Belfast Telegraph

If Brexit worries you, you might as well vote for your cat as cast your ballot for a Sinn Fein candidate

An SDLP-republican pact may be tempting, but it's a temptation that must be resisted, argues Alban Maginness

Michelle O’Neill and Colum Eastwood
Michelle O’Neill and Colum Eastwood

In France the centrist politician Emmanuel Macron narrowly came first in the presidential election, just two percentage points ahead of the extreme nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen. Macron is a dedicated Europhile, whereas Le Pen had threatened - if elected - to leave the eurozone and even the EU itself.

But, fortunately, due to the wisdom of the French constitution, the people will have another opportunity in two weeks' time to vote again - this time between the two.

This means that the French electorate will have a further choice of vote, between the madness of the National Front and the sanity of the French centre.

This allows the moderate Left and moderate Right wings to combine together with the centre and reject the dangerous chauvinism of Le Pen.

However, at home in the current Westminster general election, we have not got the luxury of the French alternative vote system, nor, indeed, our own familiar single transferable vote system, but rather the first-past-the-post system, which lessens choice and promotes sectarianism and political polarisation.

The Westminster system is the most unfair and disproportionate one in the democratic world and, while it may suit the British political Establishment, it certainly does not suit the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.

Sectarianism has been the curse of Ulster politics for many generations - even before the tragedy of partition. It is this poison, unique to our society, that we have to eliminate or else be completely suffocated by its oppressive stranglehold.

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The UK voting system encourages destructive sectarian feelings in our divided society. Machiavelli himself could not have designed a better system to bring out the worst in our politics.

While all politics, by its very nature, is confrontational, the first-past-the-post system emphasises confrontation, and does so here on a monumental scale.

As we know, this surprise general election was called by Theresa May without the slightest concern for the success of the current Stormont negotiations on the future of power-sharing.

This shows the sorry indifference that the Prime Minister has for Northern Ireland.

Albeit unintentionally, the Westminster voting system encourages tribal electoral pacts, which are hugely damaging to our politics. Instead of de-sectarianising our politics, they re-energise sectarianism.

Pacts are designed to keep people out, not to elect good people who will advance policy or build new relationships across the political divide. Pacts are all about getting one over on the other side, rather than positive politics. Without doubt electoral pacts are popular among both unionists and nationalist voters, but their false appeal should be strongly resisted.

However, there now is a well-intentioned attempt to create an electoral pact in opposition to Brexit, and that has its attractions.

The referendum vote here resulted in a cross-community majority of 56% in favour of remaining in the EU. It is estimated that 88% of nationalists voted Remain, while a significant 30% of unionists voted Remain.

It is also a fact that the present Government under Theresa May has chosen to ignore the local majority view on Europe and that, therefore, there needs to be a strong pro-European representation from here in support of that position. It is true that she needs to hear a sharp message; that a hard Brexit will damage both our economy and our politics.

However, any anti-Brexit pact would have to include parties other than nationalist ones - principally the Alliance Party and the Greens - to make it credibly non-sectarian.

If this were not to happen, then people would criticise this anti-Brexit pact as a thinly disguised pan-nationalist deal. Unfortunately, to date the Alliance Party has publicly ruled out such an electoral arrangement, and yesterday Green Party leader Steven Agnew said it wouldn't join such a pact.

The other problem that arises is that Sinn Fein is lukewarm supporters of the European cause, failing to even register or actively campaign against Brexit. It is also abstentionist, so that if it was elected on an anti-Brexit ticket, it would make no difference within parliament.

You might as well elect your cat as your MP as elect a Sinn Fein candidate, because their contribution would be nil on the floor of the House of Commons.

The SDLP is a truly pro-European party and also has a proud and honourable record of refusing to be involved in sectarian electoral pacts. Doubtless this can be unpopular in certain constituencies, but it is the right thing to do if the party is to remain faithful to its ethos, which is to unite people and build reconciliation.

It may be tempting for some in the SDLP to consider doing a unity pact, but it would be wrong to give in to that temptation.

Belfast Telegraph


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