The seven Westminster seats that could stop Brexit
Even those lovers of imperial nostalgia on the Tory benches in Westminster must be starting to wonder if it was really worth it. All those centuries of hegemony over that scraggy little island called Ireland. After all, Brexit was supposed to be easy, about taking back control and reassembling a ‘Global Britain’ to conquer the world.
Instead, from a Brexiters perspective, the past three years have been filled with tiny Ireland making this British reawakening a ridiculously difficult process. Firstly, there were the lectures from Brussels on British responsibilities in Northern Ireland and that awful ‘backstop’ trap. But worse still was having to sell the Ulster Unionists down the river for the crime of an unrequited, zealot level devotion to Queen and Country.
For Brexiteers, the long march to freedom wasn’t supposed to be like this.
But with Boris Johnson succeeding in his wish to have a General Election in December 2019, Britain’s Irish nightmare is about to get stuck on repeat. This is because there are seven Westminster seats in Northern Ireland that could fundamentally alter the arithmetic in the British parliament and, potentially, put a stop to Brexit altogether.
In the 2017 British General Election, the Irish nationalist Sinn Féin party won seven (out of 18) Westminster seats in Northern Ireland with under 30% of the popular vote. This remarkable achievement, although aided by changing demographics and the continuing decline of the more moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), is likely to be repeated in the coming election. The British ‘first past the post’ election system and the tribal nature of Northern Irish politics will ensure the return of all Sinn Féin MP’s to Westminster.
We’re not talking about some fanciful plan – as proposed by the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole – for Sinn Féin to abandon its seats in favour of an anti-Brexit coalition. Such an idea is absurd to a political party like Sinn Féin that is geared to perpetual forward motion. It also naively ignores the siloed political landscape in Northern Ireland.
The trouble is – while Northern Ireland dangles on Boris Johnson’s capriciousness – Sinn Féin’s current MP’s are merrily claiming Westminster expenses while never actually setting foot in the debating chamber or taking part in a vote. This ludicrous policy of abstention is borne out of more than a century of Irish nationalist tradition and is, supposedly, a refusal ‘to validate British sovereignty over the island of Ireland’.
In reality, it’s a deliberate ploy to avoid having to take hard decisions. It is a strategic policy Sinn Féin is willing to employ notwithstanding the potentially detrimental impacts of Brexit upon the economy and society of Northern Ireland.
Rather, seven Sinn Féin MP’s actually attending and participating in Parliament would make a real difference to the numbers game in Westminster. It would reduce the likelihood of Boris Johnson’s deal passing parliament (owing to visceral relations between Northern Irish nationalists and the Conservative Party). It would also, at the very least, increase wider cross-party support for a softer, less economically illiterate Brexit.
Advocating for continued British membership of the EU Customs Union – thereby negating much of the controversy over the Irish border – would be a win for Northern Ireland, for the EU and for all but the most hardline Brexiteers.
The importance of these seven MP’s should not be underestimated. In April, the Conservative Ken Clarke’s proposal for ‘a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU’ was voted down in the House of Commons by only three votes. Given the uncertainty surrounding the forthcoming election result, it is clear that every single vote, even Irish nationalist ones, matter in the British parliament.
These seven Northern Irish seats could also be instrumental in delivering a multi-party, national coalition after the forthcoming election. A combination of the Irish and Scottish nationalists, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are just as likely to hold power as a Conservative Party stripped of their DUP quislings. These seats could fundamentally alter the outcome of the entire Brexit process.
As anyone who has ever been to Belfast will testify. History runs deep. To my knowledge it’s the only remaining city in Europe where walls – or ‘peace lines’ in the local vernacular – continue to separate differing communities, still largely defined by religion, in the interests of law and order. It remains a desperately fragile society with a weak economy heavily dependent on public sector employment. Yet, it is in this mix that Sinn Fein continues to refuse to constructively engage in the Brexit debate.
The biggest losers are the ordinary people of Northern Ireland. Although voting to remain in the EU, its population are now represented by 10 Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP’s whose sole objective is to deliver the hardest Brexit possible in order to preserve their completely hallucinogenic special relationship with the British state. A one-sided love affair that has bred nothing but resentment and fear among all communities in Northern Ireland.
Of all the misrepresentations associated with Brexit, Sinn Féin’s abdication of responsibility is one of the most ironic. It ignores the reality of how constitutional Irish nationalism played a key role in Westminster in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It also ensures that even current Brexit proposals for Northern Ireland – a ‘win-win’ situation with access to both the EU’s single market and the rest of Britain – are casually ignored by nationalists and openly opposed by unionists. This is how democracy crumbles.
Those seven democratically elected Sinn Féin seats could stop Brexit altogether. Trouble is, they’re busy elsewhere.