SF bullish after government's key Brexit votes secured by its absent MPs
Sinn Fein has dismissed myriad calls for it to even temporarily take its seats in Westminster after the first Commons votes on Brexit where its seven MPs could have defeated the government if they had showed up to vote.
The party, which points to a huge electoral mandate for its abstentionist position, had previously assured voters that the votes of Northern Ireland’s MPs would not be decisive and therefore there was no significant impact from its refusal to enter the Commons chamber.
Two key Brexiteer amendments – accepted by the government late in the day amid fears that the government could be defeated by those opposed to the emerging softer version of Brexit proposed by Theresa May – passed by just three votes.
It is the first time since last year’s general election when Sinn Fein’s MPs could have tipped the balance in a crucial Commons division and has moved the party’s opposition to taking its Westminster seats – which it has variously been presented as either a principle or a tactic – from a theoretical discussion to a clear example where the consequences of the stance can be measured.
The two amendments which passed by three votes – including those of all 10 DUP MPs – will ensure that the UK is not a part of the EU’s VAT regime and will prevent the UK from collecting taxes on behalf of the EU, unless the rest of the EU reciprocates.
The hung Parliament and splits within both the Tories and Labour are likely to see further key Brexit votes decided on a handful of votes.
Last year, Sinn Fein reassured voters that Northern Ireland’s MPs – just 18 in a chamber of 650 – never counted in big decisions.
During the UTV leaders’ debate, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said: “We take representation to where it counts. None of the other parties have been able to stop – or even influence – anything to do with Brexit. This people that go to Westminster every Wednesday and sit on the green benches and talk till [sic] an empty chamber – that’s not effective.”
Irish Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan accused Sinn Fein of having “plunged the British PM in to the clutches of the hard Brexiteers again”.
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said that “hardline Brexiteers won last evening’s Westminster vote because of Sinn Fein abstentionism”.
He said that a “damaging vote for Ireland” would not have passed if the SDLP had not lost its three MPs – who took their seats – last year.
SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said that “Remain voters and nationalism has been let down and brought one step closer to catastrophic ‘no-deal’ Brexit”.
Speaking yesterday on RTE’s News At One, Ms O’Neill was dismissive of those who said that Sinn Fein MPs could have swung some of the key votes the previous evening.
Ms O’Neill said that was “a wee bit of nonsense” and argued that “the people of the north turned their back on Westminster” last year by electing Sinn Fein MPs.
Pressed on whether the party’s abstentionism policy could be at least suspended because of the Brexit votes in the Commons, she said: “No. I think I’ve made the point clear in terms of where the nationalist people of the north are.”
The former Stormont minister also argued that the slender government majorities in the Commons “are not just a mathematical game” and claimed that “Sinn Fein MPs would not have made one button of difference in terms of the approach and the outcome that happened yesterday”.
When asked if Sinn Féin would consider even temporarily taking seats in Westminster, the party’s Waterford TD David Cullinane said: “Westminster and the Tory civil war is what has caused this problem, so if anyone believes that is where the solution will be found, they are living in a fool’s paradise.”
He said that “where we do have a major impact is within the Brexit negotiations to such an extent that even the British government has conceded we are ‘strongly influencing’ those talks.
“That is how we will continue to represent the 238,000 voters who endorsed our abstentionist platform to oppose Brexit, a border, Tory austerity and to progress equality, rights and Irish unity.
“Those negotiations remain the place where the terms of Brexit will be decided, not the benches of Westminster.”