Sinn Fein Could Hold the Key in General Election
Sinn Fein could well decide if Ed Miliband or David Cameron becomes the next Prime Minister after the 2015 general election. That may seems an unlikely scenario, given that the IRA once tried to wipe out a British Prime Minister and her Cabinet in the Brighton hotel bombing in the 1980s. However, all the opinion polls indicate a hung parliament in May and with the inevitable collapse in the Liberal Democrat vote, a new coalition government is on the cards. If Cameron is to stay in Downing Street, he may need the backing of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland.
If Miliband is to snatch the keys, he may have to form a “rainbow coalition” with Scottish and Welsh nationalists as well as any Respect party and Green MPs. The figures are expected to be so tight that only a handful of MPs will decide which coalition wins.
While Sinn Fein is the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and is expected to win around half a dozen of the 18 Westminster seats, its MPs refuse to take them because of the oath of allegiance.
Cameron has already been courting the DUP’s House Commons contingent as the party’s eight-strong group could well seal his second term as PM, given that Sinn Fein still operates its outdated policy of abstentionism.
Time is not on Miliband’s side if he is to tempt Sinn Fein to abandon a stance it has adopted since its formation in 1905. This was especially obvious in 1918 when Sinn Fein won over 70 of Ireland’s 105 Commons seats when the entire island was under British rule.
If Miliband concocts an oath which Sinn Fein MPs could sign up to, it could tip the balance of power in favour of a coalition headed by British Labour. But there is another scenario in which Miliband may not need their help.
The Sinn Fein electoral bandwagon has been rampaging through Northern Ireland’s nationalist constituencies at the expense of the moderate Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party. But SDLP MPs take their Commons seats. Indeed, the SDLP was for many years regarded as British Labour’s sister party in Northern Ireland, as the Dublin-based Irish Labour Party did not contest Ulster elections.
Ever since the collapse of the original Stormont Parliament in 1972, Northern Ireland socialists have been refused membership of the British Labour Party.
In the Unionist-dominated original Stormont, the old Northern Ireland Labour Party was just beginning to have a significant impact as a viable opposition to the Unionist Party until the parliament was prorogued. The membership rule for Ulster socialists stayed in place because it was always assumed the SDLP would remain as the majority nationalist party.
Since 1972, there have been several attempts to form an alternative labour movement, but because of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, each experiment was branded either as a Unionist or republican initiative.
For example, the Workers’ Party was seen as the political wing of the old Official IRA, while the Progressive Unionist Party was viewed as the political mouthpiece of the loyalist terror groups the UVF and Red Hand Commando.
Sinn Fein has found a reason to take its seats in every other parliament it has contested, including Stormont where it now forms the power-sharing executive with the DUP.
Many Unionists and a sizeable chunk of moderate nationalists suspect there are behind the scenes negotiations to get Sinn Fein to embrace the democratic process in the House of Commons rather than merely wandering the Westminster corridors with no real influence.
Another factor fuelling this speculation is Sinn Fein’s choice of candidate. The 1981 republican hunger strike propelled Sinn Fein into the electoral arena. The general rule of thumb then was that candidates had to be linked to the IRA or former republican prisoners. But since the 1994 IRA ceasefires, an increasing number of so-called “draft dodgers” have been selected and elected as Sinn Fein candidates. These are republicans who have no connection with the IRA.
As their influence increases within the republican movement, so Sinn Fein is evolving to resemble an Irish version of the SNP – a purely democratic organisation. The bottom line is that Red Ed may have to think “Irish green”’ if he wants to be in Number 10.
This article first appeared in the Irish Tribune.