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Sinn Fein oozing confidence and unionists know what is at stake in General Election

By Suzanne Breen

It's seven weeks until the Westminster election but it's already clear who our politicians reckon the winners and losers will be.

After the shock of their poor performance in last month's Assembly poll, the two main unionist parties know what is at stake.

There were no flowery flourishes from either yesterday, just signs that they're preparing to knuckle down to some serious business and hammer out a pact.

June 8 holds risks for both of them but, with the right strategy, these can be minimised in most constituencies, bar Fermanagh and South Tyrone.

The DUP will face a formidable challenge from Naomi Long in East Belfast, but it also has a chance of picking up South Belfast. Sinn Fein is oozing confidence. There are no threats to its seats, and potential big gains are on the cards. Recapturing Bobby Sands' old constituency is possible even with a unionist pact.

The Shinners must be bookies favourites to snatch South Down from the SDLP, and there's also a chance of Foyle as well, although Mark Durkan's position isn't as weak as Margaret Ritchie's.

The SDLP is in a clear state of panic. It was tremendously lucky to emerge from the Assembly poll with 12 seats. Everything went its way in marginal constituencies.

As one party insider admitted: "The ball bounced well."

Just seven weeks later, it's facing an election which could effectively wipe it out. No wonder Colum Eastwood's words were so dramatic at Stormont yesterday.

Theresa May had thrown "a grenade into the middle of our peace process," he declared.

The election has scuppered whatever chances there were of a deal from the current talks' process. But political activity (or inactivity) in this neck of the woods no longer bothers the British Government.

The dissident republican campaign is negligible and, so long as there isn't a meaningful security threat, Westminster doesn't care about us. Mrs May was never about to throw away the chance of a landslide Tory victory because it jeopardised Stormont.

While Mr Eastwood said he was against a "sectarian pact", he held open the door to some sort of anti-Brexit coalition to "fight against anti-Europe MPs".

Despite how he might dress it up, this would just be a nationalist pact to mirror a unionist one. The Alliance Party won't enter a pact so that leaves only Sinn Fein as potential partners.

Of the three SDLP seats at risk, Sinn Fein won't stand aside in South Down or Foyle.

So any deal would focus on Mairtin O Muilleoir giving Alasdair McDonnell a clear run in South Belfast, in return for Nichola Mallon reciprocating for Gerry Kelly in North Belfast.

Sinn Fein believes it can win back Fermanagh and South Tyrone without a pact.

Michelle Gildernew was only 500 votes behind Tom Elliott in 2015.

Despite Mr Eastwood's words yesterday, there is too much internal opposition in the SDLP for him to go down the path of a deal.

Sinn Fein may unilaterally pull out of South Belfast so it occupies the moral high ground in nationalist eyes.

There is talk of the DUP's Emma-Little Pengelly as the unionist unity candidate in that constituency and, if Sinn Fein stands, Alasdair McDonnell could be in trouble.

The DUP is in a strong position to dictate terms in pact negotiations with the UUP, but the latter will be content to secure a clear run for Tom Elliott in Fermanagh and South Tyrone and Danny Kinahan in South Antrim.

Northern Ireland will have gone to the polls three times in just over a year, with the possibility of a fourth election to Stormont looming.

Yet our local political institutions aren't functioning and Westminster ignores us.

Our electorate have certainly pulled the short straw.

They are undoubtedly the most active, but least represented, of any in these islands.

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