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Sinn Féin abandoned its abstentionist policy in the Dáil in 1986. Despite taking its seats, Sinn Féin’s language continues to reveal a refusal to recognise the Dáil, its government and the State itself. A  symptom of this refusal occurred 11-28 when Sinn Féin member of the Dáil, Brian Stanley, conflated in a tweet an attack during the Irish War of Independence in 1920 and an attack perpetuated by the IRA during the Troubles. The first campaign had the authority of the Dáil based on the 1918 general election; the second had no such authority. Sinn Féin’s leadership has characterised Brian Stanley’s tweet, implicitly glorifying the IRA campaign, as an unfortunate gaffe. Other members see it as an instantiation that there cannot be an agreed narrative about the past. This points not to dissonance about the past within a party whose eyes are trained on the prize of entering government in Dublin, but to disagreement about how to impose its narrative of the Troubles.

While Sinn Féin does not form part of the government of the 33rd Dáil, it remains quite possible that it will be less dislodgeable in negotiations for a future government. So, what can the current government do to prevent Sinn Fein’s unwillingness to confront its demons from precipitating a crisis in the future? The government has an opportunity—and even a duty—to respond to the new political circumstances and to institute an additional requirement of taoisigh and their cabinets.

On assuming their roles, the president of Ireland and Irish judges ‘sincerely promise and declare’ (Article 12 and Article 34 of constitution, respectively) to maintain and to uphold the constitution. The taoiseach and cabinet do not. This is partly because the very concept of an oath remained bitterly charged when the constitution was ratified in 1937, only five years after the abolition of the Oath of Allegiance to a foreign monarch and when Ireland was still embroiled in a futile trade war with Britain. No such recoil prevails today. A declaration to uphold the constitution must be acceptable to the leader and cabinet of a putative government as an obvious precondition of assuming their roles.

The philosopher Thomas Hobbes once argued that the State’s primary purpose is to maintain its own integrity. It would be good politics for this government to propose a constitutional amendment requiring the most senior politicians in the government to protect the State’s integrity. What objection could opponents to the amendment raise other than a specious party political one? With the support of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens, the amendment would likely carry in the Oireachtas. If a majority of the electorate endorsed the motion in the consequent plebiscite, the party political criticism of the amendment would become redundant and any further objection would be tantamount to denying the sovereignty of the people.

To date, Sinn Féin’s commitment to the Dáil has been tentative and this is reflected in the skeptical language it uses to describe the State and its governing institutions. Its position on the Constitution leads to inter-party sparring that masks the real face-off, which is a challenge from Sinn Féin to the sovereignty of the government. Yet with what legitimacy can Sinn Féin propose to govern if it does not recognise that the government’s authority is bound to the Constitution? Sinn Féin cannot continue to avoid affirming the authority of the government of which it wishes to be part and this government can future-proof against such avoidance.

It is self-evident that the authority of the Irish Constitution supersedes the authority of a political party’s constitution. Clarifying that fact and entering it in law could avert a future constitutional crisis in Ireland: if Sinn Féin, in government, refused to recognise the State as it is currently constituted, how could it conduct international negotiations on behalf of the State, particularly with the UK? It is almost inevitable that Sinn Féin’s de facto repudiation of fundamental aspects of the State would stymie its capacity to fully represent the State.

As jurist Carl Schmitt wrote, ‘all significant concepts of the modern theory of the State are secularised theological concepts’ and this is strikingly so in Sinn Féin’s conception of the Irish Republic. A belief prevails among Sinn Féin members that the increasingly probable united polity on the island of Ireland will be a manifestation of Sinn Féin’s politico-theological destiny: the fiat of Easter 1916 that somehow finds its deliverance in a border poll in favour of Irish unity. Yet unity will almost certainly take the form of the northern State conjoining with the south. If constitutional change were to take this shape, what identification can Sinn Féin have with it unless it unequivocally recognises the State in the first instance?

Forcing Sinn Féin’s hand on the political language espoused by the party would clarify its position on related bugbears that tongue-tie its representatives elected to the Dáil—the full purview of the judiciary and the authority of the Garda Síochána. That, in turn, would also help to allay unionist suspicions about Sinn Féin’s commitment to exclusively democratic methods. If it is to become a party of change, Sinn Féin must swap the ritualised responses that have entrapped its elected representatives for a new idiom commensurate to the transformation that the party seeks to embody. It may be optimistic to suppose that such a shift in the language Sinn Féin uses to describe the State and its institutions can bring a still more urgent reform in the language it has adopted vis-à-vis the Troubles. Nevertheless, it would be a necessary step towards overcoming its ambivalence about the sovereign Irish government. The present government has the chance to shape an important agenda for our island’s future.

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