Election 2015: Sam McBride

Cartoon by Brian John Spencer
Cartoon by Brian John Spencer

For months, the DUP has been openly salivating at the prospect that next week’s election will produce a hung Parliament in which it will be crucial in deciding on who enters Downing Street.

Increasingly, that has refocused attention on the refusal of Sinn Fein MPs to take their seats at Westminster.

Sinn Fein’s response has been to confidently predict that, whatever the outcome, the votes of Northern Ireland’s MPs will not count. The party leadership must be earnestly hoping that is the case.

Even in extraordinary circumstances where its five or so MPs could decide between a Tory or Labour Prime Minister, it has made it very difficult to make a snap decision on entering the Commons.

During the campaign, Michelle Gildernew appeared to leave open that possibility, saying “never say never”.

But on Tuesday’s UTV debate, Martin McGuinness spelt out republican abstentionism in terms which appear final, at least during his political lifetime.

He spoke of abstentionism as a key “principle” of republicanism, rather than a mere tactic. Last night Declan Kearney said “never” when asked on Q Radio if they would “ever” take their seats.

While nationalists understandably care less about Westminster than unionists, Sinn Fein’s carefully-crafted image as the left-wing party of the working class could take a battering if David Cameron gets into Downing Street when they could have stopped him. Railing against ‘Tory cuts’ would be less easy.

The SNP has always taken its seats at Westminster, but that party found itself in a not dissimilar position in 1979 when its MPs voted against Labour in a vote of confidence. In the ensuing election, Margaret Thatcher came power and the Tories ran Britain until 1997.

It took the SNP years to recover from that; Sinn Fein will be praying that it’s not in a similar position.