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Should United Irelander MPs sit in the British Parliament?

In the mouth of the Westminster election the issue of whether elected MPs from this part of Ireland should take their seats or not inevitably arises. Republican parties are the only ones that run on an abstentionist ticket. Their logic is simple: ‘why we would want to be part of the parliament we’re trying to get away from?’, dovetailing directly into the united Ireland debate. On the other side of the argument we are told that the rationale for taking seats at Westminster is ‘to make sure the voice of our electorate is heard’.

Taking the last point first, having the voices of the electorate heard. Issues specific to the north of Ireland are debated during a session called ‘Northern Ireland Questions’. A cursory glance at any of these debates will present one glaring fact to the viewer, that the chamber is practically empty. Disinterest at best and wilful disregard at worst is evident. Local MP’s making what I would imagine are heart-felt statements on behalf of their constituents to an empty house must be de-spiriting for them personally, generous salaries and T&Cs notwithstanding. But for the electorate it must also raise an obvious question: what is the point?

The north sends 18 MPs to a parliament of 650 giving the north a voice of less than 3%. Of course this 3% (let’s be generous) can contribute to wider debates but rarely do they act in concert which further subdivides ‘our voice’. A further stark reality of this system is that the electorate in the north can never vote for a party of government because ‘our’ parties don’t stand there and ‘they’ don’t stand here, by and large. The democratic deficit whereby we acquiesce to be governed by people we will never choose is further compounded when, as Lord John Alderdice stated on Irish Border Poll, that the ‘English have no emotional attachment to Northern Ireland’. This ultimately leads to decisions being made against our interests and over our heads which our MPs are powerless to prevent. On one of the rare occasion when our MPs did speak with one voice, that is, in opposing the disgraceful Legacy Act, the British government went ahead and implemented it anyway.

Indeed, one of the aims of partition from a British perspective was to reduce and nullify the power of Irish MPs, which they successfully did. Add to that the fact that the Westminster model of government is quite literally from another time: An unwritten constitution were laws are passed by unwritten rules called conventions, maintained by ‘Good Chaps’ that can be run over roughshod, as Boris Johnson and more recently Lindsay Hoyle demonstrated, where a government can be elected by a minority of the electorate using the outdated First Past the Post system, used by only one other European country, Belarus, an unelected second house where you can be given, quite literally, a seat for life, and for your children and your children’s children, leaves a level of bewilderment that is difficult to comprehend.

In light of these facts does abstention appear a more common sense approach? Like clockwork the mainstream media contribute to this debate to frame abstentionism as a rebuff by petulant republicans. But there is something deeper at play with abstentionism. It is not only a rejection of Westminster sovereignty over affairs in this part of Ireland but more importantly points towards a viable alternative whereby people in this jurisdiction could have the opportunity to create something better. Unquestionably republicans have the stated aim of unification from an ideological position but to non-republicans the glaring irregularities of the Westminster system must also be clear. The corruption and not least the democratic deficit for people in the north of Ireland invites consideration of a new system of government fit for the 21st Century. Whether that is advanced as unification, New Ireland or re-entry to EU, the democratic fundamentals that are sadly lacking in the current system could be realised.

On an island of 7million, British people in the north make up nearly 15% of the population rather than 1.5% of a population of 70 million in the UK. Through proportional representation this would create a considerable electoral bloc that could theoretically see a Unionist party in a new political dispensation as a mainstay of an Irish government. Those on the margins, for example, such as the Loyalist and Unionist working class, could have a direct route to the highest levels of decision making, where being left behind could be more effectively challenged.

Of course, there is much work to do in terms of planning and preparation for a referendum on constitutional change. What that might look like is, as yet, unclarified. But one thing is clear, that post-unification people in the north of whatever political preference would have an opportunity, for the first time, to elect their own sovereign government, something that is simply not possible through the Westminster system and the constitutional status quo.

Why would anyone wish to be governed by people who don’t grasp why Unionists don’t vote Nationalist and vice versa, who think you might need a passport to get to Derry and who have accepted Brexit as a way of life? Parliamentary arithmetic demonstrates the dominance of English votes and the powerlessness of our MPs who are regrettably there simply to make up the numbers. In this context abstentionism does not only pivot toward a more democratically representative alternative but is essentially a matter of self-respect and an acceptance of realpolitik. On his friendship and working relationship with Ian Paisley, Martin McGuinness reflected, ‘one thing we were absolutely united on was the principle that our people were better able to govern themselves than any British government.’ A statement of fact that is as true now as it was then and will remain so until constitutional change is achieved.