Leading article: Not fit to sit in Parliament? It is the oath that is not fit

Share
Related Topics
Would you? Would you promise to be "faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law"? Many readers of this newspaper would. Some have, as naturalised citizens, Scouts or Guides. But many would not. Does that make them ineligible to sit in Parliament?

Of course not. Yet that is what we require our MPs to say, every one of them, before they can sit on the green benches and do their bit for representative democracy. The idea that people who want Britain to have an elected head of state must be barred from the House of Commons is antique. It is preposterous that MPs should not be permitted to believe openly in a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch is merely titular head of state. Should republicanism, indeed, disqualify a citizen from being a Member of the House? When examined closely, the idea of swearing loyalty to the person of the monarch and her heirs is so offensive - even with that historically rather important rider, "according to law" - that there is a strong case for asserting that anyone capable of mouthing such hypocritical tosh ought to be disbarred automatically from being an MP.

That does not, of course, mean that the opposite is always true. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness should not be allowed to use the facilities of the House of Commons simply because they refuse to swear the oath of allegiance. They should be allowed to do so because they have disavowed the use of violence and have expressed a desire to take part in a democratic dialogue about the future of Northern Ireland.

So Betty Boothroyd was wrong to send the Sinn Fein MPs away yesterday with their crude piece of agitprop intact. She was wrong on several counts. First, because the oath of allegiance is the wrong test to administer. Most democratic assemblies require their members to declare some kind of loyalty to their nation, which must always present problems to those who stand on a democratic platform of secession for a part of it. The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru get round that by saying they would be happy to have the Queen as head of state of their independent country. But it is different for the Irish, as would be revealed by even the most cursory knowledge of Irish history, and the part played in it by oaths of allegiance.

As Miss Boothroyd pointed out, the oath of allegiance is not a matter for her. The Commons would have to amend the Parliamentary Oaths Act 1866 in order to change it. It was amended once, in 1885, to allow Charles Bradlaugh to sit. As an atheist, he refused to "swear by Almighty God" that he would be loyal to Queen Victoria, and his constituents in Northampton forced a change in the law by returning him in four successive by-elections. As a result, many MPs today "solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm" that they will be loyal to Victoria's successor.

Yesterday, the Speaker claimed to be bound by the law as it now stands - in which case she should disqualify at least one MP who did not deliver the form of words required by the Act. But in any case the Sinn Fein MPs were not asking to take their seats in the Commons. They were merely asking for access to the Palace of Westminster. When she refused them access just after the general election, Miss Boothroyd told the House that the 1866 Act prevented MPs who refused to swear or affirm from taking their seats. In 1924, she said, the Speaker had ruled that such MPs could not be paid salary or expenses. She went on: "Making use of the power vested in the Office of the Speaker to control the accommodation and services in the Commons parts of the Palace of Westminster and the precincts, I have decided to extend these restrictions." She then listed the facilities that would be denied Sinn Fein, including offices, passes, room booking and library services.

For her to pretend to have no choice in the matter, then, is wrong and foolish. This is not a question only of who should and should not be allowed to sit in the Commons, but of advancing the cause of peace in Northern Ireland.

If she had granted Sinn Fein access to the Commons, it would have thrown the burden of responsibility on to the shoulders of Mr Adams. Every time symbolic barriers are removed to Sinn Fein's inclusion in democratic politics, the less Mr Adams can use the rhetoric of grievance and discrimination with his own tribe. The Prime Minister seems to understand this, and should be praised for meeting Mr Adams in Downing Street next week.

But if the oath itself were changed to a promise to serve the people and pursue "liberty and justice for all" (a phrase from the American pledge of allegiance), then that would really put pressure on the deep-rooted Irish republican tradition of abstentionism. Barristers and police officers in Northern Ireland have dropped the pledge to the Queen: why not MPs? A form of words should not be used which excludes MPs whose democratic credentials are good enough for the Mitchell Commission, and which forces many others to stand up for what we know they don't believe.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Glou...

Humanities and Economics Teacher - January 2015 - Malaysia

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Bush Snr and his adviser Lee Atwater  

Perception is reality: The facts won't matter in next year's general election

Simon Kelner
<p><b>Mock the Week</b></p>
The newest of our quiz shows was created by Created by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson, who also made 'Whose Line is it Anyway?'. This is more of a 'quiz' format, and for me, the best part about it is that it introduced me to Frankie Boyle.  

Liberal shows like Mock The Week just can’t understand why Ukip has so many supporters

Nigel Farage
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain