Friday 2 October 2009

The Oath of Allegiance

The prospect of a hung parliament after next year's general election has rekindled speculation about the circumstances under which the Sinn Féin members might be persuaded to attend the British parliament. If all five current Sinn Féin members are re-elected (a not unlikely outcome), and if the outcome is such that a gap of less than 5 votes could significantly alter the outcome, then Sinn Féin, it is argued, could exert enormous influence if – and only if – it took its seats.

Such an argument overlooks the fact that the DUP, the SNP, perhaps even the UKIP, will all have more than 5 seats and would have to be already firmly committed to one or other camp in order for Sinn Féin's votes to be important.

But nonetheless the faint possibility that Sinn Féin might exert some influence on the outcome is sufficient to excite some unionists, who would see such a price as miniscule compared with the apparent victory that Sinn Féin acceptance of the authority of the Westminster parliament would imply.

The common belief is that Sinn Féin will not swear an oath of allegiance because they are republicans. This is not the case, however. In the past several avowed republicans (and many closet republicans) have sworn the oath. Tony Benn in 1997 stated that: "As a committed republican, under protest, I take the oath required of me by law, under the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866, to allow me to represent my constituency". He also apparently crossed his fingers when he took the oath. Dennis Skinner apparently said "I solemnly swear that I will bear true and faithful allegiance to the Queen when she pays her income tax".

On the other hand, Sinn Féin are not just republicans but Irish republicans, and they are on record as saying that the oath was “a bit of a distraction”. Despite considering that a change might be good for British democracy, it would not alter Sinn Fein’s position. Asked if he could see himself sitting in the Commons following a change to the oath, Gerry Adams said: “No, because the issue for us is the claim of that parliament to jurisdiction in Ireland.”

Between now and next June, of course, no change in the oath is likely, and the wording of it is sufficient that no Irish republican would ever take it:

I ………. swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God.

(Alternatively, MPs can omit the 'by Almighty God', or the swearing, by saying 'I …………… do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.')

No Irish republican is going to swear or affirm allegiance to the Queen of England and expect to get re-elected ever again. So the fantasies about Sinn Féin 'taking their seats' next year will remain just fantasies.


Nordie Northsider said...

Non-issue really, Horseman. The Tories will win by a mile. It's hard to exxagerate just how far Labour have fallen.

picador said...

I mooted this in the comments on another thread, really because I am concerned about the potentially destabilising influence that unionists could bring to bear on a closely-balanced parliament (see 1976-9 and 1992-7). See also Cameron's latest comments on financing a Policing and Justice deal.

The combined strength of SDLP + Sinn Fein currently amounts to 8 seats compared with unionism's ten. Take SF's five seats out of the equation and the balance is 10 - 3 in unionism's favour. That is seven votes potentially for sale. Lets hope Cameron gets a healthy majority.

With regards to SF's stance on not recognising Westminister's authority - this is baloney! SF 'attend' Westminister. They administer British rule at Stormont. De facto they recognise Westminister authority.

Before the Basque seapartist party Herri Batasuna was banned by the Spanish authorities its elected representatives would take their seats in the Cortes (one was murdered on the eve of investiture in 1989). (translation available)

Though Batasuna took their seats in the Cortes ETA are perceived as being uncompromising on the question of Basque independence. Why should Westminister be different for Sinn Féin, who definitely have compromised on the issue of British rule?

The key difference is the requirement to swear the Oath of Allegiance. Otherwise there is no remaining issue of principle involved.

Watcher said...

It's one thing to lose to Rome, quite another to be paraded through it's streets...

picador said...

That's a fair point watcher (though we do know what they claimed in expenses).

Perhaps there mightn't be a hung or closely balanced parliament next time round (though obviously that remains to be seen) but at some critical point in the next 10 to 15 years there could be. Wouldn't it be good to know that never again could the 'Orange card' be played as a result of Westminister arithmetic? For whether we like it or not, that is where the real power is exercised.

Paddy Canuck said...

This British terror at the idea of minority governments is faintly amusing. One would think it were akin to a full moon that would unleash the werewolves or something. I can't speak for Mediterranean or Latin countries, but minority governments in more temperate countries tend to be just that... more temperate. Canada's currently going through a period where the people are fed up with pretty much all the big parties (a situation I think is about to rear its head in the UK... and incidentally, what would the UK be CALLED if Mr. Benn gets his wish?), and we've been living with a minority government situation for most of the decade now. It's had a few interesting moments, but we haven't had elections every six months (people wouldn't put up with it; they'd soon severely punish the instigators at the polls). In fact, it's led to pretty moderate government as the party in power has had to actually WORK with the other parties to get legislation through the Commons and the Senate. No more ruling by the weight of the majority -- which is something you'd get if you have an official agreement to prop up the governing party. Ad hoc government in a minority situation seems to work very well in the Westminster system, at least here, so I don't see why it's anything to fear in Britain. God, it might be the best thing that's happened to them in a long time.