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Pacts, alliances and stepping aside: Why this is going to be a very strange election for the North

For the first time in years, many races in Northern Ireland are proving difficult to predict.

DUP leader Arlene Foster at the launch of her party's election manifesto.
DUP leader Arlene Foster at the launch of her party's election manifesto.
Image: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images

THE UK ELECTION is only a few weeks away, but the result in Northern Ireland remains difficult to predict. 

With pacts that aren’t being called pacts, parties standing aside and a truly uncertain race in North Down, experts are predicting one of the most significant elections in the recent years. 

“It’s one of those rare occasions,” says veteran political commentator and columnist Alex Kane, “that this election could result in something quite significant”. 

In North Belfast, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds is facing a real threat to his seat after the SDLP stood aside, leaving Sinn Féin’s John Finucane as a major challenger in the constituency. 

After initially promising otherwise, the Ulster Unionist Party decided – after major pressure – to stand aside in North Belfast to avoid splitting the unionist vote.

In Belfast South, Sinn Féin has stood aside to allow the SDLP’s Claire Hanna to challenge the DUP’s Emma Little Pengelly, who pulled off a surprise victory in the constituency in 2017. 

Similarly, Sinn Féin and the SDLP have both decided not to contest Belfast East to allow Alliance Party leader Naomi Long to try to win the seat from the DUP. 

Sinn Féin had also given its backing to the North Down independent unionist MP Lady Sylvia Hermon – the only non-DUP voice in the House of Commons – before she announced that she wouldn’t be contesting the election. 

Still, the fact that the republican party was backing a unionist (albeit a remainer) was notable and the upshot of it all is that now neither Sinn Féin or the SDLP are contesting the constituency, which is currently a three-way battle between the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance. 

Brexit

Like the rest of the UK, Brexit is a main backdrop to the election.

“It’s bringing in voters who might not have got involved in the usual old head count,” says Kane on the influence of the last few years of fractious negotiations between the EU and the UK. 

The DUP, which has lost influence over the direction of Brexit, has faced significant criticism. 

It’s not so much that the party could dramatically lose votes, but it would only take a small percentage of voters in key constituencies to unseat DUP MPs. 

It’s this galvanising impact of Brexit that other parties are relying on.

Both Sinn Féin and the SDLP have firmly backed remain, with the latter party especially hoping that the stance can help lift its flagging position in the politics of the North. 

Alongside Alliance, they’ll be hoping to inflict damage to the DUP and grab back seats. 

As for the Ulster Unionist Party, it’s facing a decisive election. With the DUP having stepped aside to back Tom Elliott in Fermanagh-South Tyrone, the Ulster Unionists will hope to claw back at least one seat after several years on the periphery of unionism. 

general-election-2019 The SDLP's Claire Hanna will likely benefit from Sinn Féin's decision to stand aside in Belfast South. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

“There is a feeling as you run through a number of seats that it is possible the DUP could lose them,” Kane said.

That would be “catastrophic” for the party, he says, and was unthinkable only short time ago. 

“This could be election when for the first timer ever Northern Ireland could not return a majority of unionist candidates to Westminster,” Kane added. 

It’s this opportunity that non-unionist parties have tried to exploit in this election. Sinn Féin especially, Kane argues, see this as a perfect opportunity. 

Even if it’s not Sinn Féin doing the winning, any DUP defeats facilitated by Mary Lou McDonald’s party will be seen as a victory. 

“When you drill down, if the only people being hit are the DUP and unionists and the only people gaining are nationalist MPs, it’s not a huge change from how we do politics,” Kane said. 

Constituencies 

The informal alliance between Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance doesn’t mean that there aren’t closely fought campaigns between pro-remain parties. 

In Foyle, for instance, the SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is trying to win back the seat from Sinn Féin. 

However, in seats like Belfast South it looks like Sinn Féin’s decision to stand aside could reap rewards. 

Little-Pengelly, one of the youngest DUP MPs, only won by a few thousand votes in 2017 against the SDLP. 

The Sinn Féin candidate in the area received over 7,000 votes. 

“It’s a goner,” said Kane, predicting defeat for the DUP. 

Impact

It could be the same story in East Belfast, where vocal pro-remain campaigner Long, the Alliance leader, is tipped to run the DUP’s Gavin Robinson close.

But a little like North Down, the decision of Sinn Féin and the SDLP to stand aside might not make a huge difference. 

In both constituencies, nationalist parties only receive a handful of votes between them. 

“It shows us that Sinn Féin is playing quite a canny hand,” says Kane. “It gives them a chance to say that it isn’t a sectarian pact.”

However, whether playing politics or not, the manoeuvres in the North could no doubt produce a significantly changed politically landscape. 

Elections in the North, as we’re all aware, have typically seen voters cast their ballots along strict unionist or nationalist lines, but that could all change come 12 December. 

“Northern Ireland elections are always in some form a head count. This has the potential to be a different type of head count,” Kane said.

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