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Understanding Sinn Féin Abstention from the UK Parliament

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Irish Republican abstentionism from the British Parliament has a long and complicated history. Arguably, the last few decades since the Good Friday Agreement have been some of the least consequential or controversial since the practise began. The 2017 election, the DUP’s entry into a confidence & supply agreement with the Conservative Party, and the backdrop of a Parliament unable to act upon the result of the Brexit referendum, has renewed interest in it. Sinn Féin’s decision not to take their seven seats in Westminster is causing consternation, particularly from those who wish to see the party enter Parliament and derail a no-deal or ‘hard’ Brexit. While debating the merits of abstentionism is an argument as old as the practise itself, it is worth understanding the context of why Sinn Féin do not take their seats, and why it is incredibly unlikely that they will do so any time soon.

The modern Sinn Féin party (Gaeilge for ‘Ourselves Alone’) take their name and political legacy (with considerable dispute from other parties in Ireland) from the party formed by Arthur Griffith in 1905. This Sinn Féin acted as a vanguard movement for Republican aspirations in the 1918 general election. The Republican leadership of the time stood on a unified platform pledging to not take their seats were they to be successfully elected to Westminster in order to dislodge the more moderate Irish Parliamentary Party. In the wake of the First World War and the failed 1916 Easter revolution, Sinn Féin secured an enormous endorsement from the electorate winning 73 of the 105 seats. Crucially, this was tied with the pledge to set up an alternative Irish Parliament in Dublin, which of course they duly did, leading to the Irish War of Independence and subsequent creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.

The long and troubled history of Ireland and Northern Ireland is too complex to get into here, but the relative success of the abstentionist policy ensured a Republican commitment to it, not just in Westminster, but for many decades in the partitioned Irish Parliaments in both Dublin and Belfast. At the height of the Northern Irish Troubles, the tactic received enormous attention again during the early 1980s. In 1981 Republican prisoners Bobby Sands and Kieran Doherty were........

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