Following the announcement of the electoral pact between the UUP and the DUP, few expected pro-remain parties, including Sinn Fein and the SDLP, to forge their own alliances. Electoral pacts in Northern Ireland have been a feature in Unionist politics for many years, but Brexit has changed the Northern Irish political landscape.
Pro-remain parties forge electoral pacts in Northern Ireland
Up until now, the Northern Irish electorate largely chose between voting for parties favouring a United Ireland and pro-union parties at the polls. But the upcoming December election looks set to be dominated by Brexit.
When the DUP and UUP announced they would make way for each other’s candidates, no one was surprised. The UUP announced it wouldn’t field a candidate in North Belfast, while the DUP said it would support UUP candidates in South Tyrone and Fermanagh and not have any candidate stand in those constituencies.
But no one expected the SDLP and Sinn Fein to form an alliance let alone ask voters to support the independent Unionist MP Lady Hermon. The last time the SDLP forged an electoral pact in Northern Ireland, it was to support hunger striker Bobby Sands who was in prison at the time. Ever since then, the party competed with Sinn Fein for the nationalist vote in every election. Sinn Fein, too, can be said to have made an unprecedented move. As the largest nationalist party, they managed to overtake the SDLP, and few would have expected them to make way.
Last week, the parties announced that Sinn Fein wouldn’t run in North Down, South Belfast, and East Belfast and that the SDLP wouldn’t field a candidate in East and North Belfast as well as in North Down. The goal of this electoral alliance is clear. To oust the DUP and maximise the pro-remain vote.
Moderates angry at the DUP
Although the Northern Irish electorate voted to remain within the EU, the DUP, as the largest party, has aligned itself with the fiercest Brexiteers. Many moderates among the nationalist and unionist communities are angry, and so are many business leaders. The majority of people in Northern Ireland fear the economic consequences of Brexit. In the course of the Brexit negotiations, the DUP have consistently ignored these sentiments. As a result, many are angry, and the DUP’s approval rating is at an all-time low. In electoral terms, this means for many it will be ‘anyone but the DUP’ on the ballot paper.
Electoral pacts set the scene for a true NI Brexit election
Whether the newly forged alliances will be successful remains to be seen. No doubt, the December election is likely to be about Brexit in Northern Ireland.