There was a potentially significant development in the Brexit crisis this week when Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, refused to rule out his party taking up its four seats in Westminster ahead of a potentially critical vote on the issue in the London parliament.
Sinn Fein has called for the north of Ireland to be designated as a special status area within the European Union as the ramifications of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU continues to create political upheaval in both Britain and Ireland.
Following a judgment by the High Court in London this week, it appears highly likely that a vote by MPs will be required to trigger the process of quitting the EU, although the nature and detail of such a vote remains unclear. Subject to a further appeal to the Supreme Court, a three-judge panel ruled that the approval of the Westminster parliament is necessary if British PM Theresa May is to press ahead with her plan to trigger Article 50, the EU exit mechanism.
Although the overall result of the Brexit referendum was a majority vote to leave the EU, the result in the north of Ireland was to remain. An All-Island Civic Dialogue took place this week displayed strong support for the north to remain within the EU.
Sinn Fein party President Gerry Adams said there is now an obligation on the Dublin government to begin “looking at alternatives to Brexit... in line with the will of citizens in the north to remain in the European Union”.
He said the pursuit of a special designated status for the north within the EU was imperative. He added that this need not “cut across the constitutional arrangements”, referring to partition and the 1998 and 2006 peace deals.
“The choice is simple -- acquiesce to the demands of London and allow the north to be dragged out of the EU, or pursue the credible path to argue at European level and with the British government for the north to be designated a special status within the EU.
“Just as there are massive challenges, there is also the opportunity to plot a new course and stand up for the majority of people who voted to remain, to stand up for our national economic interests of all-Ireland trade and employment, and to stand up for the agreements and progress.”
He and other party officials denied Sinn Fein could contemplate taking up its seats in Westminster, despite the lack of a definitive response on the question from Martin McGuinness.
McGuinness declined to rule out that the party’s MPs would attend Westminster to vote against Brexit, telling a Stormont press conference: “Who knows where all of this is going to end up? There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that all of us face immense challenges that lie ahead.”
He added that there was a lot of uncertainty around the future, but that Sinn Fein’s four MPs “were opposed to Brexit”. He said Brexit is potentially bigger than the peace process for Ireland and was the “major crisis of our time”.
Mr McGuinness earlier spoke at the all-island Brexit forum in Dublin on Wednesday.
“I’ve been involved in some of the most historic and important negotiations that this island has seen in 100 years, more particularly the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement,” he said.
“What we are facing into now, in my opinion, is just as big as that - maybe even bigger.”
The stark outlook is not helped by a British government that is “all over the place”, he added. He said the British departure from the EU had “profound implications” for the entire island of Ireland. But he added that he was optimistic leaders in both parts of Ireland could come together to negotiate with the British and the EU.
Sinn Fein’s policy of abstentionism, or refusing to take their seats in parliament, has its origins in its refusal to recognise partition and British rule in the North. A change in the policy of abstention at Westminster would mark a final and conclusive shift towards ‘constitutional’ politics for Sinn Fein.
In a similar controversy thirty years ago this week, Sinn Fein split over the decision by the Adams/McGuinness leadership to take up its seats in the Dublin parliament, recognising partition for the first time. The painful split gave rise to two parties with the same name: the current Sinn Fein, and another, led by the late Ruairi O Bradaigh, which became known as Republican Sinn Fein.
In London, meanwhile, Theresa May pledged there would be “no change” in relation to movement of people “around the United Kingdom”. The prospect of new controls at seaports and airports on both islands has been a feature of the early negotiations between Dublin and London. A British proposal to introduce new controls at Irish ports in the 26 Counties was rejected by the Dublin government, while Enda Kenny has said the retention of an open border around the Six Counties is essential.
All political parties north and south were invited to attend this week’s all-island conference, but both the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party refused. DUP party leader and the Six County First Minister Arlene Foster dismissed the event as a talking shop for “remoaners” - people who wanted Britain to remain in the European Union.
Gerry Adams criticised their decision and said the conversation could not be ignored by unionists. Colum Eastwood, SDLP leader, said it was “a huge mistake” for Foster to not attend.
“I think it’s important now that, no matter what position we held in the referendum, we begin the process of defending the rights and voices of the people of the north in this process,” he said.
He added that Foster “needs to wake up and understand that nobody is trying to poach her investors”, referring to a claim by the DUP leader that the 26 County state is hoping to win investment from the North following Brexit. Her comments were widely rejected, with 26 County Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan describing tem as “absolutely incorrect”
Amid increasing reports of “frostiness” with the DUP leader, Enda Kenny rejcted any suggestions of a new political split. “I am not in the business of having any rows with First Minister Foster,” he said. “This is much too important in the context of the island of Ireland. I have a very good working relationship with Arlene Foster, both before she became First Minister and now,” Mr Kenny said.
He also cautioned Europe against “losing the plot” over the Brexit decision.
“Time is short and we don’t have any time to waste. What we are looking for is co-operation with everybody so that we know exactly what are the priorities we should be following in order to get the best result for the people of the North and the people of the island,” he said.