Time for some to take a bold leap into 21st century politics

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald (Photo: Rolling News)

Down through the years, there have been countless hand-wringing and condescending prescriptions from the dinner party tables of Official Ireland as to what should be done about (a) Northern Ireland and (b) Irish people in the UK.

Few have been burdened by either practical experience or common sense – never mind that people instinctively recoil at being told by people, in another country at that, what it is they should do.

But in the last few days has emerged one that at least has the virtue of being imaginative and challenging – if, on past experience, as doomed to failure as its predecessors.

Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole, who has carved out a nice side-line telling the English how they’ve got everything so wrong, published his proposal on what Sinn Féin should do with the seven MPs’ seats it holds at Westminster – especially now that new PM Boris Johnson’s majority is down to one.

The party won the seats on an abstentionist platform which, it says, it has no intention of changing.

Former ‘Deputy’ British Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who led his Lib-Dem party into coalition with David Cameron between 2010 and 2015 and electoral oblivion after that, recently told an audience in Dublin that it could be counterproductive for Sinn Féin to suddenly take its seats to alter the balance of power.

It would be portrayed to skittish MPs as the IRA thwarting “the will of the British people” and probably lead to some Tory rebels reversing their opposition to their government’s ‘no deal’ Brexit gambit.

Fintan O’Toole

Mr O’Toole’s ingenious, original plan is for a pact among all the anti-Brexit parties in Northern Ireland – Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and the Greens (all of whom did quite well in the recent European Parliament elections).

The seven Sinn Féin MPs – Foyle, West Tyrone, Fermanagh & South Tyrone, Mid Ulster, Newry and Armagh, South Down and West Belfast – would temporarily stand down and trigger by-elections, for which the writs would have to be moved in the Commons on 3 September by a sympathetic friend.

Candidate

The elections could be held by the end of September.

The four parties would agree a candidate – in each case not aligned to any party and drawn from civil society, academia, business or the arts – for each of the seven constituencies.

The candidates would sign a public contract committing themselves to stand down as soon as Brexit is either accomplished, or aborted, and not to seek re-election. As an additional safeguard for Sinn Féin it could also demand that a candidate, or candidates, stand down if it says so.

The candidates would respect Sinn Féin’s policy of abstention on all issues except Brexit – “supporting all measures, procedural or legislative, to stop a no-deal Brexit, up to and including the revocation of article 50.

20 years after Agreement 13 months no government
Photo: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

“They will support in all circumstances the retention of the backstop.

“They will support any proposal for a new referendum.

“They will support a motion of no-confidence in Johnson if he seeks to push through a no-deal Brexit.

“And they will support, if the opportunity arises, the formation of an alternative cross-party administration.” 

It is clear that Boris Johnson and the people around him, including Brexit strategist Dominic Cummings, are wargaming going ahead with a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the event of losing a vote of no confidence and calling a general election.

One of the legislative legacies of Nick Clegg leading his Lib Dems to their slow slaughter by David Cameron’s Tories is the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

Election

It means a vote of no confidence no longer automatically triggers a general election but starts the clock on a period of 14 days after the vote during which an alternative government can be formed and seek to win a confidence vote.

If a multi-party alliance opposed to the damage and chaos of a ‘no deal’ Brexit – which includes our seven new Northern Ireland MPs and, probably, Independent Unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon – did cobble together a coalition it could spike Johnson’s and Cummings’ guns. The person leading this, as PM, could either ask for an extension or revoke Article 50.

And it would be a genuinely fair expression of the expressed, democratic, wishes of the people in those seven UK parliamentary constituencies – more so than from the leader of a neighbouring government.

Photo: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Sinn Féin would temporarily lose its parliamentary allowances but keep its hands clean – and, let’s face it, it hasn’t had a very good Brexit performance to date with no influence over either London or Dublin.

This would be a game-changer for politics in Northern Ireland and even give it a commanding moral lead – certainly, more so than stridently telling already equivocal, moderate, Unionists that they must prepare for a united Ireland.

It has long been clear that Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn wants Brexit to happen – preferably in a way that the Tories can be blamed for it, and he can reap electoral rewards from the damage Brexit does.

Similarly, there are some people who harbour suspicions that Sinn Féin – despite its nominal opposition to Brexit and the harm it would inflict north and south – wants it to happen as a staging post to a united Ireland.

But there are plenty of us left who don’t believe that and would love to see – however improbable and unrealistic it might be – parties like Sinn Féin take a bold leap forward into a new 21st century politics and bring other with them.

What a way to mark the centenary of the War of Independence.


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