Belfast Telegraph

Jon Tonge: Pact or not, Northern Ireland seats will be among most fiercely-contested

Professor Jon Tonge
Professor Jon Tonge
Jon Tonge

By Jon Tonge

All I want for Christmas is ... a Belfast constituency where all the parties stand. Some chance. The city's hollowed-out contests have become even more fascinating - but 'action-pact' in different ways to those anticipated.

Eight thousand voters for Sinn Fein in the city in 2017 have lost their right to support the same party.

Having spent years condemning Sinn Fein for abstention from Westminster, the SDLP will be absenting itself from North Belfast. That saves Colum Eastwood's party a lost deposit at least.

We have moved seamlessly from a UUP-SDLP tie-up three years ago - Vote Mike, Get Colum and vice-versa - to UUP-DUP and SDLP-Sinn Fein pacts.

Obviously the SDLP's withdrawal in North Belfast makes things extremely tight for Nigel Dodds.

If all 2,058 SDLP votes transferred to Sinn Fein's John Finucane, the DUP deputy leader's majority is down to 13.

But they won't. Some may transfer to Alliance or stay at home. Dodds remains the odds-on favourite, not that I'd avail myself of the skinny 4/7 on offer.

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If you prefer longer odds, you can have 6/1 on the DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly retaining South Belfast. That is an unusually generous price for an incumbent MP to retain a seat, with good reason.

Assuming Pengelly's vote remains static, the SDLP would need only three in every 10 of Mairtin O Muilleoir's 2017 Sinn Fein voters to come across to recapture the seat. Sinn Fein's absence looks a gamechanger.

The withdrawal of nationalist parties from East Belfast adds another possible 1,061 votes to Naomi Long's tally. That would reduce Gavin Robinson's majority to just over 7,000.

Long's vote share soared by 11% in the European elections whereas the DUP'S rose by only 1%.

But the Alliance leader starts this contest nearly 20% behind the DUP so needs even more. Robinson remains 8/13 favourite.

If Belfast goes badly for the DUP there is the possibility of consolation in North Down, benefiting from a three-way unionist vote split - and maybe Sinn Fein's endorsement of Sylvia Hermon.

Meanwhile, Fermanagh and South Tyrone looks difficult for the UUP despite the DUP's absence. Dressing up pacts as noble Remain alliances invites scepticism.

As Alex Kane has noted, these pacts owe more to Orange versus Green tendencies than a Brexit faultline. Ultimately what will determine whether Northern Ireland remains in the EU or leaves will probably not depend on its vote anyway. But more cogently, there is already a political alliance straddling all parties against Boris Johnson's form of Brexit.

No party wants that Brexit. The DUP opposes it more than Sinn Fein. Nationalist pacts are more about punishing the DUP for having the temerity - and many would say it was a bad call - to back Brexit without thinking it through, than really believing the DUP wants a Boris Brexit.

The DUP bitterly opposes Johnson's offering. Working-class loyalists, the DUP's biggest base, think it's terrible.

So the election battle is between old Remainers (SDLP, Sinn Fein and Alliance) versus born-again ones (the DUP) who cannot publicly admit their conversion but privately would not shed tears if Brexit is abandoned.

For republicans, a Boris Brexit shifts Northern Ireland further from GB towards an economic united Ireland, with the north closely and distinctly aligned to the south. You can make a good case it structurally advances Irish unity more than did decades of armed struggle. For unionists, Brexit in this form is a disaster. The DUP and UUP know this.

Regardless of the merits of pacts, Northern Ireland will contain some of the most fiercely-contested constituencies anywhere at this election. Don't be fooled if bookmaker odds suggest otherwise. Just remember they stopped taking bets on the EU referendum night that started all these shenanigans - so certain were they that Remain had won.

Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and director of the three most recent Northern Ireland General Election studies

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