Daithi McKay: Why electoral pacts can be a good idea... but only if you have two of them
Possibility of inter-party co-operation raises prospect of tantalising 'Battle of Belfast' in otherwise listless contest, writes Daithi McKay
Westminster elections here are usually dull affairs with most of the returning MPs being easily predicted months in advance. The archaic first past the post (FPTP) system delivers none of the drama and the chaos of 9 or 10 counts of a Proportional Representation contest such as our Assembly poll less than two months ago.
There is much debate about the rights and wrongs of pacts and whether they are truly 'democratic' or not. However if there are two major pacts - one Unionist and one anti-Brexit - it will make normally safe seats more tightly contested and therefore help to increase voter engagement and turnout. The political equivalent of a photo finish is sure to stir the interest of an electorate that tends to be more disengaged than not.
One of the most potent arguments for cross-party co-operation in FPTP contests was made by none other than the Alliance Party's Stephen Farry. Yes, the same Stephen Farry who now argues aggressively against a progressive pact. When he stood aside to help then Ulster Unionist Sylvia Hermon mount a challenge against the sitting MP, the anti-Agreement Bob McCartney, he argued that: "In an ideal world, we would have Proportional Representation in Westminster Elections, just as we have for all other elections. People could vote for whoever they please, and transfers would eventually go to the stronger pro-Agreement candidate, thereby defeating Mr McCartney. People could vote for their first choice rather than feel the need to stop the worst alternative from being elected.
"We have shown considerable leadership in standing aside from a number of constituencies, with the latest and most significant being North Down."
So when the SDLP and the Green Party met to discuss the possibility of a pact to prevent anti-Brexit candidates from topping their constituency polls, they are merely taking a leaf out of what was the Alliance political strategy book!
If there is a full blown unionist pact on one hand and an anti-Brexit pact on the other, a by-product of that will be a fascinating 'Battle for Belfast' with Paul Maskey the only safe sitting MP in the republican west of the city. Unionists could potentially take three seats in the city for the first time since 2001.
Is an anti-Brexit pact sectarian? No. Already the Green Party in England has stood aside in a marginal constituency in London (Ealing Central and Acton) after making a plea for an anti-Tory alliance. Even though both Labour and the Lib Dems have dismissed a pragmatic approach to key marginals, the Greens have decided to act unilaterally. The reality is that members of the public already vote strategically even when parties do not make pacts on points of principle. They see some electoral decisions as picking the lesser of two evils.
If you look at the possible spoils of such a marriage of convenience in the north, it is potentially fairly balanced.
In those seats that look likely to be affected by such a pact, it could deliver one SDLP MP (South Belfast), one Alliance (East Belfast), one Sinn Fein (Fermanagh & South Tyrone) and some have suggested one Independent/Green in North Belfast.
Perhaps an agreed candidate in the north of the city is too aspirational?
In North Belfast, the Ulster Unionists have already opted to stand aside to help the sitting MP, Nigel Dodds, get re-elected for a fifth term. Sinn Fein's vote has been increasing here year on year but a united unionist ticket makes Dodds virtually uncatchable unless there is co-operation amongst the other parties.
The Greens may feel they are entitled to have some input into the selection of a candidate here if they are expected to make sacrifices in two of their strongest constituencies - South and East Belfast.
A more liberal or left-leaning candidate in a less crowded field would be a perfect counterbalance to the more conservative and right wing incumbent. Dodds, who has donned the status of Arlene Foster's 'protector' in recent times, could be the biggest scalp of the election should the pro-remain parties get their act together. A North Belfast MP that is anti-Brexit and liberal on issues such as marriage equality would perhaps better reflect the constituency than the current incumbent?
Colum Eastwood was right not to dismiss the idea of co-operation with other parties out of hand. Politically this has placed him front and centre. If he handles this correctly, the SDLP could hold all three of their seats.
If not, the SDLP could exit Westminster for the last time. That's unlikely but, with Sinn Fein currently outpolling the SDLP in South Down by more ballots than any strategic unionist voting would benefit Margaret Ritchie, the pressure is certainly on.
Sinn Fein, by comparison, are fairly relaxed. All of their current seats are safe and, if they can maintain their Assembly election turnout, they could return two further MPs - one in South Down and presumably Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh South Tyrone. Even without a pact, republicans could easily increase their team from four to six.
The DUP wish to make this election about the union and a border poll, framing it in a classic siege mentality pitch to their base. However, this is an election about Brexit. It is an opportunity to send a message to Westminster that the majority of the 18 MPs we return reflect the result here last year when 56% voted to stay in the EU. Theresa May could ignore that message. She probably will.
But do we really want to elect a Brexiteer team of MPs that sends a message to the world that we are hunky-dory with the decision to push us further out into the Atlantic Ocean - making us more isolated politically and economically?
If the DUP-UUP alliance maximises its potential, it could be the best Westminster result for the unionist parties in the past 20 years. We need a progressive alliance to win this election. In many ways, this election pitches Progressives against Conservatives. Remainers versus Brexiteers.
June 8 will not be a border poll and efforts to taint a progressive pact by calling it sectarian help the DUP steer the public discourse away from Brexit. As Stephen Farry and the Alliance Party so amply demonstrated when they stood aside to help elect Sylvia Hermon in 2001, progressive pacts work.
- Daithi McKay is a former Sinn Fein MLA