I was mildly amused last week to see Sinn Fein’s luminaries reclaim one of their founding principles in the wake of the recent UK election – the one that says true republicans cannot take their seats at Westminster, aka abstentionism – even though the underlying doctrine, the refusal to accept British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, has been repeatedly gnawed away by the same people during the last two or three decades.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that Sinn Fein would not be where it is now, with members elected to the three relevant parliaments in these islands, unless it had, in various ways, some big, some small, accepted that Britain, with the Queen as its titular head, is the sovereign power in the North.
The question of Sinn Fein dropping abstentionism at the House of Commons had never raised its head properly, however, until the recent UK general election, followed by the Grenfell fire, created a crisis for the policy of neo-liberal austerity, an arithmetic dilemma in the House of Commons for Theresa May and a generalised horror in Britain at the prospect of a troglodytic DUP calling the shots in government.
The arguments for Sinn Fein taking their seats at Westminster right now are thus pretty strong, some would argue, incontestable on both political and moral grounds.
First the arithmetic. If Sinn Fein was to take up its seats in the present UK parliament, the party could make Theresa May’s putative deal with the DUP very rickety indeed, perhaps even unsustainable.
With seven SF MP’s at the Palace of Westminster, the Tory-DUP majority could be reduced to two or three, meaning that a delayed taxi ride carrying a restaurant table full of Conservative MP’s to a late night House of Commons division, could precipitate another election and the downfall of what is rapidly becoming, in the wake of the Grenfell disaster, the most unpopular not to say detested UK government in recent memory.
By taking their seats in these wretched circumstances Sinn Fein would amass a bucket load of goodwill with everyone in Britain left of Kenneth Clarke, while sharpening rancour towards the DUP and the Unionist cause. To say that sympathy for the cause of Irish independence, and a new respect for Sinn Fein, would be strengthened as a result may not be an exaggeration.
But no, it was not to be.
Here is Gerry Adams writing in The Journal the other day and asking ‘….what kind of Irish leader would swear loyalty to the English crown?’:
To take seats in Westminster requires that a successful Irish republican MP begin their political life by accepting that the British state has the right to sovereignty over Ireland or a part of the island. It also means that their first political act as an MP is to take the oath which states:
“I … swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to Law. So help me God.”
Let me be very clear. I am an Irish republican. I believe in the sovereignty of the Irish people. I am against monarchies and elites of all kinds. As the MP for west Belfast I was very proud to represent all of the people of west Belfast for decades. Those who voted for me in election after election saw no disadvantage in my being an active abstentionist.
Where Sinn Féin fundamentally differ from the Dublin establishment parties is in our commitment to Irish national self-determination, to the unity and sovereignty of this island and the ending of partition. Their demand that Sinn Féin MPs should take the Oath of Allegiance and accept British sovereignty has nothing to do with what is good for the people of the North, or for those who voted for us on the basis of our abstentionist position, it is about trying to do what the SDLP failed to do – present Sinn Féin as a party that refuses to represent its electorate.
Fianna Fáil especially has a short memory. Its founding leaders stood on a platform of abolishing the British oath to the Dáil. The war cry was “Dismiss the Imperialists – Abolish the Oath – Vote for the Fianna Fáil candidates – One Allegiance Only.”
Is Micheál Martin now telling us that if his party ever stands candidates in the North, and they are successful, that they will take the Oath to the English Queen? What kind of Irish leader of a party which claims to be “The Republican Party” would ask Irish men and women to ignore their electoral mandate, swear loyalty to the English Queen, or legitimise the British Parliament’s role in Ireland?
Danny Morrison chimed in as well, writing on his blog:
How can I object to Britain interfering in Irish affairs if I go over and interfere in theirs?
Well, I hate to have to remind people of their own history but surely Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison cannot have forgotten that under their guidance and leadership, virtually every principle that Sinn Fein and the IRA said they believed in, especially those dealing with British sovereignty in Northern Ireland, was essentially dumped during the journey towards the Good Friday Agreement.
In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the 1998 deal would not have been possible otherwise. And throughout this process, the manoeuvre was accomplished by redesignating ‘principles’ as ‘tactics’.
Why, then, cannot they do the same with Westminster abstentionism?
It all began, ironically enough, in the IRA, back in the 1970’s when internment was phased out and the British turned to a new policy to defeat the IRA, one that depended on no-jury courts processing confessions, many of which were extracted by, to say the least, dubious methods employed by RUC interrogators.
