Will Sinn Fein MPs soon take their seats?
After this week’s historic, symbolic handshake in Belfast between Martin McGuinness and the Queen, is the logical next step for the five Sinn Fein MPs to take their seats in the House of Commons?
I was invited to a Sinn Fein “summer reception” last night at Westminster (though was unable to attend). In itself the words “summer reception” rather suggest the party has joined the establishment, though I am assured there was no lobster and caviar, but wine and beer for the 150 or so people who attended. Martin McGuinness was the main speaker, and he announced that Sinn Fein’s five MPs will become much more “engaged” with Westminster politics in future.
In part, this is because the party has decided that its representatives should no longer hold dual mandates, and that individual Sinn Fein members should stop serving in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and as Westminster MPs.
That’s why McGuinness himself is giving up his Westminster seat of Mid-Ulster, thereby causing a by-election shortly. Each of the other four Sinn Fein MPs has decided to remain a Westminster MP and given up their seat at Stormont (one of the replacements, incidentally, Meagan Fearon, is just 20 years old).
It’s intriguing that four of Sinn Fein’s most senior figures should be willing to give up their places in an assembly where they can speak and and participate in proceedings, and also serve as ministers, for an assembly where their party is committed not to participate in any way. Is that a sign that the boycott – known as ‘abstentionism’ – won’t be maintained forever?
I was surprised to learn how often the five Sinn Fein MPs actually visit Westminster, even though they never take the oath or engage in Parliamentary proceedings. Conor Murphy tells me he sometimes visits Westminster three or four times a month, and that most weeks at least one of the Sinn Fein contingent will visit.
The five Sinn Fein MPs have four offices between them, huddled together in St Stephen’s Tower, above the public entrance to the Commons, and they have a full-time member of staff here. And the Sinn Fein MPs use Westminster facilities to meet UK government ministers and engage in other, non-parliamentary aspects of the political process.
Would taking the oath of allegiance to the crown be that bad for the five Sinn Fein MPs now that their leader has shaken the Queen’s hand? After all, staunch republicans such as George Galloway, Dennis Skinner, and the SNP and Plaid MPs, have all taken the oath without the skies falling in. Also, of course, the Irish Republican Socialist MP Bernadette Devlin/McAliskey did so. The late left-wing Labour MP Tony Banks used to take the oath with his fingers crossed as a sign that he didn’t really mean it.
Indeed, you could say that Sinn Fein is no longer the most republican of the parties engaged in British politics. Unlike Martin McGuinness, the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, announced in April that she would not meet the Queen during her jubilee celebrations because of her republican principles.
Sinn Fein first refused to take their places in the Westminster parliament after the 1918 election, when they won 73 of Ireland’s 105 seats, and their contingent famously included the first woman MP, Countess (Constance) Markievicz.
Those MPs served only for one parliament, but two more Sinn Fein MPs were elected briefly for Northern Irish seats in 1955, and several more have been elected since 1981 when the party started fighting Westminster elections again.
None of these MPs has ever sat in the Commons chamber, or voted in the lobbies, or served on a Commons committee, though there was a dispute 2-3 years ago about whether or not Pat Doherty, the MP for West Tyrone, had signed three Parliamentary early day motions (he denied doing so).
No political advantage
Sinn Fein argues there would be no political benefit to taking their seats at Westminster. On the big issue stuff – a united Ireland – perhaps not. But the party must surely have noticed the success that small numbers of Ulster unionist MPs have had over the years, in their various party guises, in wringing concessions from the British government at a time when the government needs their support in tight Commons votes.
Admittedly, the unionists have lost out on the big picture stuff over the last four decades, but they’ve been pretty good at using their parliamentary presence to deliver goodies for their Northern Irish constituents.
Sinn Fein strongly denies they’ll ditch abstentionism. Their MPs were elected on a mandate of not sitting at Westminster, one MP, Conor Murphy, tells me. They don’t see any function in them taking part in the British Parliament, he says, and he insists there is no pressure on them to do so. And there would be no political advantage. It will “never happen”, the party insists.
But didn’t Sinn Fein say that about shaking hands with the Queen? And all sorts of other things?
Follow Michael Crick on Twitter: @MichaelLCrick