Belfast Telegraph

Tom Kelly: Northern Ireland is just too immature to forge electoral agreements with any real meaning

By Tom Kelly

Political electoral pacts seem to be in vogue this spring throughout Northern Ireland. Or at least so it seems. Unionists appear to have a congenital predisposition to electoral pacts among the so-called unionist family.

That unionist family spans from the unelectable unionists - the UDA - to the hardline unionists - the TUV - to the sometimes-nice guy unionists - the UUP - to the God-fearing unionists - the DUP. And in their world on Planet Orange, the Union is all that matters when it comes to elections.

Despite the fact that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland has not changed, nor is it likely to change anytime soon, unionist leaders come out with the usual old guff about the importance of maximising the unionist vote to protect the Union. The vast majority of unionist voters swallow it whole and undigested. It's a form of political Barnum and Bailey - without the entertainment factor.

Of course, unionist grandees are quick to point out that it's not sectarian to seek such unity. Unionism has been indulging in flag cover and sectarian coat-trailing for so long now that it can't separate fact from fiction anymore. Wales and Scotland both have nationalist parties and both have four leading pro-Union parties (Labour/Tories/Ukip/Lib Dems) within their respective jurisdictions.

As the Westminster election approaches, none of these political parties are talking about the need for unionist unity and each is hoping to get as many votes as they possibly can. That's the thing about politics - it's fundamentally about putting forward your own arguments and propositions and competing directly with those who have a different perspective.

When Northern Ireland was founded, it was created in a way to preserve unionist hegemony. Its then leaders never envisaged partnership with the nationalist community - or even engagement. However, history, demography and time were against them.

Even when it was spelled out clearly in 1974 with Sunningdale, in 1985 with the Anglo-Irish Agreement and in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, psychologically unionists never really took to heart the concept of partnership and shared space. It's always been easier to hark back to the nostalgic days of united unionism, the glory days of early Stormont through to the 1950s.

Back then, unionist unity was easy - there was only one unionist party. Today, it's quite different; unionism isn't some big, monolithic bloc. The Union isn't under threat, but unionism has fragmented in a natural way - nearly normal, one might say.

There are conservative unionists, Christian unionists, libertarian unionists, socialist unionists, liberal unionists, rural unionists, urban unionists and paramilitary-leaning unionists.

And all of them have found a home somewhere in the political spectrum that makes up modern unionism.

As the central tenet that binds them isn't under threat, it's difficult for an outsider to comprehend why they even consider electoral pacts on the issue of the Union. After all, the UUP has said it has no confidence in the DUP leadership after the RHI scandal; the Ulster Unionists have given conscience votes on social issues like same-sex marriage, while the DUP sought cover under the protection of the misused petition of concern.

The Ulster Unionists were broadly pro-Remain, while the DUP were ardent Brexiteers. The Ulster Unionists were more enthusiastic about power-sharing, while the DUP was more into power-craving. The small unionist parties, like the PUP, are to the left of any of their counterparts, so it's difficult to see what policies they would have in common with the larger unionist parties, who are often the voice of business and big farmers.

As the TUV languishes with one representative yet again, and with Ukip practically extinct in Northern Ireland, the notion of any need for unity over the Union with them is almost redundant. That is unless you call out unionist unity for what it actually means in Northern Ireland - and that's an attempt to get a sectarian clarion call.

An electoral pact under the bogus disguise of unity over the Union with the rest of the UK is demeaning to all politics, but it also cheapens unionism in the eyes of other UK parties. There's no need for it.

On the other side, Sinn Fein have always been quite open about mimicking unionist calls for unity by calling for electoral pacts with their nationalist counterpart, the SDLP. Ironically, those calls were made most loudly at a time when it was Sinn Fein's presence which prevented the SDLP, which was then the majority nationalist party, from winning nationalist seats in places like Newry and Armagh, and South Down.

The SDLP - always very principled on the issue - rebuffed Sinn Fein and rightly said that it would turn Northern Ireland into an orange/green sectarian headcount.

They did waiver once, in 1981, over the election of Bobby Sands and, quite frankly, the party suffered long-term damage in that constituency as a result. Unionists who have annual pacts taunt the SDLP with that one slip as proof of a pan-nationalist front.

The surprise this time around is that it's the leader of the SDLP who is mooting the idea of exploratory talks around a possible anti-Brexit electoral pact in order to give a voice to the majority of Northern Ireland citizens who voted to remain in the EU.

It has sent shockwaves everywhere. Like a bargain that looks too good to be true, this is one offer too clever to be true.

To be a true anti-Brexit pact, it needs wider political support than Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Greens. The latter have only 3% of the vote. To be effective, it also needs the support of the enthusiastically pro-European Alliance Party, but as the Alliance Party's best hope for a Westminster seat lies in the most unionist constituency in Northern Ireland - East Belfast - it would be political hari-kari for Naomi Long to get into an electoral pact with the SDLP or Sinn Fein - even when she probably agrees with them.

So, this new thinking is doomed for failure before it gets off the ground. It's stillborn. An SDLP/Sinn Fein electoral pact, with the fig leaf of the Green Party, would be an anathema to everything the SDLP has ever stood for, or against. Unionists love it, of course; it's more sauce for the goose.

But it's also an initiative that the SDLP need to find a soft landing from, as Sinn Fein and the wider nationalist electorate may be enthused about it for all the wrong reasons.

The fact is Brexit has changed everything, but to challenge it and the prospect of an enhanced Tory majority, Northern Ireland needs all 18 MPs to attend Westminster and it's the absence of the representation piece that undermines any anti-Brexit electoral pacts.

Bottom line: Northern Ireland is too immature for electoral pacts with any real meaning. And more flag-waving won't solve anything.

Tom Kelly is a political commentator

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