The issue of republican abstention from the Westminster parliament has always been framed by republicans themselves in simple ideological terms: taking seats in parliaments established by British law or fiat implied in an undeniable fashion acceptance of, and acquiescence to British claims of sovereignty in Ireland.
For traditional republicans that always meant that while Sinn Fein candidates could and did stand for election to all the post-1921 parliaments in Britain and Ireland, they would never take their seats.
It was not so much about taking the oath of allegiance that successful candidates would be asked to swear, albeit that such oaths were in themselves regarded as obnoxious, as about what the oath implied regarding Irish independence, or rather its lack thereof.
In the case of modern Sinn Fein, the ideology was set aside in 1986 when Sinn Fein voted at its ard-fheis to take seats in the Dublin parliament, Dail Eireann, whose origin lies in the 1921 settlement which also partitioned Ireland and kept part of Ireland, in the North, under British rule, albeit at arms’ length.
Once breached, a principle ceases to be a principle and becomes instead a tactic, to be followed or discarded as circumstances and political expediency dictate. And so it has been with Sinn Fein and by such a route has the party’s journey been mapped.
The principle was further breached in 1998, with the Good Friday Agreement and Sinn Fein’s subsequent agreement to take seats in the new Northern Assembly. Having decided to take seats in the Dail, the party could hardly do otherwise.
Throughout Sinn Fein’s lengthy and slow voyage to constitutional nationalism – and that is what it has been – tactical considerations have always dictated the pace and direction of the expedition.
Prime among the factors influencing this journey has been the mood of the IRA’s grassroots supporters and the caution of Sinn Fein’s leadership; dropping Dail abstentionism was achieved, for instance, by extravagant promises never to abandon armed struggle (boosted by Libyan arms shipments which had begun to arrive, a secret that by 1986 was being increasingly shared with key figures) and the fact that taking seats in the Dail was less objectionable to the Northerners than Stormont or Westminster.
By the time the decision was made to take seats at Stormont, the abstentionist argument had been stripped of any ideological principle; what mattered was what the SF leadership wanted and how skilled their management of the IRA grassroots was.
On that basis there is no reason why Sinn Fein should not, could not take its seats at Westminster, as speculation suggests the party’s leadership may be mulling in the wake the court decision on Brexit in London last week.
And to judge by the friendliness that now exists between Sinn Fein’s Northern leader Martin McGuinness and the British Queen – as evident in this clip published by The Daily Telegraph earlier this year – the party may have less difficulty swearing the oath of allegiance to her than might be imagined.