualification. Backed into a corner, de Valera and his fellow TDs overcame their supposedly inviolable principles by simply signing a book containing the oath, which they famously declared an “Empty Formula”, and were promptly admitted to the Dáil.

It would be in their constituents’, and Ireland’s, interests if Sinn Féin could adopt such a practical stance now; if they followed de Valera’s 1927 precedent, and took the historic step of overlooking this other “Empty Formula”, maybe the chances of overturning Brexit in Westminster would be materially improved.   How ironic if it were to be Sinn Féin which saved Britain from itself.

If Sinn Féin fail to act sensibly and take their seats, then surely it’s time for the UK Parliament to “do a W T Cosgrave” – that is to say, make it a requirement for all those standing for election to undertake to sign the Oath of Allegiance and take their seats, failing which they will be barred from standing at subsequent elections.

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