Alex Kane says that all unionists should focus on giving Sinn Fein a bloody electoral nose in the next Westminster election. He reckons it’s possible that with a DUP/UUP pact that Unionists could take 17 of Northern Ireland’s seats.By Alex Kane
I have never really approved of the St. Patrick’s Day junkets to Washington and the White House; because I have never fully understood the need to fatten the egos of a group of Ulster politicians, who, between them, represent less than two per cent of the UK electorate. Most of them are pompous enough already, without giving them the chance to place a few more photographs on their mantelpieces. The fact that President Bush decided to ban all of the parties, because he didn’t have the courage to exclude Sinn Fein alone, sums up the orchestrated humbug which lies at the heart of this annual hoopla.
The absence of the unionists, the very low-key presence of the SDLP, and the media frenzy surrounding the McCartney family, has highlighted the PR dilemma now facing Sinn Fein. As Gerry Adams makes his way around the country, shunned by the big political players and playing to depleted audiences, he must be wondering if the past ten years have been worth it. Partition is consolidated. There is no likelihood of a United Ireland. The IRA is defeated. Unionism has modernised and gained new ground. Adams, himself, has moved from being the man who brought terrorists to the negotiating table, to being the man who is now regarded as the public face of a criminal empire—-less Ourselves Alone and much more Al Capone.
But if Sinn Fein confirms, or even increases its mandate at the next election, it will interpret it as a vindication of both Adams and P. O’Neill. It is essential, therefore, that the election results represent a victory for the democratic parties; and that means that those parties are going to have to agree a game plan.
The primary purpose of any pact must be to win back seats presently held by Sinn Fein; and to lessen its chances of making gains in those seats it has been targeting since 2001. In other words, I am advocating a UUP/DUP pact, alongside a Joint Unionist/SDLP pact, operating for Westminster and local council elections. The democratic parties should be looking at what happens after May 5, rather than simply concentrating on their own successes.
At present Sinn Fein hold West Belfast, Mid Ulster, West Tyrone and Fermanagh/South Tyrone and have hopes of winning Foyle, Newry/Armagh and South Down. If unionists don’t field candidates in Foyle, Newry/Armagh, Mid Ulster and South Down (none of which they can realistically win, anyway) the SDLP can win all four. In return, the SDLP and DUP should stand down in West Tyrone (leaving it a likely win for the UUP).
Fermanagh/South Tyrone is a little more problematic, although I would suggest that the SDLP and DUP stand down in favour of the UUP. And, as far as North Belfast and South Belfast are concerned, I think it would be sensible for the UUP to give Nigel Dodds a free run, in return for Michael McGimpsey getting the same in South Belfast.
If these three parties can agree (and yes, the Alliance and other smaller parties must consider their own role) it is possible that Sinn Fein can be reduced to just one seat, leaving the DUP with 7/8, the UUP with 5/6 and the SDLP with four. More important, though, such a result represents a victory and a clear mandate for the democratic parties. It opens the way to a voluntary Assembly coalition embracing DUP/SDLP/UUP/Alliance and certainly makes it a good deal easier for the British and Irish governments to create the machinery to facilitate that coalition.
I appreciate that all three parties will have difficulties with these proposals, but, if carried through at the general and local government elections, I believe that the potential political gains will far outweigh any immediate electoral disadvantages in terms of individual party tallies. The real obstacle to a lasting settlement is Sinn Fein and these proposals represent a means of shifting that obstacle.
Sinn Fein will be apoplectic, but there is very little it can do. The door can be left open for it to take up Executive positions once the IRA’s status and arsenals have been finally and unambiguously dealt with. In politics, it is democracy itself, which is the real middle ground. Messrs Adams and P. O’Neill have had a veto for far too long and it really is time that both governments and the democratic majority called their bluff.
First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 19th March 2005
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty