Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole said no-deal could be stopped if Sinn Fein’s seven MPs were temporarily giving up their seats in Westminster for anti-Brexit MPs to tip the balance in the House of Commons. Do they agree?
First published in August 2019.
There has been some debate in Ireland, North and South of the border, over the possibility of averting a no-deal Brexit. One commentator has said no-deal could be stopped if Sinn Fein’s seven MPs, instead of going against their long-term policy of abstention, were to temporarily give up their seats at the earliest opportunity in order to elect seven further anti-Brexit MPs to Westminster.
On 2 August, the Dublin based Irish Times published an article by columnist Fintan O’Toole mooting a plan on how to tip the balance in Westminster so that the Government’s current majority of one (with DUP support) could easily be wiped out in order to avert a no-deal Brexit.
Under O’Toole’s proposal, Sinn Fein, who feel unable to swear the oath to the Queen and follow a long-held policy of abstention, temporarily stand down from their seven mainly border area seats in Northern Ireland triggering by-elections at the end of September, all of which, says O’Toole, would result in anti-Brexit non-partisan MPs. These seven MPs, who would commit only to dealing with Brexit issues will not be aligned to any party and will command wide respect and be drawn from civil society, academia, business and the arts. Having signed a public contract to stand down as soon as Brexit is no longer an issue, “the candidates will commit themselves to respecting Sinn Féin’s policy of abstention on all issues except the ones that pertain to Brexit and the unfolding crisis.”
And what is in it for Sinn Fein? O’Toole argues that the party’s not sitting in Westminster has deprived the anti-Brexit electorate of a voice – voters in Northern Ireland are effectively silenced on the Brexit issue, having no voice in Dublin either.
“Here, in one bold move, (Sinn Fein) can have an electrifying effect on the course of Irish and British history and in the process definitively end the perception that it is a party of protest rather than power,” said O’Toole.
Marie Lou McDonald, Dublin based Leader of Sinn Fein, responded that O’Toole’s idea was interesting but unworkable, adding that Sinn Fein “pulled on the green jersey” to work with other anti-Brexit parties “to ensure our island is protected from the recklessness of “little Englanders” in their pursuit of Brexit, campaigning to remain, which the majority in Northern Ireland voted for.” Indeed, she added, “it was Sinn Fein that first proposed a “designated special status” for the North in November 2016. We did so because Ireland, North or South, could not “stop Brexit”. What we could do was protect Irish interests. That was the reality in 2016, and it is the reality today.”
McDonald added that there is already a majority in Westminster against no-deal, and seven new anti-Brexit MPs, Sinn Fein or otherwise, would make no difference. She added that because those responsible for Brexit need to be held to account for the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, it would be inexpedient for Sinn Fein to interfere and go against its democratic abstentionist mandate, renewed by the electorate in the 2017 UK election. “Our efforts are best spent building common cause and international pressure on the British government to do the right thing by Ireland and our peace process,” she wrote.
“We must also begin – with urgency – the national conversation about Ireland post-Brexit. The ultimate backstop for the all-island economy, for jobs and for peace is the ending of partition.”
Roy Greenslade, former Editor of The Daily Mirror, Guardian Columnist and Emeritus Professor of Journalism at London’s City University said he canvassed “four senior Labour party Remainers in confidence about O’Toole’s suggestion in order to test whether they would support such a move.” None of those consulted, for various reasons, thought the plan workable.
“It strikes me, despite O’Toole’s entertaining stratagem and his genuine wish to prevent a no-deal scenario becoming a reality, that my British quartet of interviewees is correct. A good column but bad politics.”
Journalist Fionnbharr Rodgers, originally from the border area of South Down says that O’Toole’s plan is totally implausible if well-meaning and imaginative. Apart from the logistical problems caused by seven simultaneous resignations to make way for O’Toole’s incredible candidate examples, former President of Ireland Mary McAleese, former Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan and the actor Adrian Dunbar, all parties would need to agree. And agreement, according to Rodgers, “is a somewhat farcical notion by itself.” He went on to ask why don’t Sinn Fein take their seats in Westminster?
Matt Carthy, MEP from Ireland for the Midlands–North-West, says he finds O’Toole’s comments deeply insulting after the hours which he and others have put in trying to secure special status for Northern Ireland to make sure Ireland is not damaged by Brexit. He added that there is insufficient agreement in Westminster anyway for a no-deal and seven Sinn Fein seats will make no impact. As well as being patronising to the voters of Northern Ireland, O’Toole’s plan would be a distraction. “Voters in the North are smart, and if they thought we were not doing our job, they would boot us out. Then we'll let the voters decide. It was Sinn Fein that presented the solution, what we call Special Status, that has over time into the Withdrawal Agreement. It was Sinn Fein through the European Parliament that brought the backstop to where it is.”
Alex Kane, a Belfast-based political columnist and former Director of Communications for the Ulster Unionist Party, wrote that Sinn Fein’s seven MPs would make a massive difference to the dynamics of Westminster politics and that these extraordinary times deserve extraordinary tactics from all those in a position to avert no-deal – that includes Sinn Fein. However, he added that he thought Sinn Fein were less worried about their abstentionist mandate and more interested in using Brexit to trigger a border poll, and so achieving the party’s ultimate goal of a united Ireland. “But what if there isn’t a border poll? This decision would be down to the secretary of state for NI who would argue time would be required to see how, exactly, a no-deal exit would work in practice: further arguing that it wouldn’t make sense to trigger a poll until voters were given a clearer choice when it came to specific options and arrangements.” He feels the Irish Government would probably agree.
Questioned as to Sinn Fein’s rebuttal of his plan, O’Toole said he could scarcely believe the speed with which the party rejected his ideas, which showed how little thought it had been given before dismissal. Instead, the party rejected it as “mindbogglingly ridiculous”within two hours of the article going online. It is an elegant way of saying a startling thing, “We must do nothing to stop no-deal.”
“This is fair enough, though it would be much fairer if Sinn Fein told its supporters – and in particular Border communities – that this is the plan,” he added.🔷
- “Ireland can stop a no-deal Brexit. Here’s how”, Fintan O’Toole – Irish Times.
- “Fintan O’Toole wrong to say SF can block hard Brexit”, Mary Lou McDonald – Irish Times.
- “Gosh, what a clever wheeze!” Roy Greenslade – Letters, Irish Times.
- “Could Sinn Fein’s unity project actually cause damage to Ireland?” Alex Kane – Newsletter.
- “Sinn Fein abstentionism should not be taken as read”, Fionnbharr Rodgers – Northern Slant.
- “Matt McCarthy, Sinn Fein MEP speaking to Joe Finnegan” – Shannonside News.
- “Sinn Fein’s Westminster Seats, Social Housing - with Eoin Ó Broin and Fintan O’Toole” – Irish Times Podcast.
- “Sinn Fein joins the Great Disruption”, Fintan O’Toole – Irish Times.
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