Sinn Féin MP Michelle Gildernew: “Not being on the green benches does not stop me having influence”
Michelle Gildernew was among the first group of Sinn Féin members to use parliamentary offices at Westminster. Though she refuses to take her seat in the Commons, the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP insists she is no ‘outcast’. She talks to Nicholas Mairs
At first glance it could be any Member of Parliament’s office. The standard-issue emerald furniture, the gold and green patterned curtains, the Portcullis-headed letter paper piled on the desk.
But, hanging conspicuously on the far window, there is a striking, framed 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Equally hard to miss, further along the wall, is a poster of the one-time MP and hunger striker Bobby Sands with ‘England out of Ireland’ emblazoned across the front, while postcards of three 18th century rebels are propped beside the tea mugs.
Sinn Féin MPs do not take up their seats at Westminster, and won’t be doing so any time soon. But it’s clear that Michelle Gildernew does not intend to keep her party’s presence here low key.
The legacy of the Troubles, and the decision to continue with Abstentionism, mean the party’s MPs are regarded as close to pariahs in some quarters. For many in parliament, and across the country, Sinn Féin represented the worst of a bitter conflict, tied to a force that wrought havoc on the streets of Britain and Ireland and which made frequent attempts to bring down those in the highest office, many of whom worked in the very building they now sit in.
But we’re now in an era of peace. Bar taking to the green Commons benches themselves, Gildernew says Sinn Féin Members perform the work of any other MP, and that includes working across House divides.
The Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP recounts conversations, or “great yarns”, with fellow MPs in Portcullis House, and says she doesn’t get any sense that she is “an outcast”. “I can talk to anybody and not feel that they’re looking over their shoulder talking to me,” she says. “I don’t know where the bogeyman situation comes from!”
She adds: “We have a lot in common with some parties, less so with others. You find, at home or internationally, a common denominator and we have that with different parties and groupings in Westminster.”
“I take people at face value and I think most of them do the same back.”
The longest serving of the current crop of Sinn Féin members, Gildernew was first elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2001, and was among the initial group to use parliamentary offices, following an initial ban. But her presence in Westminster politics stretches back to the 1990s, when she served as the party’s representative to London, and was part of the first delegation to visit Downing Street.
“I suppose the relationship with other parties is more based on personal relationships with people within them. So, when I was briefing MPs and peers back in the 90s, there weren’t that many Tories that would sit down and talk to me, but there were a few notable exceptions. People from the Lib Dems and Labour were very keen to take briefings from us, so we built up very good relationships. That’s over 20 years ago.
“I’m very proud that people I was working with back in the 90s, I still consider my friends and they’re in a range of different parties.”
But while the republican movement’s historic shift from the armalite to the ballot box is well documented, one constant has been the party’s more than century-long commitment to abstentionism – the refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen that forbids the party from taking their seats.
When challenged on the logic of maintaining that stance despite supporting the principle that a united Ireland can only be achieved through a democratic ballot, Gildernew is resolute.
She cites the role of the first woman MP elected to Westminster, a Sinn Féin member no less, who again adorns the office, and whom a century ago, took the same approach.
“It’s a hundred-year-old policy. It has suited us very well,” she says.
“Constance Markiewicz was elected to the House of Commons 100 years ago. She refused to take her seat, again an abstentionist MP, but she took her seat in Dublin.
“I don’t believe that the British should have any say or interference over what happens in Ireland. Why then would I as an Irishwoman interfere in what’s happening in Britain?”
And while a long-held principle, it is also a policy with political expediency, after the party wiped out their nationalist rivals in the SDLP at the last general election.
“The abstentionism, we are elected on that basis, we have canvassed votes on that basis. I think it’s very, very interesting that the nationalist people turned their back on the idea of sitting on those green benches and being part of the establishment here. They went out and voted in huge numbers for us to go and not take our seats and we have a mandate to do that.”
But at such an important juncture in these islands’ history, does she not find it frustrating to be on the outside watching on as MPs debate matters of such significance to the United Kingdom?
“To be honest, I think it was more frustrating for the SNP, who were here, who were taking their seats, who were part of this place, with over 50 MPs, and couldn’t make an awful lot of difference. That’s frustrating.
“We are very active abstentionists, we know what we signed up for. Not being on the green benches does not just stop me having influence. We have influence at the highest levels,” she says, referring to last month’s Downing Street meeting on the future of the Irish border and Brexit.
She goes on: “We do everything that other MPs do except take our seats in the chamber. I worked here before I got elected myself and before devolution. Prior to devolution I would have been in the public gallery listening to the debates and even then there was very little of relevance to my constituency and constituents and to Ireland and the north of Ireland.”
And on that point, she later adds: “We are making decisions in Ireland for Irish people. I cannot see a time when it suits our project to take our seats in a foreign parliament.”
However, with the collapse of Stormont and the unique challenges posed by Brexit on the island, the addition of a full-time press officer to the party team in London and a conscious continual presence shared among the party’s six MPs, Gildernew accepts the team have had to keep up appearances.
“Obviously with devolution and getting the Assembly up and running under the Good Friday Agreement, this place was less important to not just our constituents but to the media and the policy makers and everyone.
“For us it’s really, really important to be here and be a strong voice for Irish unity in London, but to engage in groups and organisations, to talk to other MPs and peers, to meet with campaign groups, to meet with the trade unionists, the media.”
Amid the talk of Brexit and the rumbling issue of how to keep Ireland’s frontier open, Gildernew is keen to turn the focus on to Sinn Féin’s role at the European Parliament, which she insists has been agenda-setting.
She highlights the role of MEP Martina Anderson, who sparked a reaction last year after announcing in the Brussels chamber that Theresa May should “stick [the idea of a harder border] where the sun doesn’t shine”.
And the MP’s view of UK ministers’ role in the Brexit process is similarly, if not quite as crudely, to the point.
“Well I think if Theresa May had her way, there would be as hard a border as she can imagine on the island of Ireland,” Gildernew adds.
“The fact that we’re not discussing that scenario at the moment is because of the hard work that Sinn Féin elected reps have done and in that I want to mention Martina Anderson, who has played a blinder in Europe.
“When people were talking about Gibraltar and what it would mean for Gibraltar, Ireland wasn’t in the equation. Now it is front and centre of everything we do.
“Martina Anderson has brought the Irish issue right to the heart of Europe and she has got it on the table very effectively.
“To be honest, London doesn’t know what they want at all, we know what we want and we know more specifically what we don’t want and London is such a – can I use the word basket case – on Brexit, that there’s really no point. We have to deal with the organ grinder.”
But amid the chat of borders, Brexit and the prospect of reunification, highlighting the importance of prominent women is a common theme with Gildernew. To her, the passion for gender equality is on a par with that for a reunited Ireland and it shows.
She backs the “amazing strong women” within her own movement and looks back on those who made the difference a century ago in the way Irish republicanism looks at its own revolutionary heroes and with the rhetoric to match.
“We’re a long, long way away from achieving equality. We’re paid less, we have the biggest share normally of care and responsibilities, women are the backbone of any country, every country and yet our labour isn’t valued to the same extent.
“I think 100 years after the representation of the people act and the fact that some women got the vote in 1918, we still have an awful mountain to climb.”