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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There was an interesting article recently by Noel Whelan in the Irish Times.  The article was about Sinn Féin and how it really isn’t a normal democratic political party.  It included mention of a topic, the significance of which had largely passed me by until now but which, to me at least, goes some way to explaining why there hasn’t been any progress in restoring the Stormont assembly. 

If Sinn Féin is to be believed its current leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, holds that position at the pleasure of the current party leader. When many of us queried the lack of internal party democracy involved in her appointment to the post by Adams a year ago, we were told the role is akin to any front bench appointment which any party leader would make.

But this is very strange. There is a power-sharing assembly at Stormont (or at least there is meant to be), and one of the main principles underpinning it is that the largest Unionist party in terms of parliamentary seats won and the largest Nationalist party in terms of parliamentary seats won are joined together in a complex mechanism whereby power is shared and decisions are taken jointly.  But the largest Nationalist party is led by a person who is not elected by their Stormont representatives, or even by their party members in Northern Ireland, or by some combination of these methods.

Instead he/she is appointed in some opaque manner by whoever happens to be leader of Sinn Féin, the 32-county party based in Dublin (currently Gerry Adams). And there is certainly no transparency as regards how Sinn Féin appoints its overall leader.  Indeed I suggest that it would be a brave TD who decided, without getting the nod from the “powers that be”, to stand against Mary-Lou McDonald for election as leader of Sinn Féin– and I mean physically brave.

But should the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland be appointed by the 32-county organisation? This means that Northern Ireland is governed in large part by an entity that is controlled by people outside Northern Ireland.   It seems fair to me to question whether, partly as a result of this anomaly, Sinn Féin has less than a total commitment to restoration of the Stormont executive.  If the leader of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland leader didn’t hold office at the whim of Gerry Adams (soon to be replaced as overall party leader Dubliner Mary-Lou McDonald), would it negotiate more sensibly?  If that leader were solely answerable to its Northern Ireland MLAs and their constituents, would the power-sharing Assembly be back in business?

This set-up is akin to having a situation where the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party was appointed by, and removable by, Theresa May.  I can’t see that going down well with anybody on this island.

As ever, where Sinn Féin is involved, anomalies and contortions are the order of the day. At some time in the future, Sinn Féin may come to behave like a normal democratic political party. We certainly aren’t there yet.

 

Worrying reports in today’s newspapers about opposition politicians combining to prevent Government views being expressed at a public meeting, and about physical and verbal abuse of Government deputies.  One expects no better from Sinn Féin, of course, but it’s disappointing to see Fianna Fáil brazenly displaying their bully-boy DNA so soon after they destroyed the country’s economy and reputation.

A FINE Gael deputy has claimed he was “physically assaulted,” by a woman as he left the stage at a rally in support of retaining services for the elderly at a local hospital.

Peter Fitzpatrick was one of three government deputies who were not allowed address a crowd of 700 who took part in a march on Saturday afternoon in support of retaining long-term care for the elderly at the Cottage Hospital in Drogheda.

The alleged assault took place as they were leaving the stage after being prevented from using the microphone.

The crowd was told by a member of the Save Drogheda Cottage Hospital committee that it had been agreed that any TD who did not sign a pledge would not be allowed the microphone.

….. Both of the opposition TDs in Louth — Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and Fianna Fail’s Seamus Kirk — signed it and addressed the crowd.

All this reminds me of a time long ago (the 1930s to be precise), when Fianna Fáil and assorted other gangsters attempted to prevent Cumann na nGaedheal politicians from speaking at public meetings.  As a result, the Army Comrades Association (better known as the “Blueshirts”) found a role for themselves, and helped keep Ireland safe for democracy.

Maurice Manning, who wrote a book on the Blueshirts, said in 2001 that

“the fundamental question as to why the movement appeared in the first place …..  at least to those involved, was straightforward to protect freedom of speech and to ensure that those opposed to Fianna Fáil and the IRA were able to get a fair hearing and hold their public meetings

…..   The only meetings being broken up were those of Cumann na nGaedheal and the new Centre Party. Not a single Fianna Fáil meeting was disrupted during this entire period.

The disruption was organised. The IRA made it clear that there would be no free speech for traitors, and openly set about putting this into practice. In this they had the backing of many Fianna Fáil supporters.

It is significant, for example, that James Dillon, then deputy leader of the Centre Party, and as hostile then to Cumann na nGaedheal as he was to Fianna Fáil, was emphatic that had it not been for the Blueshirts, freedom of speech would have disappeared in 1933.

So while the fascist-like trappings of the Blueshirts (and the possibly true fascist leanings of a minority of members) have rightly come to be regarded as suspicious, I cannot help but feel that their transient success was simply a reaction to Fianna Fáil’s innately violent and anti-democratic nature.

If things go on like this, with democratically-elected politicians being refused the right to express their views, we may need a 21st century version of the Blueshirts!

Quote of the Day

1 February, 2011

One of the language-usage blogs I follow is “You Don’t Say” written by the Baltimore Sun’s self-styled “moderate prescriptivist”, John McIntyre.

Today he has this: “No one would have taken greater joy in the tea party phenomenon than Henry Mencken, who reflexively distrusted all True Believers but found their antics hugely amusing. I myself am happily awaiting the discovery, already beginning to dawn in Washington, that campaigning is comparatively easy but governance is hard.”

For some reason, I immediately though of Sinn Féin when I read the (so true) last phrase.  How great it must be to have the luxury of making bold assertions about how the country’s problems can be solved, in the knowledge that they will not be in Government after the next election.