“Not a chance”. That was the understandably brusque reply I received when, after Thursday night’s exit poll dropped, I asked a Sinn Fein official whether the party would take its seats to support a minority Labour administration.
That has not stopped the question being asked again, again and again as the Conservatives’ attempts to reach a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party crawl towards a conclusion. Each time the answer is the same: a categorical and unequivocal denial.
No wonder: the notion of Sinn Fein MPs taking their seats is completely at odds with everything they have ever said and done. They do not have a mandate to take their seats. Taking their seats would, by their logic, defeat the object of their existence.
Don’t just take my word for it. “The citizens of the North who voted for Sinn Fein had a choice of candidates,” said Gerry Adams last week. “They supported Sinn Fein. By so doing they turned their backs on Westminster entirely.”
Though Adams’s party have been on an extraordinary journey in the past few decades, those are not the words of a man about to jettison one of its core principles (so too his deputy, Mary Lou McDonald,who has spent much of the past few days tweeting pictures of noted abstentionists).
And though much has been made of the party’s MPs flying to London to take up their offices, this is not new: they have done so since 2002. The arrangement allows them to lobby ministers and make use of parliamentary facilities and suits them very well indeed.
So why is the commentariat talking up the idea of Sinn Fein MPs taking their seats now?
The idea that they would abandon it all for a bit of parliamentary high drama is an alluring idea on paper. The republicans now hold seven seats, up from the four they won in 2015. That would cut the Conservative-DUP working majority of 13 to just six, and perhaps hasten the collapse of the Tory government they loathe.
Unfortunately, it will only ever make sense on paper. As far as Labour is concerned, it has neither asked for, nor expects a deal with Sinn Fein – nor would it ever seriously countenance one. Forget Corbyn’s historic links to the republican cause. For one, it would be a myopic betrayal of Labour’s sister party, the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, which lost all three of its Commons seats last week. And with the Tories allied with the DUP, any deal would divide the government and opposition along sectarian lines. That is neither a good look nor a sensible strategy.
At this point you might be asking whether the promise of a referendum on Irish reunification might entice Sinn Fein’s MPs into taking their seats. The answer to that is no. Even if Labour managed to form a government as a result, it would be grossly reckless to offer one.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland secretary may call a border poll if a majority of people look likely to back joining the Republic. That isn’t to say they couldn’t call one at their discretion, and Sinn Fein has made a habit of calling for an immediate border poll at regular intervals since Brexit. But to do so, when a clear majority of voters still indicate they would stay in the UK, would be a needlessly divisive act.
Then there are the politics of Northern Ireland itself. Sinn Fein won two of its three new seats – Foyle and South Down – from the SDLP, its moderate nationalist rival. Arguments over abstentionism dominated these bitter green-on-green contests. It would be nothing short of absurd for Sinn Fein to fight an election campaign denouncing the SDLP incumbents as establishment goons for taking their seats before its MPs sit down themselves in return for a referendum they couldn’t win. And with the loudest criticism of their continued policy of abstentsionism coming from the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s rivals in the Republic, it is unlikely that the republicans will kowtow.
Entering the Commons chamber would also deprive the party of the ability to cast the Brexit process as an illegitimate one – with no Irish nationalist MPs in the commons, 10 Brexiteers and only one Remainer (independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon), Sinn Fein would likely be better served keeping well away from what it has taken to calling a Tory Brexit.
Fun counterfactual though it may be, there is no incentive whatsoever for Sinn Fein to do it and less still for Labour to ask. No matter how plausible it might seem – or how strong the arguments are for Sinn Fein MPs to do so as the only nationalists in the Commons – the party’s response will always be the same. “Nonsense every time”.