Belfast Telegraph

Is this the future of unionism?

Editor's Viewpoint

The announcement by the DUP and UUP that they have agreed a pact in four seats in the forthcoming general election took many people by surprise. It had seemed that prospects of any deal had faded as the relationship between the two parties at Stormont had been fractious.

But it just goes to show that not everything that is said in politics is gospel and pragmatism is always one of the strongest forces at play when it comes to wooing the electorate.

From a broad unionist perspective it could be argued that the pacts in the North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituencies are aimed at holding back a rising Sinn Fein tide by giving Nigel Dodds and Tom Elliott respectively clear runs.

The deal in East Belfast is all about the DUP regaining the seat from Alliance and Newry and Armagh merely appears to be a make-weight because agreement could not be reached on a single candidate anywhere else.

This is a high risk gamble by UUP leader Mike Nesbitt. He will be hoping desperately that former leader Tom Elliott wins Fermanagh/South Tyrone, otherwise he could join the lengthening list of former UUP chiefs. UUP candidate Danny Kennedy appears to have little chance of unseating Sinn Fein in Newry and Armagh, so Mr Nesbitt, in poker parlance, has gone all-in in Fermanagh/South Tyrone.

There are other concerns about the pacts. Many people don't buy the suggestion that it could put unionists in a stronger bargaining position in a hung parliament at Westminster. The DUP may be the fourth largest party there but no British government is going to allow itself to be in thrall to unionists as it would undoubtedly jeopardise the peace process here.

The parties also argue that the pacts are a way of maximising what has been a declining unionist vote. But that raises the question of why those voters are not prepared to come out on polling day. Surely that puts the onus on the parties to come up with imaginative policies which energise their supporters, rather than appeal to their fears.

The most strident objection voiced against the pacts is that they reduce the poll in at three of the constituencies to a sectarian headcount. This newspaper has argued in the past that the more choice given to voters the better as it offers them an opportunity to step out of the silos which have bedevilled politics here for so long. In that respect the SDLP is to be commended for refusing to join in pacts with Sinn Fein and that is a position which the party should continue to hold.

Many voters will be asking if a modern Northern Ireland should really be seen to be regressing to the simplistic Orange and Green politics of the past with no other choice? Have the DUP and UUP gone for short-term gains at the expense of a more shared future?

There are other questions which they have to answer. If they are prepared to trade seats with each other what is the real difference between the parties? Is there a need for two parties with little apparent separation on fundamental beliefs? If they are determined to put forward an united unionist voice then why not do it as a single party? And why has the UUP gone into pacts with a party which has virtually destroyed it at the polls in recent years?

Those are issues that the UUP and DUP will have to explain to their supporters. How they do so may define what unionism is about in the 21st century and whether it will continue as a fractured political force or as a single entity. It will also set the agenda for the future, for that depends not on what happens at Westminster, in Dublin or in Washington, but on events and attitudes here.

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