A better oath to a better allegiance

I've just read about what I think is a remarkable offer from Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary, reported on the BBC's NI news section:

The Secretary of State has said that he has asked Sinn Féin for an alternative text to the oath of allegiance to allow their MPs to sit in Westminster.

Owen Paterson was speaking during his first appearance at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

BBC, 8 September 2010

This offer from the Government has provoked some very strong reaction—as we can read here—but Owen Paterson explained the Government's reasoning like this:

"There is no reason for [Sinn Féin MPs] to stay away," he said. "I have said if the oath is an obstacle, come to me with an alternative text, we already do it for people who are not Christians. So far they have not, the ball is in their court."

He added: "A date sets up all sorts of pressures and dramas. I would like to do this by talking it through."

The current situation is that MPs—and a whole host of other office holders in various different ways—are required to either swear an oath or affirm allegiance to the queen. For MPs, the exact forms are:

"I, ———, swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law. So help me God."

or

"I, ———, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors according to law".

Source

It will not be news to anybody that Sinn Féin MPs have always refused to do this, and I commend them for sticking to their principles. But it is equally true that there are many MPs who do swear or affirm, but very clearly don't mean what they say. Some of them, like Dennis Skinner, make quite a show of it, and there are more than just a handful who have voiced their objections. In 2008 an early day motion was signed by 22 of them, but came to nothing.

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What has happened now is rather different. It is the UK government itself—rather than just a group of backbenchers—that is offering elected MPs who refuse to swear or affirm an oath to the queen an opportunity to do something different. It is obvious why the government is making this offer: they want to make a show of having been reasonable (while at the same time hoping that the offer will be refused) so that they can use the refusal as a reason to no longer pay these MPs their salaries or give them access to offices.

And yes, I think it might well be a hollow and insincere offer that has been made simply for show, but ...

When you suspect someone of being insincere, a good way to find out for sure is to call their bluff. I'm not convinced that Sinn Féin MPs really do want to sit in the Commons, and for that reason they probably won't respond. But this presents the perfect opportunity for other MPs to speak out and demand that they are offered the same choice that the government says it is prepared to give Sinn Féin.

The form of words I would suggest is:

"I, ———, swear by Almighty God that I will faithfully represent all the people of my constituency with fairness and impartially, to the best of my ability, according to law. So help me God."

or

"I, ———, do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully represent all the people of my constituency with fairness and impartially, to the best of my ability, according to law".

I find it impossible to imagine that any MP could object to this or something like this. I believe it also serves the very useful purpose of confirming that MPs are primarily accountable to their constituents. I specifically wouldn't want to introduce any reference to country, as that is likely to be just as objectionable to some MPs as the monarchy. I would address that problem by suggesting that an MP in government should additionally take a Pledge of Office, as is required of Ministers in NI.

At present we have a system which encourages insincerity. What could and should be an important statement of principle is being turned into a meaningless ritual. But it is not just those that take the oath insincerely who make it meaningless; those who tolerate it being trivialized and allow it to continue to be trivialized are just as much at fault. Now is the time to change it.

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4 comments:

glynbeddau said...

Great post Of course in the Northern Ireland Assembly members do not swear an oath.

Members are required to sign the Assembly's roll of membership, designate their identity as "Nationalist", "Unionist" or "Other", and take a Pledge of Office. Ministers can be removed from office if the responsibilities of the pledge are not met. Members pledge.

So the “sacredness” of the Oath of alligence has already been subplanted in an UK legisture.

I would “and honestly” after faithfuly to your propposed oath

James D said...

Presuming that your view of their sincerity is right, if I were in their position, I would propose your wording translated into Irish. That would then fall foul of another of the British Parliament's oddities, namely that Welsh and Irish are out of order as "foreign languages".

MH said...

Thanks Glyn, no objection to honesty.

James, things have change since Gwynfor, and MPs can now swear or affirm in Welsh, Gaelic or Cornish ... but only after doing so in English first. Details on this page (which is better than the one I linked to before, so I've changed the link). But stangely no mention of Irish ... perhaps it's only an oversight, since I can't imagine any issue of principle is at stake.

If anyone wants a much more detailed history and analysis, there's a 2001 research paper here.

James D said...

Interesting. Pity they've muddled up the meaning of "deddf" and "cyfraith" (something that I see they've got right in the Assembly version in that research paper). It's tokenism, but it's nice to see that they aren't being quite as silly as they used to be.

I suspect the issue with Irish is simply that no-one's asked for it yet, as there seems to be a bit of a correlation between speaking Irish in Northern Ireland and membership of Sinn Féin.

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