Why an anti-Brexit election pact in Northern Ireland is unlikely

Jenny Muir considers the possibilities for pacts in the run up to yet another snap election.

In a previous Combination post I have written about developing a politics of progressive pragmatism, based around “broad and doubtless shifting partnerships to achieve specific goals, and a continuing free for all at the ballot box”. That’s because election time raises a crucial and very basic question about alliances – progressive or otherwise. Fighting elections is an important part of what political parties do. So why would you become a party activist, in many cases put in hours of voluntary work over the years, to then stand down your candidate and tell your supporters to vote for another party?

The answer is that you have your eye on a prize that transcends your normal election agenda. This is why pacts are rare. The best known in Northern Ireland is the Fermanagh and South Tyrone 1981 Westminster by-election won by Bobby Sands. Here, the objective was to elect a hunger striker to embarrass the British Government and win support for their cause. Sands died 26 days later. It was an effective tactic, although it is fair to question just how ‘voluntary’ were some of the candidate withdrawals.

More recently, we have had the disastrous UUP and Conservative Party connection in 2009 and 2010, which did not have such a clear intent. It appeared to be a precursor to a merger, which did not happen in the end. However, in the 2015 general election there was a more successful agreement between the UUP and DUP in four ruthlessly targeted constituencies. This pact maintained the independence of both parties and unseated both Naomi Long from East Belfast (by the DUP) and Michelle Gildernew from Fermanagh and South Tyrone (by the UUP). The overarching goal here was to keep out themmuns – and there is talk that we shall face the same again.

So is Brexit a transcendent issue on this scale? Could parties agree who should be involved in an anti Brexit pact, agree a common policy approach, and then agree who stands where?

  • Who should be involved? Alliance have already ruled themselves out. Other anti Brexit parties include the SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens. The position of the UUP appears to have retreated into getting the best for NI rather than any continuing active opposition. People Before Profit were pro Brexit. Current discussions seem only to have included SDLP, Sinn Féin and the Greens.
  • What does being anti Brexit actually mean? ‘Special Status’ for Northern Ireland? A second referendum? The best possible Article 50 deal? Staying in the Single Market? Whatever you’re having yourself?
  • How would an anti Brexit approach be put into practice? If a position could be agreed, the MP representing it would need to attend the House of Commons to speak and vote on it.
  • Which party stands where? Presumably a pact would target the eight seats currently held by the DUP (East Belfast, North Belfast, East Antrim, East Londonderry, Lagan Valley, North Antrim, Strangford and Upper Bann), and possibly the two UUP seats (South Antrim, and Fermanagh & South Tyrone) if there were a feeling that the UUP cannot be relied upon.

Regarding current the DUP seats: The only chance of unseating the DUP in East Belfast comes from Alliance. In North Belfast, North Antrim and Upper Bann SF could win but it would require no DUP/ UUP pact, and result in more abstentionist MPs. In East Antrim, Lagan Valley and Strangford the strongest challengers are the UUP and Alliance. In East Londonderry, SF and the SDLP would need UUP votes to unseat the DUP. Regarding the current UUP seats, South Antrim is a fight between the UUP and the DUP; and FST is always close run between a unionist and SF; however again the pro Brexit MP would not be taking their seat. 

In short, the most effective challenger in most of these seats would be the UUP, Alliance or the abstentionist Sinn Fein. The main beneficiary from an anti Brexit pact would be Sinn Féin.

To conclude, an anti Brexit pact in Northern Ireland would need to meet the criterion of being an overarching imperative which all participating parties agree is more important than their own agendas. It would need a very clear understanding of what being anti Brexit actually means, in order to communicate to the electorate what they would be voting for. It would require all parties to commit to taking their seats at Westminster in order actively to oppose Brexit. And given NI’s communal voting patterns, it would be hard for any party other than Sinn Féin to usurp the DUP or UUP in their currently seats, especially without the co-operation of the Alliance Party.

Therefore an anti Brexit pact in NI is unlikely. But sadly it does look as if we’ll get a pan unionist pact again. It says much about our politics that some parties can work together to keep us divided, whereas we cannot meaningfully combine on the most important issue of our time. Voters will have to make their own decisions.

Jenny Muir

22 April 2017