I am not a Sinn Féin voter. I am a nationalist/republican, yes, but on this blog, I’ve said I don’t see a path to Irish unity with Sinn Féin as the political face of nationalism, and called for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to run in the north. I am often critical of Sinn Féin.

However, I have been very frustrated with criticism of Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy at Westminster in the wake of the British Government narrowly winnging three crucial Brexit votes on amendments to the Trade Bill in July (of course, this isn’t new criticism, and it’s certain to come up again, and again, and again…).

One would have bound the British Government to staying in the Customs Union with the EU in the event that a frictionless trade deal could not be negotiated. The government won, 301-307.

The second bans the British Government from collecting customs tariffs for the EU, unless the EU reciprocates. The government won, 305-302.

The third blocks the British Government from remaining in the EU’s VAT agreement. The government won, 305-302.

Why is this important for Ireland?

Unless the north is in the Customs Union, Single Market, and VAT regime, there will have to be a hardening of the border. That is both unacceptable, breaking the creative ambiguity which underpinned the Good Friday Agreement, and totally unworkable – as I wrote here. There are only two backstop options for this in the context of Brexit. Either Great Britain stays in the Customs Union and Single Market with the north, as indicated in the Joint Report in December 2017, or the north has special status, with a customs border in the Irish Sea, as suggested by the EU in the draft withdrawal agreement, which essentially highlighted the choice the British Government and Brexiters face: they can have a hard Brexit, or the north, but not both.

The British Government accepted without a vote an amendment to the Trade Bill which bans the north from being part of a separate Customs territory. That rules out the special status backstop option.

The three amendments on which the British Government narrowly won the votes rule out membership of the Customs Union, the VAT agreement, and Theresa May’s own facilitated customs arrangement. That rules out the whole UK backstop option.

So, with both options to avoid a hard border ruled out, it now looks very likely that we are headed for a hard, no-deal, crash-out Brexit scenario.

Why are Sinn Féin being criticised?

Sinn Féin has 7 MPs. None take their seats. By the numbers, if they had taken their seats for these votes, the Government could have been defeated, leaving open the option of a backstop arrangement which applied to Great Britain as well as the north.

Who is doing the criticism?

The criticism has come from a range of sources.


The Irish Government:

Fianna Fáil:


Note that last tweet, by the way, shows what I and others have been saying all along was right: the DUP have been wanting a hard border all along, despite their public protestations to the contrary.

Why the criticism is wrong

All the criticism is founded purely on the parliamentary arithmetic. Government majority of three or six, add seven Sinn Féin vote against, equals defeat for the government.

Okay, the maths stacks up. But the politics doesn’t.

Politics is no just a numbers game. There is no way – just no way at all – that the British political establishment would allow Sinn Féin votes to swing something of this magnitude (if any magnitude). This is Sinn Féin, a party whose spokespeople used to be voiced by actors because they were banned from broadcast media. A party whose sole purpose is to leave the UK. A party linked to the IRA, who bombed the Conservative Party conference, nearly killing the entire British Government in one go. Do you think, really think, there is any way at all that the British political establishment would allow them to influence something this big?

Imagine the newspaper headlines. The Daily Mail would probably go with “Traitors help IRA to STOP BREXIT”. Every MP who voted with them would be labelled a traitor.

As soon as Sinn Féin MPs walked through a voting lobby, MPs would flock to the other side.

The quickest way to ensure a hard Brexit would be for Sinn Féin to turn up to Westminster to vote against.

Think about this: there is a notable gap in the figures criticising Sinn Féin’s abstentionism: any British MP who voted against the government in these votes. Not a single one has lamented their absence. Not a single one has asked them to turn up and vote to help them.

In fact, anti-Brexit British politicians have previously asked Sinn Féin NOT to turn up to vote against – including two former Deputy Prime Ministers – saying it would be “counterproductive”.

So, why the criticism?

Look at who is doing the criticism. The SDLP – Sinn Féin’s political rivals in the north. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – Sinn Féin’s political rivals in the south. Unionists – enjoying their victory. It’s all naked political opportunism, a handy stick with which to beat their opponents – but the criticism simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The bottom line

Nationalists knew what they were voting for when they cast their ballots for Sinn Féin. This isn’t an obscure policy hidden as a footnote on page 32 of the manifesto, this is a well-known long-operated policy which everyone was clear about. Nationalists voted for Sinn Féin despite this – or because of this.

Nationalist representation in Westminster has never made any difference. There’s no reason to believe it would now. And the criticism of Sinn Féin on this point by other nationalists is nothing more than naked political opportunism.

Maybe some of it is borne out of frustration with the Brexit process – but let’s be clear here. If there is a hard, crash-out no-deal Brexit, it will be the fault of the Conservative Party which held the Brexit referendum, the Labour Party which only halfheartedly supported Remain and got on the Brexit train as soon as the votes were counted, the British media for not explaining the consequences of the referendum properly, the British people who voted Leave for not caring about the part of Ireland which is still ruled by their country, and above all, the racist, anti-immigrant, nationalistic, xenophobic, right-wing Little Englander politicians, journalists, and voters who pushed for Brexit. In a list of who is to blame, Sinn Féin is very, very low down the list.

Yes, this is going to create massive problems for Ireland. Yes, it is going to be a disaster. Yes, nobody knows what will happen now. No, Sinn Féin could not have prevented it. So stop saying they could.


Breandán MacGabhann

Dr. Breandán MacGabhann is a Geography lecturer at MIC/UL in Limerick.

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