The incomparable Fintan O’Toole made a very interesting case in the Irish Times the other day for Sinn Fein resigning their Westminster seats, triggering a series of by-elections and standing aside for agreed Remain candidates who, if they won, would take their seats and vote to stop a no-deal Brexit. With Boris Johnson reduced to an overall majority of just one and with parliamentary arithmetic so finely balanced, there is an obvious logic underpinning Fintan’s argument (and I say that as someone who voted Leave and would do so again).
Sinn Fein’s response was fast and unambiguous. No: their mandate was for abstentionism and they wouldn’t be budging. Yet for the past three years Sinn Fein has warned that irreparable damage will be done to Ireland, on both sides of the border, if the Conservatives continue to push for what looks like a hard Brexit or a no-deal Brexit. Since Boris Johnson became prime minister they have been fog-horning their concerns from every available platform.
At this point their seven seats would make a huge difference to the dynamics in the House of Commons. Johnson would, almost certainly, lose a vote of no confidence. He would also find it increasingly difficult to squeeze through a no-deal exit. In other words, Sinn Fein’s presence, even if restricted to Brexit-related issues only, would make a crucial difference between now and October 31; unless, of course, Johnson managed to trigger a general election in the meantime and win a comfortable parliamentary majority for his strategy (which is clearly something he is thinking about).
Sinn Fein has U-turned on abstentionism in the past. Who, for example, would have imagined that the party would one day take seats in an Assembly sitting in the ‘hated Stormont’ and then establish a power-sharing Executive with the DUP? And all of this while Ireland remained partitioned and Northern Ireland was governed as a constituent part of the United Kingdom?
These are historic, momentous times and call for historic, momentous, strategic decisions. What is the point of abstentionism at the moment? What is the point of complaining about the thundering hooves of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse if you have the power to create the very hurdle which would unseat them? What is the point of complaining about the wrecking done to Ireland by ‘little-Englander’ nationalism when you have a means of making like extraordinarily difficult for Boris Johnson? What is the point of complaining about the DUP cosying-up to the Conservatives when you have the numbers and votes to render the DUP/Conservative relationship essentially redundant?
A response on my Twitter timeline on Saturday summed up what seems to be the feeling of many Sinn Fein supporters on this side of the border: ‘Voters elect SF MPs as a protest against foreign Westminster colonial rule. We refuse to assimilate into or interfere with British politics – we aren’t going to parent the British to not damage themselves. If they reject the backstop and crash out they’ll trigger a border poll.’ The text concluded with a smiling, winking emoji. That would suggest Sinn Fein may not care all that much about a hard Brexit or no-deal Brexit, believing that those are the best outcomes for advancing the cause of Irish unity. So be it. I’ve argued before that nothing trumps unity for them.
But what if there isn’t a border poll? As it stands that poll can only be called by the UK’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland (although the presumption is that it wouldn’t be called unless the Irish government also agreed). And, as it further stands, there is no certainty, no legal guarantee, that a secretary of state would trigger a poll in the absence of a no deal. I’m pretty sure the UK government would argue time would be required to see how, exactly, a no-deal exit would work in practice: further arguing that it wouldn’t make sense to trigger a poll until voters were given a clearer choice when it came to specific options and arrangements. I’m also pretty sure that the Irish government would buy into that argument; because I’m not persuaded that, on the back of the uncertainties following a no-deal exit, it would be keen on the additional uncertainties and squabbling accompanying a border poll.
Sinn Fein also has to have some regard for their southern base, because that’s where they took a hefty electoral bruising just a few weeks ago. When you are in a position to change the political/voting dynamics on an issue as big as Brexit I’m not sure how happy potential voters will be if they think you deliberately chose to do nothing. I’d hazard a guess and suggest they wouldn’t be all that happy. Again, though, that is a calculation for Sinn Fein alone. But having abandoned their 40 years plus anti-EU policy and backed Remain in 2016 it does seem odd that they choose not to advance the interests and concerns of Northern Ireland’s Remain majority in the House of Commons right now.
A few months ago I remember the DUP’s Gavin Robinson responding to the latest Sinn Fein complaint about his party’s relationship with the Conservatives by arguing that Sinn Fein had the power to make a difference to the arithmetic by taking their seats. And that’s what this all boils down to. Taking the seats wouldn’t be a cosmetic exercise entirely for their own interests. Taking their seats could make a huge difference to Ireland, the UK and the EU. Yet all they do is complain about damage they have the possible wherewithal to either stop or temper.
But doing so could make earlier-than-anticipated unity more difficult. Sinn Fein accuse English nationalism of being willing to reduce Ireland to collateral damage as part of the Brexit project. Ironically, some might now accuse Sinn Fein of allowing Ireland to become collateral damage as part of their Irish unity project.