Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Lying under oath

There have been some suggestions recently that Sinn Féin’s MPs should take their seats in the Westminster Parliament in order to change the balance of votes when it comes to Brexit.  In Ireland, the suggestion has been made on the basis of protecting the interests of the whole of Ireland, a basis which must surely hold at least some appeal to a party committed to a united Ireland.  The call by the Taoiseach seems well-motivated, but unlikely to have much impact, given the history and background of the issue.
In a rather simplistic comment in the Guardian, Polly Toynbee managed to reduce the whole history of abstentionism to a reluctance to “mutter the loyal oath”, bearing in mind that “they could always rescind it later”.  Things are much more complex than that, but that’s a subject for another day.  It made me wonder, though, why the loyal oath is necessary in the first place.
Were they to start ‘muttering’ it, Sinn Féin’s MPs wouldn’t be the only ones doing so dishonestly, with their fingers figuratively crossed behind their backs.  I’m certain that there are republicans in all parties in the House of Commons who still take the loyal oath (wording here), and in the National Assembly (which has a similar oath), even if some of them are unwilling to admit it.  All of them have, before taking up their seats, been obliged to utter a meaningless form of words with zero sincerity.  For understandable reasons, members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland do not have to swear allegiance to the Crown, or take any other form of oath; they merely have to sign the membership roll and pledge to observe a series of rules concerning their conduct.
But if merely signing in and agreeing to abide by the parliament’s rules is enough in one part of the UK, why isn’t it enough elsewhere?  Why do we continue to demand that elected members solemnly lie (with or without use of the bible) before they can do the job for which we elect them?  In one sense, it’s just a throwback to a more deferential era; in another it’s a formal reaffirmation of the constitutional fiction that power belongs to the monarch, not the people, and that our elected members are there to serve the monarch not the people.  Abolishing it is long overdue.
It wouldn’t be enough to end the abstentionist position of a party which refuses to accept that the UK Parliament has any rights to legislate for any part of the island of Ireland, but it would be a step towards recognising that power, ultimately, belongs to the people.

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