SDLP denies pact with Sinn Fein as it steps aside in three seats
SDLP grandees have voiced their overwhelming support for the party's decision not to contest three seats in the December election while denying claims of a pact with Sinn Fein.
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Former North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness said the SDLP is "doing the right thing" by not fielding a candidate in the constituency, which is now set to be a race between the DUP's Nigel Dodds and John Finucane from Sinn Fein.
He also said he understood the need to step aside in the East Belfast and North Down constituencies in what he described as "an unprecedented election" which "will define our political and economic future".
Mr Maginness, the first nationalist to be elected Mayor of Belfast, praised his North Belfast successor, the SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon, for tackling the thorny issue robustly.
"It's an extraordinary situation and it requires an extraordinary process in terms of supporting the pro-Remain vote throughout Northern Ireland," he said.
"Nichola Mallon has made a difficult and brave decision - but it is the right one."
The SDLP veteran refuted claims of political sectarianism, saying "the pro-Remain vote is a cross-community vote".
"Fifty six per cent of people voted for Remain in Northern Ireland and 52% voted for it in north Belfast," he said. "A Brexit vote is clearly a DUP one exclusively really, whereas a pro-Remain vote is a mixture of different religion, different political parties and is cross-community."
When asked, Mr Maginness said he supported the SDLP south Belfast candidate Claire Hanna's previously stated view that unseating DUP MPs in the forthcoming election is one way of moving the country forward.
"The DUP have brought Northern Ireland to the brink of disaster in relation to Brexit and they do not deserve to be rewarded for their bad politics," he said.
The Belfast Telegraph columnist, who represented North Belfast at Stormont from 1998 to 2016, denied that there was a pact with Sinn Fein, calling the move "a pragmatic decision made on the basis of trying to maximise the pro-Remain vote and minimise the pro-Brexit vote."
He added: "It's definitely not a pact. Nichola Mallon made it clear there was no discussion with Sinn Fein or anyone else."
The SDLP's stance has, however, prompted former Lisburn councillor Mairia Cahill to quit the party over what she described as a "grubby sectarian pact dressed up as a remain one".
But Mr Maginness said he believed Ms Cahill had made "an impulsive decision" and he urged her "to rethink that".
Former SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said this is a "Brexit election" and a "unique situation". Mr McDonnell, the MP for South Belfast from 2005 to 2017, urged voters to back pro-Remain candidates in North Belfast, East Belfast and North Down.
"I'm in favour of reducing the number of no-deal Brexiteers in Westminster, whatever it takes," he said. "Every effort must be made in this election to reduce the potential of the DUP to do further damage."
Mr McDonnell said he was "grateful to the SDLP for taking the lead in trying to maximise the number of pro-Remain candidates" who become MPs.
"I strongly support Sylvia Hermon and Naomi Long. I mightn't agree with them on every detail but it's important that good people like them are elected rather than people who are going to do damage," he said.
"This election is about Brexit and while other issues may creep in, Brexit is annoying everybody. It is a disaster for Northern Ireland and Britain and will do untold damage."
Mr McDonnell, who was the first Catholic deputy mayor of Belfast, said it was time for people to set emotions aside and face up to reality.
"The DUP are in favour of a no-deal Brexit; they're in the same space as Nigel Farage, while 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to Remain. That's the situation," he said.
"First past the post creates all sorts of difficulties. While some people might have a nationalist tilt in East Belfast I still feel they should bite their tongue and vote for Naomi Long or Sylvia Hermon in North Down. It's slightly more complex in North Belfast with John Finucane."
When asked if he would vote for John Finucane in North Belfast he replied: "I'd be voting Remain and John Finucane is the strongest Remain candidate."
He added: "In other circumstances in another election I would probably not vote for John Finucane but on this occasion we have got to minimise the damage the DUP are able to do."
Dismissing claims the election is being sectarianised, he said: "This is a Brexit election that has been forced upon us by no-deal Brexiteers at Westminster."
He added: "Sometimes in elections you don't have the perfect solution and sometimes people have to take the lesser of two evils. We're in a situation where people may have to make a choice between candidates who might otherwise not have been their first preference."
Mr McDonnell said it won't be the first time in the SDLP's history that it will not be putting forward a candidate in North Belfast, citing the "so-called Peter Barry election of 1986".