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

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.