Never mind the Commons arithmetic – Sinn Féin isn’t coming to save Brexit

The numbers are tight enough for the republicans’ seven MPs to swing key votes should they take their seats – but they won't.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Brexit has always been a parliamentary game of fine margins but this week it has been especially uncomfortable for all sides – including Sinn Féin, which wasn’t even on the pitch. But therein lies the political pain for the republicans. 

Several key amdendments to Brexit legislation – the net effect of which could have been the prevention of a hard border – would have been defeated or delivered with the votes of its seven MPs, who are all avowedly anti-Brexit but do not take their seats.

Two amendments tabled by the European Research Group to the customs bill, which effectively kill Theresa May's backstop plan for the Irish border and her favoured customs model, were passed by three votes, while an attempt by Tory Remainers to amend the trade bill to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU lost by six votes. One would struggle to find a starker illustration of what Sinn Fein's absence means in practice.

Could it now heed the calls of other parties in Dublin to abandon their policy of abstentionism for Ireland's sake? The answer is still no, and will remain no even as Brexit's chaotic passage through Westminster gets even messier.

You can question that all you like but the answer, no matter how hard justifying it becomes, will remain the same: Sinn Féin MPs have a mandate not to take their seats, and by their logic doing so would defeat the object of their existence (especially when you consider that two of those seats were won in bitter green-on-green fights with the moderate nationalist SDLP, which did take its seats).

But in the spirit of adding to the sum of human knowledge – or not – I put that familiar question to the party's leader, Mary Lou McDonald, when I met her in Dublin earlier this week. And I was not at all surprised to hear that the “no” is as comprehensive as ever, even after those Commons votes.

I mean, we're an abstentionist party. Funnily enough this is the centenary of [Constance] Markievicz,  her election to Westminster as the first abstentionist MP. I can imagine from an English point of you think: "God almighty, what's that all about?" But that's because you're in England, and you're not in the North of Ireland.

The truth is, that the political centre of gravity for Irish politics is in Dublin, and it's in Belfast. And increasingly - I've see this happen myself over the last number of years – the relevance, the impact, the efficacy of Westminster has dwindled and dwindled...the onus is on the Dublin government. You see, ultimately, the Dublin government has to represent all of Ireland as part of the European Union bloc in these negotiations.

So, when Brexit happened, when people lifted their chins off the floor and said “Christ, this has actually happened”, I think there was a level of wishful thinking – certainly on this side of the pond. It went along the lines of either: one, it's all been a terrible mistake they'll change their minds and have another referendum, or, two, that there is some way and some intervention that can be made at Westminster to make all of this stop.

Neither of those, in my view, from the beginning, were tenable propositions. I didn't think at any stage that the political atmospherics in Britain were such that you were going to get referendum number two.

And secondly, the reality is that Brexit is the product of the Tories. The navigation of Brexit falls largely to the Tory government. There isn't an anti-Brexit make-it-stop critical mass at Westminster as you know yourself, and so for the purposes of protecting Ireland and Irish interests the action isn't so much what happens at Westminster.

I understand the sensitivity and the centrality for British politics, but from an Irish point of view, the centre of action revolves around the big negotiation, and the team headed by Michel Barnier and the stance by the government in Dublin.

That isn't the answer of someone who's about to celebrate the centenary of Sinn Féin's policy of abstentionism by abandoning it. Bluntly, McDonald is also right on several issues: there is neither an “anti-Brexit make-it-stop critical mass” nor, to borrow her construction, a “pro-soft-Brexit make-it-happen one” to be found in the Commons. And regardless of what MPs agree, the real action will be in Brussels anyway. The facts might have changed, but Sinn Féin has not changed its mind. 

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.