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29 October 2014

Will Sinn Fein MPs take their seats after the next election?

Some suggest the party could change its stance in the event of another hung parliament. 

By George Eaton

The next parliament looks increasingly likely to be even more divided than the last. After several polls putting Labour and the Tories neck-and-neck, MPs speak of the possibility of neither being able to form a majority (326 seats) – even with Liberal Democrat support. In these circumstances, the small parties from the rest of the UK would take on a new significance.

The Tories are already talking informally to the Democratic Unionist Party (the largest non-English party with eight MPs) about the possibility of a post-election pact. The SNP, which is likely to return with an enlarged parliamentary party, and Plaid Cymru will increasingly be pressed on how they would act in in another hung parliament. More than at any point since the 1970s, all parties could hope to pocket concessions from the government in return for their support on key votes. 

It is this that has prompted some to ask a question that would once have seemed unthinkable: could Sinn Fein MPs take their seats after the next election? The party’s Westminster representatives (of which there are five) have long refused to sit in the Commons on the grounds that this would legitimate a constitutional settlement they oppose and require them to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. But one Conservative minister told me yesterday that sources have suggested this could change if Sinn Fein stood to wield influence in a hung parliament. 

The party has already moderated its stance by allowing MPs to sit alongside peers for a speech by Irish president Michael Higgins and has also banned members from serving in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and at Westminster. The 2012 handshake between the Queen and Martin McGuinness was another landmark moment. 

In response to the suggestion that Sinn Fein MPs could take their seats after the next election, a party spokesman told me: “Sinn Fein is an abstentionist party and there are no plans to change that.” But consider how many other times the party has changed its approach and the possibility no longer seems as implausible as it once did. 

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