The likelihood that the withdrawal agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom will be defeated by a majority vote in the House of Commons has led to renewed calls for Sinn Féin to take up its seats in the Palace of Westminster on behalf of Irish voters in the UK’s disputed territory on the island of Ireland. On Monday the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, was quite forthright in his view that the seven SF MPs should attend the British parliament or resign from their positions. Which is somewhat bizarre, given that the republican party has always contested general elections in the Six Counties on the basis of abstentionism; that is, a refusal to recognise the authority of a foreign legislature to pass laws for any part of this country. A policy which has made the group the leading political voice of northern nationalism.
So, why on earth would Sinn Féin abandon a principle which has proven to be highly popular with its voters? Especially when history has taught us that the presence of Irish MPs in London has had zero effect on the deliberations of Westminster, as the northern SDLP aptly illustrated during its forty year sojourn in the British parliament (and as its several political predecessors proved before it). On the contrary, there is every reason to believe that the arrival in the House of Commons of republican legislators from Ireland would very likely inflame public opinion in Britain, in favour of the Brexit camp, with unpredictable consequences both inside and outside the chamber.
Logically, there is only one place that elected Irish MPs should be seeking admittance to. And that is to the national parliament of Ireland: Dáil Éireann in Dublin. In the run-up to the centenary of the meeting of the First Dáil on the 21st of January 1919, Sinn Féin should be putting forward motions in the Oireachtas demanding that Westminster legislators from the Six Counties, regardless of community or allegiance, should be granted non-voting observer status in an Dáil. Likewise, in the wake of any rejection of the EU-UK draft deal by the House of Commons, northern nationalist MPs should be arriving at the gates of Leinster House and requesting the right to take up their seats there and refusing to leave until forcibly carried away in cuffs by An Garda Síochána. And they should do the same thing again in January 2019, supported by every elected MLA and councillor in the Six Counties. That is the proper response to the hypocritical calls by the party’s critics and the British apologists in the press still hoping to give some form of ersatz legitimacy to Britain’s troublesome occupation of the north-eastern corner of our island nation.
Never underestimate the political value of a good PR event and its ability to embarrass your electoral rivals or put them on the backfoot.