ALLAN MASSIE: An ignoble concession to Sinn Fein

WE CANNOT keep the doors barred against Sinn Fein MPs even putting their foot over the threshold" (of, that is, the Palace of Westminster). So said the Leader of the House of Commons, the ineffable Robin Cook. Actually, of course, there would have been no difficulty in doing so.

The previous Speaker of the House of Commons, the admirable Betty Boothroyd, did just that. In 1997, Sinn Fein elected members sought to establish offices in the Commons without taking the oath of allegiance. Since it is that oath, not the fact of election, that formally makes someone a Member of Parliament, the Speaker refused to exempt Sinn Fein from the rules of the House, and from the provisions of the Parliamentary Oaths Act of 1866. So, in effect, they were barred, until they took the oath. The Speaker’s judgment was upheld by the courts.

Now Robin Cook, acting on behalf of the executive, has overturned it, and been supported by a Labour majority that seems indifferent to the rights of the parliament to which they belong. It should be said that not all Labour MPs were whipped into line. To their credit, Kate Hoey and Frank Field opposed Mr Cook. But then both, especially Ms Hoey, know rather a lot about Northern Ireland.

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There will be many who argue that Cook and the government are wise in their judgment that the time has come to admit Sinn Fein elected MPs to some of the privileges of the House; to, in this instance, the use of offices and the enjoyment of allowances coming to 100,000 a head. They may agree with Mr Cook that this is a suitable reward for the modest start to the decommissioning of the arsenal that the IRA/Sinn Fein has made, and that it may encourage them to put a few more weapons beyond use. (But, since at the same time the government has obligingly put back the date at which decommissioning must be completed to 2008, there’s no great urgency for Sinn Fein to promote more action on that front).

Some, of course, may think it right that Sinn Fein elected members should have offices to help them do whatever is necessary for their constituents. But of course they could have had the offices and allowances years ago if they had consented to the formality of the oath. It is not that they have been excluded; they have chosen to exclude themselves. One consequence is that, unlike all the other Members of the House of Commons, who have taken the oath, they have not been obliged to register their financial interests and sources of income. And they still, it seems, won’t have to account for the way they spend the allowances they have now been granted, as other MPs must do.

Some may sympathise with their refusal to take the oath, on the grounds that they have no intention of being "faithful" and bearing "true allegiance to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law", and that it would be dishonest for them to pretend otherwise. To this one may say, first, that Messrs Adams, McGuinness & Co are not strangers to verbal equivocation; second, that Irish Republicans before them have taken this oath (and so have English Republicans and Scots Republicans too); and, third, that, as signatories of the Belfast Agreement, these same Sinn Feiners have accepted that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom of which the Queen is Head of State. So if they signed that Agreement, why should they boggle at the oath?

One might add that Mr Adams saw nothing objectionable in collecting social security for years from the UK state which he was pledged to destroy, and whose prime minister he and his friends tried to kill when they bombed the Brighton Hotel during the Tory conference and again when they fired a mortar at No 10 Downing Street.

We could not object if Mr Adams & Co took the oath of allegiance and then took their seats in the House of Commons, and behaved as normal MPs. We might not like it, but we could not reasonably object. But when they are given the privileges of MPs and the allowances due to MPs, without their having assumed the full responsibilities of being Members of Parliament, we are right to object. And we are right to say that the government has behaved foolishly and dishonourably in making this possible.

If Speaker Martin had the regard for the dignity and independence of the House of Commons that his predecessor, Lady Boothroyd, had, he would have set his face against Mr Cook’s ignoble concession.

It is not only ignoble, it is stupid, and quite unnecessary. A great many members of David Trimble’s official Ulster Unionist Party already believe that too much has been yielded to Sinn Fein/IRA, and too little, far too little, given in return. They will agree with the Conservatives’ shadow spokesman on Northern Ireland, Quentin Davies, that this new measure is simply "part of the government’s policy of endless concession and appeasement of Sinn Fein/IRA".

Mr Blair may think appeasement the right policy, though it is in marked contrast to his response to Islamic terrorism. But appeasement risks losing the support of still more Ulster Unionists, and Mr Blair’s policy of appeasement has compromised the independence and dignity of the House of Commons. He may care nothing for that; we know he has a low opinion of parliament and is indifferent to the rights of the Commons.

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This question of admitting the Sinn Fein members should properly have been left to the Speaker, and not been made the responsibility of Robin Cook. Tuesday was a bad day for parliament; it’s to be hoped that it doesn’t lead to worse days for Northern Ireland, but I fear it will. Each concession now made to Sinn Fein/IRA without reciprocal concessions from them resembles the payment of protection money to the Mafia.