Abstentionism is standing for election to a deliberative assembly while refusing to take up any seats won or otherwise participate in the assembly's business. Abstentionism differs from an election boycott in that abstentionists participate in the election itself. Abstentionism has been used by Irish republican political movements in the United Kingdom and Ireland since the early 19th century.
After the Act of Union 1800, Ireland was represented at Westminster in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Repeal of the Act of Union was a goal of many Irish nationalists.
In 1845, a motion was carried at the Repeal Association's committee for all Irish MPs to withdraw from Westminster. It was proposed by Thomas Osborne Davis of the Young Ireland movement. However, the committee felt that MPs already sitting could not withdraw without breaking the oath of office they had taken upon election. The Irish Confederation, which withdrew from the Repeal Association in 1847, resolved in favour of immediate abstention. However, William Smith O'Brien, its founder, continued to speak at Westminster. In 1848 Charles Gavan Duffy proposed that Irish MPs expelled from Westminster should sit in a separate Irish parliament.
From the 1860s, Irish Republican Brotherhood leaders Charles Kickham and John O'Leary favoured abstentionism. In 1869, G.H. Moore suggested nominating imprisoned republicans for election, knowing they were precluded as convicted felons from taking seats. On this basis, Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa (in 1870) and John Mitchel (twice in 1875) were returned at by-elections in Tipperary; O'Donovan Rossa was in prison at his election, while Mitchel was in exile.
Kickham envisaged a "great national conference" calling on Irish MPs to withdraw from Westminster. A motion proposed by Charles Doran to that effect was passed at the convention of the Home Rule League (HRL). "Honest" John Martin, "independent nationalist" MP for Meath 1871–75, spoke in Westminster only to raise nationalist protests, and refused to vote. In the 1874 election, 59 HRL MPs were returned, including John O'Connor Power in Mayo, who was a member of the IRB Supreme Council. He was to fall out with the IRB over allegations of misappropriating election funds, and became progressively less radical. O'Connor Power believed that Westminster was the best platform to argue Ireland's case for self-government. Withdrawal from Parliament would be an abandonment of the Home Rule party to those who favoured conciliation rather than confrontation. By 1876, it was clear that the HRL would never be able to organise a national convention, and MPs elected with its endorsement would remain at Westminster. An alternative to abstentionism was obstructionism, including the use of filibuster. This was practised by the HRL and its successor, the Irish Parliamentary Party under Charles Stuart Parnell from the late 1870s.
Arthur Griffith's "Sinn Féin Policy", formulated 1905–07, called for Irish MPs to abstain from Westminster and sit in a parallel parliament in Dublin. The first Sinn Féin abstentionist candidate was Charles Dolan in 1908. Having sat as MP for North Leitrim for the Irish Parliamentary Party, he resigned after joining Sinn Féin, and lost the ensuing by-election. The first abstentionist MP elected was Count George Noble Plunkett after the North Roscommon by-election of 3 February 1917.
In 1919, Sinn Féin Members of Parliament (MPs) elected in 1918 to the Parliament of the United Kingdom refused to sit in that body and instead constituted themselves as the first Dáil, which was claimed to be the legitimate parliament of the Irish Republic. One strand within Republicanism, in remaining loyal to this pre-Partition Irish Republic, denies the legitimacy of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Other parties reached accommodation with the southern state but not Northern Ireland. Some groups have boycotted elections within either jurisdiction; others have been abstentionist; others abstained from some bodies but not others. Abstentionism has often been a divisive issue within Republicanism.
Anti-Treaty Sinn Féin abstained from the first (1923–27) Dáil of the Irish Free State, being opposed to the Oath of Allegiance that had to be taken by sitting members. Fianna Fáil split from Sinn Féin in 1927 and abandoned abstentionism in the Free State. In 1955, Sinn Féin contested local elections in the Republic of Ireland and took its seats.
In 1970, at its Ard Fheis (annual conference), Sinn Féin split again on the issue of whether or not to reverse its long-standing policy of refusing to take seats in Dáil Éireann. The split created two parties calling themselves "Sinn Féin". The anti-abstentionist party was known as "Official" Sinn Féin. It changed its name to "Sinn Féin the Workers Party" (SFWP) and won a seat in the Dáil in the general election of 1981, which it took. The following year it dropped "Sinn Féin" from its name to become "The Workers' Party". The abstentionist party was initially referred to as "Provisional" Sinn Féin, but after 1982 it was known simply as "Sinn Féin"; it continued to abstain from taking seats won in all institutions.
Sinn Féin adopted the "armalite and ballot box strategy" in 1981, and first contested modern elections in Northern Ireland with the 1982 Assembly elections, from which they abstained. They also abstained from the Northern Ireland Forum but adopted non-abstentionist policies for elections to local authorities (next held in 1985) and to the European Parliament.
In 1986 Sinn Féin split, as in 1970, over whether to take seats in Dáil Éireann. The larger group led by Gerry Adams abandoned abstentionism, while Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), led by Ruairí Ó Brádaigh retained it. Sinn Féin's first sitting Teachta Dála was Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin in Cavan–Monaghan in 1997.
RSF has retained the policy of abstentionism from both Dáil Éireann and the Northern Ireland Assembly. RSF has not in fact contested elections for Dáil Éireann or Westminster. It is not a registered party in Northern Ireland, but members have contested the Assembly elections as independents.
In Northern Ireland
After Partition, most non-abstentionist parties in the southern state did not organise at all in Northern Ireland. In early 1922 the then Provisional Government of Southern Ireland was seen as representing the interests of nationalists in Northern Ireland and had a policy of not recognising the Northern Irish government. Catholic archbishop Joseph MacRory indicated to the Provisional Government that Joe Devlin and his party members wanted to enter the new Parliament of Northern Ireland, and was worried that the policy of non-recognition would result in Northern Irish nationalists having to "fight alone", but his advice was ignored.
The Nationalist Party did not take their seats during the first Stormont parliament (1921–25). Despite forming the second-largest parliamentary party, they did not accept the role of Opposition for a further forty years. They did so on 2 February 1965 but withdrew from opposition again in October 1968, two weeks after police batonned demonstrators at a civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968.
Cahir Healy was elected to both the Stormont and Westminster parliaments under a variety of nationalist labels between the 1920s and the 1960s. He was abstentionist in Stormont until 1927 and at Westminster from 1950 to 1952.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) became the Opposition on its formation on 21 August 1970 but that party withdrew from Stormont in July 1971. The SDLP participated in the assembly set up for the Sunningdale Agreement, and in the Constitutional Convention. However, they abstained from the 1982 Assembly, and their participation in the Northern Ireland Forum was intermittent.
Since the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly under the Good Friday Agreement, both the SDLP and Sinn Féin have taken their seats in that body. SDLP MPs have consistently taken their seats in the Westminster parliament, in contrast to Sinn Féin MPs who refuse to take their seats there, as they refuse to recognise that body's right to legislate for any part of Ireland.
Fianna Fáil's sole Stormont election came in 1933, when its leader Éamon de Valera agreed to stand as an abstentionist for South Down, where he had been a Sinn Féin member in the 1920s. Fianna Fáil registered as a political party within Northern Ireland in 2007. In 2014 its leader Mícheál Martin announced it would contest elections from 2019. It has not made clear whether it will contest elections to Westminster.
Republican Sinn Féin continue their long standing policy of abstentionism.
- Irish republican legitimatism
- Oath of Allegiance (UK)
- Oath of Allegiance (Ireland)
- Disappearing quorum
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