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May 2010 - Representation not abstention at Westminster

Well the votes have been counted, the results are now part of history and the dust has well and truly settled. The SDLP is very pleased with returning three MPs, including our new leader Margaret Ritchie, who trounced Caitriona Runae in South Down. The strong SDLP team will be the only nationalist representation from the North in the Westminster Parliament.  But the issue of whether or not to take seats in Parliament dominated the political debate among nationalists during the course of the election. The issue has now become even more relevant and focused, because the general election results led to a hung Parliament at Westminster. This argument is not an abstract piece of political ideology, that highlights the differences between an old fashioned doctrinaire Sinn Fein and a modern pragmatic and flexible SDLP. It is now a matter of political importance and will continue to be so throughout the next Westminster Parliamentary term.

At the moment in Westminster there is frantic speculation what party, or parties, will form the new government in London. Some here will argue that it doesn’t really matter who makes up the new British government, but in reality it matters a lot. The SDLP is a party that has actively worked at Westminster for many years and will continue to do so in the future. We will continue to be actively involved in the discussions around the make-up of the new government and more importantly the policies that could affect the North and our people.

Unlike Sinn Fein, who watch from the sidelines and incidentally take their substantial expenses (£400k at the last count), the SDLP is prepared to get involved, to protect the interests of ordinary people in the community. We are not prepared to allow the DUP to monopolise the situation and be given a disproportionate say in influencing the new government. The five empty Sinn Fein seats mean five extra votes for the DUP, or the Tories. What a political mistake. Its like your football team going to the football stadium and instead of playing the other team they sit on the benches and allow the other team to score as many goals as they want! The absurdity is that they sit in the Stomont Assembly and Dail Eireann without complaint and yet it was strongly argued, as if a matter of faith by these same people, that these were partitionist bodies and no good Republican could ever enter, never mind participate in. It should be remembered that for nationalists in the past abstentionism was never considered anything more than a tactic, that highlighted a principle that Irish people should rule themselves. It was never a principle itself.

During the election campaign the SDLP properly criticised abstentionism, especially in the context of a hung Parliament. We have not been proven right. It is pure madness not to take seats at a time that is crucial to our economic and political interests. If the Tories are successful in forming a minority Tory government, to a Tory-Liberal Democrat government we could be acing massive cuts in public expenditure. This could mean the closure of social services, hospitals, community centres and the loss of public service jobs. Social security benefits could be reduced or even abolished. A Tory dominated government will inevitably hurt people here. A Tory government will benefit the better-off regions and people and disadvantage poorer regions and people. Not to resist the formation of such a government, of the formulation of such savage decisions, is the duty of all MPS, including Sinn Fein. Meanwhile the SDLP will represent you actively in Parliament to protect your vital interests. I believe that the SDLP have clearly won the argument on abstention from Westminster.

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