Last week David Lidington’s reported remarks on Sinn Fein and the Oath provoked concern and a little fury from ConservativeHome regulars. ConservativeHome is today publishing David’s response to those reactions. I find it completely convincing as it comes on top of his excellent track record and forthright and successful opposition to Labour’s ‘on the run’ bill. I’m sure I speak for all of us in thanking David for taking the trouble to explain his remarks to the Conservative supporters, members and activists that populate this site.
"I welcome the chance to comment on the posts that followed press reports of what I said in a radio interview about the Oath of Allegiance. This issue involves serious constitutional questions and I am not surprised that the debate should arouse strong and differing opinions. Let me set out what I think and the context in which my comments were made.
I have no illusions about the record of Sinn Fein. Many of their senior leaders were involved in a hideous campaign of terrorism. Even today, seven years after the Belfast Agreement, the Independent Monitoring Commission reports that the IRA is still involved in organised crime. I have said repeatedly, both in Parliament and outside, that the republican movement cannot be treated as just another political party until it has ceased all involvement in criminality and is giving support to the police, the courts and the rule of law. Although, under the Agreement, Sinn Fein is entitled, by virtue of its electoral support, to appoint Ministers to a devolved executive, I believe that it would be wrong for Sinn Fein to have ministerial office until it really has shown that, in the words of the Agreement, it is committed to “exclusively democratic and peaceful means” to achieve its political objectives.
The issue of Sinn Fein Members of Parliament is different. I have to accept the unwelcome reality that five constituencies have chosen to elect Sinn Fein MPs. I loathe their politics, but I believe that those five MPs should take their seats and deal with the Westminster legislation that directly affects their constituents.
The issue before the House of Commons on 8 February was whether Sinn Fein MPs should be able to claim parliamentary allowances despite their refusal to take their seats. The Government proposed to end the suspension of parliamentary allowances that had been in place for about nine months and to create a new allowance to support Sinn Fein MPs in their “representative” functions. The Government argued that this new allowance would be the equivalent of the “Short Money” that is paid to Opposition parties to support the “parliamentary” functions of their front bench spokesmen and women.
I spoke and voted against `the Government on both counts. I have argued, ever since the present government changed the rules and first approved paying allowances to Sinn Fein MPs, that no Member should be entitled to claim parliamentary allowances unless he or she has taken his seat. I think that to attend Parliament and to take part in its debates, questions times and committees is integral to the job of being an MP and that it is simply wrong for anyone who refuses to do the job to be able to claim parliamentary funds.
My comments about the Oath were not made in the Commons but in response to questions from a radio interviewer who challenged my opposition to the Government’s proposal. He first asked me whether I would agree that the requirement to swear the Oath should be dropped in order to allow Sinn Fein Members to take their seats. I replied that Sinn Fein had said repeatedly that the existence or otherwise of the Oath would not make any difference to them; their boycott of Westminster was based on their belief that the British Parliament had no right to govern any part of the island of Ireland. The interviewer then asked me a direct question on what my view would be if Sinn Fein were to drop its abstentionist policy (as they have done with both the Dail and Stormont), wanted to take their seats and it really were the case that the current words of the Oath or Affirmation became the sole thing preventing that from happening. I sought to give a straight answer to a straight question. I replied that, if that ever were to happen, I thought we would need to re-examine the Oath.
I should make three things clear. First, if there were to be any review of the words of the Oath and Affirmation, it would have to take place on a United Kingdom basis, looking at the position of any elected MP who felt that he or she could not in conscience take the Oath in its current form. It would not be right to have some special arrangement just for MPs from one political party or one party of the United Kingdom.
Second, any such review would have to involve extensive cross-party discussion. In the end, it would be for the House of Commons to decide (by convention in a free vote) whether to make any change.
Third, my own very strong view is that if there were to be any change, it ought to take the form, not of replacing the present words, but of offering an additional, alternative formula. I personally would want to carry on taking the Oath as it now exists.
There is indeed a constitutional argument that would rule out change on the grounds that the monarchy and the relationship of monarchy and Parliament are integral to the way we govern ourselves and that an oath to the monarch makes personal the allegiance that we as citizens owe to our country. I respect that case but I think that it needs to be weighed alongside the argument that it is for the people to decide whom they elect to represent them and that the House of Commons should not create barriers to stop an elected Member from taking his or her seat. The analogy here is with the changes that the House made in the Nineteenth Century to allow Jewish and atheist MPs to sit. This case is not new and is supported by, among others, the former Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd.
I think that this subject is worth a reasoned debate among both politicians and the wider public."
Also see David Lidington’s recent platform post: ‘Sinn Fein must demonstrate a permanent commitment to exclusively peaceful politics’.