Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: It seems the only thing consistent about the parties is their inconsistency

Election posters in North Belfast
Election posters in North Belfast
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

Great to see the election bringing everyone together then as we enter the season of goodwill. A grim set of posters isn't really cutting it as Belfast's alternative advent calendar.

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Still, the election has reconciled some folk. Have yourselves a merry pan-unionist or pan-nationalist Christmas - but only in a few constituencies.

Policies are still struggling to gain traction amid the overarching Brexit context and continuing noise over pacts.

The DUP outlined its 12-point plan to "get Northern Ireland moving again".

It had some interesting proposals in terms of Assembly restoration, including the removal of community designations for MLAs and cross-party negotiation to determine Executive posts.

The plan also demanded a "sensible Brexit" - an oxymoron for many in Northern Ireland - and urged that if a comprehensive free trade agreement could not be reached, the UK should place tariffs on agricultural goods imported from the EU at the same level as EU levies upon goods exported from the UK.

Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood stood up well to some typically robust probing by Mark Carruthers on BBC's The View on Thursday night.

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Composed and coherent, Eastwood acknowledged that his party's decision to step aside in North Belfast was tough but insisted an anti-Brexit alliance was necessary. Yet the strange reality of the SDLP position is that it is now in an anti-Brexit pact to defeat the candidate in North Belfast who would go to Westminster and vote against the only Brexit on offer. John Finucane won't, because his party doesn't.

Nuala McAllister won't, because her party will be at least 15,000 votes short.

And if you think Dodds supports a Boris Brexit I'm envious, because you've managed to sleep through the politics of the last few months.

The pro-EU John Finucane, who stood for Sinn Fein in North Belfast in 2017, when the SDLP said don't vote for him, has not changed in 2019.

In June 2017, when Theresa May offered Brexit and the DUP was still gung-ho on the form it might take, the SDLP stood against Sinn Fein, knowing it would help the Brexiteer DUP win. Now, with the DUP rabidly opposed to the Brexit deal, the SDLP tries to end Dodds' tenure. Go figure.

The SDLP-Sinn Fein tie-up is as much a belated anti-DUP pact as anything else. It's based upon a nationalist view - one held by many non-nationalists as well - that the DUP deserves punishing as the midwife of its own misfortune.

It articulated a Brexit position without considering the consequences.

Hoist by its own petard, the DUP now needs mathematical miracles at Westminster (as well as in North and South Belfast perhaps) to retain the influence it briefly held on Brexit.

In its defence, the SDLP has always been a consistently strong supporter of the EU. During the 1990s the party even advocated a direct role for EU commissioners in Northern Ireland's governance.

Sinn Fein's abstention from Westminster is also a principled stance, consistent with the republican view that the British Parliament has no business in any part of Ireland.

Such consistency is actually quite rare. If you've supported Sinn Fein for the last three decades you've gone from opposition to northern consent as a "unionist veto" to wanting a border poll within five years.

You've also moved from being against the EU to strongly pro-. If you've backed the DUP you've gone from reviling the Good Friday Agreement to accepting all its contents, plus two add-ons.

"When the facts change, I change my mind," as Keynes famously said. Except the facts didn't. The parties did.

Then again, parties that don't show political dexterity risk being labelled dinosaurs or dissidents.

In 20 days we'll know all the results and be able to analyse how effectively the pacts operated. Then you can enjoy Christmas before bleak January - dark and nothing to look forward to. But lo, is that an Assembly election star rising in the East, above Hillsborough Castle?

Truly, a thing of wonderment. I wonder though if the Secretary of State will be warned in a dream not to go down the dangerous election route.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and co-author of books on Sinn Fein and the SDLP, the DUP, and UUP

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