Belfast Telegraph

General Election 2019

Alex Kane: It may be hung on Remain vs Leave, but the ‘pacts’ are just old-fashioned Orange vs Green

Forthcoming election now much more interesting and potentially significant but also worryingly likely to be the most toxic, polarising and destabilising campaign NI has seen in decades

DUP leader Arlene Foster with Nigel Dodds, Emma Little Pengelly and Gavin Robinson at the 2017 General Election count. The party could see its Westminster representation changed at the December poll. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
DUP leader Arlene Foster with Nigel Dodds, Emma Little Pengelly and Gavin Robinson at the 2017 General Election count. The party could see its Westminster representation changed at the December poll. (Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

While the parties fall over themselves to say that what’s happening now — and will happen later in other constituencies — doesn’t constitute formal electoral pacts, it is clear that ‘understandings’ of substance and significance have been reached within both unionism and nationalism.

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It means that South and North Belfast, Fermanagh/South Tyrone, North Down and Foyle are all in play in a way they weren’t just 24 hours ago.

And while I think the odds continue to favour the DUP in East Belfast, the announcement of Naomi Long’s candidacy, the withdrawal of the SDLP (and probably Sinn Fein),  and some unease in sections of small-u unionism at alleged threats to UUP personnel in North Belfast, could mean that Robinson’s expected victory isn’t as straightforward as he might have hoped.

But this isn’t just about Remain versus Leave, no matter how much the SDLP and Sinn Fein push that line.

The SDLP has to prove it has relevance and winning seats is a key part of that process. Regaining two MPs (South Belfast and Foyle) would be an enormous fillup for the party after the setbacks of 2017 and would set them up nicely for the next Assembly election (assuming there ever is one again).

For Sinn Fein it’s primarily about levelling with, or nudging ahead of the DUP in both seats and votes. At the moment the DUP has 10 to SF’s 7; but if Dodds and Pengelly were to lose and SF took North Belfast and held Foyle it puts them at eight each.

And, at the moment, unexpected further loss for the DUP (both South Antrim and East Belfast, maybe even Upper Bann, are potential problems) would put SF ahead.

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That would be an enormous political and psychological blow for the DUP (and wider unionism): even greater than the 2017 election which deprived unionism of its overall majority in the Assembly.

There are, of course, no certainties with elections — and anything can happen in the next five weeks — but for the SDLP and SF an electoral ‘understanding’ on the back of Remain versus Leave, could deliver very rich rewards for them.

At this point Alliance doesn’t seem to be part of the ‘understanding’ and that makes sense. It needs to test the durability of its ‘surge’ in the Euro and council elections a few months ago and the most obvious way of doing that is to present itself as the only genuine ‘other’ alternative in every seat.

Its chances of winning any seat don’t, on the surface, appear to be high. That said, I wouldn’t completely dismiss Long’s chances in East Belfast and it is likely that some small-u unionists might shift towards the party and keep up their percentage overall.

The DUP and UUP have an ‘understanding’ in North Belfast and Fermanagh/South Tyrone; but may now look to reaching a broader one embracing South and East Belfast and North Down. The problem is that there seems nothing bankable for the UUP from any arrangement, meaning that it could really struggle for relevance, seats and votes.

Two things are certain, though. This election is now much more interesting and potentially significant than looked likely a few days ago. And, more worryingly, it is likely to be the most toxic, polarising and destabilising campaign Northern Ireland has seen since the 1980s

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