The jails were filling up thanks in great part to an IRA ‘principle’ which said that its members could never recognise the courts in the North because they were British courts. To recognise them by submitting a not guilty plea and mounting a defence was regarded as being tantamount to recognising British sovereignty and the role of the British Crown in the judicial and political process.
Sheer pragmatism and the knowledge that strict adherence to the principle could precipitate the IRA’s defeat, forced a change. IRA members were allowed to submit pleas and put forward a defence in court. This may not have resulted in a flood of acquittals but it certainly slowed the conveyor belt to the Maze prison.
Once that principle was discarded, and replaced by a tactic, it became so much easier when, a decade or so later, the peace process began to take shape and it became necessary for the Provo leadership to confront other, once hallowed principles.
The list of discarded principles and newly discovered tactics that followed is a long one. Here are some of the highlights:
At the top of the list is the IRA’s armed struggle and its retention of weapons. Both of these were once untouchable principles but they both were discarded when judged necessary by the leadership and were relegated to the status of tactics, on a par with fighting elections and getting bums on the back seats of ministerial cars.
The principle here was that since politics implied compromise, politics would not achieve British withdrawal. Only violence could do that.
Here was another. For decades republicans would have nothing to do with the RUC, except when under arrest, because to do so – for instance by filing for police permission to hold parades or protests – was tantamount to recognising the RUC’s authority and thus the legitimacy of the state the IRA was pledged to destroy. But that principle also became a tactic to be dropped, and by the mid to late 1980’s republicans were trooping down to their local police stations to fill out the necessary forms.
In fact any interaction with the institutions of the Northern Ireland state, its officials, council chambers and bodies – which hitherto had been forbidden because it amounted to recognition of British sovereignty – became an acceptable tactic during the early years of the peace process. Like other, once un-crossable lines, it could be bent, broken or passed over in the overarching search for the deal that brought us the GFA.
Nowhere was this theological shift more central to subsequent events than the traditional republican attitude towards the two states in Ireland, a stance that translated into a traditional, utter refusal to accept or recognise the institutions created by the 1921 Treaty.
The parliaments in Dublin and Belfast were created by the British government as the central features of an imposed settlement at the conclusion of the Anglo-Irish war, and symbolic of this is that members of both bodies were obliged to swear an oath of fealty to the British Crown, at least initially.
To accept Stormont or the Dail – the latter once known dismissively by the IRA as ‘Leinster House’ – implicitly means accepting the right of the British government, and Crown, to set and keep these institutions in place and to determine, at least at the outset, their rules and limitations.
That is why the non-subscribing IRA refused to recognise or take seats in either institution and dedicated itself to their destruction. The people of all Ireland in an election in 1919, repeated in 1921, had voted for complete independence, which the IRA asserted in arms, and here was the Treaty throwing those votes into the garbage.
To do otherwise than rejecting the 1921 settlement meant, for traditional republicans of the 1969 Provo vintage, accepting the legitimacy of the British Crown and the legality of partition, the exact same reason Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison now give for refusing to take their seats on the Labour benches behind their old buddy, Jeremy Corbyn.
Yet both Adams and Morrison proposed and accepted SF taking seats in the other two parliaments involved in the partition settlement.
But it doesn’t stop there. When the Queen, or any other member of the Royal Family visits Northern Ireland, they are on a trip to a part of the kingdom over which the House of Windsor claims suzerainty.
So when Martin McGuinness met the Queen, and stood in a line to shake her hand, was he not implicitly, and even explicitly, accepting the legitimacy of this royal claim? And what, pray, is the difference between that and stating the same, courtesy of a parliamentary oath, that asserts, as Gerry Adams put it, that:
‘…..the British state has the right to sovereignty over Ireland or a part of the island’.
On one famous occasion in the early years of SF’s journey to peace, when the British insisted that those elected to the North’s councils would have to sign an oath of non-violence, the party agreed to do so, even though some of those councillors were IRA members and others accepted its ultimate authority.
Danny Morrison had a solution to this difficulty; if he was elected, he declared, he would sign the oath:
‘….with his tongue stuck so far into his cheek, it would come out through the top of his head.’
Why cannot Sinn Fein’s MP’s now do the same next week at the Westminster parliament and stick their tongues deep into their cheeks? That would at least be consistent with all they have done over the last two decades or more. After all once a principle is breached even in part, it is breached for good and in its entirety.