Belfast Telegraph

As voter numbers fall, election pacts are the order of the day

By Liam Clarke

Any comment on elections in Northern Ireland has to take account of the fact that our old political division, though still dominant, is currently losing its pulling power. Parties are casting around for new models, like the DUP reaching out to conservative Catholics, or Sinn Fein featuring clergy at its conference, but these are unlikely to produce results in this election.

The latest figures to show the decline in our political dynamic is a survey from the University of Edinburgh. It showed that, in Scotland, 76% intend to vote in May. It is 63% in England, 64% in Wales and 55% here. That is a huge change; we used to be the highest-polling region.

The missing ingredient is fear and uncertainty. For much of Northern Ireland's history, elections were conducted as sectarian headcounts. If nationalists, who were almost exclusively Catholic, got a majority at Stormont, they could bring about Irish unity.

That doesn't apply any more; only a referendum can decide on the border.

With falling numbers of people voting, pacts are a way of maximising your share of the 55% who do turn out.

There is another argument for it this time and it is the one the unionists are playing up. Instead of talking about the border, they are warning that our MPs could be crucial in forming a government at Westminster and that, as abstentionists, Sinn Fein can play no part.

The pact gives the DUP a hope, but no certainty, of increasing unionist representation from eight to 10 seats, with East Belfast falling to them and Fermanagh and South Tyrone to the UUP. It also secures North Belfast for them, though that seems secure anyway.

It is also gradually drawing the UUP into the DUP's orbit and there is an element of beggars can't be choosers in the deal.

When you stand down in another party's favour, it raises a question about why you should ever oppose them again, especially if they win.

It is safe to predict that the DUP will emerge from this as a much stronger force within unionism and the UUP will have either no MPs, or just one.

The weakness of the UUP's hand is illustrated by the fact that they could get no deal on South Belfast, which is held by Dr Alasdair McDonnell (below) of the SDLP.

The UUP's Rev Martin Smyth was the last unionist to hold it, but the DUP refused to back either of the candidates they suggested, Rodney McCune and Jeff Dudgeon.

Mr McCune is the eventual choice, but the negotiations with the DUP have delayed its announcement so long that he now has ground to make up.

Sinn Fein predictably called for a pact on the nationalist side. That might protect Michelle Gildrenew, its sitting MP in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as well as the SDLP's three MPs - Mark Durkan (Foyle), Margaret Ritchie (South Down) and Dr McDonnell.

The SDLP is against pacts in principle, regarding them as sectarian, but, even setting that aside, it would lose credibility if it pulled its candidates out of contests in favour of other candidates who wouldn't take their seats.

So the politics of the headcount will get a good run-out on the unionist side. Only time will tell if it will succeed in getting more MPs elected than before.

As voter numbers fall, a coming together of existing parties may, in the long term, lead to new ones emerging. It will be interesting to see, in this election, if other unionist candidates will take any notice of the pact agreed by the UUP and DUP.

Instead, they may see it as an opportunity to make their mark. A lot could be decided in this election.

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