Election 2015 Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin: Irish expats say party should consider Westminster role

The Houses of Parliament, London
Image caption Sinn Féin won five seats at the last Westminster election but its MPs do not take their seats in the House of Commons, in line with the party's long-held policy of absentionism

Sinn Féin continue to refuse to take their parliamentary seats in Westminster but some Irish expatriates living in London have urged the republican party to reconsider.

According to the last census, there are 407,000 Irish-born people resident in England and Wales. There are another 23,000 in Scotland.

It is not practical to sample the views of all of them, but there is some support for the idea of Sinn Féin reversing their long-held abstentionist policy.

The debate has been galvanised by the prospect of a hung parliament, in which a small number of seats could make a big difference.

Sinn Féin won five seats at the last Westminster election. They are now hoping to increase that number.

So why not do what Scottish nationalists do, and fight to leave the UK from within Westminster?

It is topical conversation amongst Irish expats, particularly in areas like Kilburn in north London where so many people from the Emerald Isle set up home in the past 50 years, it has been nicknamed Ireland's 33rd county.

Image caption Irish expat Angela Naylor (centre) said Sinn Féin should provide a voice for the Irish community in London by taking their seats in the House of Commons

Angela Naylor from Cork has been in London for 32 years and thinks the time is now right for Sinn Féin MPs to attend Westminster.

"It would be a great representation for the Irish," she says.

"There is still a big Irish community around and we should have a voice of some sort."

David O'Rouke, who arrived from Dublin in October 1986, is more wary: "I can't see them swearing allegiance to the Queen or to the Crown."

Image caption Dubliner David O'Rouke, who has living in London for almost 30s years, talks to the BBC's Mark Simpson

Wendy Metcalf, who has been in London since June 1973, says: "I know they've always said that they wouldn't, but I think that they should. I think it would stir Westminster up a bit.

"I remember when there was the People's Democracy and Bernadette Devlin in Westminster - she stirred them all up."

Image caption Discussing the issue in a London cafe, Wendy Metcalf (centre) said Sinn Féin could "stir Westminster up a bit"

Others point to the previous century, before the partition of Ireland, when Charles Parnell's Irish Parliamentary Party fought for Home Rule at Westminster in the 1880s.

The more contemporary example of nationalists taking their fight to the green benches of the Commons is the Scottish National Party.

The SNP believes taking their seats at Westminster does not make them any less Scottish.

However, Sinn Féin still do not see the attraction.

Martin McGuinness says: "I think we've achieved more in direct negotiations with the British government - the Good Friday Agreement, the St Andrews Agreement, the Hillsborough Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement - than any MP sitting on his or her backside on the green benches in Westminster."

But could this position change in the long term?

Image caption Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness said his party had achieved more in direct negotiations with the British government than they would have by sitting in the House of Commons

Kate Devlin, the Westminster correspondent of The Herald newspaper, says: "If Sinn Féin did manage to achieve a breakthrough in the Republic [of Ireland], if they did manage to set themselves up as a party of government there, I think they could very slowly make the argument that at Westminster it doesn't really matter quite so much what they do, they're just in it for political gain and political advantage, it's not saying anything about nationhood any more.

"I think they'd have to soften up their electorate, but I think it's possible."

In the meantime, all eyes are on the SNP to see how it might use its influence at Westminster if it holds the balance of power after next week's general election.

Other parties may be taking notes.