Belfast Telegraph

One great super pact between all parties would succeed

The only problem with the DUP/UUP pact is that it is not ambitious enough, says Malachi O'Doherty. A coming-together of unionists, the SDLP and Alliance would give Northern Ireland real clout in the horse-trading likely after May 7.

Peter Robinson does not believe that he is sectarian. I have seen one of his ministers look stricken at the very suggestion that the party was motivated by a desire to keep Protestant and Catholic divided against each other, as if this was the most hurtful thing that could be said.

Similarly, Mike Nesbitt no doubt goes to bed each night confident that he is doing his best to make Northern Ireland a better place. He sincerely hopes to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.

I doubt that even the culture warriors Gregory Campbell and Nelson McCausland would give house room to the charge that they are bad people. They are in politics to ease the burden on those who vote for them and they probably feel that they have made noble sacrifices to make peace with others whom they regard as genuinely evil, twisted and sectarian.

And when the DUP and the Ulster Unionists are challenged on what they hope to gain from an electoral pact in four constituencies, facing into the Westminster election in May, they say it is for the good of us all.

If Northern Ireland is to have bargaining power in the creation of pacts in a hung parliament, then it must have members who will not abstain and who will set a price for their co-operation with a Tory party that needs help to get into power.

There are a couple of flaws in this argument. One is simply that the Tory party probably knows it can rely on the DUP to support it - whatever happens.

The unionists can talk tough now, but David Cameron knows that they are not likely to make a deal with Labour. The unionist bluff can be called.

In the event of the Conservatives needing a promise of unionist support and the alternative being a more fragmented government, a Labour government, or a second election in the summer, then Peter and Mike will do the decent thing and bail out their old mates.

Their threat to pitch high for the good of Northern Ireland isn't really that credible. Still, their argument that they are stronger with non-abstainers at their side is valid. Sinn Fein, refusing to take their seats at all, will be no use to anyone come bartering time.

And, even if Sinn Fein could persuade themselves to go to Westminster, they would not be inclined to lend weight to a Tory pitch for power.

Though they can form a coalition with the DUP at home, a huddle close to the English Conservatives would be - even by comparison - an unsustainable humiliation.

So what is left of the unionist argument that their pact is not sectarian in essence?

They have a good, strong, pragmatic reason for ganging up to defeat Sinn Fein, if only to maximise the number of Northern Irish politicians who will actually go to Westminster.

And, of course, it is preferable that the greater number of these should be unionists, isn't it? Why? Well, because the Union has to be defended.

This is the old nonsense that has endorsed unionist sectarianism for decades. The Union is not in danger, at least not the Union of Britain and Northern Ireland. That is not to be decided in London, anyway but here at home, by the will of the majority.

The union with Europe is in danger and the DUP is ready to line up with Ukip to have a crack at it.

I don't know if unionists here have considered how that might impact on the Union of Britain and Northern Ireland. Leaving one union would weaken the other.

Leaving the EU would reinforce the Irish border and that would have a psychological impact on Northern nationalists. Some of them would start to think that a united Ireland is more naturally their home than a Britain outside Europe could ever be.

The Union depends on the assent of nationalists in Northern Ireland, who are not really nationalist at all, who are quite happy with the way things are.

If you want to unsettle them and lose their passive endorsement of the Union, then try pulling them out of Europe and see what they do and how they swing; see how they cope with a choice of being part of the EU through a united Ireland, or staying outside as a humble appendage of Little England. If I were Peter Robinson, I would leave the lid on that box.

So, there is no need for unionists to gang up to defend the Union and no sense on them joining a Westminster cabal that threatens the union with Europe. So is it merely sectarian to form a pact between unionist parties?

Steve Agnew of the Green Party put it succinctly in his leader's speech on Saturday: "If you are not sectarian, why does your party garner support from people of a single religious tradition?"

The same question could be directed at Sinn Fein and the SDLP - neither of which is so embarrassed by the traditional linkages between their ideologies and religious denominations that they are working assertively to break them.

But if the DUP and UUP are primarily concerned with the power their pact would give them in Westminster, another option was to broaden it further across sectarian lines.

Are they talking to the SDLP about how they might feature in this pact? Of course, the SDLP would only be interested in supporting Labour and Ed Miliband (left), as the DUP is really only interested in backing the Tories. But it is this very predictability of their allegiances that undercuts their potential.

They only have something to trade with if both Labour and the Conservatives have a chance of winning them over. Or have they even considered that keeping the Alliance Party in the deal would make it stronger, tie them into the Lib Dems and give them massive clout, far above a piffling pact between unionists and Ukip?

A broad, non-sectarian alliance of Northern Ireland parties that, in the interests of the folks back home, was willing to jump either side of the line at Westminster and to hold together would have more seats to offer and more concessions to gain.

It would be more credible as a force that would trade with either side if it was cross-community already.

And, incidentally, it would be a real demonstration of reconciliation. It would be the biggest story of the election.

But you have to be a dreamer to contemplate such options. The parties here are sleeping, but they are incapable of dreaming like this.

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